Office Optional: Culture and Virtual Teams

Office Optional: Culture and Virtual Teams

Offices have traditionally provided useful starting points for understanding and analyzing organizational culture. But with more us working in virtual teams, and some us working without offices all together, how we connect with and strengthen our cultures is shifting.

According to culture theorist and Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Edgar Schein, organizational culture has three levels: cultural artifacts (things that others can readily observe), espoused values, and underlying assumptions.

Buffer’s recent blog post After growing to 50 people we’re ditching the office completely: Here’s why, has us thinking about culture and virtual teams.

Buffer is a start-up that helps people share content more efficiently, by understanding and leveraging when people are more active on social media. They recently made the decision not to renew their lease and to move to a completely virtual team.

As virtual and global hybrid teams become the norm, culture is what will create recognizable organizations going forward – no office required.

Here are a few ideas to help you strengthen cultural ties – whether your team is down the hall or on the other side of the globe.

  • Rethink cultural artifacts. When an organization doesn’t have (or chooses not to have) an office, one of the traditional ways we’ve understood culture becomes less relevant, creating an opportunity to leverage other aspects. According to Edgar Schein, artifacts include everything we can observe about a culture: how team members address one another, emotional intensity of interactions, annual reports, and stories the organization tells. Through technology and social media, virtual organizations may have an even greater opportunity to help others see their cultures. Buffer Open, a blog that posts what Buffer is learning related to workplace and culture, is a useful example for virtual teams. As you think about your organization, what cultural artifacts do you see emerging or declining? What are the implications for your team and for you as a leader?

I think that in an increasingly virtual world, lovingly produced artefacts are at a premium.
-Alan Moore

  • Give voice to values. Values underpin organizational culture, but they’re not always discussed in day-to-day operations. One approach, used successfully by Chicago-based Tasty Catering, is to integrate values into meetings. As described in the book It’s My Company Too!: How Entangled Companies Move Beyond Employee Engagement For Remarkable Results by Thomas J. Walter (Tasty Catering’s Chief Culture Officer), Kenneth R. Thompson, Ramon L. Benedetto with Molly Meyer, “…before every meeting of three or more people, the culture statements, including the core values, are stated out loud by the meeting participants; each participant reads one value or one culture statement until all are vocalized.” Tasty Catering has consistently received Best Place to Work Especially if you lead a virtual team, how can you give voice (and visibility) to values during day-to-day operations?
  • Share key influences. The founders of an organization profoundly influence its culture. Their own influences shape the underlying assumptions that drive the organization’s values and actions. One way to shed light on these assumptions is for leaders to share their influences. In the case of Buffer, Co-Founders Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People early in the company’s history, which had a profound influence on their thinking about Buffer and its values. Especially in the case of virtual teams, where there are typically fewer spontaneous opportunities to help people understand underlying assumptions, highlighting key influences can be helpful. Who and what are your key influences as a leader (or a founder)? If you haven’t previously shared these with others, how might you create an upcoming opportunity to do so?

Wherever your team resides, focus on values and culture to strengthen connections.

Has your team considered “ditching the office”? If so, what cultural aspects are you most concerned about? What have you learned so far? We invite your thoughts on social media.

About the Author

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Susan Camberis

Susan Camberis, MSHR, SPHR, is a learning and organizational development leader and is recognized for her passion for developing talent and creating sustainable value. From 1999 to 2013, Susan held various HR and talent management leadership roles with Baxter Healthcare. Susan is the Editor of Training Today, the online training magazine for the Association for Talent Development (ATD), Chicagoland Chapter. An active blogger, her work has appeared in, PBS Next,, and CSRwire. Susan holds a MSHR from Loyola University Chicago and a BS in Psychology from the University of Evansville.