How to build a stronger virtual culture in 2021

There's a difference between remote culture and virtual culture. Here are key ways to shift from supporting a remote culture to supporting a virtual culture
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One of the biggest challenges facing many IT organizations this year will be strengthening employee engagement and building a virtual culture. Hopefully many of your employees are starting the year with optimism and new goals. But without a plan for enhancing your virtual culture, you may soon see morale decrease and burnout creep in. 

This time last year, our Novant Health IT team – called the Digital Products and Services (DPS) group – was traditionally allowed the option to work remotely. Some teams worked from the office three days a week, while others were in the office one day a week. Remote work wasn’t considered a perk or something you needed to earn – it was just part of our workforce culture.

When the pandemic hit, our focus shifted. No longer were we supporting a remote culture – my team was supporting a full-fledged virtual culture. At first there may not seem to be a big difference, but understanding the nuance is key to sustainably leading high-performing teams in the work-from-home world we’re operating in today. 

[ How do your team meetings stack up? Read also:  Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

Remote vs. virtual culture: What's the difference?

In a remote culture, team members can work from home if they’d like. Managers don’t place much emphasis on productivity, measuring work hours, or tracking who’s logged in and for how long. It’s about making sure people have the support they need to get their work done. 

In a virtual culture, however, everyone works remotely – there’s no in-person option, which makes it difficult to participate in the traditional culture that many organizations have cultivated. Building a virtual culture has its challenges. Among them is identifying and creating balance and boundaries with managers and employees. When your office is your home, those boundaries are difficult to establish.

As we start a New Year, we’re settled into what will be our new normal for the foreseeable future, successfully shifting from supporting a remote culture to a virtual one. Here are some lessons we learned along the way. 

Make time to connect

Grabbing a cup of coffee from the kitchen or walking with another person to their cube has value we probably didn't appreciate at the time — it’s where problem solving, collaborating, and camaraderie happened. 

In a virtual environment, it’s easy to feel lonely and isolated, even if you’re surrounded by family that’s also working or learning remotely at home. 

Pay attention to attendance during your virtual get togethers.

Bringing those conversations that happen in the hallway or over a cube wall into a virtual world is a struggle many organizations are still facing. It’s important that you don’t give in to the struggle and stop working at it this year. Pay attention to attendance during your virtual get togethers. Chances are you did a good job of scheduling virtual lunches or happy hours last year – but maybe you noticed that over time attendance began to dwindle. Don’t take that as a sign that you should stop arranging these connection sessions. 

The reality is that regardless of whether two or 20 people show up, the fact that anyone showed up at all is a sign that this connection is needed. In fact, the people who do come are the ones who need that interaction the most. They need to laugh, they need the engagement, and they need to know that it’s OK not to answer that email immediately. 

The reality is that regardless of whether two or 20 people show up, the fact that anyone showed up at all is a sign that this connection is needed.

In the year ahead, make sure you continue creating opportunities for these casual interactions to happen online. Open up a Zoom line at different times of day where people can pop in and have lunch together or play games. In our DPS organization at Novant Health, we have a mindfulness day every other week when people can spend 25 minutes completing an exercise. We host games and lunches. Sometimes we have 150 people join, and other times it might just be 20. Numbers don’t matter for these events; it’s being able to meet our team members where they are in their days and offer the support they may need at that time.

People need to take five or 15 minutes to themselves or with others. As a leader, it’s important to make the time for these breaks and for people to connect.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Share successes with others

When leaders outside DPS started hearing about how we were creating a virtual culture, they wanted to know more: What games we were playing? How were we facilitating it? What other ways were we prioritizing employee engagement? 

CIOs and tech leaders are always talking about how they want to have more influence over the rest of the organization. Sharing virtual culture successes, right down to the playbook for what you’ve done, is a great way to demonstrate leadership in 2021.

To help spread our successes beyond our department, my leadership team created an engagement guide to share both with our team members and the rest of the organization.

To help spread our successes beyond our department, my leadership team created an engagement guide to share both with our team members and the rest of the organization. The guide is a running list of activities or ideas to stay in touch with team members and continue engaging.

For example, we have a theme day calendar – which has included a Disney day and days to wear a certain colors – along with a workout calendar. We’ve done virtual tours of an alpaca farm and museums. We’ve hosted comedians and tea times. We have “closeness questions,” which encourage people to have a deeper discussion around something that’s not necessarily work-related. 

The guide spells out exactly how to set something up, what to expect, and links to follow.

The guide spells out exactly how to set something up, what to expect, and links to follow. People are constantly sharing new ideas. If your organization, or even a team within your department, had success with engaging colleagues last year, help get the word out. 

Try a newsletter

There was a time a few years ago when we were bombarding people with emails communicating on everything from deployments and changes to upgrades and employee spotlights. It was a lot, and people weren’t reading them.

Then we decided to launch a weekly newsletter that streamlined all this information. We highlight teams, share information about the status of projects, and include an entire section on culture – ways team members can engage, news about upcoming events, how to get involved, and how to volunteer. Not only does this reduce the number of emails people are receiving, it’s now something they actually enjoy reading. 

If you haven’t already streamlined the way your technology organization communicates, make this a priority for the year ahead.

Having this newsletter in place before we went virtual was a huge help for us. If you haven’t already streamlined the way your technology organization communicates, make this a priority for the year ahead. Everyone will appreciate the lighter load in their mailbox, and if done well, you’ll find that the newsletter facilitates connections that will ultimately strengthen your culture. 

Prioritizing learning

In our Novant Health DPS organization, we don’t refer to ourselves as a “workforce,” we call ourselves a “talent classroom” because we build our knowledge off of everyone around us. One way we actively do this is through our virtual lunch and learn events that we host as much as twice per month. 

Many technology organizations host lunch and learns. But if they became lost in the chaos of the pandemic, consider reigniting them in 2021. They’re a great way to engage employees and teams. Also, keep in mind the topics don’t always have to be work related either. 

We’ve also had speakers discuss anxiety and the importance of using Zoom to connect with their family members. Much like the virtual tea times and tours, the people who attend the lunch and learns are the ones who are hungry for that knowledge.

If we weren’t creating all these opportunities to strengthen team member engagement and our virtual culture, we’d be risking a lot: burnout, decreased morale, and people – typically women – leaving the workforce. 

It’s a leader’s responsibility to redefine culture in our new normal. We owe it to our teams to invest, connect, and lift them up. Shining a light on engagement, learning, culture, and connecting has helped keep us united during this time. 

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

As the VP of Learning, Research, and Culture for Novant Health’s Digital Products and Services (DPS) organization, Misti Fragen is responsible for driving culture, constant education, discovery and collaboration to continue providing world-class technology capabilities within DPS and Novant Health.

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