- Tools like Zoom, Teams and Slack have all proven indispensable in keeping companies' operations flowing.
- But one of the biggest challenges for managers and team leaders since the beginning of the pandemic has been cultivating a company culture, especially when everyone is scattered.
It marked a move beyond simple communications and productivity tools with a focus around employee engagement and company culture as remote or hybrid working becomes increasingly normalized.
Tools like Zoom, Teams and Slack have all proven indispensable in keeping companies' operations flowing. But one of the biggest challenges for managers and team leaders since the beginning of the pandemic has been cultivating a company culture, especially when everyone is scattered.
For Casey Flint, an associate at Australian venture capital firm Square Peg, a burgeoning area dubbed "culture-as-a-service" is one to watch as start-ups build bespoke tech solutions to help address these gaps in employee engagement.
"Culture-as-a-service is software that is orientated around the employee experience and that's how I distinguish it from HR tech," she told CNBC.
This will be key in managing hybrid workforces and attracting and retaining talent, she said.
"It encapsulates a bunch of different things that have been typically done by HR and people leaders at companies. That's things like feedback on performance, onboarding and value sharing, learning and development, team activities."
One such tool is Workvivo. The start-up, which is backed by Zoom Chief Executive Eric Yuan, develops a workplace social network that connects management and staff on an equal playing field for feedback and discussion.
According to a survey conducted by the company, 57% of employees "feel less connected to their organization's goals" since the coronavirus pandemic took hold while more than half feel their work achievements are noticed less by higher-ups since moving to remote work.
"In the digital world, recognition does a number of things," Chief Executive John Goulding said. "There's a feel-good factor but it's also bringing alive what's happening in the organization, the culture and ultimately shared values and beliefs."
"That's a huge part of people feeling part of something bigger. It hugely influences the emotional commitment to the organization and that's what organizations are reaching out to us for help with."
The dynamic of meetings in the future will be very different with a mix of people physically present and those remote.
EY's Global Vice Chair of Consulting Errol Gardner recalled a recent meeting with colleagues in New York where several were physically present in the room and others joined by video link.
"The people in the room spoke to each other in the room so the dialogue became very fragmented compared to those that were online."
This is one of the bottlenecks to be addressed to ensure that no one is overshadowed in this new normal.
"Part of it is having to upgrade technology within their office environment so it makes it easier to have that seamless experience of traversing from a physical world into collaborative working online with other people who are outside of the physical space," Gardner said.
Square Peg's Flint said face-to-face interactions can never be fully replicated digitally and leaders still need to be actively involved in their company's culture.
"You still can't let it go on autopilot. I think a lot of this will make it easier to scale these programs but you can't take your foot off the gas and can't stop being intentional about how you build culture."
While Microsoft has thrown its hat in the ring, start-ups will play a major role in this industry by tackling niche challenges, Flint said.
"Start-ups can move a lot faster. That will work in their advantage. One big difference that I see in culture-as-a-service start-ups is that they're really selling bottom up," she said.
Workvivo's Goulding said that there is still a feeling of the unknown around some HR tech and communications tools.
He said companies are "taking a leap of faith into the world of open transparent communications" and that requires trust in the employee, a key part of building culture.
"As an employee, I can post on Workvivo and I don't need to go through an approval process to do that. Some aren't ready for that," he said.
EY's Gardner said companies need to avoid situations where people physically present "have primacy over others" and ensure a more egalitarian environment for workers regardless of their location.
"It's as much about the behaviors [of people] as what the technology will enable in terms of getting to the right outcome," he said.
Building that inclusive culture will be a defining factor for companies in attracting and retaining talent, he said.
Offering workers the option to work remotely is one thing but if those employees feel like they're on the outside looking in, it can cause gaps in the company culture.
"Being able to offer that flexibility to staff going forward will be a competitive differentiator for most organizations," Gardner said.