Creation of a ‘third culture’ is essential for successful remote working


By Anna Jester

In the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic, many organisations are experiencing an almost entirely remote workforce. Jane Sparrow, founder of The Culture Builders and remote working expert, explains why teams have to create a third culture for effective virtual collaboration.  

For those of us who work remotely on a regular basis, we know that it’s not as easy as it may seem. The distractions are a plenty, it can be harder to feel motivated, human connection is dramatically reduced – and all of this has an impact on how effective we can be. 

So as we picture the reality and new norm of millions and millions of UK employees working from home, full time and for an extended period – it begs the question, what is this going to do to both people’s wellbeing and UK productivity? 

Just like when it snows, the first day or two of homeworking can feel quite fun – it’s different, you don’t have to get up as early, there’s no morning commute – but then the reality sets in and it can become a real challenge for people – especially with our children joining the working from home movement! 

We’ve long worked with clients to embed virtual working as a cultural norm but as the COVID-19 crisis deepens, cracking the remote working code is something businesses are prioritising. 

Creating a third culture

From the work that we do, we know that remote working can happen most effectively when people are really intentional about how they work in the virtual space – and clearly recognise that the space, albeit virtual, is shared. This means organisations and teams creating what we call a ‘third culture’ where they meet virtually to collectively work in a human, focused and productive way. 

Those of you who have worked with us before will be familiar with our three pillars of culture™  – what we believe, how we behave and the tools we use. The third culture is no different. It’s vital that teams spend time discussing firstly, what they believe to be important to make remote working successful and secondly contracting with each other on how we are going to work in line with those beliefs and principles – it’s only then that teams can make informed decisions about what virtual working tools will support them most effectively.

The remote working ecosystem 

Within this third culture, there are four key elements, all of which are complex and need thinking through. The four elements are 1) human needs (first and foremost), 2) team connection, 3) working structures and 4) focus and environment. And within each of those are an array of factors to consider. Every organisation and team is different so what is essential is that all of the ingredients for a high performing remote working culture are considered and the right mix is created. 

There’s hundreds of ideas and ways to support the remote working ecosystem but let me pull out one per element in a practical way.

Human needs – there is a human being behind every laptop at home and at the heart of being human is needing to feel valued. When we work remotely the opportunities for ‘thank yous’, ‘great jobs!’ and ‘high fives’ dramatically decrease so making sure managers dial up the appreciation is key.  A text, a quick video message or even a posted card to say ‘thanks because’ is gold to keep the workforce motivated. 

Team connection – when we’re working remotely, we lose the majority of our social connection with everyone from the security guard we say hello to in the morning to our team members and colleagues. Recreate this with daily virtual team huddles for 10 minutes in the morning – no set agenda, just a check in say hi, see how people are and what help they may need that day. 

Working structures – what works in the office may not work remotely. Instead of lengthy meetings, have short virtual huddles with a strong chair so people don’t get lost because they’re not physically visible. Adopting an approach where you go round and get a contribution from each person can also work well. Apply this thinking to team resourcing, scheduling and action planning. 

Focus and environment – for many people they will find themselves working in an environment that is very different and that potentially they are not used to. The trick is supporting people to use that to support their performance instead of hinder it. Personal rewards (e.g. a cup of tea and a healthy snack at 11am) are a great way to help people resist distraction and stay focused.  

The remote working trap

As all of you reading this will know, there are so many benefits of remote working, for both people and business spanning wellbeing, productivity and the environment. A possible upside of the COVD-19 situation is that it may prove the case for more flexible working within companies who have been slow to adopt it. 

However, many leaders, teams and companies come at remote working assuming that people will just do it well or adapt easily to it, if it’s new for them. The other thing we see a lot is businesses putting in a new or enhanced virtual working tool – and just expecting that to be the answer to success.   

We need to remember that we’re all human – and so dropping people into a totally different way of working with just a new video communication platform – it doesn’t work. We have to think about how we keep people feeling connected, that they’re still part of a team and that there’s still a strong support network in place.

Support at three levels 

For remote working to be effective, the third culture needs to be supported at three levels – leadership, team and individual. Leaders must be role modelling all of the right behaviours, teams must be working together to agree what success looks like for them and us, and as individuals, we have to create our own new working patterns and disciplines to protect both our productivity and more importantly, our wellbeing. 

A great example of this three tiered approach is China and Hong Kong based, global luxury fashion, beauty and lifestyle retailer, Lane Crawford, who we’ve been supporting through the eye of the Coronavirus storm.

Andrew Keith, the company’s president, says: “We’ve been developing people managers on how to support their remote teams, providing daily top tips and inspiration to keep people motivated and working intensively with the top team on role modelling essential behaviours for effective virtual working. I started a VLOG a number of months ago to have an emotional and direct connection with every one of my people, during such a difficult time, which has had a huge positive impact.”

There’s no doubt that there are more unprecedented challenges ahead. For many of you reading this, the eyes may well be on you to advise, plan and deliver an effective remote working support plan – my best advice is to be strategic, multi layered but most of all, human. 

For more tips and advice on remote working, you can listen to Jane’s podcast here or get in touch.