The challenges of supporting location-independence, team collaboration, diversity and mental health are more crucial to a firm’s culture today than ever before. And the way we interact, connect, understand and empathize with each other must adapt.
What is company culture?
Company culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. Often, company culture is implied rather than expressly defined. It’s reflected in the dress code, business hours, employee benefits, office setup, turnover, hiring decisions, client service and every other aspect of operations.
Having a positive culture isn’t just nice to have. It helps people do excellent work, have a greater sense of accountability, be more engaged in their jobs, deliver better client service and encourages them to stay with the organization.
Historically, company culture has developed organically from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires. As firms head into more remote and hybrid arrangements, we need to be more intentional about building culture.
Technology, process and automation give us the capacity to focus on relationships with the people in our firms, just as it does for client relationships.
Building culture in a remote or hybrid firm
Here are some proven ways to build company culture in a remote or hybrid team.
People can’t live up to expectations they don’t know have been set for them. Think about, plan for, and manage the success of their work. Assign ownership of every project and task within the firm to remove doubt about who is doing what, and put it in writing.
Trust is the single most important leadership factor in a firm, and it’s a two-way street. Managers need to be better managers in a virtual work environment, and employees have to be self-sufficient and focused.
We’ve heard some firm leaders mention forcing everyone back to the office because one or two employees aren’t meeting expectations in a remote environment. However, if remote work isn’t working for one or two people, focus on coaching those outliers into better performance. Don’t punish your whole team. This reduces trust among the people who are competent and motivated by the right things.
Every employee needs quarterly SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. Goals should cover core skills such as communication, time management, critical thinking, organization, problem solving and collaboration in addition to technical skills.
Conduct formal reviews to discuss progress toward these goals three to four times a year. Hold informal check-ins weekly or even daily for big projects or during certain times of the year.
You need a way to share individual work plans with your team weekly. Some firms have weekly team meetings and others use an intranet. However you do it, it needs to happen. There should never be a time when you wonder what people are “really” doing.
Applications for building culture
Technology is your biggest advantage for creating culture and connection in a remote or hybrid team. Here are some tools to consider.
Video. Many firms have adopted Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other video conferencing technologies in the past year, but we still see many people leaving their cameras off in meetings. Encourage people to turn their cameras on. This improves communication and helps people feel more connected to each other.
Instant messaging. Slack, Microsoft Teams and other instant messaging apps are excellent for “water cooler chat” and asking quick questions. Don’t shut down non-work-related channels on these apps. These informal conversations happen in person and virtually and are essential for allowing team members to get to know each other and build relationships.
Social media. At Boomer Consulting, we’ve been using Workplace by Facebook for years to connect socially, share pictures of what we’re doing each day and give each other virtual high fives for personal and professional achievements.
Intranets/wiki. Knowledge sharing is crucial in a remote team. Nobody wants to waste hours hunting down information they need. When everyone is in the same physical space, it’s easy to pop into a team member’s office to ask questions. Giving people a dedicated space for sharing knowledge helps you avoid having people put a 30-minute meeting on the calendar for a question that would take 3 minutes to answer.
Project management apps. Project management apps aid in transparency and communication. You likely track client engagements like tax returns and audits in a workflow tool. But what about the other internal projects people work on? A project management app like Asana, Trello or Monday allows people to see what’s happening, share information, and communicate about the status of these projects.
Tips for leveraging technology
Now that you have these tools, how do you use them? Here are a few ideas we use at Boomer Consulting.
Breakroom buddies. Each quarter, assign everyone in the firm with a random breakroom buddy — ideally someone from another department whom they don’t work with regularly. Buddies set up a couple of 20-minute meetings during the quarter to talk about anything. The only rule is that the discussion isn’t work-related.
Weekly one-on-ones. Managers should have weekly virtual one-on-ones with each of their key team members. These meetings don’t have to take long. Fifteen minutes is usually plenty of time for a brief check-in to see how people are doing, what they’re working on this week and whether they need any help (personally or professionally).
Culture club. Have a committee dedicated to building culture in your firm. They do this by organizing treats for in-person meetings, hosting monthly and quarterly wellness challenges and fun social events, and celebrating anniversaries, birthdays and other life events.
Remember the “tone at the top.” Firm leaders need to participate in watercooler conversations, social events and challenges. This signals to employees that leaders approve of the culture being built in the firm. These discussions happen naturally when you share physical space with your team and talk about your weekend plans, share pictures of your pets, or discuss restaurant or movie recommendations, so encourage them in your virtual team as well.
Getting people with different personalities, temperaments and backgrounds to work as a cohesive team is challenging enough when they share an office. But, when they’re working remotely, you can’t just hope for the best. You must make building culture part of your day. It’s not always easy, but with the tools and tips we’ve shared, it’s never impossible.
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Amanda Wilkie, Consultant at Boomer Consulting, Inc., has a computer science background, but she’s not your average geek. With two decades of technology experience, Amanda has spent 13 years driving change and process improvement through innovative technology solutions working across firms of varying sizes in the public accounting profession. She has held strategic leadership positions in firms ranging from Top 50 to Top 10 including her most recent role as CIO of a Top 30 firm. Amanda is a recognized expert in the profession who regularly speaks and writes on blockchain and cryptocurrency and their impact on the profession.