How to create psychological safety in your organisation – and why it matters

Business Impact: How to create psychological safety in your organisation – and why it matters

When we feel safe, we are smarter people, says the author of Rise Together, Sam Mather. Find out how leaders and organisations can provide meaning and stability, and avoid triggering their employees’ fears

‘Psychological safety’ is a term made popular by Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson, in 1999. Since then, advancements in brain research can now provide scientific rationale for why we need to create a safe environment that encourages employee retention.

The brain is hard wired to keep us safe. When we feel safe both physically and psychologically, we are able to think clearly, solve problems, and be creative and innovative. When we feel safe, we are smarter people. And that’s exactly what organisations need: smart people.

Having a common purpose is key to creating a sense of safety – a horizon that remains fixed, no matter how choppy the sea. It is something employees can focus on to get them through the swell of the waves, when seasickness threatens. When times are rough, our resources are focused on self-preservation and we can lose big-picture thinking, including forgetting the organisation’s mission, so leaders need to be able to articulate the purpose of the individual’s job role in the context of the mission.

Can each of your employees articulate how they add value to your organisation and, ultimately, the world around them? What is their purpose? Are they proud of what they do and who they work for?

It is the role of the leader to translate the organisation’s vision and mission for the employee in this way. Research has shown that employees with meaningful and purposeful work have improved psychological wellbeing and motivation. Meaning helps create stability and a sense of consistency. So how can leaders achieve this?

The power of storytelling

A leader should know enough about each of their team members to know what’s important to them and to communicate the organisation’s vision and mission in a way that resonates with each of them. A powerful way to do this is through storytelling.

Traditionally, when organisations wanted to gain buy-in, they provided facts and figures that supported their decisions, but this is based on the assumption that humans are logical beings. We now know differently: emotions come first and fast.

Stories should provide facts, but they also need to generate emotion because the parts of the brain that are involved in emotion generation and processing (the amygdala and hippocampus) are also involved in moving memories from short-term storage to long-term storage. The memories you can most easily recollect are ones that created emotions. Storytellers articulate messages in a way that engages our hearts first and then our minds. A compelling, relatable narrative generates buy-in and influences others. Stories can help form positive attitudes, although a story designed to create fear can generate emotions just as easily as a story that inspires hope or happiness. In fact, as fear is a survival response, we are more likely to remember events that create negative emotions.

Often, the best leaders are the best storytellers because they are able to use stories to create meaningful connections with goals and roles. Through stories, the leader builds trust. Providing a glimpse into the leader’s character can help develop a connection and shared values; as such, storytelling can be an effective tool for influencing and enabling organisational change.

Make your story meaningful. This helps boost employee resources because, when times are tough, the belief that they are doing something positive and meaningful provides positive resources. Job titles run contrary to this idea – they are often convoluted and meaningless. Customers don’t care whether you are the Associate to the Executive Manager of Second Tier Solutions, or even Executive Vice President. What is important is not your title, but what you do. What value you add. Your purpose. Improved titles may be: ‘I make IT better for our customers’, or ‘I create ways for our employees to improve’.

When our fears are triggered, our level of the hormone, cortisol, rises to prepare us for fight or flight. Part of that process involves narrowing our peripheral vision, reducing our hearing and deprioritising our processing brain. This means that once an employee sees or hears something that triggers their fear response, everything else fades into the background. The rest of the message needs to be delivered when they are over the shock and their cognitive brain comes back online.

Rethink communication

It’s also essential to think carefully about any communication to employees. Communication is a complex business. Organisations often unwittingly create fear and disable employees’ ability to hear the message, and then leaders wonder why people ‘just aren’t getting it’. Think about the words you use in an announcement, for instance, and how they may trigger fears. A company annual report I read recently aims to achieve the following in the next 12 to 18 months:

  • Faster innovation through digital transformation
  • A simpler, more cost-efficient organisation by harmonising and simplifying our organisational structure
  • Returning significant cash to shareholders

I am sure the board members were delighted with this, but what a terrifying message for employees.

When employees see ‘faster innovation’, they interpret it as ‘my job is going to be automated’ or ‘I’ll need to be smarter and quicker and I don’t know if I can be’. ‘A simpler, more cost-efficient organisation,’ says one thing: job losses. Any sense of safety is gone. Likewise, ‘returning cash to shareholders,’ means the company needs more profit – i.e., cutting budgets and jobs and performing more. Besides, to be honest, only shareholders care about shareholders. All the other good stuff in the report is lost because employees read the above bullet points and their fears are activated, cortisol kicks in and they can’t take in the rest.

All in all, this annual statement does not create any safety or comfort for anyone except shareholders and board members. The statements above could have been reworded in ways that quieten our innate fears.

For instance, instead of saying ‘faster innovation through digital transformation,’ it could say: ‘as part of our drive to *insert organisational purpose/ mission here*, we want to better provide *product/ service* to our customers. To do so, we are going to provide employees with improved tools to do their jobs. These include… ’

Instead of, ‘a simpler more cost-efficient organisation by harmonising and simplifying our organisational structure,’ it could say: ‘we will make it easier to work together, eliminating barriers to developing best practice and bringing teams together’.

And, ‘returning significant cash to shareholders,’ could be switched for: ‘we will make our business more cash rich, which will benefit us all’.

Think about the words you use when communicating. Organisational phrases such as ‘downsizing’, ‘increased efficiencies’ and ‘repurposing’ fool no-one. They only awaken employees’ fears and remove safety.

Main image (above) credit: Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

Sam Mather is a neuropractitioner, leadership consultant and the author of Rise Together (Rethink Press, 2021).

The brave new world of hybrid productivity

Business Impact: The brave new world of hybrid productivity

Leaders must spend time shaping their idea of what a hybrid working culture should look like and become a living example of the behaviours that define it, says Agility in Mind CEO, Andrew Jones

Many conversations within businesses have moved from surviving the impact of the pandemic to future planning and growth. Yet over half (51%) of business decision-makers in the UK, for example, were worried about productivity levels in their workforce as we moved into the next stage of the pandemic with hybrid working becoming the norm.

This was according to research commissioned by my company, Agility in Mind, in partnership with research house, Censuswide, which discovered that three in five leaders believed that hybrid working would make it harder to capture the hearts and minds of their employees. This has likely only been exacerbated by current circumstances at the time of writing, with disparate UK workforces following instructions to work from home where – and if – they can.

As seen in global phenomenon, ‘the Great Resignation’, many employees have questioned what they want from their lives and have reflected on how work aligns with that, often changing their expectations of their employers. Leaders must now think differently and challenge their own constraints, placing people back in the centre of what they do and encouraging them to identify with the goals of their business.

Balancing the ends and the means

We all know that employees who feel good about their jobs are more productive and better for the organisation as a whole. Our research indicated that over 85% of UK business decision-makers do want to find new ways to improve employee productivity, motivation and engagement, believing that it’s the key to success – however, many just don’t know where to start.

A starting point for leaders might be considering what they really mean when they talk about productivity; is it the hours someone has worked or the outcomes achieved? Stepping out of traditional working practices – many of which have perhaps already been abandoned in the wake of the pandemic – and allowing flexibility and adaptability in your teams can motivate individuals, driving business success. This comes down to perceiving trust as a key driver among your team.

People, not resources

Recognising the differences between your employees can help you to see them as assets, not resources. It is they who will create the products or services that customers need, so investing in people to ensure that they are developing their skillsets, and are aligned enough with the overall business vision that they are making good decisions, is vital. Now especially, the road to success is one of empowerment.

Unsurprisingly, the ever-adaptable tech sector is particularly amenable to making changes which will benefit their employees, in turn increasing productivity. One such example is Atom Bank, which has introduced a four-day working week for its 430-strong UK workforce. Despite weekly working hours falling from 37 to 34, their pay has been promised to remain the same. CEO, Mark Mullen, commented: ‘With Covid-19 causing vast numbers of people to reconsider how they want to live their lives, anything that leads to more productive, healthier and, crucially, happier colleagues, is a win for everyone.’

Three key questions for managers exploring employee productivity to consider are:

  1. Do you have a culture of continuous improvement where people are not prepared to do things as they’ve always been done?
  2. Do you cherish the skills you have in place and invest in new skills for the future?
  3. Do you celebrate diversity in its many forms and welcome thinking beyond the norm?

Building a positive (hybrid working) culture

A new challenge that leaders are facing is building a positive culture in a hybrid working environment where team members are dispersed. Central to creating an atmosphere and ethos which is inclusive and productive are three factors: employee alignment with the company’s mission, managerial responsiveness to issues, and diversity of thought. Leaders must spend time shaping their idea of what the culture should look like and become a living example of the behaviours that define it.

The success of this can make or break an employee’s perception of an organisation, damaging their productivity. This is something we have seen ring true in the endless stream of high-profile whistleblowers in the media. For example, Chelsea Glasson who left Google in 2019 alleging pregnancy discrimination or, more recently, Frances Haugen who supplied Facebook’s internal documents to the US Congress indicating that the company was failing to remove misinformation or take steps to improve its impact on teenagers’ mental health.

Failures such as these, which are often reflected in the culture of an organisation more broadly, isolate someone from the supporting company’s mission. And this can lead to disenchantment, detachment and stagnation – no doubt this can be said in many of the cases of ‘The Great Resignation’.

The road to productivity

Leaders wanting to harness the power of their teams must have a vision for growth and ensure their organisation understands and identifies with it. While many leaders across all sectors might be nervous about embracing change, true adaptability will be recognised by employees and rewarded with increased productivity. Businesses in all sectors must remember these new rules of engagement as they plan for the future.

Andrew Jones is CEO of management consultancy, Agility in Mind.

How businesses can destigmatise mental health in the workplace

business impact: business-community-team-diversity-wellbeing

A happy community is a productive community, but policies to protect workers’ mental health don’t go far enough, says Yashmi Pujara, Chief Human Resources Officer at Cactus Communications, drawing on the findings of a global survey of 13,000

Mental health problems are still widely stigmatised in business. In July 2021, a McKinsey report indicated that while 80% of full-time employees believed a mental health anti-stigma or awareness campaign would be useful, only 23% of businesses are reported to have implemented a campaign in their workplace. Efforts by some employers to destigmatise these conversations are paving the way for more open discussions and policy changes, but the movement is slow to take hold. 

A combination of working more than 48 hours per week and a lack of effective government policies around work-life integration has resulted in 11% of UK workers feeling overwhelmed and unhappy, according to a report from the Institute for Employment Studies. In the UK, there are policies for parental leave and flexible working that attempt to improve work-life integration for workers, but these are left to the discretion of businesses and they can deny these requests if they believe it affects the business adversely.  

Furthermore, people having to work remotely because of Covid-19 has meant the lines between work-life and home-life have become blurred. On average, home working has led to a two and a half hour increase in the average working day and employees are suffering from more fatigue, stress and burnouts than ever before.

In a survey conducted by CACTUS with 13,000 researchers across the globe, only 8% of the respondents felt their organisation had effective policies around work-life integration. Let’s look at why employees are feeling this way and how businesses can redress the balance.

Overwhelmed and underappreciated

CACTUS’ first survey was conducted before the pandemic, in October 2019. Yet over one third of responding researchers felt overwhelmed by their work situation and said this was negatively impacting their mental health. The problem will only have worsened since. 65% have since stated that they were under tremendous pressure to publish papers, secure grants and complete projects, without the office social interactions to dispel tension. 31% of participants reported that they worked more than 50 hours a week from home and 13% reported they work past 60 hours per week. 

Since 2020, most businesses have adopted some form of work-from-home culture, so these statistics will be echoed across the entire working population. In a similar mental health survey conducted by Business In The Community, 51% of 3,614 UK workers thought their mental health problems had caused increased pressure from their employers.

Furthermore, businesses across the world are experiencing record-breaking numbers of resignations — approximately 400,000 in three months in the UK alone — during a period being dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’. This is because workers are dissatisfied with their employment. While mental health will not be the only reason for people quitting their jobs, it must be viewed as a contributing factor.

The expectation that everyone needs to be constantly working, no matter their profession, is incredibly damaging. The response from our own workforce is clear, culture needs to change to promote a healthy work-life integration.

Dealing with discrimination

Discrimination, harassment and bullying all contribute to declining mental health at work. In CACTUS’ follow-up survey taken during the pandemic, 23% of researchers wanted to see more measures to promote equality and prevent discrimination. 45% of respondents identifying as homosexual and 42% of females reported being bullied, harassed or discriminated against at work. A significant number of respondents described instances of sexual harassment that weren’t dealt with adequately, if at all.

It’s unsurprising that 48% of respondents who felt a need for tighter policies on discrimination and bias also reported feeling overwhelmed at work. To protect the mental health of all employees, business managers must structure plans to better police bullying and harassment. It may also be beneficial for institutions to create confidential spaces for mental health support on and off-site. If a company has a workforce that is still predominantly working from home, it’s crucial that concerns about inequality are dealt with, without the worker feeling disconnected or isolated.

Job security and mental health

Higher salaries and job security were common requests from surveyed researchers. Demands for better wages have been echoed across the public sector, where 48% of 12,000 workers said they had experienced mental ill health. Several comments made in response to the CACTUS survey implied there are correlations between finance-related stress and overall poor mental health. 

In CACTUS’ follow-up survey, 38% of respondents disagreed to feeling satisfied with their financial situation, and instead felt like they had worked past their contracted hours without being compensated for it. 

In academia in particular, workers lack stability of employment — the jobs are where the funding is. This is similar in many businesses that offer zero-hour contracts where possible. It’s not as easy as asking businesses to pay employees more because financially it may not be feasible. However, managers can ensure staff aren’t working vastly over their contracted hours and that they are taking all their allotted annual leave. Job security can be created by reducing fixed-term contracts, and this will prevent anxiety around long-term financial stability. Above all, decision-makers need to be aware of those business areas lacking financial and wellbeing support so that appropriate changes can be made.

Communication is key

Workers can feel disconnected from their colleagues when working remotely. The follow-up CACTUS survey found that 17% of researchers asked for improved communication between colleagues, collaborative working and the fostering of a more social environment. Ultimately, these things will improve cohesion in the workplace and have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing. 

Of course, physical health is equally as important. In some countries, restrictions on people gathering in an office are still in place. Therefore, business leaders have a difficult task in implementing policies that can build a social environment. However, social spaces can be provided for smaller groups, where possible, and virtually, which will ultimately lead to better relationships, happier employees, and a successful business.

It’s important for employers to realise that pressure and exploitation don’t produce the best business outcomes. By valuing people holistically, our working population will be a happier one and the quality of results will be significantly better too. The simple reality is that working culture needs to change to promote a healthy work-life integration. After all, a happy community is a productive community.

Yashmi Pujara is Chief Human Resources Officer at the technology company, Cactus Communications (CACTUS). Over 15 years, Yashmi has been instrumental in shaping at CACTUS’ unique culture and has played an important role in conceptualising and implementing its people policies, earning industry recognition and awards in the process.

Creating and sustaining shared values

Black businesswoman thinking while working among her colleagues in the office. Business Impact article image for creating and sustaining shared values.

Shared values can lead to increased customer loyalty, higher employee retention and increased profitability. Sophie Ransome, Head of HR at Atalian Servest looks at how to develop and embed them into organisations

The idea of ‘shared values’ has received much greater focus of late, with the term being included on more and more company websites or job descriptions. Shared values can certainly link to organisational goals, but that’s not the purpose of them. While ‘company values’ relate directly to an organisation’s approach to its bigger mission and vision, ‘shared values’ relate more to those priorities that shape a business’ ethos, culture and CSR.

It is well understood that shared values in the workplace lead to stronger social connections, which in turn have been found to boost productivity. These connections occur when employees are fully aligned with the company culture and it is truly embedded, building on the organisation’s overall purpose. Employees are a company’s greatest asset, so engendering a workplace and team with shared values will undoubtedly bring significant benefits.

Tackling social issues

Shared values have been identified as a way for businesses to tackle social issues that matter to their employees. Ensuring diversity and inclusion in business practices is a key example. For us, it’s important to recognise the importance of actively listening and learning from everyone across the business – effective change isn’t possible without fully understanding the backgrounds, experiences and feelings of our colleagues.

Last year, we launched CHROMA, a platform made up of three key networks: Physical and Mental Health; Race, Ethnicity and Faith; and LGBTQ+ – each of which is driven by colleagues. It was formed to give all colleagues a voice, promote individuality and empower individuals to shape not only their future but also that of our business and the wider industry of facilities management.

The success of CHROMA comes from it being a fully inclusive platform, one that our colleagues want, and are able, to engage with at all levels of the business. It helps to create an environment where our people have the authority and confidence to put forward ideas on how we, as an organisation, can be better.

Continual improvement

The idea of continual improvement underpins shared values in a business setting. While these values often centre around the societal issues that matter, they also encompass how a business wants to present itself and the people within it. ‘Being’ better is one element but ‘doing’ better is essential. 

Encouraging colleagues to be active participants in improving the business and how we do things is a key part of our culture. As a business, we aim to foster an entrepreneurial spirit that helps colleagues build their knowledge and confidence. This, in turn is designed to deliver an environment where employees can be creative and share ideas with ease.

We encourage this mindset and have developed the ONE project to bring it to life. ONE is a competition where Dragon’s Den meets Britain’s Got Talent, offering employees the chance to become our next home-grown entrepreneur. The aim of this learning and development (L&D) project is to reach and engage with colleagues at all levels and locations throughout the UK and Ireland and to inspire a company-wide commitment to idea generation.

Defining purpose

Even when you hire like-minded employees, you can’t expect shared values to materialise without making a conscious effort to develop them. This is especially true in larger companies. With thousands of employees, located all over the country, with their own experiences and priorities, it is important to provide a framework for shared values and create an environment where those values can flourish.

This starts with leaders defining a clear company purpose and a meaningful set of company values. Although not the same as shared values, company values can define a brand and create the ethos behind its culture. Our purpose and values, for example, are prominent in on-boarding materials and the intranet, as well as in our offices and other sites. We are diligent about promoting and communicating these values – it sets the tone on the issues and behaviours that are important to the business. And that must come from leadership – cultivating our culture and encouraging engagement within their teams.

Nurturing shared values

Creating a culture and demonstrating shared values is challenging when employees are spread out across sites or working from home. It means that entire teams might not meet as one group very often. So, leaders have to create a space for this process, nurture the resulting shared values and celebrate successes whenever they happen. Programmes, such as CHROMA and ONE, do that and result in a thriving company that everyone is invested in.

Shared values can lead to stronger brand equity, increased customer loyalty, higher employee retention rate, higher productivity and increased profitability. That’s a pretty strong business case for creating shared values. And it’s up to leaders to create, shape and drive them.

Sophie Ransome is Head of HR at Atalian Servest, a facilities management service provider. Initially trained as an employment lawyer, she joined Atalian Servest as the company’s first employment counsel.

Creating a high-performing hybrid workplace: what should teams do?

Hult Ashridge’s Vlatka Ariaana Hlupic looks at how teams and individuals can adopt and foster the right mindset for success in hybrid work settings, in the second of two articles focused on the relationship between mindset and organisational culture

Survey after survey show that employees don’t want to go back to office full time after the Covid-19 pandemic, and many CEOs will have to backtrack on their desire to require everyone to be back to office full time, as was the norm before the pandemic.

In many recent surveys, over three quarters of all respondents prefer to work from home at least half of the time, and about half of respondents would quit their job if permanent options to work remotely at least half of the week are not available.

This means that hybrid workplaces are inevitable. The question now, therefore, is what behaviours leaders and their teams will need to display to create successful, high-performing hybrid workplaces where a significant proportion of time working is spent using technology to communicate and work.

Empowering teams and individuals

My previous article on Business Impact outlined key behaviours that leaders should enact to create high-performing hybrid workplaces. That article also explains The Management Shift framework and its five levels of individual mindset and corresponding organisational culture. It was emphasised how important it is that leaders lead with a level 4 (and occasionally level 5) mindset, in order to create a level 4/5 organisational culture that is suitable for hybrid workplaces.

The same applies to the teams. Teams (and individuals) also need to operate with a level 4/5 mindset (for which the dominant mindsets are ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘limitless’) that will ripple out to the rest of the team and organisation.

When individuals and teams operate from level 4/5, they become empowered. There is more flexibility with how, when and where work gets done, they take on more responsibilities but also become accountable for the results and deliverables. There is an inherent trust between leaders and employees and among team members themselves. There is transparency and a common sense of purpose, working for the greater good, working together as a team rather than individually. At this level, we see a marked increase in performance, innovation, engagement, and profit.

How the right mindset removes barriers and energises

Teams at level 4 will be motivated to give their best performance. They will feel purposeful, respect themselves and others, support their colleagues, be empathetic, and will enjoy helping others. They will feel happy about working at a particular company, they will be striving for high achievement, and they will socialise and connect with others, whether that’s virtually or face to face. They will feel energised when interacting with colleagues, and they will see work as fun. They will work on forming informal networks or communities focused on teamwork and collaboration.

Once they achieve this mindset, it does not matter whether they work from home or in the office, whether they are monitored by their boss or not. They will do their best, they will go an extra mile for a customer, and they will create these high-performing hybrid workplaces, which are now emerging in many organisations.

Attaining the right mindset

So, what practical actions can team members take to foster a level 4 mindset for themselves and their colleagues?

  • Get involved in mutual/reverse mentoring with a colleague of a different generation
  • Organise peer-coaching activities
  • Proactively create and distribute relevant knowledge and knowhow relevant for productivity
  • Organise and/or participate in social events to keep connections with colleagues
  • Give constructive feedback for improvements to your manager/leader(s) above you in organisational hierarchy
  • Engage proactively in learning and self-development. Share what is relevant with others
  • Work on anchoring your mindset at level 4, use language associated with the level 4 mindset (e.g. ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘team’) with others
  • Look for opportunities to collaborate with others and engage in projects that require teamwork

Finally, team members should also make an effort to see their colleagues and leaders face to face in addition to virtually because these personal interactions will always remain priceless and important for the creation of a high-performing culture.

Vlatka Ariaana Hlupic is Professor of Leadership and Management at Hult Ashridge Executive Education and Founder and CEO of Management Shift Solutions.

Avoiding common virtual workplace pitfalls

Discover the difference between ‘cockroach meetings’ and ‘tsunami meetings’ as part of this guide to staying connected and achieving efficiency in a virtual workplace, from company culture expert, Chris Dyer

Businesses that are considering going the remote route face some challenging questions: how do you know people will do good work and not just fool around? How will they be able to work together when they’re apart? Even if they do collaborate, can companies foster a team dynamic that remains consistent with their brand?

The answers to all of these questions lie within the culture that supports your employees. You can’t change human nature. And that’s a good thing, because some of its most intrinsic elements act to motivate people to do their jobs well. If leaders concentrate on a culture that encourages motivation and engagement, their workers will make the right choices and achieve the brand’s goals.

To focus, or not to focus

Let’s debunk the first fallacy about working from home, or another offsite venue – that if a person is not in a corporate chair, being watched, the mental wheels will not turn. This simplistic view is insulting to most adults who agree to perform certain tasks in exchange for a salary. A better question is, why wouldn’t they work? At any company, if objectives are not completed, the slacker will be cut loose.

A better issue is how well they focus on the task at hand. And this issue is certainly not the sole province of remote staff. Depending on your bricks-and-mortar office layout, an ability to focus depends on the same lack of distraction as it would at home.

Open office plans are common in times when rents rise, and consolidation saves money. Trading separate closed-door offices for rows of cubicles may reduce office space but increase competition for peace and quiet. I know denizens of these offices who take work home evenings and weekends so they can commit to a deeper focus. It’s easy to extrapolate this reality to full or part-time telework. 

At my fully remote workplace, we simply write in the rules as employment requirements. For example, people must have a dedicated office space – no laptops in cafés or papers piled up on the washing machine at home. They must have the appropriate network equipment, such as current computer hardware and software, high-speed internet service, and any communication apps that the group uses. They must be available for mandatory meetings, either in person or by teleconference.

Some things don’t need to be detailed. Any conscientious adult knows they can’t multitask with chores, family care, or other obligations and get their work done. We let employees separate their work time from personal time, a measure of self-control that puts the worker in the driver’s seat. As long as they complete what needs to be done, to quality standards and on time, we don’t cross the line into managing their schedules. The less we interfere, the better they can focus!

Tear down the walls of isolation

But won’t virtual workers get lonely and spend all day on the phone with their friends? Again, that’s not the way to get a raise, much less a steady salary. But it’s up to remote companies to help their people connect. If individuals need help, or have news to relay, they can’t just knock on a colleague’s office door or herd people into an emergency meeting.

When my office went remote, we had to create new meeting protocols. Sometimes you need that quick one-on-one; sometimes you need team input; and other times you might want company-wide consensus. How, we wondered, could we set up those exchanges as quickly and effectively as possible? How could we ensure that people at remote stations were prepared and paying attention?

We set rules geared toward maximum participation of the relevant parties, active engagement, and achievement of concrete objectives. We did this by considering what gets in the way of that sort of efficiency and effectiveness. People tend to dislike meetings that start or run late, meander off topic, and lead to still more meetings, rather than getting things done.

Now, the company always starts meetings on time, shoots for an early endpoint, and narrows the agenda to one or two main topics. Including the right people, who are prepared with the right information, increases the odds of checking things off our to-do list. To get those relevant players on board, we created a sliding scale of meeting types, based on the degree of urgency:

  • Cockroach meetings’ involve low-priority issues on which anyone can provide input, if they feel they have something to add. When we call a cockroach meeting, people can opt in or out and don’t have to put aside more important work to attend.
  • Tiger team meetings’ convene active members of project teams to share information, solve problems, or move toward their objectives. Tiger team meeting announcements only go out to those involved, on a need-to-know basis.
  • Ostrich meetings’ let managers and other decision makers get information downloads from key players who can best inform them. If I call an ostrich meeting, people with the facts know the CEO wants background on an important issue, fast.
  • Tsunami meetings’ are less frequent but address big concerns that can make or break the company’s viability. Tsunami meetings typically consider ‘what-if’ scenarios to arrive at backup plans for sudden or significant events, such as the illness or death of an executive or quicker-than-expected sales growth.

These guidelines make networking second nature, and meetings are more effective now than when we wasted time in our old in-office gatherings. Besides easily providing opportunities for formal collaboration and acknowledgement, we also have a digital platform for more casual group communication. Shout-outs to co-workers for their help, quick questions for the team, and even in-house surveys via instant messaging keep us connected.

Create true cohesion through transparency

The above solutions give us many individual workers who are capable and prepared to do their jobs, and ways for them to collaborate. But what makes them a team? And what makes the team a reflection of our brand? A culture that brings everyone on board, on a level playing field, does that. Just as with traditional hiring, onboarding is the time to indoctrinate new employees to the company’s mission and vision. If you’ve hired well, these people are accepting of the company’s values and way of doing business. Periodic reminders about core values to all staff align everyone with the organisation’s brand.

People are also part of that brand. Their talents and knowledge base contribute to it. So, a means of sharing accurate information among them keeps the brand consistent. In a traditional office, memos and word of mouth might work. But in a virtual model, there needs to be tighter quality control in communication. The best way to achieve a high level of transparency is for everyone to know what everyone else knows, who those people are, and how their work fits into the greater business scheme.

As our remote staff ebbs and flows, we periodically outline to the group the roles and job goals of every member, from clerks to the CEO. We explain why they do what they do, so when someone needs a resource, they know just where to look. There might be a pop quiz on the subject in company surveys or meetings. When individuals understand how their colleagues fit into the corporate family, they know they’re not alone, despite the distance between home offices.

In addition to updating this role-and-goal information continually, we also try to level the playing field by allowing anyone to consult with anyone in the company they believe to be helpful. This virtual ‘open-door’ policy invites collaboration and new ideas. People can compare data or clear up misunderstandings. Transparently sharing information brings the whole team together, with the resources they need to do their best work.

Today, our fully remote staff represents us well in the marketplace, as our performance level indicates. Enjoying the freedom to work as they choose keeps them engaged, and our shared accomplishments erase feelings of isolation. We’ve found that distance is no match for knowledge – and people who are motivated to think independently and act in everyone’s best interests don’t need to commute to get to the same place.

Leadership speaker Chris Dyer is a performance and company culture expert and author of The Power of Company Culture (Kogan Page, 2018).