How to Tell if Your Remote Company Culture Needs a Reboot

Does your company culture energize or suck the life out of workers? Photo of a woman sleeping at her desk by Marcus Aurelius via Pexels

In the 1996 movie ‘Phenomenon,’ John Travolta plays George Malley, an ordinary man who develops the ability to learn and retain everything he reads. In one scene, he’s sitting in his house when some neighbors drive up and wave a book at him. “George!” They yell, “We need you to learn Portuguese!”

For many, the pandemic in March was our collective George Malley moment. We were going about our lives when suddenly we had to work remotely without a social safety net. Those first few months we were in survival mode. There was no time for deep thought or best practices. Business leaders and employees needed hacks and cheat sheets, not an esoteric conversation about meaning and fulfilment in remote work.

But here we are on the cusp of August. And honestly, some people still don’t have a lot of space for deep questions. Some of us are working while parenting. Others are trying to work in cramped living conditions, or in the ringing silence of isolation. Employees who haven’t been laid off are doing the work of multiple people. And all of us are dealing with the psychological effects that come from living in a pandemic.

Lead with Curiosity First

Good news for the time-strapped: Rebooting a culture doesn’t start with a grand gesture or a ten-point plan. Begin with reflection. When your company is at it’s best, what does that look like? Is the company friendly and productive? Energetic and data-driven? Write down some descriptive words or sentences.

Next, think about what those qualities look like on a day to day basis. If you said your company at its best is ‘a safe place to collaborate and try new things,’ then you might expect to see employees at all levels leading projects. Or perhaps you would see leadership asking for–and acting on–honest feedback. Write these ideas down as well.

There’s one very important caveat to keep in mind as you work through this exercise. It’s all too easy to stray from neutral actions into overly prescriptive descriptions of the “right” way to work.

Let’s take collaboration as an example. Saying ‘I expect that employees in a collaborative culture would reach out to different stakeholders when working on a project’ is neutral. Saying ’employees in collaborative cultures brainstorm in daily live meetings’ assumes that this is the only way to collaborate. Stick with the former and avoid the latter.

Next, Observe Your Company’s Current State

Once you have your list, it’s time to observe your remote company culture in action. When a company is distributed, it often uses different channels to communicate and disseminate information. Look at email strings, instant messaging chats, and video meetings. You might find it helpful to create a column for each communication channel and take notes over a period of time. How (and when) do employees and leaders talk to each other? Who gets to ask questions? Who influences decisions? What is the general tone in each medium?

Once you have this information, compare the results to your pre-pandemic company culture. Do things look better, the same, or worse than before COVID? Try to disprove your results. For example, you may decide that your company culture is just as collaborative now as it was before the pandemic, because you see employees talking through projects on Slack. Ask yourself, ‘Are the same three people influencing all of our project decisions? Are any groups consistently silent–or absent–during the collaborative process?’

As many of us have recently learned, testing can come with false positives and false negatives. Putting your conclusions through a second level of scrutiny can help you to minimize the level of error.

So how does your company culture stack up? Does your culture need a reboot? In my next post, we’ll discuss things you can do to tweak company culture, even if you aren’t the person in charge.

Behind the Scenes: Goings-On in the Douglas HQ

For those of you who are here just for the business articles, I’ll see you next week. The rest of this is pure frivolity.

Image is of three out of four Douglases laying out on a blanket at the beach. The fourth one was out swimming. Some of us were more excited to be there than others.

First, and most pressing, we are still pet rat-less. And my Betta fish of two and a half years died. I bought Mac the fish when he was already mature, so I’m hoping this was old age, but between the lack of rats and the death of my fish, I feel like I’m in the middle of a COVID-themed country song. The kids were less disappointed this week because I did a better job of managing their expectations. Fingers crossed that I have more rats in my house next week. And who would have ever thought that sentence would come out of my keyboard? Weird times, y’all. Weird times.

In more positive news, I won a grant to bring kids’ books to my local community. I run two little free libraries in my neighborhood and I asked the fine folks at UTown for funds to buy books for 6-12-year-olds. Saturday is the day I get to purchase the books. Next week I’ll start dispensing them. Feel free to call me Teresa Claus, because that’s what I feel like right now.

The kids are taking more online classes. About three weeks into my satire class I noticed that my son is basically trying to build his own comedy skits. So I put him in improv. As one does. He loves it, and we’ll probably continue with it once the school year starts. My daughter is taking Spanish from a teacher from Mexico. That last bit is important to me because I want her to pronounce things the way my family does. We can’t visit our loved ones in the States, but at least we can cuddle up to our shared heritage.

Hasta la próxima semana.

Mental Health During COVID is a Marathon Not a Sprint

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.com

Long ago in a (pre-COVID) galaxy far, far away, I ran four half marathons in a year. And while it takes a certain level of physical fitness to run for multiple hours, the truth is that endurance races are won or lost inside your head. There comes a time in every long run when you’re tired, uncomfortable, and questioning your life choices. That’s the point when you are most at risk of quitting. The people who make it out of the rough patch talk themselves through it.

It made a lot of sense to me the first time someone framed coping with COVID as a marathon. This virus has been around far longer than many of us expected, and we still have plenty of road ahead of us before we get to cross the finish line. Buying mountains of toilet paper isn’t going to save us. The only way we’re going to get through is by tending to our mental wellness.

Everything I Learned about Mental Toughness I Learned from Running

I’m not a mental health expert. I also don’t want to imply that I’m skating through this pandemic without a care in the world. Two of my relatives died in April in the space of six days. I live with the same financial uncertainty that touches us all. But running taught me a technique for slogging through the tough bits. Maybe it will help you.

Acknowledge the feeling.

At the beginning of my run training I couldn’t run more than two miles. I tried running at different times of the day. I experimented with when I ate in relation to when I ran. Nothing seemed to work. Twenty minutes into my run my energy would tank and I would quit running.

Eventually, I realized that I needed to pay attention to what I told myself when I got tired. Usually, I said ‘I’m so tired. I don’t know if I can do this.’ Then I tried talking myself out of my exhaustion. (This is what I thought positive self-talk was.) It didn’t work because I was lying. And no one believes a liar.

After a lot of trial and error I discovered what works for me. I treat the whole thing like a cross between a therapist’s visit and a hostage situation. When my brain says ‘I’m tired,’ I think ‘Yes I’m tired, but I’m not injured, and I know I can go a little bit longer.’ And you know what? I usually can.

Re-frame the Situation.

At some point you’re going to feel like you’re doing the pandemic wrong. If you’re a parent, you worry that you’re breaking your kids because you can’t home school with a smile. If you’re childless you may be disappointed with your inability to write a novel or get in the best shape of your life.

Here’s the thing. None of us were meant to function optimally in a pandemic. They don’t cover how to do that in school. Our circumstances have changed. And as any savvy business person will tell you, when the market changes, a savvy business leader changes her approach. She changes her goals and expectations to suit the current conditions.

So when that little voice inside of you tells you that you’re a bad person for eating cupcakes for dinner, or for letting your kids play Minecraft for 10 hours straight, you tell it that you aren’t lowering the bar. You’re being adaptable. And when the pandemic passes, you will adjust your approach like the resilient person that you are.

You’re doing your best. And your best is good enough.

In Remembrance

Me and Grandma Elena at my wedding many years ago. Can you see the resemblance? We have the same nose and cheekbones.

My grandmother’s name is Magdalena, but I never heard anyone call her that. To my grandfather, she was always Elena. So when it came time to pick my daughter’s middle name, I gave her the name Elena, not Magdalena, to honor my grandma.

Last Sunday morning my grandma died of covid.

I’m not going to tell that story. Most of you have never met my grandma, and I refuse to let her ending define her. Instead I will say this about her:

Grandma Elena moved to the US from Mexico shortly after marrying my grandfather. Great Grandma thought that if she married her wandering son to a good village girl, he would leave the US (where he was a citizen) and raise his family in Mexico. Turns out he was a good enough son to marry the woman his mother picked out, but not good enough to stay in their village. Instead, he moved his new wife back to California, where they raised six children.

My grandpa told me this story when I was 13. To hear him tell it, he and grandma took two weeks to get to know each other before they agreed to marry. Looking back, I wonder if Grandma sized up Grandpa and decided he was worth taking a chance on. She always struck me as the more deliberate of the two.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to marry a man and move to a country where you don’t speak the language. I always thought it must have taken a great deal of fortitude and resourcefulness. My father says she ran their house like a captain, feeding and bathing the children–my aunts and uncles–in an assembly line. My grandpa was the head of the family, but to paraphrase a quote from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, she was definitely the neck, who could turn the head whichever way she wanted.

All I know is that she could cook anything. Growing up we ate menudo, buenuelos, and choritzo sausage that she made from scratch. When I went vegetarian, she was the one who tried to figure out how to make vegetarian tamales. She brought the ingredients to my mother’s house, and we spent all day, just the two of us, learning out how to make masa preparada taste good without lard.

I learned three things that day. First, Crisco is magical. Second, never make tamales with fewer than 10 people. Third, grandma really wanted me to know how to make our traditional foods, even if I didn’t follow a traditional diet. She gave me a tortilla press before I moved to New York. With that and my newfound tamale knowledge, I was set loose to spread Mexican meals wherever I wandered.

My daughter bears her great grandma’s name. I hope that she carries the same fortitude and resourcefulness inside of her. I will use strong words if she tries to marry a man after two weeks of dating. Some day I will teach her to make tamales and tortillas. And then I will let her wander. It’s what grandma would have wanted.

Remote in the Time of CoronaVirus

Yes you need the right tools, but this is still a people issue.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

On Wednesday, my eldest child came stomping into the living room to declare that her brother farted on her book, and she was forced to wash it because it “Stunk SO bad!” I double checked that no books were harmed in the cleaning process, and thought ‘I really hope we aren’t cooped up in the house because of COVID.’ Half of my parenting strategy involves yelling “Go play outside!” when they get too fidgety indoors. I’ll have to be a better parent if we must quarantine inside. Or we’ll need to re-institute the indoor laps the kids used to run when they were toddlers.

I’m luckier than many. My job is already fully remote, my husband and I know how to work while both of us are home, and none of us have any underlying health conditions. We bought our (small) box of non perishable foods and extra toilet paper to augment the emergency supplies we already had in storage. And most importantly, I have a lifetime supply of yarn, books, and other craft supplies at the ready. As far as I’m concerned this makes me a hard-core survivalist. 

In the Right Place at the Right Time

Still, it’s been a wild week. On Friday my publicist said that a reporter from CNN wanted to talk to me. On Monday morning she interviewed me about staying productive if you have to work from home due to CoronaVirus. Later that evening I spoke to someone from the New York Post about remote work. (That story isn’t live yet at the time of this writing). Monday was also the day that my article on how to rock your first month at your new remote job went live at Training Magazine, so it was a big news day for me personally. This is all heady stuff for this poor kid from San Jose.  

Both reporters focused on the concrete things employees can do now to prepare for remote work. What we didn’t talk about were the emotions. And folks, we need to talk about the emotions.

How to Mess Up Remote Work

There are two main ways to fail at remote. You can 1) fail to provide the right tools, and 2) fail to provide the right employee support. It’s a lot easier to fix the former because your employees will tell you if they don’t have the right software at home. They are far less likely to tell you that your management style leaves them feeling like you don’t trust them to do their work.

This is true under normal circumstances. But we aren’t dealing with normal circumstances. They folks who go remote due to COVID will be under additional pressure.

Remote, Without a Support Structure

There will likely be a lot of people who feel well enough to work, who must stay home. Perhaps they’ve been exposed to the virus, or have to care for a sick relative. Perhaps their child’s school has closed.

Regardless of the circumstances, most companies will have people who are trying to work with family or housemates in the background. The single biggest service a manager can do for her team is to acknowledge that these are extraordinary circumstances. No one will be at their best, but together, you will do your best. Someone’s kid is going to scream the second they come off of mute. Someone’s internet isn’t going to be as good as advertised. Provide some forgiveness up front, and your team will forgive you when you inevitably hit a snag.

None of us asked for this. But if you play your cards right, your team will come out the other end stronger, and united.