A whopping 20%  of the world's workforce telecommutes: virtually traveling to work via robot or iPad; conversing on Yammer, HipChat, or 37Signals' Campfire; sharing over Box or Dropbox. But while the tangible benefits of conducting business digitally are manyfold, companies that are moving their employees online have largely ignored one of the most important factors of success: corporate culture. "You can start to feel like you don't know anyone at the company anymore," says Jenn Lim, CEO of Delivering Happiness, the startup she cofounded with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh to assist companies in instilling corporate values.
Studies have shown that corporate culture can have a significant impact  on a company's hiring, talent retention, and performance. Yet what was once fostered by in-person interactions has been lost in all the emails, private messages, chats, and shared links common to office 2.0. Tools to help managers and executives cultivate a positive work culture in the digital space have not been developed alongside the myriad productivity tools we've become addicted to. But they are beginning to emerge. "The short answer is yes, corporate culture is spreading into the digital world," says Lim. "But it's difficult to have that one-to-one translation of things you can do in the physical world. There are some things that you can just never translate."
At Zappos, Lim and Hsieh have worked to create a sense of culture even as its workforce balloons and spends much of the day glued to their computer screens. To address this issue, Zappos implemented what's internally called a "name-to-face game," whereby each time an employee logs in to his or her computer, a face of another employee will pop up on the screen. "We'll then ask questions like, 'Do you know this person? How well?' And so forth, so we can really embed this idea of keeping connected," she explains. Additionally, the company has worked with Nic Marks, known for his TED Talk  on the "Happy Planet Index," to develop a "Happy Business Index," which can score how happy certain areas of an organization are through various survey tools.
But Lim finds it much easier to tick off all the methods Zappos employs to foster company culture in the physical world--Hsieh is famous for only allowing employees to enter one door of the building  to force encounters that wouldn't otherwise happen.
Yammer, the enterprise social network Microsoft recently acquired for $1.2 billion, is taking a different approach. The network, which essentially acts like a Facebook for internal business use, enables employees to exchange messages and media just as they would push status updates. Yammer has integrated the option to "Like" a coworker's post or give him or her "Praise" badges (a heart, shiny trophy, double rainbows) along with some positive feedback. These features can feel contrived--the digital equivalent of receiving a gold star in kindergarten.
Not everyone believes that businesses need specialized badges to foster culture online. "My thinking is that culture isn't something you can create," says Jason Fried, founder of 37Signals, which develops web-based collaboration tools. "Software can help, but company culture is a by-product of consistent behavior--the way you treat people or release products, or whatever--that's what forms culture. I think trying to make tools to create that culture is artificial."
Fried sees culture organically forming at 37Signals in the digital space, occurring naturally online just as it would traditionally happen around the water cooler. "Technology plays a huge role in our culture because we have a distributed company. Without technology we couldn't have a uniform culture; it'd be fractured with a Chicago culture and a somewhere-else culture," he says. "Campfire, which is a real-time group chat tool, is where the culture happens at 37Signals."
While Fried acknowledges that tension and distance can build in an online workplace, where an innocently short message from one employee can be perceived as a curt reply from another, Fried argues any downsides aren't necessarily a result of the digital tools themselves. "Yes, in some ways technology can hurt, especially when it's so easy to misunderstand someone's comment, but I think that's just a matter of humans being human, and not a symptom of the technology," he says. "Human beings just have a hard time getting along with each other."
To address such concerns, emotion-intelligence startup Kanjoya has developed a way to tap into a workplace's Yammer network and analyze shared messages and data to measure how employees are feeling at any given moment or on any given topic--"trending emotions," as the company says.
The add-on, called Crane, is designed to take advantage of the emotions shared on Yammer that would otherwise go unnoticed. "You'll see spikes in emotion," says Kanjoya CEO Armen Berjikly. "Sometimes, things don't matter: If you don't provide lunch, nobody is likely to feel that emotional about it. But if you ruin people's Internet access, they might be ready to murder you, though they'll smile to your face." Without addressing these issues, tension can fester and workplace culture can turn toxic.
In an internal test of Fast Company's Yammer network, Crane revealed some interesting findings: Just 3.6% of conversation on Yammer is devoted to feedback among employees, including messages such as "good stuff" or "looks great," which indicates a low level of support among coworkers. [Eds note: this is a great story so far!] Crane also found peak periods when employees became incredibly confused and annoyed--such as when a new content management system was introduced. But even with this data, it's not always clear what actionable steps one must take to address these issues--nor is it evident whether managers can even respond to a souring corporate culture once it's too late, when employees are just generally unhappy or upset.
But An Le, VP of business development at Yammer, says it's these small issues that can add up to an unhappy workplace. "Company culture I think is the end game," she says. "You have to enable the tools to get pull points along the way. So as things are trending negatively, you can start taking small actions around these things so they don't add up over time." And though we were hoping to get a sentiment analysis of individual employees, Berjikly says the company is trying to "stay away from profiling any individual," perhaps due to privacy concerns. It's too bad, as disruptions in office culture can often be attributed to single employees. (Plus, we were hoping to find the grumpiest editor at Fast Company, and then praise them with a Yammer badge.)
Though Lim and Fried believe similar web-culture tools are likely to be developed down the road, both remain skeptical about the benefits of such products. "You always have to take it with a grain of salt: With any index or tool or survey, it's just one of the factors that needs to be analyzed holistically," Lim says. "When we talk about culture, we really want to make it a science, so you're not just measuring this fluffy feeling of happiness."
Fried takes issue with Crane from a practical standpoint. "Software is not good at detecting inside jokes or sarcasm or slip-of-the-tongue stuff," he says. "With these sorts of tools you start to remove the humanity from it. So if the system raises a red flag because someone is talking this way and that, what do you do? You have to go confront them about it, and there might be nothing wrong in the first place. And you don't want to create a culture of fear in an organization, where everyone feels they're being tracked and analyzed all the time. That's just horrible and nasty."
Of course, it's still early on in Crane's integration with Yammer, and Berjikly says the company is still fine-tuning its emotion-mining tool. Crane can currently home in on well over 100 granular emotions, though the company has narrowed down to roughly a dozen relevant data points for users. "We just aren't sure there is any practical value in telling you that your employees are exuberant instead of excited," he says.
As telecommuting becomes the norm and tools from Lua to LinkedIn become commonplace in the workplace, perhaps it's inevitable that companies are going to have to start considering corporate culture in the digital world.
Yet when asked whether 37Signals was considering developing related tools, Fried says he's not yet thinking about it. "I think there are very few things that substitute for going out to dinner or hanging out with coworkers," Fried says. "That's what you should do rather than try to find some digital alternative."
Hang out in person? Who would ever dream of such a thing?
[Image: Mihail Zhelezniak  via Shutterstock]
How do you foster a positive corporate culture at your place of business--online, and in real life? What works? What doesn't? Tell us in the comments section below.