Three Mindsets to Help Leaders Build Corporate Culture in a Work-from-Anywhere World

Axios CEO Jim VandeHei writes about the conflict brewing between management and workers over the future of work-from-anywhere policies. VandeHei notes he is worried about two big risks: “younger workers benefit more than they realize from being in the trenches, in person, grappling with tough, teaching moments. There is a magic in human interaction [and] it is way harder to create strong emotional bonds with colleagues and your company from your couch. People stay in jobs and thrive when they feel tight connections.”

In response, he offers four steps Axios takes to mitigate these risks:

  1. Hire self-motivated, driven people
  2. Create new human interactions
  3. Communicate until you annoy yourself
  4. Create new performance measurements

All of these steps ultimately speak to the importance of corporate culture and how to build it in a work-from-anywhere world. Corporate cultures often develop organically when everyone is in the same place, housed under the same roof. Sure, organizations can help culture along, but a meaningful portion of culture happens through the patterns and rituals of office life. And it happens serendipitously in-person because an organization’s culture is, in part, the amalgamation of its people.

When the pandemic hit companies tried to replicate some of these rituals in the digital realm – think Zoom happy hours and digital water colors – but their successes were largely short-lived. These approaches often miss the mark, because they force banter, but it is deeper human connection and shared culture that individuals really want. As Rita Ramakrishnan, head of people and talent at Cadre put it, “the single greatest indicator of retention and engagement is whether you have a best friend at work.”

Here are three mindsets to drive culture in a work-from-anywhere environment:

  1. Shift from an office-first to a remote-first mindset. In an office-first mindset, organizations helped culture along by offering amenities and decor that aligned with the culture they desired. And culture developed overtime through the events and gatherings that play out when everyone is in the building. Think welcome bagels, birthday lunches, and new parents stopping by with their babies. But work-from-anywhere requires a remote-first mindset. An often-overlooked aspect of remote workforces is that employees work and collaborate asynchronously. Sure, there are the Zoom calls, but the bulk of work, and communication, is happening asynchronously. This is especially true when teams span the globe.
  2. Be excessively intentional. It is not enough to think that the culture you want will develop naturally in a work-from-anywhere environment. Leaders need to be excessively intentional in their efforts to build the culture they want. Communicate until you annoy yourself, as VandeHei recommends. Build workflows and communication approaches that ensure everyone has equal access regardless of time zone or location. Create new remote-first cultural ties.
  3. Over invest in in-person experiences. It may seem counter intuitive, but remote-first organizations need to invest heavily in in-person gatherings. As Pamela Hinds and Brian Elliott wrote last year in Harvard Business Review, “plenty of research shows that our ability to connect meaningfully to others is less satisfying when we’re not physically present and that shared understanding is harder to establish and more likely to suffer from “drift” as we spend time apart. The absence of shared context, from body language to the type of snacks made available in the shared kitchen, dilutes these myriad of signals that convey culture.

Many companies lost their mooring when the pandemic hit. They went into triage mode, grasping onto the nearest video conferencing platform, and many have not reemerged. Now is the time to rethink your approach to culture.