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How to boost a culture of accountability

Working from home was a must during the pandemic, and it’s now a choice that many people are making as part of their new work normal. The challenge with a distributed workforce is that the cues that help create cultural norms are diluted. But there’s a way to do it well.

Working from home was a must during the pandemic, and it’s now a choice that many people are making as part of their new work normal.

The challenge with having a hybrid and distributed workforce is that the cues that help create cultural norms are diluted, patchy, or even missing completely.  The banter with colleagues, the physical space of the workplace, even what’s displayed on walls, are all cultural symbols that signal ‘what’s important and how we do things around here’.

Because that’s what culture is all about. From an evolutionary perspective, cultural norms are what current knowledge tells us ‘works’ most successfully for the tribe to survive and thrive. Note what I said there – what current knowledge tells us. It can be easy to think of culture as something that is hard to change, but the reality is that culture is a learning process that uncovers what works for the tribe (your team) to successfully achieve its goals. As the tribe discovers more effective ways to ‘survive and thrive’, less effective cultural practices fall away and are replaced by newer ones that support the tribe to develop and grow.

The good news is that when we look at culture as a learning process, hybrid work practices becomes less of a roadblock. Will things need to change? Yes! Because the previous cultural norms established when we were working together physically are no longer the most effective way to take the team towards success.

So, what could this look like for accountability?

I developed a simple framework to break down the mystique of culture for my clients – the 4R Containers of Culture. The framework uses Role modelling, Routines, Rituals and Rhythms to unpack culture, so let’s see how we can use it to craft an accountability culture with hybrid teams.

Our brains are wired for connection, which means that the learning and cultural cues we get from observing others is significant. This is particularly true for leaders, who – because of both their perceived and real power in the group – have greater influence in setting cultural norms. Because of this, leaders need to be aware and intentional about how their interactions in meetings, one-on-ones or through email model the accountability mindset and behavioural norms they want the team to follow.

For example, openly sharing progress towards your goals – even when it’s not going to plan – will create a cultural norm of transparency and safety. Doing this for non-work-related goals, such as fitness or a DIY project, creates the opportunity for deeper connections with the team and role models that the non-work side of life is relevant and of value too. And this kind of role modelling can be done in a Zoom chat as easily as a meeting room.

One benefit of cultural norms is that they help us organise and coordinate to be effective and efficient as we achieve our goals. Routines – the way we get the work done together – are what help us do this in a work environment. They are the mechanics of the team.

Working remotely can have a real impact on motivation, as we lose the in-person contact with colleagues, the feeling of togetherness, and the relational energy that comes with it. Even if we’re working on different projects, just being in the same physical space makes a difference – that’s why co-working spaces have become so popular.

One way to help create that connection and energy with hybrid teams is to run virtual ‘work caves’ where the team come together via your virtual platform (Zoom, Teams, etc.) to work individually but concurrently on important tasks. One team member ‘hosts’ by deciding on the timing of each ‘work sprint’ and ‘brain break’ exercise, and holding accountability check-ins at various points throughout (and definitely at the end).

If routines are about effectiveness of a group, rituals are about connectedness – that of the team members to each other, and to the goals they are working towards. Rituals support the dynamics of the team.

Hybrid work practices make it more challenging for leaders to keep their finger on the pulse of team dynamics. Without the opportunity to walk around and ‘feel’ the energy of the whole team in one location, you need to take a more proactive and structured approach to ensure team members can voice concerns, raise issues and provide feedback.

Eco-friendly cleaning-products brand Method hold a quarterly, anonymous ‘Come Clean’ survey in which team members share their feedback on how the organisation is (or isn’t) living its values and meeting its strategic commitments. The CEO then discusses the results and addresses where they might be falling down in a town hall.

An open forum like this with your team will encourage transparency, feedback and debate – all important for accountability – and, just as importantly, will make your people feel heard.

In terms of cultural norms, how frequently something happens sends a signal about how important it is to helping the team achieve its goals. With hybrid work, the accountability cultural cues and ‘nudges’ that are present in the physical work environment are seen and accessed less often by team members, which may mean leaders need to dial up the frequency of their virtual replacements.

For example, sales targets or project milestone trackers that may have been displayed on a wall in the workplace, and so could be seen at any time by everyone, could be the focus of fifteen-minute ‘progress huddles’ two or three times a week; one-on-ones that may have been monthly or quarterly over lunch now become a weekly twenty-minute check-in over a coffee. The key is to keep these short, focused, and with clear purpose.

The secret to making accountability culture work with hybrid teams is intentionality. Leaders cannot leave it to chance.

By seeing culture as a learning process and deliberately using the Four Rs to create new cultural norms for accountability, you can lead yourself and your hybrid team to thrive and succeed.

Dr Paige Williams is the author of Own It! Honouring and Amplifying Accountability (Grammar Factory)

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