For many companies, the COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call. The strain of suddenly shifting to remote work highlighted fragile company cultures. Productivity dropped, impacting revenues. Many employees felt adrift, struggling to manage work and family responsibilities. Managers without experience leading remote teams were given little guidance.
Now, as many companies transition to hybrid work environments that combine remote and in-office work, business leaders are focusing on fostering a team culture that supports companies and employees alike. A master’s degree in applied psychology can help leaders create team environments that support business growth and foster a shared sense of mission among employees.
What Is Team Culture?
Team culture is in the DNA of every company. An organization’s culture can be defined as the way people in a business behave, based on a set of attitudes, beliefs and traditions. It can be rigid and hierarchical, or looser and more informal, or a combination depending on the situation.
What does the company reward employees for — innovation, longevity, on-time attendance or productivity? Is management top down, or is the organization horizontal, with feedback going both ways? How do employees collaborate? Is there a dress code? What are the perks — company outings, happy hours or family-friendly policies?
Any team culture can be healthy. As long as everyone on the team shares a sense of mission and feels valued, even the most hierarchical old-school organization can be successful.
Signs of a Healthy Team Culture
Understanding employee behavior and motivation is key to identifying whether a team culture is healthy or harmful. Signs of a healthy team culture include the following:
When employees feel empowered, they work independently and take ownership of their work. They know that their contributions will be valued. Employees whose managers support them and provide an empowering work environment are more likely to enjoy their work and be more productive.
More and more employees are looking for companies whose values align with theirs. A values statement is the first step in creating a healthy work environment. After that, it’s up to managers and leaders to “walk the walk.” Also important is that building a value-aligned culture is the responsibility of employees.
Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging
Diversity, inclusion and belonging (DIB), sometimes called diversity, inclusion and equity (DIE), has become a key factor in a healthy team culture. For many companies, achieving an inclusive work environment has required the hard work of overcoming social biases in hiring candidates of color or from different cultural backgrounds. Companies that commit to DIB say it’s worth it to build a culture that benefits from everyone’s contributions.
Culture Add vs. Culture Fit
Human resources experts used to emphasize culture fit: Will a new employee align with a company’s culture? Now, they’ve shifted to culture add: What will a new employee bring to the table that contributes to a DIB culture? The change to a culture add mentality helps companies identify top talent they may have once overlooked.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), replacing an employee can cost between six and nine months of that worker’s salary. Companies with a healthy culture can help improve turnover, reducing recruiting, onboarding and retraining costs.
Companies that understand their values may find it easier to recruit candidates. Communicating these values clearly and actively practicing them helps solidify a healthy culture. This in turn attracts candidates who share these values.
Signs of a Poor Team Culture
An unhealthy work atmosphere is often referred to as a toxic environment. It can result in high recruiting and retention costs and often causes low productivity, potentially decreasing revenues. Some signs of a poor team culture include the following:
A company that ignores its own values statement (or doesn’t have one) can create a poor team culture. If executives and managers act selfishly or thoughtlessly, they create a culture in which employees feel unvalued, overly stressed and unmotivated. This can also create an atmosphere in which employees think it’s OK to misbehave as well.
Employees vote with their feet. Companies can count on the fact that high turnover or difficulty recruiting is a sign that their culture is lacking. Unhappy employees may also leave reviews, making it harder to recruit.
Gossip. Unfriendly competition. Public criticism. Backbiting. One sign of poor team culture is toxic office politics. This can cause morale to plummet, leading to unprofessional behavior and employee absenteeism.
Lack of Feedback
Companies that don’t provide feedback or only provide negative feedback miss an opportunity to improve worker engagement. In a toxic work culture, managers don’t provide recognition or encouragement.
Managers withhold information from their teams or other teams. Teams may be siloed, with little communication outside of a unit. This sows confusion and hurts productivity, especially when companies don’t have a culture of sharing necessary information.
The Impact of Remote Work on Team Culture
The sudden transition from in-office work to remote work impacted even the healthiest workplaces. While many companies offered telecommuting on a part-time basis, it was usually considered a perk. It was never expected to be the sole way of conducting business.
The impact of remote work on a team, compounded by the uncertainties of the pandemic, increased as the weeks and months of lockdown continued.
Remote work took a toll on employee mental health. According to a survey by the employment website Monster, 69% of employees experienced symptoms of burnout while working remotely. Navigating the new normal while maintaining productivity caused additional stress. Companies that downsized due to the economic effects of the pandemic may have had to furlough or terminate employees. This both increases the workload of the remaining staff and can add survivor’s guilt to employees’ mental stress.
Teleconferencing was mentally exhausting for many. According to communication experts and psychologists, the intense focus on facial cues and eye contact and the lack of nonverbal communication contribute to what’s become known as “Zoom fatigue.” The natural flow of conversation became stilted. “You’re on mute” became the new greeting.
Burnout is defined as the general sense of exhaustion that workers feel when they’re overstressed and they’ve been highly productive for a long stretch of time. Employees with burnout may experience irritability and anger and physical symptoms, such as headaches and high blood pressure. Signs of staff burnout include the following:
- Falling productivity or increased mistakes. The mental cloud that fatigue and stress cause make it harder to work for employees to perform high-quality work.
- Distraction or disengagement. Employees may be disengaged during meetings, turning off their camera or not paying attention.
- Increased absenteeism. Burnout causes physical and mental health symptoms that may require workers to take more sick time.
- When turnover increases, it signals that workers are suffering.
Shift to a Hybrid Work Environment
As the pandemic wanes, companies are facing another change. Despite the stresses of remote work, many employees prefer to telecommute, either full time or part time. However, they still need to communicate with their team and be part of a strong company culture.
How does a company navigate the shift to a hybrid work environment? The key is understanding what makes a team culture strong in the first place and implementing policies that support that culture.
Examples of best practices are as follows:
Flexible hours acknowledge that workers may go back to work in the evening or start early, in the quiet hours before the family is up. Some businesses require coverage during specific times of the day. Managers can also communicate if employees must be available for core business hours.
Companies can invest in hardware and software to facilitate remote work. Workflow software, internet connectivity and computing power are an important part of making work from home successful. Paying for employees’ internet service can help employees obtain better internet access.
Feedback and Check-Ins
Managers should make sure to give and receive feedback, including recognition. Regular check-ins can be helpful. It’s important, however, that employees not feel checked up on. Managers who encourage independence and foster a sense of work ownership help create a healthy team culture.
Communication and Meetings
Communicating clearly and regularly will ensure a sense of connection for workers who are remote. Make sure that everyone is on the same page. Encourage creativity and innovation — remote workers should feel that their contributions are welcome. Meetings are an important part of communication. Managers who take Zoom fatigue into account will schedule meetings accordingly.
Managing a hybrid workforce comes with distinct challenges. Are some employees fully remote? Are people telecommuting on different days, so the full team is never in the office at the same time? How can a manager conduct meetings so that remote workers don’t feel as if everyone is in the room without them? Some tips are:
- Camera setups that show whiteboards, so everyone can participate in projects
- Meeting facilitators who make sure to include remote workers in sidebar conversations and nonverbal communications
- Casual conversations that make remote workers feel included in office culture
Building a Team Culture With Applied Psychology
Ready to create a great team culture at your company? USC’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP) prepares managers and business leaders with coursework in group dynamics and leadership, psychology of employee selection, and cross-cultural psychology. Find out more about how the USC MAPP program combines consumer psychology and organizational psychology to offer expertise in talent management and organizational development.