Fostering corporate culture in a remote world

It’s hard to believe we’re rapidly approaching two years since the initial pandemic lockdowns forced many in the white-collar world to work from home. While vaccines have made millions of people safer and restrictions have eased, few office businesses are truly back to normal.

COVID-19 accelerated many changes that were already happening or inevitable, like the dominance of ecommerce and a heavier reliance on technology. Perhaps a workforce with fewer in-person workdays is one of those things as companies note efficiencies and recognize that most businesses didn’t miss a beat because their teams were home.

However, I don’t think the office is dead. Nothing can match the energy and engagement of in-person interactions. Humans need connections, and teams need connections to truly thrive.

On the flipside, many workers crave flexibility and have demonstrated they can excel working remotely. The war for talent is real, and companies need to recognize that paradigms have shifted. And loosening geographical restrictions broadens the talent pool. So each employer has big decisions to make in terms of leasing, mandatory attendance and hiring practices. That shakeout is just beginning.

However, all companies have the need to build a strong culture. People work better when they are part of a vision, share a set of values and understand a company’s direction. Building an inspiring corporate culture has always been a tough and vital task. But when we’re not seeing each other daily, weekly or even monthly, it is even more difficult.

At The Riverside Company, we believe that culture and values are our superpower. With more than 300 employees across the globe in 2021, and more than 60 starting after lockdowns, many have yet to meet a fellow employee in person. Existing employees were also affected. We knew early on that building and strengthening connections was an important element of remote work. To keep our culture strong, we prioritized safety right away, creating a Virus Response Team to provide medical and scientific guidance on every policy enacted. Caring about your employees is paramount for a healthy culture.

Co-CEO Béla Szigethy and I dramatically increased our communications, initiating a weekly Zoom “Co-CEO Corner” to keep people apprised of pressing issues, strategies, goals and news. We tackled tough topics and the importance of mental health head on, offering concrete support where needed. We increased Town Halls to quarterly, allotting at least half the time to Q&As, and began a monthly newsletter.

Once vaccines began and lockdowns ended, we have encouraged people to return when they feel safe to do so, sponsoring activities that bring people together.

I don’t pretend that these efforts replace the ineffable benefits of the daily rhythm of office life. The cultural impact of remote work in any form is significant. And as we move forward, strengthening the culture will be an easier lift.

These extra efforts will not all disappear. As a global firm with associates who are often traveling, it was not uncommon for to know co-workers only through Zoom, even before. As leaders, we have always been keen to help them understand our goals and values, where they fit, how they can build a thriving career here and what their contributions mean to our success.

Whether we’re all in offices, all remote or, what I see as likely, in some kind of hybrid arrangement, we need to have a sense of belonging and a clear sense of the company’s direction. Building and protecting culture is critical to that effort, and we will learn to do this effectively in our post pandemic, next normal, brave new hybrid world.

Stewart Kohl is co-CEO of The Riverside Co.