Living in a Virtual World: 10 Tips for Culture

living-in-a-virtual-world:-10-tips-for-culture

Does the coronavirus pandemic change culture?

Not the core elements. Human nature remains the same and so does healthy culture. But in this new virtual world, how culture is built and sustained must evolve.

Healthy cultures create environments that meet people’s basic needs. Abraham Maslow’s framework — his hierarchy of needs — has proven useful with our clients, and the emerging virtual world hasn’t changed its effectiveness.

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The table below shows the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, the needs associated with each level, and the potential payoff.

Maslow Level Basic Human Need Payoff
Purpose/Service “I want my work to feel meaningful, like I’m doing something useful. I’m contributing and helping others.” Motivation due to connection to a higher purpose, work is meaningful and benefits key stakeholders.
Mastery/Development “I want chances to learn and develop. I want to feel progress. I want to be on a winning team.” Team is engaged and becomes high performing. Talent is retained. Highest and best use is achieved.
Belonging/Connection “I like being part of a team, I don’t want to be isolated, alone. It feels good to accomplish and succeed together.” People are more engaged when on a team (4X) and even more when on a well-led team (8X). Teamwork raises morale.
Safety/Security “I want to feel safe to be myself, to be real at work. I don’t waste time and energy pretending to be a certain way. I’m treated with respect.” When workers feel safe, they will: Speak up, Challenge, Ask questions, Risk, Experiment (SCARE).

To build and maintain a successful firm culture, each level within a firm must be assessed. Do staff members feel safe enough to speak up, ask questions, take risks? Do they feel a sense of connection when they collaborate on a team? Are they encouraged to grow and develop? And, finally, do they see their work as meaningful? Are they doing something useful? Are they contributing?

When firms design cultures that address and meet these needs, they bring the best out of their staff. One simple definition of good leadership is just that: bringing the best out of their people. Good culture is necessary for that to occur.

But what about in these uncertain times? How is the formula affected? Again, we believe the framework remains in place, but the execution differs. For example, in normal times the need for connection could be met by simply having coffee with colleagues: good conversation, some laughs, updates on kids, thoughts about a work project. That connection “fix” would last several hours until, say, a client meeting in the afternoon provided another interaction hit. Introverts and extroverts differ on how many “hits” they want, but the office setting allowed for them to have some control over the frequency.

Leaders and teammates who wish to maintain strong culture in the virtual world should take note of these 10 adaptations in the four Maslow levels. Starting at the bottom of the Maslow ladder and working upward:

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Safety/Security

For leaders to pass the “SCARE” test and create safety for their staff, they must understand that there are three main reasons why people become fearful. They become fearful because one of the following is threatened:

  • Security: “I may lose my job” or “My savings may get wiped out.”
  • Approval: “I may lose the friendship of a colleague” or “The client does not like me.”
  • Control: “I can’t control my environment from distractions” or “I have no input on decisions that affect me.”

For leaders and team members to create safety, these tips will help:

1. Security types want order and predictability.

In a virtual world, provide information on as many fronts as possible: job security, compensation, work-at-home structure, and so on. Reassure where possible: “Your job is secure, and so is your current compensation.” If that is not true, then be honest and explain why.

Security types are thinkers. They approach life from a rational point of view and need to be able to think their way to safety.

2. Approval types are relationship oriented. They want to be liked. They fear rejection.

In a virtual world, they miss the continual contact with people. Safety is knowing that people care. In the virtual world, colleagues can help these types by frequent connection and deeper check-ins: “How is your family doing? How are you doing?” Listen carefully and watch for openings to let them open up. If they say, “My mom is not doing well,” you can simply ask, “How so?” You may need to ask a second time because relationship types don’t want to burden others, so they need to hear a genuine “I care and want to hear more” from you. Also, respond to any outreach from them. One relationship-oriented client told me, “I sent out an email to colleagues and got no response. I immediately thought, ‘They don’t like it. They don’t like ME.’”

3. Control types become agitated and fearful in this virtual environment when they have lost control.

They may have children, spouses, workers, or pets interrupting them continually. They may have technology issues: The internet is down, Zoom won’t work, their laptop conked out. One client complained that the water heater burst and he spent the better part of two days having it fixed. And so on.

Colleagues who recognize that certain people are triggered by loss of control can help. Where possible, provide opportunities where they can be in control: planning meeting agendas, scheduling meetings, topics, decision rights, delegation of tasks, deadlines, and allow them to speak up and “have the floor.” The more control they regain, the safer they feel.

Often control types express their annoyance as anger rather than fear. But underneath the anger is fear inspired by loss of control. Above all, watch your attempts to control them in this new world. That won’t help matters!

Oh yes, and noise-canceling headphones are a must.

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Belonging/Connection

4. To promote closer bonds, make sure all team members have and use webcams.

Some may resist turning them on at first. “I’m having a bad hair day.” “I’m still in my robe.” Sorry, seeing one another is essential to better connection. So run a brush through your hair and put on a shirt. (“Waist up” works.)

Without the visual, body language and eye contact are lost. Many clients feel that virtual meetings from home actually add to team intimacy. You see people in their natural environment, with pets and people wandering by.

And finally, webcams are a great way to keep people honest: They tend not to multi-task when you can see them!

5. Learn and use the features of Zoom, or whatever technology you have.

The benefits of messaging are enormous. A facilitator can ask, “Which prospects are the best follow-ups right now?” All the team members type in their thoughts and — bang — you have a list two minutes later. Then you can create a polling slide on Zoom to arrange the names and prioritize them. Again, two minutes. Now you have a ranked list of hot prospects to talk about. Some of our clients tell us that virtual meetings are MORE productive than their in-persons.

Another useful feature in Zoom — can you tell we like Zoom 😊? — is the breakout room. If you have a larger group, say 12 people, you can propose a topic, then assign people to breakout rooms where they can discuss as a triad. Introverts tend to prefer this approach to speaking to a larger group.

6. Emotional intelligence (EQ) becomes even more important in a virtual world.

Self-awareness and others-awareness — knowing your team members — is always important, but in a virtual world where you must work harder to maintain good relationships, EQ really helps.

Personality typing as a virtual offsite is one approach that has served us well. Traditional offsites — golf, tennis, sporting events, ropes course, etc. — are on hiatus these days, so a half day devoted to learning more about your colleagues can be fun and beneficial. Teams like this way of connecting more deeply in a virtual setting. (It works fine on Zoom. And no, we are not being compensated by Zoom.)

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Mastery / Development

7. The pandemic has eliminated many of the outlets we had to fulfill this need.

Physical conferences, classrooms, and networking have all gone on hiatus. Also missing: trading insights at the coffee machine, learning a new Excel technique, pointing to a Bloomberg Terminal and asking about a stock, or receiving direct and immediate feedback about a presentation.

So, in the virtual world learning must be more structured. Now, clients are scheduling learning sessions devoted specifically to exchanging insights or providing constructive feedback. One step beyond that is committing to deliberate practice. Time away from the office, train, or airport is a great opportunity to seriously dedicate yourself to improvement in a certain area.

Many of us labor under the delusion that “practice makes perfect.” It doesn’t. Practice makes permanent. For example, if you go out to the driving range and hit 100 golf balls — incorrectly — then you have perfected a bad stroke. Deliberate practice involves setting a specific goal, mindfully executing the skill, then evaluating what worked or didn’t after each attempt. If you are learning a musical instrument, you’re better off playing slowly and getting it right than you are racing along, making mistakes, and “perfecting” them.

8. Explore your highest and best use. We call it “genius.”

Another opportunity during this virtual time? If you are gaining “no-commute” hours, then use them to discover your genius. Keep track of what tasks give you energy and joy. What are you naturally brilliant at? Where do you get continual positive feedback? Many people don’t identify their genius area because it’s second nature, so integral a part of who they are, they barely notice it.

One CEO we know is a genius at client interface. He calls it the “X” factor: It is intangible but crucial to success. But could he teach it to team members? “Well, I’m not really sure what I do,” he told us. “I just build great rapport and trust with clients.” Yet, as he began to unpack his skill, he realized that many aspects of it could be learned.

So use this virtual time to investigate what your genius skills are and how you can use them more often. And can you teach them to others? Leverage that genius.

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Purpose / Service

9. Purpose and service sit at the top of the Maslow hierarchy for a reason.

Purpose is fundamentally different from the three other levels. Those levels are needs that must be satisfied to keep us from feeling anxious. But purpose does not depend on circumstance. For example, safety becomes paramount if you lose your job and income. It moves from “All is well” to “Uh oh!”

Not so with purpose. When we feel deeply purpose-driven, it becomes a True North. We may be closer or farther from it, but it does not waver. So, when staff members start to feel disengaged in this virtual world, purpose is the most powerful lever to pull them back in.

But leaders must take the pulse of their own passion around purpose and keep it strong. Then they must check in with team members on the same point. If purpose is flagging, inquire about and work to restore it. What personal purpose do team members feel passionate about? How does that connect to the work of the firm? Find the connection. Strengthen it.

10. The work environment often has physical reminders of the firm’s purpose.

Photos of and letters from happy clients, mission statements in the reception area and conference rooms, all serve as cues to remind us of why we are at the firm and what our mission is. In our virtual setting, these mementoes are missing.

So find objects that inspire you and place them around you. I have bookshelves all around with wisdom about creating great places to work. And I have a world map with pins in the places that I’ve traveled to help create those great work cultures. They inspire me. Find the objects that inspire you in your work. Meaning matters.

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The virtual world has its pros and cons. From a cultural perspective, it requires some mindful attention to keep it strong. In addition to these specific tips, talk to your team members about culture at the firm. What are the core values? Are they evident in your experience? Do you measure them? (We do simple spot surveys with clients — three minutes — to monitor culture.)

Most critical of all: Are you modeling the values and behaviors yourself? After all, you are the only thing that you control. Own those values. Practice them. Advocate for them.

Culture is too important to success to let slide in our new, virtual world.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©Getty Images / Justin Paget


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Jim Ware, CFA

James Ware, CFA, is the founder of Focus Consulting Group, a firm dedicated to helping investment leaders leverage their talent. Ware is the author of “Investment Leadership: Building a Winning Culture for Long-Term Success,” and “High Performing Investment Teams,” both of which discuss those elements of leadership and teamwork that lead to sustainable success for investment firms. Ware has 20 years’ experience as a research analyst, portfolio manager, and director of buy-side investment operations. He has been a guest lecturer on the topic of investment firm management at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University. Ware has a Masters in Business from the University of Chicago and a degree in philosophy from Williams College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

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