How to build a culture of collaboration in a remote and flexible work environment – tips for teams and leaders
18th June 2020
Author Olivia Gossage
By Christina Goodwin and Olivia Gossage
In a matter of days, New Zealand moved from a way of living where most of our work and social interactions were face-to-face, to a situation where all of our interactions were online (with each other, and with our customers).
The experience has made many leaders realise that their organisation can operate effectively in a remote environment, if people have the tools, practices and support to do so. Employees also learnt how they can be productive when working from home, with teams creating new rituals and behaviours to support remote working.
Our recent conversations with leaders of public and private sector organisations indicate that many organisations have adopted (or are in the process of adopting) flexible work practices to support employees to work effectively from home. But a key challenge remains for leaders and managers: what is needed to build and maintain a collaborative culture with people working both in the office, and in remote or distributed teams?
Culture is a key component of organisational success
We think about culture in an organisation as a reflection of what a group of people think (our mindsets, what we perceive to be true, and what is understood to be valued), and how they behave (how people act and interact, and what is perceived as ‘normal’).
Organisational culture plays a key role in shaping how people act, which can increase employee engagement, focus attention, and influence how people deliver their role. Culture is going to be different in every organisation – depending on who you have in the team, the type of industry you are in, and how the business operates.
When we’re in the office it’s easier to influence culture, as leaders can pick up on what is or isn’t happening, and take action to ensure that behaviour aligns with the culture. When everyone is working from the office there are also greater connections between people – through deliberate or incidental interactions (such as conversations in shared spaces).
When teams are distributed, a collaborative culture is trickier to develop and reinforce. Research indicates that as teams become larger and more virtual, cooperation declines unless measures are in place to develop a collaborative culture. The good news is that it’s not impossible. To help prompt your thinking, we’ve developed seven practical actions that you can put in place to build and encourage a collaborative culture in a remote or distributed team.
Seven practical actions to develop a collaborative culture in a remote or distributed team
(1) Start by building a foundation of trust and mutual respect.
Successful collaboration comes from having a solid foundation of trust and respect for others. For some leaders, this will involve changing how you lead and manage others who aren’t physically in the same space (and that can be challenging!). If your team hasn’t worked together in the past, we suggest building a foundation of connection through face-to-face time as a team. Take time out as a group to get to know each other, and agree the norms and practices for how the team wants to work together when not physically co-located. Once the team is distributed, the ‘rituals’ and norms you collectively developed can be reinforced or evolve over time through virtual catch ups and connections.
(2) Recognise the benefit and value of collaboration.
It is essential to establish a mindset among the team that collaboration is beneficial for them as individuals, as well as the team as a whole. For most organisations, collaborative activities will help people to feel connected, and research indicates it can also lead to increased productivity. Leaders are responsible for reinforcing the value of collaboration through their own actions, as the perceived behaviour of senior executives plays a significant role in determining how cooperative teams are prepared to be.
(3) Leverage technology platforms to foster connection.
There are many great technology platforms which allow people to connect, share ideas, and work together. We have been using Teams and Zoom for video calls, and collaborative platforms such as Miro for brainstorming ideas when team members or clients are working from home. These platforms can be used for formal and informal connections, so be open to using technology to your advantage!
(4) Establish clear expectations for how technology is used.
We know from experience that some organisations invest heavily in new technology, but find that uptake across staff is not as high as anticipated. One way to counteract this (and encourage use) is to set clear guidelines for how you want people to use the technology, and talk about the benefits of people in doing things a certain way. For example, we encourage everyone to keep their video on during calls (internet bandwidth permitting) so that our interactions are more ‘human’ and we can maintain connection between people. We have also set up specific channels on our platforms for conversations which are not related to work but help us stay connected – such as our ‘Home Baking’ channel and ‘Pets of Davanti’.
(5) Create time for social connection and creativity in an unstructured way.
When we work in the same physical space, there are more opportunities for incidental interaction – unstructured time where people talk, connect, and learn from each other. In remote or distributed teams, more conscious action needs to be taken to build social connection. It’s about structuring the non-structured conversations. To help with this during lockdown, our internal social club developed a daily ‘spotlight’ on each team member, which was shared via email. These ‘spotlights’ were a low-fi way of sharing a glimpse into other people’s lives while we were distributed and working remotely, and involved people sharing who their new co-workers were (including dogs, cats and chickens), what routines people had set up, and what was keeping us sane. Lots of conversations sparked from what people had shared, and new connections were built as we learnt more about each other.
(6) Reinforce expectations and behaviours through leadership actions.
It’s important for the behaviour of leaders to reflect the attitudes and behaviours you want to see in the team. This may require you, as a leader, to adapt your leadership style or do things differently to show the team what behaviour you want to see. It also requires greater focus on the dynamics of the team – for example, are people feeling connected (especially those who are working at home)? Are people reaching out with each other to share or test ideas, or has behaviour changed to more individualistic tasks?
We wanted to preserve our weekly Friday evening drinks and find a way to make them online, as celebrating the successes of the week is part of the what makes working at Davanti great. The first time we went online the leadership team fully committed to the task, dressing up and changing their Teams background to bring a sense of fun to the event, even though we were online. This sent a signal to the team that it was still okay to let your hair down at the end of the week, and to celebrate what had been achieved.
(7) Review and refine your approach as you go.
What works now may not be what’s right for your team, as the group matures its practices working in a remote or distributed way. Take time, as a team, to regularly check in on what’s working and what people think could be done differently to build collaborative practices. During lockdown we scheduled regular check-ins as a team and discussed what we wanted to stop, start and continue doing. Now, as we transition back to the office, we’ve taken the time to check if the rituals and practices we established are what the team needs to stay connected. Culture is something which is constantly evolving, as who you have in the team and how they work changes over time. The transition to flexible ways of working provides a great opportunity for teams to be deliberate about the culture they want to build, and emphasise trust, effective communication and consistent feedback. As a leader, working through the actions outlined can help to build and maintain a positive and collaborative culture across distributed teams.
If you want to find out more, or discuss new ways of working for your organisation, please contact Olivia Gossage (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Olivia Gossage is Davanti’s Senior Manager, Business Transformation.
Olivia’s areas of expertise include organisational design, operating model design, change, organisational capability, talent management and leadership.
Christina Goodwin is a Consultant in our Business Transformation team.
Christina specialises in business analysis and has a keen interest in culture and engagement, and plays a role in the culture team at Davanti.