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How to Create a Unified Culture in a Company With Multiple Offices

Crafting the right company culture in one office is hard enoughâ€"imagine trying to create a cohesive culture with employees all around the world.
Creating a culture is unlike any other business endeavor; it involves creating an intangible set of subtle rules and ideas that are often difficult to manage.
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What makes your company unique? Whether your company employs three people or three hundred people, in one office or five, every leader should constantly be working towards a singular company culture where employees feel aligned with the company mission. But as your company grows and you start managing remote employees, certain challenges will arise. The last thing you want is your satellite employees to feel unaligned with the company's mission, and to lose sight of company goals. Even worse, you don't want your employees to begin to feel like outcasts.

Creating a culture is unlike any other business endeavor; it involves creating an intangible set of subtle rules and ideas that are often difficult to manage. "Not everything that happens in a business is based on visible, objective, and formal rules," writes Mark Williams in Fit In! The Unnofficial Guide to Corporate Culture. "Some things are more subtle; they live between the lines of the company manual. These informal rules are a powerful hidden force—governing everything from where you sit in a meeting to how you address your superior."

These challenges are amplified when employees work in multiple locations, but there are tactical decisions that can make your company's employees feel more aligned with a company vision. After all, a strong company culture will keep turnover rates low, productivity high, and employees happy—whether they're in the company headquarters or half the world away.

Dig Deeper: How to Build a Bulletproof Company Culture

Create a Unified Culture: Identify the Challenges

Opening offices in multiple locations may be the next logical step for your company is it grows. After all, having a market presence in diverse geographical locations may be the key to your company's success.

But perhaps the biggest loss in separating employees is the loss of personal interaction. Often, the tone of an organization is set by the little things—conversations by the water cooler, friendly exchanges in the elevator, and even a shared sense of 'office humor,' like little games played among co-workers. These aspects of office life contribute directly to the type of culture you set up—whether it's a rigid, formal setting, or a relaxed, Tony Hsieh-esque environment.

These personal interactions often will also set often the tone for employee collaboration in finding solutions to work-related problems. So if your employees are located in different offices, one of the biggest challenges will be finding ways for your employees to stay in touch and learn a bit about each other.   

Mehrdad Baghai, the managing director of Alchemy Growth Partners, a boutique advisory and venture firm in Sydney, Australia, spent months researching the world's most innovative and successful companies for his book As One: Individual Action, Collective Power. Often, these companies had thousands of employees, located in offices around the world. But what made these companies so successful, Baghai found, was their ability to make their employees feel as if they were part of a clear company mission, or goal.  'One thing that we noticed is that if you want to get large number of people to do something, they tend to have a what we call a shared identity,' Baghai says. 'Somehow the group must begin to see itself as a group, and as long as there's reasonable consistency among the people in the organization, it seems to work well.'

Dig Deeper: 8 Tips for Building a Great Culture

How to Create a Unified Culture: Open Up Lines of Communication 

Companies with a unified culture all have one common trait: they are effective communicators not just with customers, but also amongst themselves. These companies will value their employees opinions, and they'll work hard to recognize individual accomplishments (and not just as a plaque under the 'Employee of the Month' sign in the break room). While company-wide barbeques may work for some companies, employees in far-off offices won't get to participate, so internal, online communication becomes essential. Here are a few tips to instill bullet-proof company culture throughout all company offices.

  • Blog –  A company blog is a great way to reach customers and drive traffic to your site, but it's also a great way to keep all of your employees in the loop about what's going on in different departments or locations. For example, Johnny Cupcakes, the popular T-Shirt retailer, is keeping a detailed blog of its new store opening in the United Kingdom. It also featured, in pictures and in text, the employees that are spearheading their overseas expansion. While this is great for reaching current customers, it also illustrates how a company can give employees far and wide access to different parts of the organization.
  • Newsletter or Intranet –  'Internal communication is one of the most important, yet least focused on, areas of business,' says Carol Nicolaides for Insider Reports, an online journal that focuses on business issues. A newsletter or daily e-mail can inform employees about what's going on with the company, it can highlight employees accomplishments, but most importantly, a newsletter can set the tone for how employees think about their job and their company. Whether the newsletter tells a funny company story or highlights one of the company's customers, a company-wide newsletter can shed light on what your company truly values.
  • Online Collaboration Tools –  People connect with friends and family all over the world using Facebook—why not have them connect with co-workers using a similar service? There are many work-related collaboration tools on the market, but perhaps the most efficient is Yammer. With Yammer, employees can post pictures, send messages, and even chat with their co-workers. Yammer can reinforce the idea of personal interactions, and help build a singular vision among your employees.

Dig Deeper: How to Expand Without Losing Your Indie Culture

How to Create a Unified Culture: Build it Into the Office—Literally

Having multiple office locations will inevitably spur jealously by employees who perceive their co-workers in other locations to enjoy certain amenities not afforded to them. 'Sure, we have a covered parking lot, but they have a gym,' one may say, or 'The food in their cafeteria is better than ours.'

A manager may think these types of differences to be immaterial, but they are not. Often, it's the little things that matter most to employees, and these differences tend to create an 'Us Versus Them' mentality. When thinking about your office build-out, it's essential to try and remain as fair as possible. This doesn't mean every office must be a cookie-cutter clone of all offices, but keep in mind that your employees will be offended if they find out their counterparts in a main office get special treatment.

'I think a head office tends to forget about the little guys; they feel like they're left in no-man's land and they feel like no one cares about them,' says Michelle Berg, president of the Calgary, Canada-based Eleveated HR. Berg, who works with organizations both in Canada and the United States, say that an employer must make a conscious effort to involve the smaller, satellite offices.

Berg also points out that a unified culture will 'rally the troops,' but with multiple locations, this task becomes more challenging. For example, Berg recently worked with a client that had a gong in his office; when an employee came back with a big sale, he'd ring the gong. But employees in other offices didn't get to experience that excitement, Berg says, so she needed to find a way to reach the satellite employees. The solution? The manager now sends out an 'e-mail gong" to complement the office gong. 'Hey, you have to rally the troops somehow,' Berg says.

Having a standardized set of policies is crucial to keeping that "Us Versus Them" mentality at bay. Offering perks to employees in one office, while not offering them to employees in a separate office, will create a negative feeling between locations. For example, if you have workers overseas that receive 30 vacation days, while workers in the United States receive 15, your employees may resent the international contingent, which may strain communication between the two groups. Even if governmental regulations vary on how much vacation an employee must be guaranteed, it could be a smart business decision to adopt the more liberal policy for your company—and it will certainly keep your workers happy.

Dig Deeper: The Zappos Way of Managing

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Feb 24, 2011




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