Conscious Culture in a Remote Workplace

By Tara Jenkins, Brian Mohr, and Nathan Havey

In 2003, a pair of innovative human resources professionals at Best Buy hatched an audacious management strategy they called ROWE, or results-only work environment.  Under this plan, employees were given very clear expectations for the results they were to produce, and then total freedom to decide how to achieve them.  Employees could work any hours from anywhere, and most stopped coming into the office every day.  They could take as much vacation as they wanted whenever they wanted.  They weren’t even required to attend meetings – any meetings – if they did not feel they were needed.  As they put it at the time, this approach would force clarity on expectations, and then force managers to manage results, and not people.

After widespread initial praise and a boost in performance, ROWE was adopted by dozens of other innovative companies.  But about a decade later, leadership changes ushered in a more traditional approach at nearly all of these companies.  Some cited the collaboration and innovation benefits of having everyone in the office.  Others found it difficult to only manage results and much preferred to manage people.  In 2013, even at Best Buy a new CEO called all workers back to the office.

And then, in 2020, the vast majority of companies all around the world were forced to begin this experiment anew as the coronavirus made coming into the office impossible.  Over the past year, we have been working with a variety of companies across the US ranging from very small teams of 10 or so people all the way up to the Fortune 500, and there are two key dynamics we believe are critically important to recognize for business leaders, consultants and anyone interested in creating a high-performing – and conscious – remote workplace culture.  We offer them here for your consideration.

Managing when you can’t see people

It has long been known as a management standard that we should manage results, not people.  Managing results is all about setting clear goals and expectations and then allowing people to meet those expectations in their own way.  Two important reasons for this are that 1) People are happier when they have some autonomy to do the job in their own way and 2) There are better-than-even-odds that their way of doing it, being closer to the work, will be better than the manager’s way.  

Despite the awareness of this best practice, many companies and many managers struggle to get this right.  The most common culprit is simply a lack of clarity on what the job expectations really are.  Or said another way, how will you know if a person is “succeeding” in their position?  If that is not crystal clear to managers and employees, there are bound to be a host of challenges.  In an in-person environment, those challenges can manifest as favoritism, micromanaging, and other office annoyances and drama.  But in a remote environment, one in which managers are more or less forced into a results-only work environment, they are even more critical.

So the essential question for managers right now is: Do my employees know what they need to achieve to be considered successful in their role?  And if a manager has trouble spelling those expectations out specifically, they may consider the related question: Do I know what I need to achieve to be considered successful in my position?  Clear answers to these questions are essential for a high-performing workplace, and if that workplace is remote their importance can’t be overstated.

Clear expectations go beyond performance

In the Conscious Capitalism Consultant Certification program, we study a concept called Two Factor Theory which teaches that the work of building a highly conscious culture must begin with employees having clarity about what is expected of them, along with the tools to do their job well.  If we try to cover up unclear expectations and lack or resources to get the job done with talk of higher purpose and healing, those noble efforts often fail to gain traction.

What’s more, clear expectations alone can improve employees’ opinions of a workplace.  Long-time Bay Area Conscious Capitalism community member Kris Schaeffer moved her client’s culture through more clear expectations, earning her certification as a Conscious Capitalism Consultant.

Physically distant conscious culture 

Once a company is confident that it has clear expectations for all employees, there is a further aspect of creating a conscious culture in a remote workplace.  So much of an organization’s culture happens in the chance encounters employees have while sharing a physical space.  Water-cooler conversations, spontaneous lunch groups and coffee meetings, sharing photos of life outside of work on phones, and serendipitous conversations into and out of the building are all part of the fabric of culture.  

In a physical workplace, those chance encounters all happen outside of the formal meeting and work management structures that exist in the company.  In a remote workplace, there is  no contact with colleagues who are not in the same meetings, and even if they are, the crosstalk and chatter that can occur before a meeting starts in a physical room are stymied by the awkwardness of virtual conferencing technology.  Many of the employees in organizations we’ve heard from over the past year are struggling to feel a sense of belonging and they miss the connections they once enjoyed with their coworkers.

For conscious companies, a great workplace culture is a tremendous advantage.  It helps to attract and retain talent, it is consistent with high levels of engagement which in turn boost productivity and innovation.  A conscious culture is not a nice-to-have, it is a strategic competitive advantage.  But how can a company maintain that kind of culture in a remote environment?  How can a company make a new hire feel a sense of camaraderie and belonging?  How can companies continue to demonstrate care for the employees in a remote working environment?  These are critical questions for the conscious capitalism community.

Some companies have their eye on this ball.  Here are some of the ideas we are seeing:

  • Take a few minutes at the top of each meeting to have each participant give a personal and professional high and low since the last meeting.

  • End meetings 10 minutes before the hour so that employees have a chance to use the restroom and refill the coffee before the next meeting begins.

  • Incorporate flexible social time in a meeting as part of the agenda and use breakout rooms to facilitate more personal conversation that emulates the water cooler.

  • Create a system for employees (and new hires in particular) to be able to share more about who they are for 10 minutes or more in meetings (like staff meetings) so that they can get to know each other as people (this is required for trust).  Use prompts like favorite music or books to go deeper than a standard intro.
  • Don’t abandon real-world gestures of care.  One company surprised employees by sending dinner and floral arrangements to employees’ homes in place of the annual holiday party.  While this might be difficult to orchestrate for some companies, even a handwritten note of gratitude from the CEO or other senior leaders can make a big difference for people.

As the vaccination campaign advances and the pandemic begins to ebb, we are hearing broad speculation that things may never return to where they were a year ago.  Many companies are interested in hybrid structures that look more like optional co-working spaces for people to come to instead of traditional offices.  The structures that help us to create a conscious culture may need to adapt to fit a much more dynamic and decentralized workplace.  We believe that the dynamics we’ve discussed in this article will be essential for culture-building going forward, and we invite you to join in the work of studying and innovating how to create conscious companies by stepping up your participation in the conscious capitalism movement.  If you are a CEO, please join an incredible group of colleagues in the Conscious Capitalism Senior Leaders Network.  If you are a consultant, then we invite you to apply for the Conscious Capitalism Consultant Certification Program.  Class 5 starts in April and the application deadline is just a few weeks away on March 15th.

Tara Jenkins, CEO & Founder of Conscious Revolution is a long-time HR professional and a certified conscious capitalism consultant.

Brian Mohr, Co-Founder at Anthym is a long-time HR and executive search professional and serves on the Board of Conscious Capitalism Inc.

Nathan Havey, Co-Founder of the Institute for Corporate Transformation is a long-time consultant and leads the conscious capitalism consultant certification program.

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