Even before COVID-19 led people to turn their dining rooms into makeshift offices, remote work was on the rise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many businesses have found that remote work makes it increasingly difficult to preserve their company culture. After all, perks such as childcare, happy hours, and social lunches don’t mean much if you’re not on-site. What’s more, remote work has the potential to throttle the kind of free-flowing collaboration and brainstorming that happens when people are in the same space.
That said, remote work is not without benefits. In fact, when done right, it’s a win for companies and employees. According to research from Owl Labs, people who work remotely at least once a month are 24% more likely to report that they are happy than those who don’t. Moreover, companies that allow remote work have 25% less turnover. It’s true that maintaining a sense of camaraderie and navigating personal nuances is harder in a remote environment—harder but not impossible. Companies need to intentionally design the transition to preserve a positive, leaned-in, and collaborative culture.
As VP and general manager of Google TV, here’s how I’ve been managing our remote-work experience—for the pandemic era and beyond.
The most critical function of work culture is to foster a sense of belonging. In a remote environment, belonging is also the hardest aspect to replicate. In many surveys done across companies, people agree that the key ingredients to belonging include having fun together, being heard, and feeling that opinions and voices matter regardless of background.
You can still have fun together remotely! Within my team, we have started to host virtual events such as informal happy hours, escape rooms, chocolate making, and more. We also held a weeklong virtual summit where we invited team members across three continents. Conscientious of the realities of remote work, we limited sessions to two hours each day to avoid video conference fatigue. We hosted inspirational speakers from across the company and externally, and invited team members to present their ideas and work.
Fun isn’t the only path to belonging—making people feel heard and respected is just as crucial. The practice of allyship must continue in a remote environment. Allyship is the act of using your privilege to help others have a voice. Here, privilege may refer to your gender or ethnicity, but it could also refer to your status within a corporate hierarchy. For example, I regularly practice allyship during meetings by seeking out people who are not speaking and asking for their opinions, which we then take into account as we develop plans.
When we first went remote, many of us were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of digital communication we received each day. As in-person meetings turned into video calls and pings replaced hallway conversations, we were inundated with distracting alerts. Work-life balance took a huge dip. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that we produce the most valuable output and can learn skills the best when we can focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. So what are these distractions? In Cal’s words, they include email (gasp), Slack (that’s for slackers), and, of course, social media.
To alleviate this problem, we instituted “no meeting” days. I have even started to consider “no email days,” but we already have a rule against weekend email across my leadership team. Google has also instituted more frequent reset days, allowing employees to take a day off to rest, recharge, and enjoy time with their friends and family.
Making space for deep work also means trusting people to do the job you hired them for with limited oversight. Managers often make the mistake of subjecting telecommuters to greater scrutiny than their in-office colleagues. Not seeing your team at their desks can be uncomfortable at first, but you need to trust the people you hired and manage by objectives, a concept we have practiced in the form of OKRs. Giving your team clear goals and the space to achieve them has the added benefit of freeing you up for more deep work, too.
Put extra effort into communication
Remote communication is subject to different intrapersonal dynamics. We lose many nonverbal cues in the shift, including body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. This lack of cues can lead to misunderstandings, tension—even anger. Be very careful in choosing your words when communicating to leave as little room for misinterpretation as possible.
Many leaders find that regular smaller group sessions work well to ensure they are in touch with their teams and they are hearing from the horse’s mouth directly. Frequent one-on-ones help as well. Finally, always assume the best intent. Silence does not mean people are mad at you; they’re more likely to be processing information and ensuring their response is effective.
Remote, in-person, or hybrid?
There are pros and cons to both the traditional in-office model and working remotely. Companies such as Twitter and Salesforce have announced a permanent WFH option for their workforce. Still, studies have shown that employees who never see their teams are less engaged and more eager to leave. I personally believe you have to embrace a hybrid model. Some aspects of working together in person can never be replicated adequately in a virtual environment. Digital whiteboards and videoconferencing can get the job done, but they can’t create the level of camaraderie and sense of purpose that being in the same room does.
How you employ the hybrid model will be based on your specific business needs. One option is to ask employees to come into the office on certain days of the week (such as the 3-2-2 workweek). Some companies, such as Close, have thrived with everyone working remotely and meeting in person three times a year. You may have to test several different concepts before landing on one that works for your company. Don’t be afraid to experiment and get feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. When handled well, remote working can be an energizing boon for your culture. Let’s just make sure to embrace everyone along this journey.
Shalini Govil-Pai is VP and general manager of TV at Google. She previously served as senior director at YouTube and technical director at Pixar. She is the author of two internationally published books, Principles of Computer Graphics and Learning Computer Graphics.