A remote team (also known as a “distributed team”) operates completely independent of location. They don’t need to share the same office space, or even timezone, to get work done.
Some remote teams have never even met their closest colleagues in person. Yet the suite of online tools, new management practices, and the amazing internet make work possible (and dare we say it, even more productive).
Remote teams are here to stay and are predicted to increase. According to one report, as of 2022, 24% of jobs in the US and Canada were permanently remote roles. The reasons for this steady increase are many. Remote work allows workers to work more freely, it allows them to have more control over their schedules and brings the ever desired work-life balance closer within reach.
It isn’t only workers who stand to gain from this new phenomenon. Employers also benefit from remote work.In addition to access to a wider talent pool, businesses can see a rise in productivity of workers when they work remotely. They can also realise a reduction in costs and a reduced turnover.
However, remote teams, being a fairly new practice, still run into snags. One of the biggest questions that founders with remote teams face is: how do we build company culture when we never see each other?
What is company culture and why is it important
Company culture encompasses the beliefs, behaviours as well as shared values of an organisation. Different companies have different cultures that make them distinct from everybody else.
Part of the culture at Johnson and Johnson for instance is around caring. Caring for staff and communities alike. This trait is reflected in their practices and policies.
At Zappos, culture is considered such an important aspect that there is a cultural fit interview portion. They believe that if their culture is right, everything else will fall into place. To grow their company culture, they not only live by their values, they hire by them.
Building a good company culture will help you keep your employees motivated, which affects their performance, how they treat your customers, and how well they do their jobs.
Research shows that engaged employees are more profitable and more likely to stay with your organisation, whereas disengaged employees cost the organisation and overall economy thousands in financial losses.
Bad company culture also produces undesirable traits in your team. A lack of team spirit, gossip, bad habits, and unfriendly competition are all signs of bad company culture and dangerous to your productivity.
The difference between remote and co-located team culture
In a co-located team, building culture is fairly straightforward since everyone is in the same place, at the same time, fairly reliably. If you want to go to a movie together, have a team lunch, or do a quick activity before work you can get everyone together with minimal planning.
In a remote team, culture-building activities are harder to implement, although not impossible. Below are a few differences between remote and co-located teams that you should consider when planning culture-building activities.
- People cannot meet physically
- Not everyone is in the same timezone
- They may use shared working spaces (they cannot be too loud or move around a lot)
- Internet connection speeds will vary
Why you should invest in remote teams
Regardless of these company culture challenges, remote teams are still worth investing in. Having a remote team decreases your overhead and overall business cost. Remote workers are healthier and happier, which leads to more engagement overall.
An increasing amount of talent is shifting towards freelancing and virtual work, which means in order to collaborate with these capable professionals, you’ll need to offer the business model they prefer to work in.
Plus, when you have team members in different timezones, it allows you to provide 24/7 customer support without disrupting any sleep schedules. Talk about a win-win!
How to build culture in your remote team
So, let’s get down to it. Building culture in a remote team is difficult, but ultimately rewarding. Team culture is reflected in work ethic; how much care people put into their jobs, how friendly they are with colleagues and clients, and what standards they hold themselves to independently. Studies show remote workers are already more productive than their in-office counterparts, but when you engage them as well your business will have a true A-team.
Have a virtual water cooler chat
There are many benefits to remote work but one of the major downsides is the loss in camaraderie that exists in the office. This camaraderie shows up when people run into each other in the corridor or when they meet in the kitchen, or by the water cooler to share a joke. These interactions reduce stress and increase bonding amongst colleagues. To build culture in a remote team, managers can replicate these moments with a virtual water cooler chat.
Keep an online space open for your team to chat with one another and discuss non-work related topics. We have a #random chat in Slack where we learn all sorts of fascinating things about each other. Thanks to that chat, I know who participates in April Fool’s, and what kind of remote work tools and tech my teammates use.
In order to build culture in a remote team, you have to cultivate an environment where people trust each other. Trust is an important component for all teams and it improves the team dynamics as well as productivity.
When there is trust, people are comfortable speaking up and are not afraid to make mistakes. They know that there will be no embarrassment or worse, social isolation from voicing something which is perhaps unpopular. This trust translates to enhanced collaboration as well.
So how can management build a culture of trust? It starts with management. Leaders can demonstrate trust by being vulnerable and open about mistakes they make, by sharing updates about company progress and by delegating tasks.
Feedback is another cornerstone of building trust. Leaders should ask for and offer feedback. There are several ways companies can adopt to get feedback from remote teams such as through surveys.
When leadership prioritises feedback, this behaviour will trickle down to teams. Being able to critique each other’s work, share feedback negative and positive with openness and kindness will encourage trust in the workplace.
Do a team challenge
Build culture in remote teams by paying attention to after work activities. While building culture for the workplace, include aspects outside of work. It is important that people feel connected even after they leave the workplace and as the saying goes, all work and no play…these activities can be purely for fun.
Try doing a month-long challenge throughout the team. Whoever wants to participate can join in on it, but don’t force anyone to. For example, you could do a 3 kilometre challenge and run 3 kilometres every weekday for that month. At the end of the month people show how many kilometres they ran total and how many days they completed the challenge.
Team challenges give everyone something light to talk about, and helps the team feel closer with a simple common goal.
Pay attention to onboarding
Onboarding, when done right, can result in better engagement, motivation and retention. Onboarding is just as important in remote teams. During onboarding of remote employees, make sure they have all the tools they will need to do their work before the job starts.
Have a call where you talk new hires through the tools, introduce them to their teammates and key individuals they will be working with. Follow this up with an email for them to reference when needed. This email can also include the company structure, showing who works where and what they are responsible for. It is easy to forget people’s names and roles when you do not hear them being spoken through the day. Doing this shows employees that being supportive is part of the workplace culture
To ease the stress on new remote hires, create a clear plan for the first 3 months and share it. It should show what onboarding activities will take place and what tasks employees will be tackling in that period. It is best practice to start with smaller tasks and move on to more challenging ones when employees have settled in.
Meet up in person when you can
Meeting in person is a key ingredient for building culture. When possible, bring teams together. Summits, conferences and bi yearly reviews are a good time to do this.
Not every remote team can afford to do this, especially at the beginning, but meeting up in person is a great way to build culture. There are multiple co-living spaces that can host a remote work retreat for your team. These spaces are set up with fast, reliable internet and convenient places to work, so your team can continue their work week while exploring a new place together.
If meeting in person is totally impossible, perhaps due to stretched geographical locations or a global pandemic, then rely on video. Make it a point to have a video call with all employees on a regular basis. Some organisations do this weekly.
Make support a team effort
Everyone in the Zapier team takes a turn at answering customer support tickets. This all-team approach to customer support provides better customer service, helps your team understand your product or service even better, and your company culture develops empathy and respect for the main support team.
Having everyone interface with the customers now and then gives them a deeper insight into your client’s problems, and helps keep everyone customer-focused.
Transparency does wonders for all teams, but it’s even more useful for building culture in a remote team. At Hubstaff, we keep our revenue transparent with Baremetrics. Any member of our team (or any of our users) can check in to see how our numbers are doing. I recall there being a big team celebration on Slack when we hit $100k in MRR.
We’re also transparent about who does what. Everyone on the team has access to a shared virtual kanban board, where all of our task information is stored. If I want to learn more about what’s happening with the blog, I can go into the project management software and check out who’s working on what, which topics are in the works, and more. We can support each other’s efforts and jump into the project cards’ comments.
Show teams you appreciate them
In an office environment, it is easy to walk up to people and tell them they did a good job. Impromptu rewards are also easier to pull off in person but one needs to be deliberate about showing remote teams that they are appreciated.
An email saying thank you is just a first step. You can plan for a treat, like a virtual lunch sponsored by the office, which the team can enjoy together. Giving them a chance to celebrate wins together is a great way to show the team that they are appreciated and for them to bond by enjoying something together.
Showing appreciation doesn’t only have to be through offering material things. It can be seen in gestures such as extra time off. Inviting team members to get involved in decision making will also show that you value their opinion.
When in doubt about how to show appreciation, ask the team. They will have ideas for how they want to be rewarded. You will be sure to appreciate them in a way they will find valuable.
As remote work becomes more prevalent across the globe, employers will find that they need ways to support their remote employees. One of these is by investing in workplace culture.
As they build culture for remote teams, employers will also find that they need to adapt some aspects of culture from in person offices to the remote work space while creating others for remote workers. When culture is supportive and positive, employers can expect to get much more out of their remote teams.