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Organizational Change
Teleculture:
How To Preserve Company Culture from Afar

Since the dawn of time, human beings have organized into groups in order to fulfill basic human needs. We join together to gain stability, feel a sense of belonging, build our self-esteem and experience self-actualization. Traditionally, the ideal workplace has combined these elements, the upper ladders of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, into a fulfilling, well-functioning organization.

Since the dawn of time, human beings have organized into groups in order to fulfill basic human needs. We join together to gain stability, feel a sense of belonging, build our self-esteem and experience self-actualization. Traditionally, the ideal workplace has combined these elements, the upper ladders of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, into a fulfilling, well-functioning organization. But what happens when organizations either choose or are forced to adopt practices that break up the group dynamic?

With nearly a quarter of all Americans stating that they work at least one day from home, telework has become an increasingly popular practice in both the public and private sectors. In fact, in 2010, The White House signed the Telework Enhancement Act into law aiming to “ensure continuity of operations, reduce management costs and improve employees’ ability to balance their work and life commitments.” This uptick in telework as an acceptable business practice has caused a great deal of conversation; however, most of the chatter revolves around technology tools that will enable work from afar.

While CIOs are busy procuring and implementing tools, HR professionals (including the OPM in the federal government) have been writing telework policies that dictate rules and expectations. Yes, these are critical activities to launching any telework program, but there’s an important part of the conversation missing: What happens to the culture of an organization when more and more of its workforce performs its duties remotely?

The benefits are great, with 33 federal agencies reporting savings and benefits as a result of telework. But there are also barriers, with the most frequently reported (in the government) being office coverage (64%), organizational culture (49%), and management resistance (47%). These barriers of organizational culture and management resistance must be addressed before teleworking can flourish in the public or private sector. So how do you address these “soft” barriers and what, aside from technology tools and rules, should you consider when increasing telework at your organization?

Not All Cultures Are Created Equal

First, you should know that some cultures will adopt telecommuting more easily than others. Cultures that are highly results-oriented are likely to thrive under the new system because teleworkers’ goals tend to be very clear to make up for lack of management’s physical proximity. Conversely, cultures that place a high emphasis on interpersonal dialog and impromptu meetings may suffer. Understanding the values and strengths of your workforce is critical in predicting the success or failure of your teleworking program.

Conducting a formal cultural assessment can give you insights into how your employees and managers will react. Be careful which assessment you choose, however. Many cultural assessments just scratch the surface and measure how things work rather than uncovering what motivates and gives meaning to employees. Getting to this deeper level of inquiry will give you the insights you need to craft the right teleworking model for your culture. The most important thing to recognize is that a best practice from one organization may not be a winner in another. Getting a handle on the human dimension — the “soft,” unspoken influences at play inside your walls — will help you gain the “hard” results you’re looking for.

Building Trust Through Clarity: Codifying an Organizational Identity

If trust is one of the biggest barriers to adopting a teleworking policy, what can you do to build your confidence in your teleworkers? Give them clarity by identifying these organizational building blocks:

  • A meaningful purpose of how we can contribute to the world;
  • A compelling vision of how things will be different as a result of our contributions;
  • A clear promise the organization has the strength and capacity to deliver; and
  • Guiding principles that help us understand how the organization goes about doing things.
  • Purpose/Vision & Self-Actualization: If a purpose and vision are clear and adopted by the entire team, managers won’t need to worry so much about rogue employees setting off on their own trail. Employees can self-actualize (learn and grow) within the boundaries of the organizational vision.
  • Promise & Self-Esteem: If you can build a promise for the organization that employees have the capability and capacity to deliver, managers create more focus and employees build self-esteem. When organizations make promises that they can’t deliver, team morale falls and individual self-esteem can also suffer.
  • Values & Belonging: If values are clearly articulated and employees know and embrace their meaning, managers can be more confident about employees conducting work in a way that aligns with how the organization wants to conduct business. Clarifying values also helps employees understand how they fit in and belong inside the organization.

Engaging in Organizational Folklore: Finding New Ways to Imbue Cultural Norms

Think about how cultures are typically built. People come together, they assess how the group behaves, and they find ways to work within the unspoken group norms. Traditionally, new employees look to their leaders’ and peers’ behaviors; they hear the folklore of values in play; and they experience the informal ways in which their own behavior is rewarded or punished on a daily basis.

This natural imbuement of the cultural norms can be disrupted in a teleworking culture. First, the employees who are the cultural role models are probably the first ones approved for teleworking. They are the most trusted employees, the ones most aligned with management and the ones who have proven that they will uphold the values of the group outside of a traditional work structure. With those cultural role models working remotely more often, there are fewer informal positive cultural role models in the office.

Teleworking organizations need to find new ways to help employees, especially new ones, become part of the clan. In these cases, it is even more important to have a clear organizational purpose and principles in place that can be reinforced through enhanced employee engagement initiatives and communications. Formal mentor programs between cultural role models and new employees could help to fill the gap; so can newsletters, events, recognition programs and annual reviews that reinforce the behaviors that build the identity of the organization.

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