This article is intended for remote work cases where an in-person meeting is rarely or never possible. Face-to-face meetings are always the best way to build comradery and maintain your culture.
The popularity of working remotely has been growing constantly over the past decade. However, before the spread of COVID-19 (a.k.a. novel coronavirus), it was estimated that only 50% of the workforce would have the ability to work remotely by this year(2020), an Upwork study found that 57% of companies don’t even have a remote work policy, and a survey by BambooHR revealed that a vast majority of workers still believe they accomplish their best work at the office. These facts translate to both employers and employees who are not prepared for the distance working scenario with which they may now be faced. Maintaining company culture is an important part of making remote working actually work.
Much of an organization’s culture is driven by the day-to-day interactions of the individuals that make up the larger whole. Hiring the right people, putting them in the right environment, and fostering an atmosphere conducive to the intended culture is usually enough to achieve the desired results. However, when workers are taken out of the collaborative environment of the shared corporate office and split into individual contributors at remote locations, it is crucial that you, as an employer, make a conscious and coordinated effort to build or maintain a holistic company culture. While more difficult with a remote workforce, this is not impossible. By intentionally determining the vision of the culture you want to foster, enabling (in some cases forcing) intra and inter-team communication, and taking a “hands-on” approach to coaching, you can create and sustain a healthy culture with a remote workforce.
Defining Your Culture
Having a set company mission, vision, values, and expectations for a positive work environment drives the direction your culture takes in any organization. With a remote or distributed team, it is extremely important to document what you hope your company culture becomes at the beginning. After determining what you want your culture to look like, demonstrate the importance of achieving that goal by making sure everyone on your team knows and understands your vision. Then, subtly reinforce the ideas daily basis by bringing the office to your team. Send your remote workers things that reflect the same design aesthetic and culture elements as you would have in your physical corporate office (i.e. posters, t-shirts, or branded items for their desks.
Enabling and Fostering Communication
Your remote team culture will flourish or fail, purely on communication. Communicating what you want your culture to reflect is only the first step. Getting communication right for your team is a combination of the right policy, technology, and modeling the desired behavior.
The first step in establishing quality communication with a remote team is to select the right technology. This does not mean the newest, most popular, or feature-heavy tools. Rather, it is important that the technology is easy to use for all members of YOUR team and that it is reliable. There are many different options to choose from (e.g. Microsoft 365, Google G-Suite, Slack, etc.) but the right one is ultimately dependent on your mix of skills and abilities. If your team is used to working in Microsoft Office, transitioning to the Microsoft Office 365 collaboration toolset will be much more intuitive than starting to use Google Hangouts. You also need to remember that there won’t be on-site tech support if they need help.
In parallel to selecting a technology, you and your team should begin setting norms through policy. These norms will include items like guidelines on what communication method to use in different circumstances (e.g. chat is for informal communication, difficult conversations should be hosted via video, documents should be shared through collaboration tools rather than emailed back and forth, etc.) but also layout expected behavior (e.g. camera-on for all meetings, limit background noise, mute your mic when not talking for calls with over 5 people). If everyone starts with the same expectations, it is easier to manage the outcome.
In addition to policy establishing norms, combine your technology and policy to set up a team rhythm. Establish regular check-ins including weekly “all-hands,” one-on-one meetings with each of your direct reports (and expect them to do the same with theirs), and monthly or quarterly employee surveys to get feedback on how they are feeling and what they are missing. It is important to set these as formal policies to assure they do not fall by the wayside. Intending to keep a rhythm is different than actually keeping it. The expectation should be that these things happen and are attended by everyone unless there is an emergency—and that includes you.
Formal meetings are only one piece of the communication puzzle. Just like in an office, it is important to allow for informal “water cooler” time. Utilize your collaboration tools to allow employees to spend time with each other not talking about work. They must know that, within reason, they can talk about anything in this shared space. Setting up a virtual coffee breakthrough your video conference system is a great way to start this, however, it doesn’t have to be that formal. At Inspirant Group we have a chat channel called “The Water Cooler” where people can say good morning, ask for movie recommendations, or tell (work-appropriate) jokes. Not everyone actively participates but that is no different than in a physical office. Some people tell jokes, others laugh.
Demonstrating that “The Water Cooler” is a non-workspace where people can discuss things without retribution (i.e. “Why aren’t you working?) starts you. Start by seeding “The Water Cooler” with questions like, “What is your favorite movie?” or “What cartoon character do you most identify with. Not only does this get a conversation going, but it also shows that it is ok to talk about non-work-related topics on there. You can also start to include non-work conversations in team meetings. At Inspirant Group, start all of our meetings with a “best personal and best professional thing to happen in the past week.” By proactively getting these things out there, you are more likely to see follow up conversations in your virtual community space after the meeting. Other ideas to promote friendship amongst your remote contributors include pairing up team members randomly each week and setting aside time for them to talk, creating groups of people who have something in common and tasking them with figuring out what it is and assigning mentors who are not direct supervisors.
Modeling the desired behavior starts with things like participating in the water cooler but it doesn’t end there. You need to practice what you preach everywhere. Respect the team rhythm you set up. Don’t cancel one-on-one meetings unless it is an emergency.
Finally, don’t forget about the new hires. Introduce them to the entire team. Have them answer some questions about themselves, their hobbies, families, etc. and share that with the organization (assuming you get their permission first). Make sure they feel welcome. They may never meet their coworkers in person.
For leaders of remote workers, it is easy to forget that your team looks up to you. Communication is again key here. Make sure you are having conversations with them and not just assigning them tasks through a system. When assigning something new, the best practices is to have a discussion over the phone or video chat before you assign it to them in your work tracking software. This allows them to understand what needs to be done before seeing it pop into their “to-dos.” Allow time to ask questions. Be clear on what is expected to be done when. Most importantly, treat them like a human. Ask them how they are doing or how their weekend was. The assigning of tasks may not feel like a cultural concern, but if your team feels like they are factory workers taking the next item that comes down the line and not participants in the overall process, that will start to show itself in cultural changes. Finally, make sure you are proactively assuring that they are separating home time from work time. Just because the office is in the house that doesn’t mean the office is their home.
Building and maintaining a group culture with remote workers requires a different set of tools than the same task in a shared space. However, if you take the time to set your goal, enable your team to communicate with as little friction as possible, and continue your role as coach, it is possible to establish cultural closeness over even the vastest distances