Since they are not familiar with how to manage workers at home, several newspaper companies asked me about how best to create a virtual workplace culture. In my view, the biggest problem is the isolation and lack of team unity that necessarily comes with everyone being in their own separate locations.
Working in a brick-and-mortar organization is like everyone being in the same big boat together. However, working from home can feel like being on a different, smaller boat. Thus, many employees and managers have begun feeling less like they are on one team with the other employees in the company.
This fragmentation creates several obstacles. For one, each boat must now figure out its own way of sailing and surviving. For another, confusion has been increased by technical unfamiliarity and deficiencies in related skills. Creating a virtual workplace culture necessarily requires thinking about both technology and people. Employees don't need to become highly tech-savvy, but they need to at least become open to technology. Additionally, leaders don't need to be technology experts, but they must be able to execute tech leadership, which requires slightly different qualities in building a business' culture.
Furthermore, since physical proximity does not apply to the virtual workplace, psychological bonds should be created more intentionally. This can be done through purposeful context sharing. Leaders should be clear about the purpose, the goals, the expectations, and the process of a task. Leaders should also let people share the results of their work. By communicating these important phases of performance, leaders will create a context-sharing culture in which employees feel that the performance environment is shared and that they are emotionally bonded in the same context. Even though team members are not co-located, they need to be able to have a ten-minute conversation or to joke over coffee so that they can virtually network.
Unlike a conventional leader, virtual leaders maintain a context-sharing culture by playing a monitor and mentor role instead of commanding and controlling. When a captain leads a ship to an environment where work can get done normally, without heavy storms and winds, all the sailors will follow.
Trust building is the most difficult but most important component to a virtual ship's sailing successfully. However, trust cannot be built without a common understanding of the context, as mentioned above. In doing so, reinforcing communication can play a crucial role because communication can increase the interdependencies which are most essential in buttressing trust. Trust is a lubricant for work and relationships that can easily dry up in the virtual office. If people are open to sharing what's currently happening professionally and personally with their colleagues, it will be less likely for there to be unconscious biases. The more leaders are skillful at managing invisible conflicts, the more the virtual office culture will work.
Finally, if people know what they should do and how to do it, leaders should let the sailors themselves steer their ships. In a virtual workplace, power should be given to the person who has the most knowledge and information rather than the person with the highest position in the hierarchy. Since leaders can't pay physical attention to every employee at every moment, it will be more effective for leaders to have their employees become leaders themselves. This means giving them autonomy in how they work and how they spend their time within a larger, agreed-upon timeframe. This also means allowing them to have self-discipline, self-responsibility, self-reliance, and self-assurance.
In order to facilitate these qualities, leaders should make time to have conversations with their employees in which they reflect on themselves and their work. In a virtual workplace, all employees need to become leaders, and the official leaders should play coordinating and curating roles. Leaders themselves should be flexible and adaptable because there will be many invisible situations and psychologies. However, leaders must make sure to pay special attention to two kinds of people in particular. First, high achievers should be recognized. If high performers are not recognized due to the virtual environment, where more things go unseen, they will lose motivation and be more likely to leave. Second, low achievers, who cannot be monitored as closely, should be provided with clear directions and requirements.
Given that the virtual workplace is becoming the new reality, managers and employees should have proactive perspectives on the meaning of work, what work is and isn't, and how to approach work. People are apt to think that virtual workplace culture should be created by those who are most knowledgeable about technology. However, what matters most is not technology but the collaborative process. If you help your employees see that they are in the same boat after all, you will plant the seed of a strong virtual culture.
Conversely, if you let your employees think that everyone is in different boats, this mentality will take a lot of time to correct. A strong virtual workplace culture allows employees to naturally feel engaged.
Kim Jong-nam is the founding CEO of META (www.imeta.co.kr) and the author of three books on organizational culture and leadership. He works as an organizational development consultant globally. He has an office in Jakarta, Indonesia, as well as in Seoul.