When you think about work culture, what comes to mind? Prior to 2020, you might’ve said an open-concept work space, free lunch, or end-of-day happy hours. These are the workplace perks that once reigned supreme; they contributed to the personality of a company and what it felt like to work there. But office parties and team yoga don’t necessarily translate well to remote work—where most traditional office work is headed, if not already there.
That doesn’t mean there’s no culture among those who work from home. In fact, as more teams collaborate remotely and hiring talent becomes increasingly location-agnostic, a new kind of culture is shaping up in these digital workplaces that’s vastly different than before.
“People are savvier now,” says corporate culture consultant Ken Cameron. “They know that culture isn’t simply the external trappings of Silicon Valley—culture is much more pervasive.”
In other words, remote workers are discovering that culture isn’t built on pizza parties and free coffee, but trust, values, and a shared excitement about the work to be done.
Trust on tap
According to Cameron, the renowned management theorist Peter Drucker said it best: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Just because you have a set of goals and expected behaviors doesn’t mean you’ve cultivated an environment that encourages them to happen. That takes trust.
But establishing a culture of trust requires decisions that are made with people in mind. “If you’re a call center rolling out a new strategy that’s about leading with customer service, but your culture is that people are encouraged to take in as many phone calls as possible per hour, they won’t be able to achieve the goal,” says Cameron. “This is an instance of being led only by strategy. Culture is reinforced by the structures that support it.”
"Culture is reinforced by the structures that support it."
When those structures don’t exist, culture can suffer. Inadequate investment in people; lack of accountability from leadership; lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion; high-pressure environments; unclear ethical standards—these are all qualities that Harvard Business Review says can contribute to negative workplace cultures.
It’s why building trust is at the forefront of work culture trends for 2023 and is especially important for the remote workforce, where in-person opportunities are precious and limited few and far between. Kim Peters, the vice president of global recognition and strategic partnerships at Great Place to Work says, “if you don’t have a high-trust culture now, it’s definitely time to build one with careful, thoughtful decisions that show you care for your people.”
Trust isn’t the only thing that matters. Culture is also about connection and inclusion—of being part of something. There’s no doubt the past few years have brought unprecedented changes to how we work, and the shift to WFH has had a significant impact on professional relationships. Without the serendipitous run-ins or coffees with colleagues, it can be harder to foster connection and build a sense of community virtually.
Some fully remote companies understand this and have been figuring out what moments of connection can look like. Many are turning to offsites where, instead of chatting by the watercooler, employees gab while throwing axes or waiting to sing karaoke. These in-person events also provide a forum for collaborative work, like brainstorming, that’s difficult to do effectively over video. In between in-person gatherings, many companies lean on internal channels that can connect employees with shared interests. Dropbox has also experimented with regional meet-ups and virtual coffee chats that randomly pair employees together with people they may not know.
“People don't like coasting through the day at work. They want purpose.”
The new work culture
What culture looks like day to day can vary wildly across organizations and continues to evolve. But with so many people now working from home, it’s clear that ping-pong tables aren’t the foundations of company culture some people thought.
For instance, more than 50% of workers won’t even consider a workplace that doesn’t share their values, according to a study by Momentive and CNBC. It’s a huge opportunity for companies to build cultures that reflect what people care about. More than ever, employees pay attention to how their employers act on their commitments to things like sustainability and equal pay.
Values also extend to how they work, which is shifting in a remote environment where technological advancements are shining a light on outdated practices. In a workplace that prioritizes innovation and meaningful work, culture can look like new creative, virtual ways of meeting digitally that aren’t yet another Zoom or investments in AI-driven solutions that eliminate frustrating tasks. Culture can also be driven by excitement around a problem that can actually make an impact on the world.
Over the past few years as many people, especially remote workers, have had ample space for reflection, they’ve become increasingly aware of a valuable and underrated resource: time. And in the right workplace, they’re excited to be spending time wisely. This new kind of culture may not be flashy, but it’s accountable, actionable, and reflects the moment we’re in.