By Vaughan Granier

In 2020, as lockdown forced Kiwis to trial remote working, significant numbers of people started to love the concept – and after lockdown lifted, the home habit remained.

According to the NZ’s Public Service Commission, the proportion of Kiwis doing at least some of their work from home during lockdown reached as high as 40 per cent. By the time things cooled down to Alert Level 1, 83 per cent were working outside the home and 29 per cent at home, and by the end of 2021, AUT University data showed 48 per cent of respondents were hybrid working, with most working 50/50 office/home – plus a full 15 per cent of New Zealand workers working from home full-time.

When you factor in changes in employee costs, redundancies, expenses around managing health and safety remotely and changes to company culture and policies, it’s safe to say remote work has brought significant shifts in how businesses operate. Now, with employees scattered across different locations, maintaining a positive workplace culture can pose a challenge.

What this means for you as an employer is your team may question its sense of belonging, collaboration, and well-being, potentially affecting productivity. Let’s explore strategies to build a positive workplace culture in a working-from-home environment.

1. Prioritise communication and transparency

When staff are scattered remotely, what keeps workplace culture stable? The answer is clear communication.

This begins with communicating your flexible work policy, then letting employees know in the nicest way possible that if you’re honouring their right to work remotely, they’ll need to adhere to their side.

Employers should establish effective channels for communication to ensure staff can easily connect with their colleagues and superiors.

Some of the best channels are:

  • Instant messaging platforms;
  • Video conferencing tools; and
  • Project management software.

Transparency is equally important. Leaders should openly share company updates, goals, and challenges, ensuring that remote employees are well-informed. Encouraging transparency fosters trust and helps remote workers feel connected to the larger organisational purpose.

To take an example of a Kiwi company HR Assured has been helping:

At this company, a weekly video conference for all employees was all it took to greatly stabilise the culture during COVID. At the time, this forum was dedicated to addressing COVID developments. The corporate and cultural resilience this created can only be truly understood in hindsight, and this forum has remained in place and has become a mainstay of inter-team communication.

2. Cultivate a sense of belonging through teambuilding

What’s the main thing remote work staff miss out on?

Water cooler conversation is the answer – though it’s not the water cooler itself, it’s what it represents.

Remote employees often miss out on the social interactions and informal conversations that occur naturally in traditional office environments.

To combat this, organisations should actively cultivate a sense of belonging by encouraging some of the following virtual team building activities:

  • Online games;
  • Virtual coffee breaks; and
  • Informal video chats.

At HR Assured, for example, staff, utilised Microsoft Teams’ chat functions to create numerous channels, e.g., a “fun-only” teams chatgroup where employees can engage socially during the workday. It’s a relaxed culture where humour, GIFs, individual personalities, and general goofiness are allowed to shine through, helping reduce the sense of isolation that remote work can create.

3. Support professional development

Providing opportunities for professional growth and development is essential for building a positive workplace culture. Remote employees should be given access to training programs, webinars, workshops, or online courses that align with their career aspirations. Organisations can also implement mentorship programs, where experienced employees can guide and support their remote counterparts.

Recognising and celebrating employee achievements, whether it’s completing a project or acquiring a new skill, boosts morale and reinforces a culture of continuous learning.

4. Promote work-life balance and self-care

Did you know that the farthest-inland point in New Zealand – in central Otago – is only 119.4 kilometres from the ocean?

New Zealand offers extremely easy access to recreational facilities, green spaces, and water – but it’s important to ensure your workers take advantage of recreation and work-free time off with their family as part of work-life balance.

Employers should encourage their remote work-from-home workforce to establish boundaries and prioritise self-care by doing the following:

  • Encourage a distinct room to perform one’s work in;
  • Set clear expectations regarding working hours and availability;
  • Encourage regular breaks, exercise, and time off; and
  • Design a schedule that suits an individual needs, e.g. quick breaks for school or kindy drop-off and pick-up.

The result should be the employer can greatly enhance its reputation in the eyes of its workforce – and counterintuitively increase productivity – by actively encouraging and promoting clear boundaries.

5. Show appreciation and recognition

In a remote work environment, it’s crucial to proactively show appreciation for employees’ efforts and contributions. Recognising and rewarding achievements helps remote workers feel valued and motivated. The naturally outgoing individuals can have an advantage over the quieter ones in attracting attention in an online space, in the same way that they do in real life, so it’s important to ensure that all deserving employees receive appreciation.

Implementing a system of regular feedback and performance evaluations ensures that remote employees receive constructive guidance and recognition for their work. Publicly acknowledging outstanding contributions through virtual channels, such as company-wide emails or virtual town hall meetings, boosts employee morale and reinforces a positive work culture.

At HR Assured, for example, we have noticed that managers who actively prioritise involvement from all team members in online meetings, and give space for each person to contribute, are very effective in maintaining team engagement. The more introverted team members are given a space to open up, and the more naturally extroverted ones are guided to respect that space.

Fresh ideas on making HR work for you with minimal cost 

One of the best stories about keeping a remote workforce functioning well is our case study with High Country Contracting, a company that has the fascinating challenge of taking care of staff when they’re sometimes away from the office for a week at a time – often on mountaintops. Simply click through to read the story.

It won’t always initially be cost-free or cheap to have your staff work at home – but at HR Assured, we talk to hundreds of New Zealand businesses every week, so we can easily show how spending on a great remote set-up will reduce employee turnover and lessen health and safety costs – not to mention many other kinds of costs.

If you’re already an HR Assured client, you can call our Telephone Advisory Service anytime for support, and if you’re not, we’d like to invite you to try the service with a free phone call which is likely to solve some of your most pressing HR problems. 

Contact us today to arrange your confidential, no-obligation chat.

Vaughan Granier is the National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured NZ. He has over 24 years’ experience in international human resources, health and safety, and workplace relations management. With over 10 years working in New Zealand and Australian companies, he provides in-depth support to leadership teams across all areas of HR, Health and Safety, and employee management.