Do you really know what your company culture is? Can you define it in a way outsiders would understand? That may be more complicated than we think.

I was reminded of this when I attended a client’s Leadership Summit earlier this month. The CEO was adamant that the culture that made the company successful must be maintained as they look to the future. To be fair, this person isn’t a big proponent of remote and hybrid work, but was facing the reality of a mobile work force and the need to attract new talent. He was legitimately doing his best (and a pretty darned good job).

At one point he said (paraphrasing here, but it’s pretty close),. “Our success during rocky times has always been a low-risk approach. We don’t chase trends or markets, we manage risk better than anyone else.”  Five minutes later he said about bringing in new talent, “We need to take chances, to push the envelope.” I looked around and everyone was nodding. As the outsider all I could see was a paradox: how do you intentionally avoid risks and trends, and still think “out of the box,” and take chances? Those who have been there a while obviously understood how to navigate that contradiction, but what was the message to new people? Can leaders there articulate how to do both things at once, and how do they do it there?

Facing the Contradictions in Our Culture

We as leaders find ourselves at a bit of a crossroads. We’re trying to figure out what the return to office is going to look like. We don’t just mean who sits where and whether people come into the office on Tuesdays or not. A lot of us are asking, “How do we support our company culture if we’re working apart from each other so much?” More importantly, how can we be intentional about forming the culture and work environment we aspire to?

For a long time, culture was defined externally. We joined a company and there was a working culture already in place, all we had to do was adjust and fit in. If we were in a startup, there was the aspirational culture, and then how things really worked in a cash-strapped, understaffed, pressure cooker. Sometimes the workplace matched the pretty words in the vision statement, sometimes not but everyone knew how things “really worked.”

We are at a unique moment in time when we can see clearly how our team or company really gets things done and make some decisions about what we want that to look like in the future. We have hired a lot of new people who don’t remember or have a stake in how things were, but will part of helping your organization become what it will be.

Intentionally talking about culture

Take the time to talk to your team about what their aspirational culture looks like. What kind of workplace do they want to build together? Then ask them honestly how things really work now.

Odds are, there are contradictions and paradoxes that appear. Some will be obvious (how do we work together as a team when our bonus system is all based on individual output?) and others will be more subtle (You say you want to innovate, but do people feel punished for failure or encouraged to take risks?)

What are the day to day behaviors and choices that determine how your team really gets things done? Does it match your lofty aspirations? If so, how can you support that. If there are contradictions, are they serious, minor, or easily navigated?

Analyzing how your team works day in and day out takes reflection and the will to dig a bit but you’ll find it’s worth it. Now is the time while people are in a reflective mood. When things get ramped up and people are running full speed may be too late to make the kind of major adjustments that may be required.



Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

The latest book from Wayne and Kevin shows leaders how to design a team culture that has a one-team mindset and gets great results under hybrid-work conditions. You can pre-order The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team for Everyone’s Success now.

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