Five Keys to Building a Healthy and Productive Virtual Culture

gothamCulture is a truly virtual work environment. With a team that is separated by geography and time zones, it is imperative to learn how to best work together in ways that help us live our value of Authentic Community. Here are a few of the tricks we’ve learned along the way

1. Use technology to your advantage

This seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how challenging it can be to break people’s old habits to get folks to adopt new ways of using technology to get things done. We make a concerted effort to utilize chat and videoconferencing technology on a daily basis to help maintain and foster effective working relationships with staff and associates. Every effort is made to minimize the “space” between people.

2. Keep the team “up to speed”

In a fast-paced small business like ours, with team members who may be in a different city each night, it’s easy to get caught up in our own little worlds- working feverishly to provide top quality services to our clients. Based on feedback we received from our staff, we instituted structured, weekly team meetings where team members log into a Google Hangout from wherever in the world they may be to connect with the rest of the team. Everyone contributes to the weekly team meeting. We not only get a chance to give the team a feeling for the bigger picture, we are also able to identify areas of risk and reallocate resources in the short-term to ensure that all of our client engagements are executed flawlessly.

Typical weekly meeting at gothamCulture.

3. Set rules of engagement for virtual work

In order to help expedite effective working relationships virtually, we recommend setting clear rules of engagement up front that team members can agree upon and to which they can hold each other mutually accountable. These norms may evolve over time as you refine the ways in which you interact virtually, but we’ve found that setting some ground rules at the beginning really helped us to bake virtual work into our culture in an effective way.

4. Be crystal clear about your purpose, mission, and values

We can’t overstate this enough. When all else fails, we know that our team members will know exactly where to spend their time and attention and how best to prioritize their workload. By ensuring clarity of purpose and alignment around what is truly most important to us as an organization, all team members can manage themselves to be most productive – even in the absence of direct and timely supervision. If you aren’t clear about who you are and where you’re going, how can you expect your employees to know where to focus their energies?

5. Find ways to encourage collaboration on project work

At gothamCulture, we are deliberate about structuring work in ways that force team members to collaborate across great distances. Not only does it result in higher work quality, but it also creates reasons for team members to interact in ways that they might not have otherwise done. These long-distance collaborations give newer members of the team a chance to learn from our more seasoned experts.

Smooth Is Fast, But Fast Ain’t Smooth

When I was a young Army lieutenant training at Fort Knox, Kentucky and learning how to take the fight to the enemy with a 68-ton Abrams battle tank, I had the good fortune to cross paths with a person whose simple advice sticks with me all these years later. His name was Gunnery Sergeant Mummey and he was just about the most crusty, battle-hardened Marine I had ever come across. Gunnery Sergeant Mummey spent his days and nights reveling in watching the newly minted officers who were his students flail hopelessly within the confines of their tanks, trying their best to manage a withering onslaught of tasks and priorities. He had many a good laugh watching us, I’m sure!

One day I was learning how to direct my tank crew in preparation for a field exercise at the gunnery range where we would finally get to test our skills with live ammunition. This was a big milestone for us and it was a test of our ability to direct the three other members of our crew against a series of “enemy threats”. In order to succeed on the gunnery range, each student would have to react to unknown situations and quickly issue clear orders to the crew to successfully manage the situation. Needless to say, new lieutenants are not so great at making all that happen at first go-round.

I was no exception. As I sat in my commander’s hatch trying (unsuccessfully) to get my crew to quickly respond to my orders before the presenting targets vanished, I felt a jolt to the top of my helmet. I ignored it at first, focused solely on getting my crew to do what I had so elegantly envisioned in my head for months prior to this moment. Again, I felt a jolt to the top of my helmet and this time I looked up.

Sitting above me was Gunnery Sergeant Mummey in an instructor chair that had been bolted to the top of the tank so that he could observe us in action. The heel of his boot staring me in the face he said in a surly and disapproving voice, “Lieutenant, smooth is fast, but fast ain’t smooth!” Not understanding exactly what he was getting at, I nodded in approval and went back to work at a frenetic pace. It only took one more kick to the head for Gunnery Sergeant Mummey to get my attention and reiterate himself a way only a senior sergeant can, “Lieutenant, smooth is fast, but fast ain’t smooth!”

I nodded again but this time something changed. As his advice made its way into my brain I realized that in my efforts to speed things up I was only slowing things down. Me yelling to my crew louder and more frantically didn’t actually have the positive effect I was looking for (go figure!). I took a moment to collect myself and I began issuing out orders in a clear, confident, and paced manner, which enabled my crew to understand what I was saying and execute. By slowing down and operating more smoothly, I was able to significantly increase the speed of execution of my crew.

I’ve taken that lesson with me over the years. Through combat and through my career in civilian life, the concept of slowing things down to speed things up has served me well time and again. In a culture where “speed is of the essence” and where “time is money”, I often find myself getting caught up in the fever of the moment. But a lesson learned many years ago in Kentucky comes back to me and I remember to slow things down and to challenge the assumption that we fall victim to on a seemingly daily basis, that fast is good and faster is better.

The next time you’re feeling frantic, I challenge you to take a moment to collect yourself, slow it down and smooth it out. I think that, like me, you’ll find that you will accomplish things much more quickly and effectively and you will feel much more in control and at peace with the demands of your situation.

Remember, smooth is fast but fast ain’t smooth!

The Culture Grinder in Mergers and Acquisitions

I recently posted a blog entry discussing the concept of the Culture Grinder, our term for organizations that attempt to drive strategies that are in conflict with the culture despite countless examples of how this just doesn’t work. Having recently supported a client with a culture integration of a recently acquisition it reminded me of how the Grinder can rear it’s ugly head no matter what the strategy.

In this case it was a growth strategy through acquisition. The purchasing company sought to expand its reach and to expand its service offerings with current clients by acquiring a small organization that had expertise in a particular area. The strategy was sound and people approached the situation from a positive perspective of mutual gain through working together.

Through facilitated conversations with the senior leaders of both the acquiring and the acquired company, we were able to make explicit the underlying values and “keystone habits” of each organization. By doing this, the team was able to discuss the role of culture as an enabler or detractor in their collection ability to drive the strategy that they envisioned. Continued dialogue helped the leadership team identify areas in which the culture of the integrated organization may need to evolve in order to reduce risk and increase the likelihood of continued success and growth.

Only time will tell.

The Culture Grinder

Peter Drucker, one of the most respected authorities on the topic of leadership, has been noted with coining the phrase, “culture eats strategy for lunch”. This saying permeates any discussion about organizational culture, but many leaders fail to realize the true reality that this statement has in day-to-day life.

We call it “The Grinder”. Over the years, we have worked with clients around the world who struggle to understand why they can’t seem able to actually execute their business strategy. For most, it’s not that their strategies are weak or ill-conceived; quite the opposite. Many have done thorough business analyses, engaged high-profile strategy consultants, and developed powerful strategies that detail out how the organization needs to evolve in order to achieve future success.

Unfortunately, when it comes to actually rallying the troops in order to implement the plan, oftentimes, things fall short. Sometimes they fall way short. I am reminded of the countless times I have walked into a client’s office to see binders full of gorgeous, well thought through strategies that never even made it off the bookshelf.

Even if leaders are able to effectively align around a well thought out strategy and they are able to clearly articulate it to employees at all levels, getting people to behave differently becomes the Achilles’ heel. When this happens, a sense of cynicism can develop, only making it that much more difficult to drive strategic change in the future.

But what’s at the core of this regrettable situation? If Drucker’s saying bears weight, then we might come to see that the culture that has developed over the lifespan of the organization may be reinforcing certain attitudes and behaviors that are in conflict with those that would be required to ensure successful execution of the strategy. If leaders do not realize this, or worse yet, make the conscious decision to downplay the role of culture on performance, they may find themselves being chewed up and spit out of the Culture Grinder.

Mayer’s Call to Office

Last Friday Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, released a controversial memo to the employees at Yahoo telling remote workers that they had until June to begin working from a Yahoo office or quit. The memo sent by Yahoo’s head of HR Jackie Reses said that, “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

Since the announcement, there have been quite a few people weighing in on the salience of Ms. Mayer’s decision. Some feel that this is the right move as it is the only way to truly enhance communication and build a “winning team”. Others disagree, arguing that this mandate will reduce productivity, destroy morale, and otherwise spell disaster for the already struggling tech company.

Culture Matters – How Yahoo Does Work

Whatever your take on the recent happenings at Yahoo, I think we can all agree that there are some serious underlying values and assumptions at play here regarding how work should be done. This most recent corporate play calls attention to the basic core beliefs about how work ‘should’ be done at Yahoo according to Mayer. Let’s dig a little deeper into those assumptions, which will inevitably shift the culture of the organization at its most foundational level.

The assumption: for people to perform effectively, they must physically co-located at all times. The deeper belief: people can not be trusted to do the right thing and to perform at their best unless someone is standing over their shoulder. The yet deeper belief: management of people who can’t be trusted to work effectively from home is the way to turn around a company.

Treating the Symptom

We must ask ourselves if the root issue is that employees are not productive when working remotely or if managers are not effectively managing their people? At the end of the day, the lack of trust and lack of effective management is not going to be solved by having people work side-by-side in an office. There are many examples of organizations that have learned to effectively leverage technology to run highly successful businesses with remote workforces…and they’re not tech companies like Yahoo. In today’s fast-paced, global economy, for tech companies to devolve back to this type of “in residence” model seems a bit antiquated and, possibly, a panicked attempt to solve for a symptom rather than the problem at hand.