Remote work: 4 ways to spot a toxic culture

In a remote work environment, maintaining a strong company culture is more challenging – and more important – than ever. How do you spot and fix trouble? Ask these four questions to do a quick pulse check
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In today’s often entirely remote work environment, which lacks physical presence, human touch, and body language, it’s a plain fact that our interactions are less rich. Therefore, it takes extra sensibility and commitment for leaders to safeguard the company culture and ensure a positive, productive environment for all.

How do you spot and fix toxic culture when everyone is remote? Here are four simple questions you can ask yourself to do a quick pulse check.

1. Is someone not collaborating with others?

Trust is the fundamental element of a high-performing culture. Especially in a remote workplace, it’s difficult to be a lone wolf and not collaborate on projects. If you notice that your team is avoiding working with someone, look to see if it’s a pattern. Perhaps that individual is “phoning it in” or making too many mistakes, and the team can’t trust their work anymore.

Your team members may start wondering if they can trust you as a manager if you won't handle the problem.

You need to address this right away to avoid disappointing the rest of the team. Ask yourself: How much do folks enjoy redoing someone else’s work? Or watching the employee screw up and get away with it? Or questioning why they are working so hard while others aren’t? Worse, your team members may start wondering if they can trust you as a manager if you won’t handle the problem.

You need to think about what’s best for the business and the people on your team. If you don’t, morale will suffer.

[ Remote work requires extra care with change management. Read also: Digital transformation in the remote work era: 11 do's and don'ts. ]

2. Are you hearing more judgments than facts?

When we feel judged, we naturally get defensive. A defensive team cannot contribute to constructive problem-solving.

For instance, instead of blaming a manager for making a bad hire, consider what may have gone wrong in the hiring process. The difference? The former approach attacks the manager’s decision-making, while the latter focuses on identifying specific facts and processes that can be improved.

A good way to tell if someone is stating facts or judgments is to apply the "videotape test."

When you hear someone make a statement that may be judgmental, ask the person, “What do you know to be true? What are the facts?” A good way to tell if someone is stating facts or judgments is to apply the “videotape test:” Can what they describe be captured by a video camera? For example, “He was late for the meeting” is a fact and passes the test. In contrast, “He’s lazy” is a judgment and doesn’t pass the test. Be mindful when you’re hearing judgments and try to dig out the facts.

[ Don't let toxic leadership take you down. Read also: How to deal with a toxic boss: 7 tips. ]

3. Does someone step up to fill the gaps?

Another frequently neglected topic of culture-building is transparency. Not only will sharing information decrease friction in communication, but it can also help ensure that the company functions smoothly when something unexpected happens. If a new function or project needs a leader, or if someone’s departure creates a gap to be filled, do you feel confident that other employees will step up to fill the gaps, at least temporarily?

What’s making it difficult for team members to step up and take on more responsibilities?

If you’re not sure, consider the larger issue: What’s making it difficult for team members to step up and take on more responsibilities? Is it because the person who left was responsible for the majority of your sales, science, biz dev, or technology? Or is there a lack of training and growth opportunities?

The answer may be multi-faceted, but it’s instrumental to cultivate an environment where knowledge and intellectual properties are shared and transferred within and across the teams, and where people feel equipped to take on additional challenges.

4. How do your new hires feel?

When you hire new employees, you have likely screened them on hard skills, growth potential, and cultural fit. The “fresh blood” also gives you a fresh set of eyes: someone who hasn’t been immersed in the company culture for years will bring new perspectives. Even if the new hires don’t directly report to you, set up a few 1:1 meetings in the first few months. This is not only a great way to extend your welcome to the new hires, but it also offers a unique opportunity to encounter an outside perspective on how the company is doing and what challenges the new hire may be facing.

Try an org chart exercise, where you both define the various roles and responsibilities of the team and compare your understandings to see if they align. Here are a few questions to get the conversation started:

  • Big picture: What is the team trying to achieve?
  • Action items: How are we going to do it?
  • Deliverable: How do we hold people accountable?
  • Support: How can we help each other?

If there are discrepancies in understanding the roles and responsibilities, figure out where they are coming from. Create a safe space for new employees to share with you what’s new, unexpected, or even uncomfortable. This is a unique way to determine if there are any current needs that can be addressed.

Asking these questions will help you analyze the status of the company culture, and more importantly, spot areas for improvement. Remember, culture is not what you write in mission or vision statements, but how your team members interact with each other every day.

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

Kate Yuan is a startup consultant with a focus on go-to-market strategies and enterprise sales. She has worked with startups in four continents and 30+ countries as an investor, advisor, and operator. Most recently, she was the Operating Partner at Hemi Ventures, an early-stage fund investing in mobility, biotech and enterprise AI sectors.
Lori Dernavich is a Leadership Development Advisor with two decades of experience in advising high tech, deep tech, and life sciences executives. She works with Fortune 500 leaders and startup founders to develop the leadership skills they and their organizations need to be successful.