Cultivating Workplace Culture Without a Workplace

Written by

Paul Pierson Senior Branding and Design Expert | Fati Ahmed Senior Strategy Director | Chip Gross BCG BrightHouse Alumnus | Zoha Bharwani BCG BrightHouse Alumna |

Oct 12, 2020 · 13-minute read


This year’s pandemic has drastically changed what it means to ‘go to work’ for most of us—potentially for the long term. Some experts predict that by the end of 2021, 25 to 30% of the workforce will still be working from home multiple days a week, even if COVID-19 is no longer a relevant concern. As companies adjust to a new reality, key questions are emerging, including what it will take to foster a cohesive culture without the benefit of a shared physical space.

In this discussion, we’ll outline ways to cultivate an authentic remote-working culture that meets employees’ needs. In particular, we’ll look at what it means to give employees the autonomy they need to feel inspired and motivated and explore examples of success in the tech industry, where many companies embraced remote-working models prior to COVID-19.

What makes a strong culture?

Studies show that a positive work culture leads to happier, more engaged employees; less turnover; and greater profitability. But creating a vital culture that sticks takes time and resources—and doing so in a new virtual landscape takes understanding the underlying mechanics of culture and rethinking how they can come to life.

We recently conducted an international survey that explored remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 12,000 employees surveyed reported a number of positive aspects, such as a surprisingly high rate of maintained or increased productivity. However, 29% reported worse overall mental health and a loss of community at work, indicating that many organizations that are working remotely are falling short when it comes to providing for their employees’ needs. In many cases, this is not because of lack of effort, but rather a lack of understanding of the core psychological and emotional aspects of culture. Building a virtual workplace culture must go beyond implementing new policies to considering the bigger picture: A truly positive culture is one that not only helps employees find more meaning and satisfaction in their work, but makes work a source of meaning and satisifaction in their lives. It enables employees to make a living and make a good life.

What does it mean to have a good life? According to self-determination theory—a well-established domain of applied psychology—it is defined by three primary psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and personal connection. To explore how these needs translate to workplace culture, we spoke with Dr. Yu Shi, a positive psychologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, who specializes in this research. Here’s what we learned.

Autonomy: Dr. Yu says of autonomy, “We want to be our own owners, and we want to own our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.” Employees desire a sense of control and ownership not only in day-to-day tasks, but also in the bigger picture. An employee with autonomy feels like they have influence over their own job function and career path, and like they’re a valuable member of the community.

Competence: Dr. Yu told us that when people feel effective or capable at a particular skill or series of skills, they are able to “take on challenges and become stronger.” For many people, work provides that sense of competence, which often extends to greater confidence in other areas of life.

Personal connection: We are social animals by nature, and having a work culture that creates community and encourages personal connection makes it possible for us to engage with our work at a deeper level. When we feel a strong connection to the people we work with, we are more motivated to perform well and support each other.

In order to support the good life, a work culture must have a balance of these elements. A culture that falls short is often one where one or more of these needs has been neglected.

During the current transition to remote working, many companies have recognized the need to maintain and support existing culture in an intentional way—but they’ve also recognized an opportunity to improve it. We discussed this with Leo Widrich, a leadership coach and co-founder of Buffer—a company with a fully remote workforce—who shared that he believes this time provides “a massive opportunity to reshape culture. It’s a phenomenal process, actually, because it forces you to take a hard look at process and maybe change some things that you realize you don’t want.”

To clarify what cultural and behavioral elements should be preserved, bolstered, or stripped away, we must first look at the three basic needs from a remote-working standpoint.

At first glance, it may seem that personal connection is where there would be the biggest loss. Although it is true that creating and maintaining personal connections in a remote workspace can be challenging, the other two needs can be just as difficult to fulfill in a remote enviroment. In regards to competence, in the remote work survey, employees noted a 13 percentage point reduction in learning and development opportunities now compared to before the pandemic.

However, and perhaps surprisingly, it’s autonomy that has been the most neglected need for many organizations during this transition to remote work, largely because it is easy to assume that working remote equates to working more autonomously. But this is not the case.

Understanding autonomy and why it matters

One of the challenges with providing employees autonomy is that the concept itself can be misunderstood. When we spoke with Dr. Joris Lammers, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cologne and an expert on the relationship between power and autonomy, he explained, “Having people at home won’t necessarily increase feelings of autonomy. Obviously, you can work in your pajamas or start earlier or later, eat whatever you want. But what we mean by autonomy is that you can pursue your goals, that you can have the means, opportunities, and ability to shape your work. This might actually be more difficult working at home.”

It’s about the critical disctinction, he said, between autonomy and freedom. According to Dr. Lammers, “A manager might think, ‘Well, I leave my employees all the freedom to work as they want and reduce my supervision.’ But does that really give them autonomy, or I did I make them find out how to deal with problems by themselves? That’s where organizations also need to focus: How can I make sure, especially now that there is less ability to quickly and directly force complaints or identify obstacles, that employees have the means to overcome [obstacles] themselves?”

DR. YU SHI Positive Psychologist, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen

“Autonomy is more psychological, whereas freedom is often about your relationships with others.”

Positive Psychologist, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen

Dr. Yu explained the difference between freedom and autonomy as physical versus psychological: “Autonomy is more psychological, whereas freedom is often about your relationships with others…. When you think of autonomy, the definition actually really focuses on the inner states of your mind.” Despite being given more freedom, without the tools, resources, or decision-making rights needed for real autonomy, remote employees are left feeling isolated and frustrated.

Autonomy is not about leaving someone alone. Instead, it’s about providing someone with the opportunities to pursue their goals, make their own decisions, and own their actions, which requires the support of a team or a community.

A new workplace culture for a new world of work

So, what does it look like to create a community that supports autonomy in today’s workplace? There are many tactics, but underlying all of them, there are four principles that make autonomy possible:

1.Give employees choices and the resources they need: Relinquishing control and offering people choices in meaningful ways goes beyond just supporting autonomy; it also helps develop competence. Employees should be given the ability to make decisions about their own work and the resources, tools, and training they need for success.

Remote-working considerations:
Remote working can create an imbalance of resources. Often, access to tools and autonomy is not equal, making some employees feel isolated and underappreciated. Ensuring all employees have equal access to basic working resources not only helps them perform better, it helps them develop competence, autonomy, and a stronger connection to the company. People naturally invest in those who invest in them.

Sample solution:
Many tech companies, including Automattic and Doist, have adopted asynchronous communication as part of their distributed working model. Asynchronous communication means employees are not expected to give immediate answers or replies. Instead, they can prioritize and make decisions about their own time.

2.Encourage understanding and lead with empathy: Giving employees autonomy means recognizing that people have different needs. Making room for a variety of perspectives, providing the flexibility to accommodate different work and communication styles, and acknowledging challenges are all examples of taking an empathetic approach.

Remote-working considerations:
Right now, empathy is more important than ever. Recognizing the current situation and the fear and uncertainty it causes can help bring teams together and develop emotional resilience. It also begins to create the right paths forward, according to Widrich: “You need to tend to that emotional upheaval first, and then once people felt heard in that… then people can come to terms with it and say, ‘Okay, great, now this the new status quo. I’m ready.’”

Sample solution:
Buffer recognized that many employees were struggling with COVID-19 related stress. After a pilot in May, Buffer recently announced that it would move to a 4-day work week for the remainder of 2020 to give employees more time to juggle their life changes. An initial survey found the reduced work week resulted in more work happiness and less stress.

3.Trust your teams and help them trust each other: Trust is a critical component of autonomy. When managers trust their teams, it allows employees to take ownership of their tasks and problem solve. And when employees trust their managers, they feel comfortable and supported because they know they have someone to turn to when they need help.

Remote-working considerations:
In person, informal socializing and collaboration can help create social bonds that lead to stronger work relationships more quickly and easily. Sonal Gupta, head of the Other Bets department at Automattic—which has a fully distributed workforce of over 1200 employees—told us that in lieu of these spontaneous interactions, being intentional about having very honest conversations with your employees is critical to building trust that runs both ways.

Sample solution:
Many organizations, including Automattic, give employees unlimited vacation days. They trust employees to be responsible for their work and give them permission to manage their time accordingly.

4.Provide employees with the ‘why’ behind decisions: Having rules, processes, and structures—even many of them—isn’t in conflict with autonomy if employees can understand why they’re in place. Similarly, when big decisions are made, providing the reasons behind a decision creates an environment where employees feel like equal members of a community.

Remote-working considerations:
In a remote-working environment, transparency requires intention—and the right tools. When working virtually, it’s much easier to get siloed, and employees often miss out on opportunities to interact with leadership that would arise organically in an office. Creating the right platforms for sharing and ensuring that leaders make time to hold townhalls and informal chats are important steps to keep communication flowing.

Sample solution:
Buffer used to use email to keep employees looped into key developments and communication. However, as the organization grew, Buffer recognized that the number of emails coming through could be overwhelming, so they created a communication principle that encourages using Slack for broad communications.

Autonomy can help activate purpose

Providing autonomy is critical for supporting employees and unlocking intrinsic motivation. When employees feel in control of their jobs, they also feel a greater responsibility towards the work they do, and they more readily find meaning in it.

The benefits go beyond the individual. An autonomy-supportive culture can help create a shared sense of responsibility and cohesion, and a shared sense of meaning, or Purpose, as well. A company’s Purpose, which can be defined as ‘why’ it exists, lies at the intersection of its authentic strengths and the unmet needs in the world it can fulfill.

DR. JORIS LAMMERS Professor Political Psychology, Social Cognition Center Cologne, University of Cologne

“Once people have a Purpose, they will move forward towards that Purpose or goal much more easily with autonomy. ”

Professor Political Psychology, Social Cognition Center Cologne, University of Cologne

Not only can autonomy strengthen this sense of Purpose—it can empower employees to act on it. As Dr. Lammers put it, “Once people have a Purpose, they will move forward towards that Purpose or goal much more easily with autonomy. In economic games, power can make people more selfish. But if people have more altruistic shared goals, then they will pursue those with more vigor.” When you pair autonomy with Purpose, employees will channel their energy into productive means for the company and the world.


To be successful, culture work must ensure that autonomy, competence, and personal connection are all being supported. During the transition to remote work, autonomy in particular is often misunderstood or neglected. Bolstering it effectively takes time and resources, but organizations can begin the process by assessing their current culture with questions such as the ones below.

1) Give employees choices and the resources they need

  • Do employees have the ability to make decisions about the work they do?
  • Do they have appropriate access to the tools they need to solve problems?
  • Are mistakes treated as learning opportunities?
  • How often do employees need to check-in with/get approval from managers?
  • How available are managers if employees need help?

2) Encourage understanding and lead with empathy

  • Do work policies accommodate different working styles?
  • Do all employees have platforms to share their opinions and ideas?
  • Has management acknowledged the challenges of transition and given employees time to think and adjust to change?

3) Trust your teams and help them trust each other

  • Do employees have opportunities to interact and connect on non-work related topics?
  • Are managers investing the time to get to know their employees on a personal level?
  • Do managers trust their teams to execute tasks and give them the space to do so?
  • Are employees seen and treated as experts within their given roles?

4) Provide employees with the ‘why’ behind decisions

  • Do employees know where to turn for more information?
  • Are leaders sharing changes and developments with the full organization?
  • Is there a clear rationale behind all policies? If not, is that a policy that can be changed?
  • Are there opportunities and platforms where employees can voice concerns or ask questions to leadership?

Evaluating where your organization stands according to these principles is the first step in building a self-motivated culture that supports the good life. Then, by continuing to instill your Purpose, values, behaviors, and programs to address gaps and transform culture, you can help to ensure that it serves the human being inside every worker.

For more information contact Paul Pierson or Chip Gross

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