The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of remote and remote-first work. Many industries have adopted remote work as best practice, while others have been forced to adapt. In the wake of this shift, establishing and maintaining a consistent company culture has become a challenge.
“Where do you work?” Until 2019, this question was taken for granted. An office space offers several features that strengthen company culture, including physical proximity, impromptu conversation, and regional backdrop. In a remote workspace, these features are not immediately accessible.
According to Glassdoor’s 2019 Mission & Culture Survey, 71% of employees would start looking for opportunities elsewhere if their company’s culture deteriorates. Additionally, 56% of employees consider company culture more important than salary when it comes to being satisfied at work. For companies transitioning to remote work, the potential savings of work-from-home don’t compensate for a lack of company culture, and not addressing the issues comes at the expense of retaining talent.
What We’ll Cover
This paper provides three methods to establish a company culture in a distributed environment:
- Employee Assistance Programs
- Volunteer Time Off
- Company Retreats
These methods serve to fill the gaps in company culture that an office space would solve by default. By implementing any one of these methods, companies working remotely - even temporarily - can increase employee satisfaction, increase retention, and attract new talent.
How to fund it
Employers stand to save $11,000 per employee annually that works remotely at least part-time. Simply put, a remote-first employee can complete their job function from home for less money. However, this money isn’t all operational cost. Office spaces are significant contributors to company culture, so treating the entire savings as operational efficiency fails to quantify its value towards employee satisfaction.
Remote work, although a great savings, also requires a reallocation of funds to different types of cultural activities. Investing some of these savings towards company retreats serves to provide some of the benefits of an office space in a concentrated, intentional environment.
Employee Assistance Programs
The CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for August 2020 found that symptoms of depressive disorder were 4 times as prevalent as the same time in 2019, with symptoms of anxiety disorder 3 times as prevalent. Mental health is an increasing concern for employees isolated in their homes without social time or a sense of community.
Though the mental health detriments of the pandemic will dissipate as vaccination and treatment become more widespread, companies that adopt permanent remote policies need permanent infrastructure to address isolation and its effects. EAPs are a value-added benefit that provide anonymous support to employees from the comfort of their homes on topics ranging from financial wellness to substance abuse.
In a study of EAP vendors by the National Behavioral Consortium, 86% of users reported an improvement in their problem due to the use of EAP counseling. EAPs are an effective tool for employees to tackle out-of-office issues when having a private, personal discussion with a manager isn’t an option.
Analyzing employees prior to their use of EAPs, the 2020 Annual Report for the Workplace Outcome Suite (WOS) combined rates of absenteeism and presenteeism to calculate an average 63 hours per month of Lost Productive Time.. After using EAPs, employees were able to restore 3 full workdays per month of Lost Productive Time, for an estimated cost savings of $2000 - $3,500.
Employees that seek help with a personal issue and are rejected by the provider due to the issue being out of the scope of discussable topics will be apprehensive about using the service again. Educating employees on what types of issues they can use the EAP for - personal finances, relationship issues, substance abuse, depression - will help employees start off on the right foot. For mental health treatment that requires escalation, having channels in place to coordinate further benefits will make sure employees don’t feel abandoned if they run out of EAP sessions.
Anonymity and Trust
Employees won’t be able to make the most of an EAP if they feel they’re disclosures could fall into the hands of a manager or colleague. In a world where mental health and substance abuse treatment still holds a lot of stigma, informing employees about their rights to anonymity and the third-party nature of the provider goes a long way.
Volunteer Time Off
Corporate volunteer activities are some of the most impactful ways to demonstrate company values in action. Benevity’s 2018 Engagement Study found that actively engaging in volunteering and donating reduced employee turnover by 57%. It affirms employee interests and boosts the reputation of the company in the local community. Singular causes or organizations lose their relevance, however, when employees are distributed across the map.
Employees witness more pressing matters in their local community that their employer doesn't address, and employers can’t research the nuances of every community their employees reside in. Volunteer Time Off is a flexible alternative to traditional volunteer programs that addresses the unique circumstances of a remote workforce.
Engagement & Branding
Employers have access to as many local communities as they have employees, and can develop public relationships in each of these places. Employees have the freedom to research local organizations and choose the best fit for company values and impact.
From Deloitte’s 2016 impact survey, 92% of respondents agreed volunteering is an effective way to improve leadership skills, and 80% of respondents said active volunteers move more easily into leadership roles. For employers struggling to create professional development initiatives remotely, volunteering is a helpful stopgap to improve employees’ skills and prepare them for greater responsibilities.
Clearly outlined eligibility requirements ensure VTO is spent effectively. Defining the types of organizations eligible, type of volunteer activities eligible, and amount of hours eligible helps to protect employees from unsafe volunteer conditions and guarantee branding opportunities for the company.
Although employers create the guidelines, VTO is ultimately employee driven. In order to reap the rewards of a VTO policy, employers must broadcast VTO success stories, educate employees on the VTO application process, and remind employees throughout the year of this benefit.
While the first two solutions addressed the needs of employers in temporary remote situations as well as full-time remote companies, this final solution favors the latter. Fully remote companies, distributed across state and country lines, don’t have an office waiting for them at the end of the pandemic. Company retreats offer a space for employees to connect with each other face to face; an opportunity that brings with it a plethora of team building advantages.
Remote settings lack the luxury of impromptu conversations and after-hours activities. A company retreat allows remote employees to meet their team members as well as interact with members from other teams in an approachable social setting.
Some things are just better done in person. Retreats also offer an opportunity to assign complicated, interdepartmental problems to employees that don’t normally work together.
One Week, 1-2 per year
Company retreats usually last one week: 4 structured days, 1 free day, and 2 days for travel. This ensures enough time to connect as a company without putting undue stress on employees with responsibilities at home. Retreats are often held on an annual or biannual basis.
While a dream vacation may sound exciting, choosing a nondescript location offers unique advantages. First and foremost, a location equally proximal to all employees reduces travel costs and increases the likelihood employees can attend. Isolated accommodations require employees to interact with each other rather than embarking on tourist excursions. Lastly, choosing the same location every year allows distributed companies to create a relationship with a specific community or region and gives employees a sense of home-base.
A hackathon concentrates the benefits of an office space into a singular, deliberate event. By grouping employees across job functions and setting high-level, open ended challenges, companies can stimulate interdepartmental camaraderie and tackle complex company issues otherwise unapproachable in a remote setting.
Creating company culture in a distributed environment is not about finding familiar substitutions to the office environment. Work-from-home equipment and rentable office spaces act as operational facsimiles, but they don’t capture the rich cultural opportunities that a physical workspace provides. Capturing the essence of company culture provided by an office requires an analysis of the byproducts of such a space; impromptu conversation, interdepartmental relationships, a regional backdrop, and community partnerships. The aforementioned solutions provide an active engagement of these byproducts through adjusting existing policy, rather than trying to build an office in an electric world.