It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for — a return to the office. The problem is that this “moment” happened two years later than anticipated. The pandemic jumpstarted a new era of work — employees have learned and proven they can work from anywhere, and leaders who expect a return to “business as usual” risk losing talent in this new world of work.
Leading business thinker David Burkus joined us for our latest Virtual Speakers Series event exploring “what’s next” in the future of work. Having worked with leaders from organizations across industries, one of the most asked questions he’s received over the last couple of years is “when are we going back?” His answer — “We’re not.”
In a post-pandemic world, it’s up to leaders to evolve alongside their employees or risk losing them. Employees have proven they can work from anywhere, and now it’s up to leaders to learn how to effectively lead from anywhere.
Building Workplace Culture Anywhere
The second most asked question David has received over the last couple of years is “how do we build culture when we’re not together?” His response — “We don’t. At least not the way you think.”
Workplace culture and the employee experience has shifted from an organizational viewpoint to a team viewpoint. Today, it’s the culture within teams that is the difference between successful and unsuccessful organizations, David said.
While dysfunctional teams are all dysfunctional for their own reasons, David continued, successful teams have three shared commonalities:
- Shared understanding
- Shared identity
- Psychological safety
These traits can be fostered in teams no matter where they work — in-person, remote, or hybrid. It comes down to leaders learning how to create the right circumstances to allow their teams to flourish. Here’s how to do it:
1) Shared Understanding
David defined this as “the extent to which members of the team have a commonly held perspective on the team’s expertise, assigned tasks, context, and preference.”
This comes through in two ways, David said. Through clarity within the team, where they not only understand their own role and responsibilities but also the roles and responsibilities of their teammates, and trust in each other’s capabilities.
The second, David said, is through building an understanding around the context in which people are working. The context is especially important in a remote workplace.
“I’m coming at you from about a 10’ x 10’ room in the basement of my house,” David said. “My children are at school, I have a hi-speed internet connection, nice camera, and all that sort of stuff. That’s been my experience… other people though, when we asked them to start working from home, they ran to a home improvement store, bought a folding screen, stretched it across a corner of their dining room table, and they’ve been hiding behind their kids, who have been zoom-schooling for over and year, and maybe their spouse or partner who have been trying to work from a different room.”
Exploring the context in which each person works builds cohesiveness within a team because they can now understand where each person is coming from. Through this, teams can alter expectations of responsiveness, number of meetings, etc., to meet individual and team needs.
Leaders can assist teams with this through:
- Shared Calendars: These calendars are more than just deadlines, they detail the team’s schedule based on an individual’s circumstances. For example, are they picking kids up at school and working after they go to bed? They release the team of undue burden and expectations because everyone is aware of each other’s work schedule.
- Working Agreements: These are documents that outline how a team works and communicates with each other in a digital space, i.e., when can we expect an email response, when is the right time for a phone call, etc. It’s essentially user manual for the team — crucial when onboarding new team members remotely — and can change and adapt alongside the team.
- Huddles: Scheduling regular “huddles” whether through meetings, emails, or Slack, keeps communication channels open within teams. David recommends having each team member answer three questions in these huddles: What did I complete this week? What will I do next? What’s blocking my progress? That last question is particularly important because it enables the team to help each other, something that is more difficult in a remote setting.
2) Shared Identity
This is defined as “the extent to which team members feel the same sense of who they are as a designated group.”
David said this is the biggest problem facing workplaces today. Silos can easily emerge, David said, when some employees are working in-person and others are continuing to work remotely. A team is no longer in a shared space and having the same experiences.
To counteract this, leaders must build in time and space to keep employees connected no matter where they are working.
How can leaders do this?
- Fika: One of David’s favourite terms, it’s a Swedish word that roughly translates into having informal get-togethers. It’s crucial to plan these in a digital space so employees have frequent opportunities to connect informally. For example, set-up virtual coffee breaks where 3-4 employees can connect and talk about things other than work.
- Buffer Times: Building on Fika, schedule time during work hours for non-work conversations. This is to replace the small talk that happens in-office around the water cooler, David said. These informal conversations are highly important for building connection. In a remote or hybrid workplace, it’s up to leaders to actively schedule that time. He suggests to build in extra time at the beginning of meetings to give team members a chance to chat and build up their personal relationships with each other.
- Ritual: These have been lost in the move from in-person to remote offices. They are the shared experiences between team members that makes them feel like “insiders”. But they can be recreated in a virtual space. For example, David worked with a company who, instead of using the “clap emoji” on Zoom, would use the American sign language gesture for clapping whenever someone shared something important. A small thing that connects a team.
3) Psychological Safety
This last point has risen in importance over the last couple of years, David said. It’s “the extent to which team members feel safe to express themselves and take risks.” This is much harder to cultivate within remote teams, he continued, and it’s up to leaders to take an active role in fostering this.
How can leaders do this?
- Treat conflict as collaboration: People often get territorial about their ideas, David said, which can lead to conflict. Leaders can transform this into a collaborative experience by acknowledging that our ideas are a product of our individual experiences. Shift it into a broader exploration of what each idea is trying to solve or address. This changes it into finding the best idea that will work for the whole team.
- Celebrate failure: Failure is inevitable, David said, but with failure comes the opportunity to learn. Creating a space where it’s ok to fail starts with leaders. Thank employees for their openness and allow them the space to dissect what happened so it becomes a learning experience.
- Encourage dissent: It takes courage to speak up, David said, and this should be acknowledged and encouraged by leaders. Instead of ending a meeting with “any questions?”, David suggest changing it to “what questions do you have for me?”. This signals that you expect people to have questions and creates an open space for conversation.
As you build psychological safety, David said, you’ll see a natural growth of a shared identity and shared understanding alongside it.
To end the presentation, David acknowledged that in a COVID-era, it’s hard to know what’s coming next. But what I do know, he continued, is that “teams that thrive working from anywhere are teams that build a sense of shared understanding, shared identity, and psychological safety. And if you start working with your team now on building those things, you’ll have a team that can work well in whatever is actually next… because you’ll be the type of leader that can lead anywhere as well.”
See more from David in the clip below:
David Burkus’ forward-thinking ideas and bestselling books are changing how companies approach innovation, collaboration, and productivity. His captivating stories and practical takeaways show audiences how to do their best work ever.
Interested in learning more about David and what he can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].