6 Ways Working From Home is Exposing Broken Cultures

Transitioning from a traditional office environment to a fully remote workforce isn’t easy: some employees will have an unreliable internet connection at home, while others might suddenly find themselves needing to balance work with homeschooling their children. Whereas some challenges are relatively easy to anticipate, other issues may catch you by surprise.

At some companies, deep cultural problems may have been simmering for quite some time, often stemming from a lack of trust between employees and leaders. Only once your team has moved entirely online will they bubble up to the surface.

As an HR practitioner, it’s critical to identify these issues and fix them before they spiral out of control. Here are a few things to watch out for:

Power struggles

Beware: rules that were applied unevenly at the office – timeliness to meetings, or not doing work that’s “beneath” a person’s status – are amplified when the team is working remotely. For example, does everyone need to keep their camera on, regardless of their position at the company? Or have you created separate classes of employees with different rules? The simple act of setting up new policies and procedures for remote work can be a power struggle, often revealing differences in status that prevent people from doing great work.

Feedback

It’s natural for people to want to have difficult conversations in person. When your company is fully remote, that’s not possible. Even worse, if your company culture has permitted backchanneling, gossip, or other unhealthy behaviors in the past, you’re going to run into magnified problems across the entire organization when everyone is working from behind a screen. Watch out for conflict-averse employees avoiding the hard conversations until it gets so bad they overreact and be prepared to make more deliberate decisions about transparency or lack of transparency accordingly, such as when private Slack channels are allowed and what they should be used for.

Harassment

Working from home will cause some employees to avoid giving critical feedback, but others may lack a filter entirely. If members of your team were prone to share racist or sexist jokes in private, you might find that they are now part of your group chat. More often than not, companies don’t fully understand the impacts of online harassment, and this is compounded by the fact that corporate tools don’t provide block and mute moderation (so employees can’t protect themselves). You don’t want to find yourself dealing with the aftermath of a “Google memo” at your organization.

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Unrealistic expectations about availability

In order for remote work to be successful, employees need to be more available online to their employers while they are working. However, this can turn into abuse if managers don’t respect the employees’ time; expecting an instant response at all hours of the day is unrealistic. Employees will sometimes need to go heads down to do valuable work, and managers who demand constant availability will do so at the expense of the value of the work.

Bad meeting behavior

“Laptops closed” meetings were a brute force way to get people to pay attention before your team was remote: if your company culture encouraged focused, high-quality meetings, your employees would pay attention without needing to close their laptops. Now, laptops are required for online meetings, so your meetings will need to improve by design. Likewise, if your employees have bad meeting etiquette (talking over others, don’t know when to pass the mic), online meetings will be even more chaotic than your in-person meetings, requiring that you establish clear agreements about how to run and participate in meetings.

Fear of accountability

Companies that reward or punish based on optics – for example, how someone appears to perform versus the work they actually put in – will find a new set of problems evaluating work online. Employees and managers can easily interpret honest questions in chat as challenges to their authority or competence, and you won’t be able to use body language to tell if someone is concealing the truth. On an organizational level, if your company tends to avoid facing bad news directly and prioritizes control over information, you’re going to find yourself with even less control as a result.

This is not all to say that remote work is necessarily a recipe for disaster – a distributed workplace can be a tremendous asset for a company, which makes it all the more important to be able to recognize these warning signs. If you stay vigilant and catch bad behavior before early, you’ll be in good shape to fix your company culture before it gets too serious.

Mark Ferlatte is CTO of Truss, a firm that builds software and infrastructure to help companies scale and modernize digital services. Mark was one of the specialists called in to clean up Healthcare.gov., and has worked with healthcare organizations in both the private and public sectors.

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