HR Essentials | Culture
How to Create a Culture of Transparency in a Virtual Work Environment (and Why You Should)
The number of employees who telecommute is growing rapidly—increasing by as much as 115% over the last 12 years, according to a recent report from FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics. Startups and small businesses can benefit by hiring a remote workforce because it helps cut down on overhead costs and on the expense of relocating new employees from other cities. Remote workers also help recruitment efforts by enabling companies to conduct national or even global searches for talent instead of being limited to the local applicant pool or to those prospects willing to relocate to your city.
While it’s important to take care to incorporate remote employees into your organization’s culture, it is also important to consider the type of culture you have and whether it’s conducive to having a remote workforce.
The importance of transparency to a remote workforce
As part of my graduate thesis for Pepperdine University in 2015, I made the case for transparency being the most important cultural attribute for an effective remote work environment. This is because transparency is paramount to employee engagement. And, as we know, employee engagement is paramount to a business’s productivity. In the rest of this post, I will share some of the tips from my thesis for creating transparency with remote employees
A successful virtual work environment requires specific technology
Technology has made it possible for colleagues to stay connected, even if they’re thousands of miles apart. And many of these tools are very accessible and affordable. It is important for companies with remote workers to take advantage of technology that lets remote workers feel like they are as immersed in the organization as onsite team members.
Below, I will discuss more ways in which technology contributes to other individual methods of building transparency. Some ideas for using technology to help create a culture of transparency include:
- Colleague communication in real-time through instant messaging tools like Skype.
- Face-to-face interaction through video conferencing tools.
- Having the entire team access and collaborate on the same documents simultaneously through cloud-based drives and storage systems, such as Google Docs.
- Creating an internal eboard, intranet or social media page where employees can chat, share ideas and communicate informally, the way they would in a break room or in the halls of your office.
Virtual employees benefit from having a social presence with the use of telepresence tools. When communicating, virtual employees tune in to their sense of sight by viewing a photo or a live stream of a person, which gives both parties the sense that they are in the same room. This can help give the remote employee a feeling of interpersonal connection with their colleagues, which is crucial to a cohesive office culture.
There are two types of accessibility important to fostering a culture of transparency, especially when it comes to remote workers: 1) accessibility of information and 2) accessibility of people.
To set your virtual teams on a path for success and keep processes smooth, all employees should have the same access to important documents. Giving remote employees the same access to knowledge and information that other colleagues enjoy—including documented project details, written policies, project blue prints and historical data—is key to allowing all employees to learn from past failures and successes, and crucial to streamlining efforts for maximum productivity. Again, shared drives that allow mutual document collaboration can be effective for making sure nobody—whether local or remote—misses an important document.
One of the most challenging aspects of not working in the same space is losing the daily interaction with coworkers, such as the ability to step into someone’s office or cubicle for a quick question or brainstorming session. However, through regular contact and feedback, team cohesion and transparency can still flourish.
In a Gallup poll from 2014 on effective collaboration of remote workers, Google Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf stated that “companies must strike a balance between the advantages online collaboration tools offer and the need for personal or informal interactions that boost workplace cohesion.” In other words, technology can’t replace personal interactions when it comes to building successful and transparent teams. This is why it’s important for all members of your organization—whether remote or not—to be committed to a collaborative and transparent work environment by making themselves accessible to their colleagues, even if it isn’t face to face.
In addition to the technology recommendations above, virtual workers should have access to the following (including their manager and direct reports):
- Cell phone number for calling/texting
- Video or voice conferencing capabilities that can be set up quickly as needed for ad hoc team calls or meetings (such as through Go to Meeting)
- Regular standing meetings on at least a weekly basis with the whole team, as well as one-to-one meetings between remote workers and their individual managers/direct reports
- A plan for touching base either on a regular basis or when the employee needs contact with their manager, either through IM, text messaging, or a quick phone or video chat.
A majority of the remote employees I interviewed for my thesis stated that they appreciated knowing their managers were easily accessible for questions or urgent matters. Having instant messaging technology available allows employees to feel empowered.
Additionally, virtual tools that allow remote teams to get in touch with each other any time (mobile phones, Facetime, WebEx, etc.) can be powerful supports for the creation and maintenance of trust, accountability, and communication among leaders and employees.
Communication from leadership
Leadership plays a critical role in fostering any type of company culture. If your goal is to create a culture of transparency, then leadership must be transparent.
Organizations must ask if their leaders are visible to all employees and if the company’s vision is resonating with all employees in all locations. Do your remote employees have the same opportunities for immersion into your organization’s culture, values and vision as in-office colleagues? Do they have opportunities to share in this spirit through peer-to-peer interaction and interactions with management, even if those interactions take place mostly online?
If not, there may be a lack of leadership, which can be detrimental when building the trust needed to create a culture of transparency. Leadership can be enhanced with increased communication. Communication methods that allow leaders and employees to interact include weekly leadership calls, town hall forums and open door policies that give employees easy access to any person in management. The important thing is that these communications between leaders and employees are honest, transparent, frequent and are a two-way street that allows leaders to listen as much as they talk.
Leaders play a fundamental role in creating transparent cultures. It is essential that current and aspiring managers are adequately trained to carry out the responsibility of sustaining employee engagement. Once in the role, leaders should be encouraged to evaluate the level of transparency among their remote teams and within their organizations, and to consider what interventions may be appropriate for enhancing this transparency.
In summary, engaging virtual employees requires careful design of the workplace environment so that it reflects a culture of open communication that incorporates technology, social presence, knowledge presence and leadership presence.
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