Creating Culture Across Remote Teams: 10 Tips from Pioneering Companies

One of the biggest challenges facing remote teams is how to create and maintain a positive company culture. In fact, it’s hard enough keeping a whole team happy and motivated when you all share a workspace. Get a distributed team of employees that have limited, if any, face-to-face contact, and this problem gets magnified a few times over.

That said, while it’s undeniably difficult to create a remote company culture and ensure distributed employees feel that they’re working towards a common goal, it’s certainly not impossible.

Here are 10 tips from pioneering companies that have bucked the trend of remote working = isolated working, to create a positive company culture across their remote teams.

1. Acceleration Partners – Invest in the right technology

It’s pretty much impossible for a remote business to operate successfully without the right technology. Legacy on-premise systems need to be replaced with cloud-based solutions that allow employees to work collaboratively and communicate with ease, regardless of where they’re located.

Acceleration Partners is a leading affiliate marketing company that boasts an impressive client list including brands like Adidas and Target.

Technology has played a key part in ensuring their remote team members feel as much a part of the culture as those who work from the office every day. Their chosen suite of tools includes:

  • Zoom – for video conferencing and other meetings.
  • Skype – to simplify real-time communications between employees in different locations.
  • Google Docs – to streamline task collaboration.
  • TINYpulse – to anonymously gauge workers’ feelings and identify any issues or concerns that may need addressing.

Read more about the steps Acceleration Partners has taken to create culture across remote teams here.

2. HelpScout – Leverage video

Help Scout’s team is spread out across the world – a setup that, as we know, can make it extremely difficult to create a positive company culture. Video is key to remedying this.

The company hosts weekly “Monday morning video parties” that are designed to “keep the team informed about new feature releases, birthdays and other company-wide news.” The meetings can be viewed live or team members in incompatible time zones can tune in later, so they don’t have to miss out.

Help Scout uses video for more than meetings, though.

I love their “Cribs” idea, in which team members were encouraged to give their colleagues insight into their life by making video tours of their homes.

They also host monthly “Troop Talks,” which they describe as “a lightly structured monthly video chat centered around a single topic.” Participation is totally optional, and staff members are notified in advance of the discussion topic, so they can decide whether or not they want to come along.

Read more about how Help Scout leverages video to create a remote culture here.

3. 15Five – Embrace transparency

Embracing transparency is something all businesses today should be trying to do. However, the additional challenge of building trusting relationships in remote teams makes transparency even more important.

15Five leverages their own tool to help foster a company culture based on “trust, accountability and transparency.” The company is always open to hearing feedback to the point that they encourage employees to give feedback on the performance of management.

Read more about how transparency is part of 15Five’s remote culture here.

4. Groove – Assess potential employees’ “fit” with a trial period

I can’t really state enough how important employees are to your company culture. Staff members who don’t share your beliefs or values and who don’t “buy into” what you’re trying to achieve will – almost certainly – have a negative impact on your culture.

To help minimize “wrong hires,” help desk software giant Groove assesses each potential employee’s “fit” with a trial period. This is designed for the benefit of both the potential staff member and Groove themselves. Not only does Groove want to ensure the potential hire will “fit” into their team, but they want the assurance that the person is going to feel happy and fulfilled in the role.

Only once the trial period is completed and it’s decided the potential hire “fits” the Groove culture, will they be taken on full time.

You can read more about how Groove hires top talent remotely here.

5. 6Q – Introduce new remote workers to the whole team

It goes without saying that when a new hire comes to work with you on-premises, you introduce them to everyone they’ll be working with and, depending on the size of the company, potentially to the whole team.

Unfortunately, this social ritual is often sidestepped when that employee works remotely. 6Q, which offers tools for collecting employee feedback, follows a process that ensures this doesn’t happen when they welcome someone new.

They send an introductory email to every member of the team that includes, alongside the new hire’s contact details, their answers to five non-work related questions.

In addition to this, they encourage the new hire to arrange one-to-one meetings with as many members of the team as they feel comfortable with.

You can read more about this, and other ways 6Q fosters a positive company culture in a remote team, here.

6. Teamwork.com – Acknowledge and reward hard-working remote workers

When you all work from the same location, it’s generally pretty easy to see how hard employees are working and pick up on their achievements. You can hear them go that extra mile for a client on the phone and you know when they’re staying late or arriving early.  This also makes it really simple to thank those staff members for the effort they’re putting in.

Things are very different on remote teams.

You need to have a great deal of trust in your staff and pay extra attention to the work completed to assess who’s slacking, and who’s going above and beyond.

You also have to make a particular point of thanking and rewarding those who deserve it.

To ensure their remote workers’ achievements are acknowledged, Teamwork.com holds quarterly “Teamwork Legend” awards in which their employees’ contributions are rewarded with certificates and gift cards.

You can read more about this and other ways Teamwork.com manages successful remote teams here.

7. Buffer – Schedule regular retreats

One of the biggest barriers to creating a great company culture in remote teams is a lack of face-to-face contact (video helps, but is no substitute for working with your colleagues in person).

To get around this, Buffer schedules all-expenses-paid retreats for the whole company, three times a year. This means they’re paying for flights, accommodations and (most) meals, as well as a few activities.

It’s worth bearing in mind that these retreats aren’t “holidays” as such. The team is expected to work their usual hours (give or take), but for these 10 days the team can come together and operate like a “typical” company (except for all the after-hours social activities).

You can read more about Buffer’s retreats and watch a couple of videos on what they’re like and why they do them here.

8. Edoc – Create a culture of learning

One of the secrets to being happy and fulfilled at work is feeling confident in your abilities – being sure that you’re good at what you do. Questioning our ability to do our job will drag us down, and understandably so.

This is why it’s important for every company to give their staff the tools they need to develop their skills and perform their jobs to the highest possible standard. Of course, ensuring remote employees have what they need isn’t always easy. Often senior members of staff will train more junior employees in-house – an approach that’s difficult, if not impossible to replicate remotely.

However, just because it’s more difficult to keep remote staff up to speed than in-house staff doesn’t mean you should leave them to figure things out for themselves and hope for the best.

Edoc, which builds tools designed to aid in productivity and collaboration, understands this, and as a result has incorporated a “culture of learning” into their overall company culture.

As well as ensuring employees have access to courses and other training opportunities, Edoc hosts a whole month of company-wide professional training sessions every year.

In fact, Edoc’s CEO Jim Mullaney once hosted six weeks of “Friday leadership trainings” from his own home. Local staff were invited to come along in person while those who lived further afield could telecommute.

The result is happier staff that sticks around longer. As Jim says: “If employees aren’t learning, they’re leaving.”

Read more about how Edoc built a great remote company culture here.

9. Basecamp – It doesn’t have to be all or nothing

Often when we think about remote working, we think about employees on the other side of the world from their employer, or people traveling the world, working from a palm-tree lined beach (totally impractical, but it makes a great visual).

Image Credit

The reality, however, is that not all remote staff always work remotely. Often staff that lives locally will switch between working remotely and coming into the office as it suits. This is great for company culture, since staff benefits from regular face-to-face contact. It’s also an ideal middle ground for many employees who have obligations that prevent them from working in an office full-time, but that would miss the social aspect of sharing workspace with a team.

In other cases, some companies will employ a mix of remote and in-house workers.

This is something the project management specialists at Basecamp have done. Their team started out working in a traditional office setting but found that the space they had was bigger than they anticipated needing, and that the rent was too high.
As a result they decided to rent just a few desks instead. Today, the majority, but not all, of their employees work remotely.

10. Zapier – Trust your team

Trust is essential in all companies, but it’s even more important when you work remotely. This is something Zapier has come to understand while building a team of remote workers.

The issue largely comes down to the fact that distributed teams don’t know how much or how hard their colleagues are working. While some companies try to resolve this with rules dictating things like when bums should be on seats, or even requiring them to be on camera all day (yes, this is a real thing at some firms) most companies, like Zapier, understand that all you really need is trust.

If the work’s getting done that’s a sure sign your remote employees are pulling their weight, and really, that’s all you need to know.

Read more about how Zapier has built their remote company culture here.

Do you have any tips to add for creating culture across remote teams? Comments are below if you have a moment to share them:

What Your Company Culture Needs at 10, 100 and 1,000 Employees

As a company grows, something that can make or break it is its culture. A good culture creates happy, hard-working employees who stick around for the long haul. Conversely, a poor culture leads to disengaged employees, poor productivity, and high staff turnover.

Which of these scenarios do you think is going to help a company be more successful?

Needless to say, if your employees are happy, everyone’s happy. But what does it take to create an environment that your employees want to be in, and can thrive in? And how will this change as your company grows?

Some companies think that if they offer a few fun perks, their staff will be happy and the culture will take care of itself – but they couldn’t be more wrong.

While we’re going to discuss perks that can help foster a great company culture, there is so much more to company culture than free beers and flex time.

“Company culture is not a foosball table.” Melissa Tsang, Referral Candy

  • Your core values.
  • The mindset of your team.
  • The environment or “feeling” in the workplace.

These are the things that define your company culture. The perks just help to shape it.

“[Culture] lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of “how things are done around here.”” Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule, writing for Harvard Business Review

The ideal company culture is built on people who are there to do more than collect a paycheck – they’re there because they love their work and the people they work with. They’re along for the ride, basically.

Of course, company cultures like this don’t create themselves. It takes hard work, consistency, and an open mind to cultivate a great company culture – and it only gets more difficult as your company grows.

Here are a few key things that every company culture needs at its critical stages of growth, and how your approach to managing company culture needs to change with them.

 

Company Culture at 10 Employees

Startups have it pretty easy as far as company culture goes since it’s much easier to keep 10 staff members happy than 100. It’s also a good time to experiment and figure out the company/culture fit – after all, if you’re going to get it wrong, it’s better to get it wrong now. That’s because the bigger your company is, the longer it takes to implement cultural change – reportedly about three years, for medium and large organizations.

A solid hiring process

Your employees are the foundation of your company culture, so it’s critical to lay down a process for finding and hiring the right people as soon as possible.

You want to hire (and keep) the people that want to be there. Take Zappos. They offer new hires $2000 – to quit. This is because they only want to keep people that want to be there. If you’re only there for your paycheck, you can take your cash and leave.

Zappos Cubicles

While you don’t need to go that far, you should at least be asking interview questions that are designed to determine whether someone’s a fit for your company culture.

Things like:

  • What is (or was) your relationship like with your current (or previous) colleagues?
  • What sort of management style do you work best with? (Ask this question when hiring for both management and more junior roles).
  • What’s your biggest pet peeve in the workplace?
  • What things are most important to you in your professional life?

An open door policy

Your relationship with your employees is as important as their relationship with each other. Prioritize getting to know them. Ensure they always feel comfortable coming to talk to you.

An open door policy should mean literally that – an open door. Sure, there are times you need to keep it closed, but make sure that only happens when absolutely necessary.

Let your employees know that if the door’s open, they’re welcome to come in. If it’s shut, they can send you a message, or come back later.

Of course, simply telling employees they’re welcome to talk to you doesn’t mean they’ll want to. You have to be the kind of manager your staff wants to approach.

This means you…

  • Don’t criticize staff when things aren’t going according to plan, and certainly never patronize them. Support them in making improvements, instead.
  • Work as hard, or harder, than they do.
  • Never, ever, appear put off when staff asks questions or for help. You only have to do this a couple of times before employees start to learn (consciously or unconsciously) that they have to be wary about when, how, and how often they approach you.
  • Be transparent – it has a direct correlation to employee morale.

Bear in mind that as your company grows, it’s critical that all new management adopt an open door policy, too.

Keeping leaders close to the rest of the team has been a priority for Power Digital Marketing, which holds monthly, personal one-on-one meetings between execs and juniors – the reason being that (in the words of their CEO Grayson Lafrenz) it “ensures everyone feels like a priority and that their voice is heard. It also deepens the bonds and relationships between our team members.”

A break area

Break areas should offer a comfortable place for downtime where employees can socialize away from their workload.

Prioritize comfortable seating, arranged to encourage conversation, as well as a dining area. Offering entertainment is nice, but not necessary – at least at this stage. As your company grows, the break area and the facilities it offers will have to grow with it.

A regular schedule of social events

Aim for one a month. It doesn’t have to be anything “big” – drinks in a local bar should make most people happy. Don’t feel you have to fund events, either (although a goodwill gesture, like getting the first round, will definitely be appreciated).

Trust in your employees

If anything, this last point is the most crucial.

This is because one of the worst things you can do for any company culture is to micro-manage your employees. Happy employees are born out of a management team that is there for them when they’re needed, but that ultimately trusts them to do the right thing.

“Do not keep smart people on a tight leash.” Barry Appelman

Company Culture at 100 Employees

As your company grows, relationships will naturally change.

10 or so employees are likely to form one, single, tightly-knit group. You’re probably also going to have a very flat management structure.

As more people join the ranks, different “tribes” are going to develop – regardless of how adept you are at bringing the right personalities on board – and there’s a greater chance that some people will feel like they just don’t “fit in.”

In fact, research has shown that the faster your company grows, the more apparent these shifts will be.

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It’s certainly not impossible to maintain a close company culture as you grow, though. When MyCorporation started out, they felt like family, a feeling they worried they would lose as they expanded. However, through regular team activities and a culture of kindness and encouragement, they’ve stayed “close and connected.”

That flat management structure which was so fundamental to your company culture in the beginning is likely to change, too. That’s normal, and in most cases, necessary. What you need to do, however, is implement systems that ensure all voices are heard and that everyone, regardless of their role or relationships with others, feels that they’re working towards the same common goal.

A mission statement

While you can write a mission statement at any point, it often makes sense to hold off until the company reaches a certain size and you have a concrete idea of both your company’s and employees’ values.

It’s always a good idea to involve your staff in creating your mission statement, too. Ask them to share what they see as the company’s mission or values, look for common themes in their responses, and work this into a statement that everyone agrees reflects why they come to work and what they’re trying to achieve.

Here’s an example of this in practice from when Buffer set out to define their company values. This is the form they distributed to staff:

And here’s one of the completed forms they got back:

Regular culture reviews

Ask employees to rate your culture on a scale of 1-10 and provide feedback on what they do and don’t like about it.

Do this once a year, unless responses signal that more regular reviews are needed.

Input from employees

Allow your staff to get involved in shaping company culture. Encourage feedback and make speaking up easy by implementing a system in which employees can share thoughts and ideas anonymously, or at least without judgment.

An onboarding process

The bigger the company, the more difficult it generally is for new employees to fit in. This means that implementing (and following) a set of procedures for onboarding new employees is essential.

This should include things like:

  • Ensuring someone is in the office and ready to greet the new hire as they arrive.
  • Getting everything they need to work (computer and phone, for example) set up and ready to go before they arrive.
  • Giving them a tour of the premises and introducing them to everyone they’ll be working with.

It’s also a great idea to assign each newbie a “buddy” who will take them under their wing, show them the ropes, and be their first port-of-call for answering questions.

An ability to adapt to changing staff dynamics

The sort of relationships a company of 10 might have are often impossible or inappropriate to maintain in a company of 100 or more. Learn how relationships change as companies grow, and figure out how you can help your staff foster and maintain strong relationships – with both existing and new staff members – as the number of faces they see every day increases.

Company Culture at 1000 Employees

A company with 1000 employees probably has multiple sites in different cities. They may well have even expanded into other countries. One of the biggest challenges, therefore, becomes maintaining, across all branches, a culture that’s in line with the company’s core values, but that also accommodates the unique needs of each location and its people.

The delicatessen chain Zingerman’s is one such company that has dealt with the issue of maintaining their culture across different locations. Their solution was to push for a coherent culture across all locations, but to allow for cultural variations across different departments and shifts. Specifically, they encourage their leaders “not to fight against this diversity, but rather to focus on the positive.”

Here’s what else you need to do to ensure your company culture is consistent (within reason) in a company with 1000 employees or more.

A plan of attack for dealing with organizational change

Change puts staff morale and, in turn, company culture at risk. Devising a contingency plan that details how to positively communicate and roll out organizational changes can help staff adjust, and reduce impact on company culture.

A systemized yet personal and approachable HR department

Big companies need systemized HR departments – without this, they’re very likely to buckle under the pressure. At the same time, an effective HR department needs a personal approach. The challenge is how to balance these opposing working styles.

You might want to start with easing their workload by outsourcing some of their more basic administration tasks.

A head of company culture

A business of this size likely has divisions that operate autonomously. This puts communication and company culture at a high risk of being siloed. If you value your company culture, hiring someone who’s responsible for overseeing and helping maintain that culture across sites and divisions is essential.

Take Google, which offers perks including free, chef-prepared meals, subsidized massages, nap pods, and death benefits.

A Nap Pod in action

They understand that these perks are not enough to create the culture they want their employees to enjoy, so in 2006 they employed a “Chief Culture Officer” whose job included protecting “key parts of Google’s scrappy, open-source cultural core as the company has evolved into a massive multinational.”

It’s probably safe to say this culture has had a big part to play in the impressive 4.4 rating Google has on Glassdoor.

What do you think companies need to create a positive culture as they start out and as they grow? Do you have any company culture stories to tell (good or bad)? If you do, it’d be great if you could spare a moment to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Making the Business Case for Culture Initiatives

Making the Business Case for Culture Initiatives

Marta Riggins, Global Marketing Director at LinkedIn Talent Solutions

Scaling Culture: Insights From Leaders at Various Levels in a Company

Scaling Culture: Insights From Leaders at Various Levels in a Company

JD Peterson, Chief Growth Officer at Culture Amp

Dan Spaulding, Chief People Officer at Zillow Group

Konval Matin, Director of Culture and Talent Development at Shopify

Sarah Nahm, CEO at Lever.co

Creating Authenticity, Connection, and Growth

Creating Authenticity, Connection, and Growth

Sean Kelly, CEO at Snack Nation

Play Better Together

Play Better Together

Jenny Gottstein, Director of Games at The Go Game

Building Culture and Uncovering Innovation in Global Companies

Building Culture and Uncovering Innovation in Global Companies

Monica Adractas, Director at Workplace by Facebook

Creating Inclusive Cultures in Our Workplaces and Communities

Creating Inclusive Cultures in Our Workplaces and Communities

David Julius King, Director of Diversity and Belonging at Airbnb

Lisa Lee, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Pandora

Nichole Sanchez, Founder of Vaya Consulting

Driving the Bus Towards Leadership Buy-in

Driving the Bus Towards Leadership Buy-in

Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at Vaynermedia

Building Cultures of Innovation

Building Cultures of Innovation

Tatyana Mamut, Director of Product Management at Amazon Web Services