Building company culture in a remote workforce

Posted on June 10, 2020

Jan Wildeboer

Jan Wildeboer, EMEA Open Source Evangelist at Red Hat, explains how the open source community can help inspire new business culture

As companies learn how to manage an entirely remote workforce, one of the major challenges companies now face is how to maintain and even build a company culture that supports remote workers.

This drastic change, going from in-office to remote working practically overnight, has put a huge strain on organisations.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t business as usual, so organisations should not try to replicate the culture they had. For the time being, as we are in isolation, everyone has a new culture, built inside their own home.

It would be impossible to replicate the culture you had in an office – the physical space and breakout areas to chat are gone. Employees are not close enough to each other to have casual conversations anymore. Of course, there are many wonderful collaboration tools available that can help foster a connection but they simply cannot replicate face to face interaction. The reality is you can’t transport the culture you think you have to a remote workforce.

In these times we can look to open source communities for inspiration. By their very nature, open source communities are distributed and what brings them together is a shared interest in working collaboratively to put something together. Each open source community has its own culture, whether it’s creative and artistically oriented or whether it’s more focused on work. There are often rules in place in each to help an open source community thrive but not so many that it stifles engagement and creativity.

In this work-from-home world, organisations should take this into consideration for individuals and for entire teams and look at building a culture based around trust and freedom. If you are mandating employees be ‘at work’ at 9am, for example, or expect 8-10 hours of work from them a day, then you are missing the bigger opportunity to focus on goals and manage results and benchmarks.

The innovation that happens in open source communities is not the result of rigid processes, or time spent on projects. It comes from the freedom to work on ideas that help drive the project forwards and it comes from a system that allows these ideas to come from anywhere, regardless of experience, demographics, or skill.

At Red Hat, one of the company’s core values is freedom – open source depends on a free exchange of opinions, ideas, and expertise. Freedom fuels our growth and propels progress. All of our associates are now working from home and they are free to choose when and how they show up. What is crucial about this is that we also have accountability for our actions, another of our core values. It means we trust each other to deliver on what we say we will, but we are not constrained by how we can deliver it.

If you can empower your organisation, all isolated at home, to work in a way that best suits them, you’ll be rewarded with employees that find the solution that works best for them and are more likely to be productive. This only works when you remove the rules and barriers that could stifle this creativity.

Culture is a process not a goal

It’s important to remember that no company has one culture. There may be an umbrella idea of what that culture would be but the implementation will be local, in a geographical sense, in a departmental sense and individually too. Teams based in Saudi Arabia will interpret a company culture very differently to those based in the UK. Sales teams will have a very different view of culture compared to human resources or marketing for example. The umbrella idea is what brings a company together and it’s the local interpretation that helps teams bond.

We should view our current work-from-home environment as another derivative of company culture. What we can do is accept the new reality and use it in a productive way. It has created a huge opportunity for organisations to revisit its culture. It can, and most probably will, uncover talents in people that you couldn’t see in the normal ways of working.

I’m sure many of you will have seen communities of employees come together around shared interests. At Red Hat, associates are running their own remote yoga sessions, geographically dispersed teams are scheduling ‘coffee and catch up’ calls instead of purely work-related meetings, and there’s still after work socials taking place, albeit, remotely. These ‘Communities of Practicehttps://servicesblog.redhat.com/2019/04/15/communities-of-practice-straight-from-the-open-source/’ bring people together and should be encouraged.

We have a huge opportunity to embrace these wonderful ideas that help bond people and teams and foster a closer-knit community within organisations. The lockdowns will eventually end and people will be able to return to their offices, but we shouldn’t return to the way we were before. We should try to embrace what has worked so well in remote working and we should remove what didn’t work in office environments.

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