This article focuses on the challenges of building a corporate culture when your business is geographically distributed. So, just how do you go about building a corporate culture in a virtual team environment?
Building corporate culture in virtual teams is a question that comes up quite frequently in our discussions. Every organisation has its own culture, some corporate cultures are demanding and high pressure, others may be more relaxed and nurturing; some will expect their employees to put work ahead of everything else while others will expect that work takes its place alongside the rest of a persons life. Like corporate culture, the way an employee reacts and “fits” into a given organisational culture will also change, evolving over time as the person’s life changes.
However, how do you establish a culture for a business where the employees are working virtually, displaced from each other by distance and time and interacting only electronically?. This is the question I am going to try to unpack in this article.
Corporate Culture In Virtual Teams
In the world of virtual teams, most businesses started out with a single location. The founder and employees would collaborate face to face, this founding business and location is usually where the culture of the organisation is established, the founder determines how they want their business to work and expresses, either overtly or by modelling, what they expect their corporate culture to be.
Some corporate cultures will be demonstrated in dress codes, how the office functions, how rigidly roles are defined and guarded, who gets the corner office (if offices even exist) etc. As the business grows into more locations the culture of the home office will defuse into the new locations, becoming either a replica of the home culture or, more likely a hybrid of the home culture and the prevailing local business culture.
Home Office Influence
The influence of the home office on the emerging corporate culture will remain strong. Through interactions, the home office personnel will model and display the culture they expect of their virtual colleagues, at both the visible and the invisible level, the new employees will get to see their virtual predecessors in the business display their dress codes, meeting formality and ways of addressing one another.
Some of this home office corporate culture will transfer relatively easily between offices and across diverse cultures, other facets of corporate culture will not transfer readily, particularly between locations where the prevailing national business and social culture is radically divergent to the home office. It is unlikely, for instance that a home office culture of a very flat organisational structure will rapidly transfer to one in a location where the prevailing culture is toward a more rigid and formalised structure. These local cultural differences need to be accounted for when trying to find a culture that works in a new location.
Virtual Start up Culture
Determining a corporate culture in a start up that is virtual from the first day is a more challenging issue. The relative luxury of building a culture in the home office then exporting that culture to new locations is not possible, as such, it falls to the founders to work hard to build their cultural vision into the business from day one.
Firstly, I believe the founders need to determine for themselves and describe as best they can what they want their culture to be. Some of this will be what they will write down, other facets will be simply how they operate. Having the culture defined will mean that when they are recruiting their virtual colleagues and employees they can readily describe the culture to them and gauge their suitability against their ideals.
Secondly, the founders need to work every day to ensure they live their culture. A corporate culture is as much what you do as what you say you will do, and what you do is what people will see. A cognitive dissonance between the described and lived corporate culture will only confuse employees and the market place.
Thirdly the founders need to trust their virtual personnel from the day they hire them, trust that they will live the corporate culture and fit in. Every new employee and new business partner, whether co-located or virtual, will change the overall corporate culture subtly, but if chosen wisely they will all contribute positively to the business. This trust does not mean that you should let them do whatever they want however, they still need to fit in to the business, but you do need to allow them freedom to work and trust that they are the right people for your business. This is described well in a recent article from Jeff Boss where he uses the term “freedom plus trust equals reliability” which sums up the view that trusting your employee and giving them the freedom to live your corporate culture will benefit the business.
Where To From Here
Corporate culture is one of the key determinants for the way a business operates, matching employees to your desired culture will ensure a consistent market perception and, having a strongly visible corporate culture will help clients determine if your business is the right fit for them, and vice versa. Business leaders need to take the time to determine the culture that is right for them and their industry then work hard to build that into everything they do. Establishing a consistent corporate culture is as important as any other facet of corporate branding and must be part of every major decision.
Ulfire specialises in supporting organisations plan, establish and run high performing virtual teams. We combine extensive practical experience from decades of involvement in virtual teams with current real world academic research into the way members of virtual teams collaborate. Please contact us to discuss ways we can assist your business. If you would like to be kept informed of future trends and articles, please sign up using the form below to receive our regular newsletter.
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