Improving Communication—and Culture—From a Distance

There’s a familiar line in the business world that says culture is “the way we do things around here.” Reading a couple of recent studies around leadership in the pandemic era, I think that line ought to be more specific: Culture is be the way we communicate how we do things around here.


In a remote or hybrid environment, the risks of being misunderstood intensify. Zoom calls and email flatten everything to pixels, making it more difficult to discern which issues are truly high priority. That point is made in State of Association Workplaces Post-Pandemic Survey (Visit VSAE blog for link to the survey), recently released by Achurch Consulting and Association Trends. Based on the responses of 354 association leaders and decision-makers surveyed last May, the study found that many associations are still uncomfortable when it comes to transitioning from in-person work.


One piece of evidence of that is the survey’s finding that 70 percent of respondents say they’re concerned that there are now “fewer opportunities for organic communication and relationships.” Similarly, 62 percent cited concerns about a “change in workplace culture/morale.”


These two issues, the study’s authors conclude, are connected. “In the remote environment, communication becomes exponentially more important, and teams must be far more intentional with how and when they engage with one another,” says the report. “With a myriad of new communication tools and seemingly 24/7 accessibility to remote teammates, it is all too easy to interrupt employees’ work time or invade their personal hours regularly and without awareness.”


Culture is made—or undone—in those interruptions and invasions. And moreover, a lack of intentionality can sow confusion about what needs to be prioritized. One valuable recommendation the report makes is to broaden the palette of communication tools that an organization uses. Email can make everything seem important (or not), so using IM tools like Slack for quick exchanges or Microsoft Teams for collaborations can help workers keep communications in the proper context.


But technological tools, of course, aren’t solutions in themselves. According to the report, leaders in general, and middle managers in particular, need better training on how to cultivate relationships with their employees and better convey which messages matter most. “Middle managers are the crux of communication and workflow within a team,” the report states. “In the remote environment, their role becomes even more critical as the culture carriers of an organization.”

Training on those points have been spotty, according to the study: 56 percent of respondents say they’ve received training on communications in a remote-work environment, and only 36 percent on “social connectedness and culture.”


The unique circumstances of the pandemic have exacerbated these issues—not only is the work environment different now, so are the particular pressures organizations face in terms of meetings, education, and other ways of serving members. The problem is equally pronounced in the corporate world: A recent CEO survey by a leadership consulting firm found that “just 44 percent of CEOs said they were fully aligned with their teams, and even fewer said the same about their boards.”


With that level of disconnect, the need to properly communicate the importance of the work you do—and helping teams do the same—becomes all the more urgent.


What does your organization do to clarify communication remotely?


About the Author:

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. 

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