What remote leaders need to manage company culture

I couldn’t walk the building.

For as long as I had been leading organizations, that’s one of the ways I took the pulse of the company. I’d talk to people at their desks or in the cafeteria. I’d ask questions, lots of questions. I’d sense how projects were advancing and feel the mood of the company firsthand.

But now, deep into the second year of a world-altering pandemic, I can no longer walk the building. Because of an invisible pathogen, I can’t rely on the same inputs to the pattern recognition gained from more than two decades of leading businesses.

Much as I’d sense the health of a culture by walking the buildings, I’d help shape it through physical space. Glass walls and open floor plans conveyed transparency; curated break rooms created interaction; meeting rooms were designed for better collaboration, and pictures of customers on the walls reminded our team members who we serve.

But that world and those cultural tools are behind us—at least for now and maybe forever. Our present and future are digital, and old ways to sense and shape culture no longer serve.

In this new world, I’ve had to trust new senses. When most interactions are scheduled and even scripted, and when communication is reduced to tinny speakers and keyhole views, I’ve had to develop new tools to establish connections and shape culture even as they matter more than ever before.

A sense of identity

Amid change, the constant is yourself. You need to be the person with enough sense of self to remain anchored in what matters while you adapt. The person who embraces change and the disruption it brings as you remain true to the timeless core values that serve in any circumstance.

Who you are is not tied to physical space. You may have left behind an office, with its symbols of status and achievement, but regardless of location, your strong sense of identity and the values it represents are your reliable bedrock, the constants that no tumult can unsettle.

A sense of purpose

With the pandemic has come new challenges, new societal needs. The social justice movement, the mental health crisis, overflowing ICUs, and exhausted caregivers have moved to the fore as climate change, poverty, and illiteracy have become more acute. At the same time, our team members are looking for something more than a paycheck. They are looking for purpose.

Use this moment to re-invent your purpose or to reignite passion in the one you have. Use the unlimited reach of a virtual world to make your purpose even more powerful, more audacious, and more inspiring than possible in the more geographically constrained world of the past.

A sense of wonder

When everything is new you can be overwhelmed by it or fascinated by it. A sense of wonder embraces fascination, that mix of awe and curiosity that appreciates the unexpected for its novelty alone. What can we discover together when we’re now interacting in unprecedented ways? With a sense of wonder, seize the opportunity to interact with new people in a world where we can connect anytime, anywhere with a click of a mouse. And when that sense is shared across a company it unlocks a whole world of possibility.

A sense of humor

Zoom calls fail. Family life intrudes. Stuff happens.

A sense of humor lets everyone be momentarily vulnerable when awkward moments occur—and they do. Humor pokes at that vulnerability without abusing it, acting as a salve over embarrassment and a license to fail with grace.

Humor is our best tool against the absurd. And this new virtual reality, despite being a by-product of a grim pandemic, feels at times quite absurd. You can laugh at it or lose heart. When you choose to be human enough to shake your head in amusement instead of your shaking your fist in frustration, then you’ll find the common ground, the universal human connections upon which enduring cultures can be built.

The most important sense

These new senses help navigate the unexplored territory where connections are tenuous, and everyone is vulnerable, dispirited by months of social distancing, and desperate to rebuild their emotional scaffolding.

And all cautiously presenting a new window into their lives, the video connection whose background reveals how human and genuine we all are. That includes all the toddlers crawling on keyboards, the cats slinking past doorways, the backgrounds of books and trinkets and movie posters and photographs, and all the ephemera that make us each so unique.

Everyone hopes, when you see and judge the signposts of their lives, that you won’t violate their trust. They hope you’ll accept them as they are. Which is all the reason you need to be so diligently mindful when you’re their virtual guest.

The unexpected bonus is that when you are so mindful that by your actions you say “I see you” without judgment, then you create connections unavailable in yesterday’s office settings.

This isn’t about being intrusive. It’s about being real. It’s not so much that we’re seeing into people’s homes, as we’re finally seeing into their lives, past the “Hang in There” posters and curated office personas to their lives as they choose to live them.


What additional sense do you need when you see people unfiltered? What additional sense must you develop more than ever in today’s virtual world?

A sense of respect.