Guide to remote teamwork

How to Grow a Positive Company Culture with a Remote Team

We’ve written plenty about creating and building your company culture in general. In this article, let’s dig deeper into practical ways to build and grow a positive company culture with a remote team.

Thanks to modern technology, the global work environment has had a massive shift in the last few years and changes are accelerating faster now than ever before. Gone are the days of cubicle farms or even centralized organisations, where every employee works out of the head office, or a few satellite offices across the globe. Now it’s becoming more popular to have some of the team working from co-working spaces or their homes, whether it be in the next street or the other side of the world.

In fact, there are very successful companies that have no office at all, and where their entire workforce work remotely.

So what can you do, as a manager or founder, to create an environment of positive behaviour, and then continue to grow a positive company culture with a remote team?

Understand the value in remote working

Many studies have shown that remote working has valuable effects on employee productivity, happiness and general wellbeing. For example, this article on Harvard Business Review points to an experiment in a Chinese call center, where employees were given the opportunity to volunteer to work from home for nine months.

Half the volunteers were allowed to telecommute; the rest remained in the office as a control group. Survey responses and performance data collected at the conclusion of the study revealed that, in comparison with the employees who came into the office, the at-home workers were not only happier and less likely to quit but also more productive.

In this article on Monster, the writer shows evidence that employees aren’t the only ones who benefit from working from home; a company can benefit just as greatly from a remote employee.

In this detailed article over on Global Workplace Analytics, they list the key benefits of telecommuting. Some of them being;

  • Improves employee satisfaction
  • Reduces unscheduled absences
  • Increases productivity
  • Saves employers money
  • Cuts down on wasted meetings
  • Increases collaboration
  • Expands the talent pool

As you can see, there are a myriad of benefits for both the employee and employer in using telecommuting or remote teams as an option.

The downside of remote teams

Much has also been written about the perceived cons of having remote teams. The two most discussed topics here is typically the impact on company culture, and the lack of communication that can occur. Being mindful of this when embarking on a distributed team model is a great first step to avoiding these issues.

So what are some of the steps you can take to grow a positive company culture with a remote team? Here are our thoughts.

Remote team workspace

Photo: Mike McCune, Flickr

Create or refine your company values

Having a set of values can really harness the direction your culture takes. I penned the process we went through, and the ideas I had considered, in this post, Creating company values that boost company culture.

The key takeaway was that I feel our culture really took a positive turn once we had a set of values, and the process of creating values by including the entire team was a large reason why they succeeded.

It isn’t just us either; this article from social media software company, TINT, explains how they rewrote their company culture as a team.

See our previous article, 190 brilliant examples of company values, for inspiration on creating your own company values.

Communicate your culture

Whilst it is great to end up with a list of words or values, it is also very important, even more so with a remote or distributed team, to document what you hope your company culture becomes.

The resulting document should be inspirational, clear and articulate and obviously well written.

Having a distributed team means that your culture is going to be more difficult to grasp for new team members, when there is minimal (or no) face time with the team.

Therefore this document becomes even more important. It should clearly articulate the company culture to everyone in your organization, new and old, right from day one. It should be clear about expectations, how performance is measured, how you assess employees for cultural fit, and the like. No detail is too small to be not included.

This company culture should be constantly reassessed as you grow or change as well. Don’t just spend copious time on it, and then shelve it somewhere inaccessible by everyone.

In order to grow a positive company culture with a remote team, you need to continue to monitor your culture and values, and never stop.

Take your culture thoughts public

A number of companies have started to publish their company values or thoughts on their company culture, in the public space.

The best known example of this would be the Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility slides that CEO and Founder, Reed Hastings, published back in 2009. With over 12 million views so far, it is a great way to publicise the culture you are striving for.

Here are eight inspirational slide decks from companies willing to share their cultures far and wide.

Consider putting your culture deck together, and sharing it on the web for others to view as well; it is a great way to introduce possible candidates for your next role.

Welcome new employees in front of the entire team

If you were all in one large open plan office, you wouldn’t hesitate to spend a few minutes welcoming a new hire in front of the team. Just like this example, a remote team is not an excuse to ignore this.

Another way to do this is perhaps ask them five questions, and then circulate their answers to the entire team via email, along with a welcome. An example email could be;

Hello everyone,

We have a new person in our Marketing team who started this week. Sally lives in Toronto (GMT -4). Previously, Sally worked at XYZ Inc for five years, in a customer outreach role.

Sally is @username on our chat server, and extension 123. Her direct email is sally@example.com

As usual, I asked Sally for answers to the following questions.

Describe yourself in 100 words

What is your favourite movie and why?

What was the last book you read?

Describe your favourite way to relax

If you could be a super hero, who would it be?

Please everyone, if you get a chance in the coming week please welcome Sally to our team!

Regards

Julia Smith

You should encourage any new employees to arrange one to one meetings with as many of the team as they feel comfortable with; particularly those who they don’t report to, or are in different departments.

These meeting respondents will teach your new hire more about the company culture than any single document or manager speech will.

These meetings are a great method to get to know everyone on a personal level, as well as gain a deeper understanding of who is responsible for what, amongst your team.

Being aware that social interaction is limited in a distributed or remote team, you can focus on spending more time with the new employee on creating familiarity and team bonding.

For more about great onboarding, I encourage you to read our previous article, 10 ways to improve your employee induction process.

Encourage an environment of open communication and feedback

Keeping your team communication channels clear and open will promote transparency while actually enabling the team communication that organizations so desperately need.

You want to encourage an environment where everybody is contributing, not just the loud extroverts amongst your team. Reduce any red tape or formality associated with communication, to avoid employees just keeping quiet, which isn’t healthy for employees or for your team as a whole.

Depending on the size of your team, the more casual and laid-back you are with team communication channels, typically the better they become at being open and transparent.

Set expectations on communication methods

Setting expectations on which communication channels are to be used for what topics really helps set the tone and encourages communication. For example, you may want legal and ‘serious’ documentation always by email or your cloud file server, whereas casual discussion or team huddles to be done via Slack or Skype.

You can reduce the confusion about what to post where by having a simple guide, and ensuring everyone is across your thoughts. If your distributed team uses a particular set of tools for communicating and collaborating (say Dropbox for file sharing, or slack for text discussion), let all new team members know straight away, so they do not have to email the team to find out which specific tools are needed for which circumstances.

It is important to ask that team members stay logged in to these tools as well; any barrier to that communication, such as one of the team never logging into to the company’s IM system, can be detrimental and kill productivity.

Most communication tools can be left open all day either as a desktop app or browser tab, with notifications keeping you updated. Something as simple as keeping that tab open will keep the door open for communication, creating a more cohesive and collaborative workplace.

60% of remote workers said that they would leave their current job for a full-time remote position at the same pay rate.
PGI 2015 Global Telework Survey

Be aware of the ‘water cooler effect’

Wikipedia defines the ‘watercooler effect’ as “a phenomenon, occurring when employees at a workplace gather around the office water cooler and chat. It is a synonym for gathering and connecting people in a certain environment (e.g. the office). When a television program, like a soap-opera or series, is talked about among many people (mostly related to guessing what will happen in the next episode) it can be said that the program has a water cooler effect.”

Just like in a physical office, you should encourage a similar place virtually. For example, if you are using a companywide text chat tool, like Slack or others (see below for a list) then consider creating a channel just for this.

You will want to also create a few sensible ground rules about content, such as your organisation thoughts on language and humour, so that no one gets offended, and equally you should encourage chatter about anything from favourite shoes to what’s the latest show on Netflix.

Take time to learn about everyone

If you are sitting beside a colleague in the office every day, it won’t take long to start learning a lot about them; without even trying, you start getting a sense of who they are as a person, and what personality traits they have.

This becomes more of a challenge when your team are remote. Make a point to learn about each of your employees or colleagues through informal discussions at the ‘water cooler’ as described above, or even consider running a staff wide survey on favourite meals or movies.

You could make this a game, where everyone needs to vote on their favourite cartoon character or the like. Simple, fun activities such as this really help to grow a positive company culture with a remote team.

Communicate, communicate, communicate!

Your remote team culture will flourish or fail, purely on communication. Get communication wrong, and you’ll find that your culture just won’t stick.

Set aside regular times every week for an all-hands chat if possible. If time zones prevent this, try to arrange two meetings, in differing time zones (see our recommendations for software below that will help with time zone planning). Cover what the team is working on, give details on any decisions that may affect the team and reiterate that you want feedback and open communication. Having these regular meetings helps share news and encourages motivation amongst the entire team.

Have an always on policy with regards to chat software – even if you aren’t at your desk, someone should be able to message you, so you can see it next time you are in ‘work mode’. Be careful, however, not to ask people to work around the clock – this can breed contempt and your colleagues will suffer quickly from burnout and won’t be as effective.

Have an annual (or more regular) face to face meeting. For example, the team at Buffer have multiple international retreats each year, where the team gets together. This article by founder, Joel Gascoigne, really helps enlighten why.

Look at holding meetings using video conferencing. This allows people to recognize each other, and see reactions and facial expressions. Body language helps effective communication as people observe your body language almost as much as they listen to what you are saying.

Teamwork games

Photo: Creative Sustainability, Flickr.

Measure your remote team employee engagement

Setting time for a formal quarterly survey, a monthly email status update from every team member, or something such as employee pulse surveys really helps you in measuring the sentiment amongst your team at any time.

Don’t just focus on work-related topics either; asking about general happiness and mood encourages openness, and may help to alleviate any feelings of isolation and lack of communication as well.

We have a number of customers who have used our employee pulse surveys as a way to get a sentiment metric once a week or month, and they report it has great side effects such as opening a dialogue with employees who need to discuss issues.

9 tools to help with managing your remote team

Timezone tracking

When working across multiple timezones, it is important to know when your team are active, and what their local times are. A few great ways to do this, include;

HomeSlice, a simple browser based timezone viewer.

Every Time Zone, a visual browser-based viewer.

Team Time Zone with Slack authentication.

Text based communication

Whilst video chat is great at times, it is often just the idle text channels that work most effectively all day. A few that we recommend are;

Slack the very popular web and desktop chat tool.

Campfire one of the oldest tools, with 30 day free trial.

HipChat by Atlassian, with group and private chat, file sharing and more.

Audio or video based communication

When text is not enough, and you want to supplement with audio or video meetings, there are some fantastic solutions out there, including;

Skype the global audio and video platform.

Google Hangouts by the search giant, Google.

Bitrix24 with over 35 tools other than chat.

Video remote team chat

Image: jamjar, Flickr

Examples of remote companies

Thousands of companies across the globe are embracing the concept of remote teamwork. Here are just a handful of the companies that encourage the concept of telecommuting with their teams.

Buffer the social media scheduling tool, has a 100% distributed workforce.

Automattic the team behind the popular WordPress, have remote teams in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Iceland, Bulgaria, Australia, and more.

Mozilla foundation, the group behind the FireFox browser, have 13 global offices and people working in more than 30 countries.

Invision the design collaboration platform, are a completely distributed company.

Popular media company, Upworthy, have an entirely distributed team.

Further remote team reading

Alex Turnbull, CEO & Founder of Groove, wrote a great post on the Pros and Cons of a remote team, titled The Pros & Cons of Being a Remote Team (& How We Do It).

Over on the Help Scout blog, Gregory Ciotti writes about Why Remote Teams Are the Future (and How to Make Them Work). My favourite statistic Gregory shares is ““By telecommuting, 83 percent of employees said their ability to communicate and collaborate with co-workers was the same as, if not better than, it was when working on-site.”

Software company, Atlassian, has a great post on their blog, How Atlassian does it: 3 tips for remote teamwork, written by Dan Radigan. Atlassian have teams in Sydney, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Sao Paulo, Gdansk, and Kuala Lumpur so they have a great understanding of this topic.

Along with these three articles, we have covered a number of similar topics that can help you grow a positive company culture with a remote team. Here are just five we believe are worth your reading.

How to create a positive company culture in 11 easy steps covers ways, both free and low cost, to help you create a positive company culture, no matter where your team is located.

Creating company values that boost company culture goes through our journey of creating our own company values, and looks at ways to develop your own.

Creating a great company culture at your start-up identifies the importance of setting your culture tone early, and building upon it.

5 Founders talk startup company culture hears from founders of recent successful start-ups about their views on company culture.

Six corporate culture tips from start-up founders creating them covers more thoughts on culture and values from six other early stage start-up founders.

I encourage you to take the time and enjoy the reading!

In Summary

We’ve covered plenty in this article about how to build great communication, and develop a positive company culture, when working with a distributed or remote team. The ideas we’ve covered include;

  • Understand the value in remote working
  • Create or refine your company values
  • Communicate your culture
  • Welcome new employees in front of the entire team
  • Encourage an environment of open communication and feedback
  • Set expectations on communication methods
  • Always be aware of the ‘water cooler effect’
  • Take time to learn about everyone
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate!
  • Measure your remote team employee engagement

Armed with this new knowledge, as well as the tips, tricks and links I have included, I trust that you feel more confident in your task of creating an energetic, productive and profitable business with a remote team of employees.

I wish you all the best of luck as you grow a positive company culture with a remote team!

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