You already know that remote teams are on the rise. As those numbers continue to go up, managers will have a new problem to tackle: creating and maintaining a strong team culture, when your team is scattered across a continent (or several!).
Why is culture so important, anyways?
Culture can be difficult to define. The easiest way to put it is that your company culture is the experience employees have working at your company or on your team. Think of it as the user experience, but for your employees.
Graph via Great Place to Work
Prioritizing culture is a smart business move. Companies with a strong culture and a great employee experience tend to have lower turnover, better stock market returns, and be more profitable. For more on culture’s importance, check out this Inc. article on three ways it directly affects your bottom line.
Tips to maintain culture on a remote team
Now that we’ve covered why culture is so important, let’s talk about how to create and maintain it when your employees aren’t all in the same spot.
1. Choose tools that match your culture and foster communication
When your team is collaborating “inside” an app rather than inside an office, it’s important that the app matches the culture you’re trying to create. If you want to create a fun, laid back environment, using tools like MailChimp or Slack that have that same vibe will help you. Zapier’s workforce is entirely remote, and they note this has made a large difference for them, “A co-located office develops its own personality through inside jokes, shared experiences and a collaborative environment… A remote team needs to develop something similar. The easiest way to do this is with your day-to-day tool set.”
In addition to choosing collaboration and communication tools that match your culture, you’ll want to make it as easy as possible for your remote team to stay up to date. Whether it’s chat apps, P2 (another tool recommended by the Zapier team), the comment section in your project management tool, or video conferencing tools like Highfive, it’s important to give your team a variety of ways to keep in touch.
2. Bake team building into your culture
To help foster communication and create trust, consider creating “pair buddies” as a regular process. When you’re on a remote team, it’s easy for things to be all business, all the time. But just talking business doesn’t build strong camaraderie and trust.
To help create the “office social life” that’s often lacking with remote teams, the Zapier team pairs up two of its members randomly and gives them some chit-chat time on a weekly basis. In a similar move, Pinterest analyzed employees’ boards to see what interests they had in common, then put employees in groups based on a shared interest (and let the employees decipher what that shared interest was). Read more about creating culture at Pinterest.
3. Create an even playing field
Helpscout, another company with a remote workforce, says that “going all in” on their remote culture made a huge difference. Co-founder Nick Francis writes, “When an office culture makes exceptions for remote people, rather than embracing remote culture wholeheartedly, it doesn’t work.” In Helpscout’s case, they decided to optimize for remote workers and put in-office culture second. The risk of doing things the other way around is that your remote workers will feel like they’re left out of the loop, and be less engaged and productive as a result.
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals also touch on this in their book “Remote: Office Not Required“, and have a simple suggestion for putting it into practice, “As a company owner or manager, you need to create and maintain a level playing field—one on which those in and out of the office stand as equals. That’s easier said than done, but one way to better your chances is to have some of the top brass working remotely.”
4. Build a sense of shared leadership
When you’re managing a remote team, it’s important to not just give people a list of things to do, but to also give them the opportunity to “pull” the team ahead, as HBR’s Michael Watkins puts it. If you’re only delegating and not giving team members the chance to show the initiative, it’s likely that your team will start to feel like task monkeys.
Watkin’s suggestions include things like assigning team members as mentors to help onboard new team members or asking them to run a virtual team-building exercise. As a side bonus, this also takes some pressure off of you, and helps groom team members to rise through the ranks and become managers themselves someday.
One last tip…
Your home office probably has design that reflects your culture—things like posters, or walls that visitors can write on. If you want to go the extra mile, you can ship your remote workers things that reflect the same design aesthetic and culture elements. Think: posters, t-shirts, or cool branded swag for their desks. Just make sure it’s something they’ll want to actually use (a useless tchotchke with a company name is usually destined for the trash).
Remote work isn’t going away anytime soon, and as it continues to grow, it’s crucial that today’s managers and leaders learn how to work with remote teams to build strong companies. These tips can help you do that. Want to learn more about maintaining culture across a distributed team? Check out our new ebook, Leaving the Office Behind: A Guide to Remote Work.
Leaving the Office Behind: A Guide to Remote Work
How employees and managers can build the best culture for remote work
Whether you’re a work-from-home employee, frequent traveler, or manager in charge of distributed teams, you need the right setup and the right tools to make remote work effective. This guide covers the the dos and don’ts to help you build a successful remote work culture.