Creating a ‘Third Culture’ Is Essential for Successful Remote Working

remote work

With the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, organizations are learning what their businesses look like when the majority of their workforce is remote. As many of you reading this will know, there are many benefits to remote working, for both people and businesses. A possible upside of the COVID-19 situation is that it may prove the case for more flexible working within companies that have been slow to adopt it. Whether the move to remote work is coronavirus-induced or part of a more general change, organizations need to create a specific culture for effective virtual collaboration.

Those of us who work remotely on a regular basis know that it’s not as easy as it may seem. The distractions are plentiful, it can be harder to feel motivated, human connection is dramatically reduced—and all of this has an impact on how effective we can be. In fact, a global survey last year found that many remote workers struggle with unplugging from their work (22%), loneliness (19%), and communicating (17%). Another study found that 41% of remote workers reported high stress levels, compared to just 25% of office workers.

Just like when you get a snow day in areas where snow is rare, the first day or two of working from home can feel quite fun. It’s different, you don’t have to get up as early, there’s no morning commute. But then the reality sets in and it can become a real challenge. Employees who are used to seeing colleagues or customers every day can start to feel isolated remarkably quickly, and can lose focus, energy and creativity.

Creating a third culture

Remote working is most effective when people are intentional about how they work in the virtual space—and clearly recognize that the space, albeit virtual, is shared. This means organizations and teams creating what we call a “third culture” where they meet virtually to collectively work in a focused and productive way.

This third culture is the new, shared way of working that we create when we team up with someone that has a different approach, cultural background or specific way of working. Each of us has our own approach to working (so our own culture) that may not be right for someone else. To ensure we work effectively (particularly remotely), we must set aside the totality of our own approaches—my “culture” and your “culture”—to build a shared common ground: the third culture.

Our approach is based on three pillars of organizational culture: what we believe, how we behave and the tools we use. The third culture is no different. Teams should discuss what they believe to be important to make remote working successful and then contract with each other on how they are going to work in line with those beliefs and principles. Only then can teams make informed decisions about what virtual working tools will support them most effectively.

The remote working ecosystem

Within this third culture, there are four key elements, all of which are complex and need thinking through. The four elements are:

  • Human needs (first and foremost)
  • Team connection
  • Working structures
  • Focus and environment

Within each of those are an array of factors to consider (see our full model adjacent). Every organization and team is different so what is essential is that all of the ingredients for a high- performing remote working culture are considered and the right mix is created.

There are hundreds of ideas and ways to support the remote working ecosystem, but here are some practical examples.

Human needs. There is a human being behind every laptop at home and at the heart of being human is needing to feel valued. When we work remotely, the opportunities for thank yous, “great jobs!” and high fives dramatically decrease, so making sure managers dial up the appreciation is key. A text, a quick video message or even a posted card to say “thanks because” is gold to keep the workforce motivated.

Team connection When we’re working remotely, we lose our social connection with everyone from the security guard we say hello to in the morning to our team members and colleagues. Recreate this connection with daily virtual team huddles for 10 minutes in the morning: no set agenda, just a check in say hi, see how people are and what help they may need that day.

Working structures What works in the office may not work remotely. Instead of lengthy meetings, have short virtual huddles with a strong chair so people don’t get lost because they’re not physically visible. Adopting an approach where you go around and get a contribution from each person can also work well. Apply this thinking to team resourcing, scheduling and action planning.

Focus and environment Many people will find themselves working in an environment that is very different and that potentially they are not used to. Help people to use the new surroundings to support their performance instead of hinder it. Personal rewards (e.g. a cup of tea and a healthy snack at 11 a.m.) are a great way to help people resist distraction and stay focused.

The remote working trap

Learn more

For more tips and advice on remote working, you can listen to Jane’s “Bank of Me” podcast here.

Many leaders, teams and companies come at remote working assuming that people will just do it well or adapt easily to it. We also see businesses putting in a new or enhanced virtual working tool and just expecting that to be the answer to success.

Remember that dropping people into a totally different way of working with just a new video communication platform doesn’t work.  We need to think about how we keep people feeling connected and that they’re still part of a team, and that there’s still a strong support network in place.

Support at three levels

For remote working to be effective, the third culture needs to be supported at three levels: leadership, team and individual. Leaders must model all of the right behaviors, teams must work together to agree what success looks like for them and individuals have to create our own new working patterns to protect both our productivity and more important, our wellbeing.

A great example of this three-tiered approach is China- and Hong Kong-based, global luxury fashion, beauty and lifestyle retailer Lane Crawford, who we’ve been supporting through the eye of the coronavirus storm.

Andrew Keith, the company’s president, says: “We’ve been developing people managers on how to support their remote teams, providing daily top tips and inspiration to keep people motivated and working intensively with the top team on role modelling essential behaviors for effective virtual working. I started a vlog a number of months ago to have an emotional and direct connection with every one of my people, during such a difficult time, which has had a huge positive impact.”

The critical role for communicators

The COVID-19 crisis has placed pressure on communicators all over the globe who are working relentlessly to keep their people informed. This work is absolutely vital, given that people often turn to their employer for the facts and information they can trust in times like this.

When we think about remote working more generally, there’s a vital role for communication here too. How we communicate about remote work—and how we communicate while doing it—is key. Work in partnership with HR teams to support remote working plans and strategies with the right communication plan. Support leaders and people managers (as well as the wider organization) with how they can communicate effectively while working remotely.

Right now, eyes are on communication professionals to advise, plan and deliver in these tough times. Be proactive with providing well-considered information on not only COVID-19 and crisis comms, but also on establishing positive remote working practices and supporting people through the transition. Share stories of what is working well in terms of remote working practices to spread best practices. Overall, my best advice is to be strategic (think about all of your tribes and how remote working is going to affect them differently), multi-layered (from leadership to the line), but most of all, human.

Jane Sparrow

A published author, expert facilitator, performance coach, impactful speaker and global commentator, Jane Sparrow has worked with businesses across the world, including Centrica, UKTV, Sony, Lane Crawford, Dyson, HSBC, Rugby Premiership and Sky, to create and sustain high performance cultures.   Jane and her team have been supporting organizations across the globe on people, productivity and well-being as we all step into unprecedented virtual working territory in the wake of COVID-19.   A multiple IABC Gold Quill Award winner, previous IABC keynote speaker and global conference chair and Sony's Director of Communication and Engagement in her earlier career, Jane is a long-time affiliate of IABC and has a deep understanding of the communication space.   Follow Jane's podcast here, find out more at and get in touch at

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