I’m a partner in a professional services firm. We barely survived the pandemic and only because we furloughed all nonessential employees. Those of us who were partners worked unpaid part of the time. We kept ourselves going by promising ourselves that “things would get back to normal.”
Our company recovered slowly. We rehired many of the employees we furloughed. Some of those we rehired were bitter that we furloughed them; they’ve since quit. We filled those vacancies with new hires; however, we offered the option of remote work to attract them
We’re at the point where we’re debating whether to bring all employees back into the office full time so we can rebuild our company culture. These employees, hired with the expectation they would work remotely, have dug in their heels against returning on-site five days a week. I’m afraid many of them will start looking for other jobs if we force the issue
We’ve had two heated partner debates over this decision. I’m the youngest partner, and the older partners insist we need everyone on-site before we’ll be able to get back to normal. Is there a way to rebuild our culture without requiring that everyone return full-time to the office?
It’s easier to build a company culture when all employees work under the same roof. Managers can drop in to employees’ offices and pull employees together for impromptu meetings. Employees informally develop connections with each other in the office breakroom.
Easier doesn’t, however, mean better. When a company’s leaders act purposefully, they can build an outstanding company culture even when employees work off-site for all or part of the work week. Here’s what it takes:
Leaders shape a company’s culture by modeling the ethics and behaviors they want to see in their organization. If leaders want employees to work with honesty, commitment, and ingenuity, the leaders need to demonstrate integrity, work ethic, and openness to new ideas.
Leaders need to step up to the plate in all areas, starting by outlining a powerful vision of the company’s future and direction. When leaders communicate “here’s where we’re going and why,” it tells the employees that their company’s leaders want employees to own the mission. When leaders communicate upcoming opportunities and challenges and set measurable goals, it creates employee excitement and an attachment to the organization’s mission. Openness generates trust.
You and your partners need to commit to how you interact with your employees. Do you and the other partners actively engage with your employees and treat them as valued members of your firm? Do you listen to their ideas and take their concerns seriously? Do you regularly meet with employees to talk about their performance and what they and you see as their future within your company? Do you have regular “state of the company” progress meetings in which you talk about successes and your company’s future direction? If these ideas resonate with you, you can find a leadership self-assessment in chapter 2, Managing for Accountability, https://bit.ly/3T3vww8.
Culture also builds at the coworker level. How do you bring your employees together? You can replace the informal breakroom mingling with occasional in-person or video-conferenced facilitated team sessions. You can ask employees to meet in breakout groups and address questions such as “this is what leads me to commit to this company;” “here are two talents I bring to the team;” or “here’s what I depend on other team members or work groups for” so that I can be my most productive. You can find other useful team exercises in chapter 5, Managing for Accountability, https://bit.ly/3T3vww8/.
Finally, you can involve your employees in creating your company’s culture. Ask them questions such as “what’s working well in our organization and what could be better?” and “what do we as an organization have to address, change, improve, do more of, less of, start or stop to be even more successful in the future?” You can ask these questions in planned all-hands meetings—and build a powerful company culture even if you don’t bring all employees back onsite.
(c) 2023 Lynne Curry