Three Keys to Building a Powerful Culture in a Virtual Business

Building a high-performance culture is crucial for any business but is a particular challenge for organizations that have employees, contractors, and partners spread across multiple locations and time zones. Here are three keys to building an effective culture in a virtual business:

  • Develop and embed crystal-clear values, with behaviors tied to them
  • Focus on building trust (in ways that make sense in a virtual environment)
  • Leverage both technology and travel

Crystal clear values, with behaviors tied to them

In a virtual business, values act as beacons to guide behavior in the absence of physical proximity. They help everyone understand ‘how we do things around here’ … when there is no ‘here’. Each company should identify two to three non-negotiable values. These shouldn’t be right-to-play values such as ‘excellence’ or ‘integrity, but rather should express the organization’s DNA. Then, for each value, there should be a set of specific behaviors that would clearly indicate whether or not that value was being lived.

Values and associated behaviors can be expressed in ways that align with a virtual environment. For example, if a core value is ‘Respect’, this might be expressed behaviourally as ‘We show up’, which would speak to everyone turning up to virtual meetings on time; and then being present, focused, and engaged at them.

IBM is an example of a business where teams across business lines and geographies need to come together virtually to deliver services to clients around the world. IBM’s values play a central role in supporting this process. For example, one of Big Blue’s core values is “Dedication to every client’s success, and one of the ways this is expressed behaviourally is that IBMers are expected to “go above and beyond to help our clients succeed, however that success is measured.” The same values and behaviors apply irrespective of whether the employee is based in Brussels or Bangalore and provide a common set of norms that help virtual teams of IBMers around the world to quickly come together and deliver for their clients. People who embrace IBM’s values tend to thrive. Those who do not tend not to stay long.

If a highly decentralized organization isn’t clear on its values and associated behaviors, or if these aren’t really being lived, then taking the time to get clarity and embed these should be a top priority.

This process should be driven by the CEO, and in a way that ensures that the values and behaviors emerge from within the business, and are not simply imposed from above. There are many ways to do this, but Jim Collins’ Mission To Mars exercise is a great place to start.

Focus on building trust

Trust is central to high-performing teams. People need to know that they are open and vulnerable with one another without being attacked personally. Google calls it ‘psychological safety’. Bestselling author Patrick Lencioni calls it ‘vulnerability-based trust’. However, building trust in a virtual workplace can be challenging. This is because some of the most effective ways to do this – such as people getting to know one at a personal level – don’t emerge as naturally in a virtual setting. There are no ‘water cooler conversations’ and colleagues can’t invite each other to lunch. However, it is possible for virtual teams to establish trust. It just requires more focus.

For example, when a new virtual team is formed, it can be tempting for the group to charge straight into a discussion around the task. This is a mistake. Instead of focusing initially on the formal ‘work’, the team should allocate plenty of time to discussing how they want to work together and get to know one another as people. This should be an ongoing process, and one that the team calls out as a top – and ongoing – priority. Once everyone agrees on this, the team can collaboratively discuss how they want to go about building trust and establishing norms they all agree to work by. If the broader organization already has clear values and behaviors, these can help scaffold this process.

Tuckman’s model of team formation shows that it takes time for teams to genuinely come together and start performing at a high level, and this applies even more in the case of virtual teams. Taking time to focus explicitly on how the team wants to work together – rather than diving straight into ‘the work’ – will lead to better outcomes, both in terms of team performance and organizational culture. When it comes to building high-performance cultures in a virtual environment, the best way to speed up is to slow down.

Blend technology and travel

Technology can help with building trust and communication within virtual teams. Tools like Slack and Google Hangouts make it easier for people to connect with one another, and video conferencing has become ubiquitous. Teams should discuss how they want to use these technologies, and create a process to check in from time to time as to whether technology is being leveraged effectively.

For example, some organizations have seen tools like Slack so actively embraced that they have become overused, and have seen people not engaging in the kind of generative dialogue that is best conducted over a call or video conference (if a face-to-face meeting is impossible). These businesses have started to have conversations internally to collaboratively decide what kinds of communication is best handled via which medium so that there are common norms around this.

While technology has allowed virtual organisations to flourish, there is nothing quite like face-to-face communication to build trust and collaboration, particularly as people are getting to know one another. The impact of a two-day offsite that brings together a virtual team that has never physically spent time together can be transformative in terms of building relationships and creating a positive culture. Where possible, organizations should allocate a budget to allow their people to physically come together from time to time. The relationships and bonding resulting from these events will lay a foundation of trust and collaboration that can then be built upon as the teams return to their virtual environments.

Wrapping it up

The principles behind building a high-performance culture in a virtual environment are the same as those in that apply to a traditional co-located environment. However, many of the factors that support the creation of a high-performance culture are more challenging to achieve and require more focus in a virtual setting. Whilst this is a challenge, it also represents an opportunity. Traditional businesses can (mistakenly) be tempted to get complacent about their culture. However virtual organizations clearly do not have this luxury, and smart leaders will ensure they apply a laser-sharp focus to this work.


Sandy Chernoff
Sandy Chernoff
SANDY'S 30 years of didactic and clinical teaching in study clubs and continuing dental education, coupled with her almost 40 years of Dental Hygiene practice bring a wealth of experience to her interactive soft skills workshops. With her education background she easily customizes interactive sessions to suit the specific needs of her clients. Her energetic and humorous presentation style has entertained and informed audiences from Victoria to New York City. Sandy’s client list includes law firms, teaching institutions, volunteer and professional organizations and conferences, businesses, and individuals. Her newest project is turning her live workshops into e-learning programs using an LMS platform. Her teaching and education background have helped her to produce meaningful and somewhat interactive courses for the learners wanting the convenience of e-learning options. As the author of 5 Secrets to Effective Communication, Sandy has demonstrated her ability to demystify the complexities of communication so that the reader can learn better strategies and approaches which will greatly improve their communication skills and ultimately reduce conflict, resentment, disappointment, complaining, and confusion. As a result, the reader will be able to increase productivity, efficiency and creativity, improve all the relationships in their lives and ultimately enjoy a happier, healthier existence! Sandy blogs regularly on her two websites on the various soft skills topics that are featured in her workshops and e-learning programs.

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