Remote work culture is an incredibly important topic in recent times and rightly so. It is the pivotal factor for the success and longevity of remote teams.
The binding elements of a shared workspace and physical proximity of team members makes it easier to define work culture. As such, culture often organically evolves in a traditional working place. However, in a remote working setup, it usually has to be intentional.
I speak as a manager who transitioned from managing teams in-person to the present-day remote. Firms like Zapier and Toptal inspire me because they took up a challenge and turned it into an opportunity. Both onboarded 100% remote teams, and have become more intentional about building culture.
But how can you build a positive and healthy remote working setup?
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, co-authors of Remote summed it up rather nicely with this quote-
“You don’t need everyone physically together to create a strong culture. The best cultures derive from actions people actually take. ”
The measures you take to motivate remote teams to determine their effectiveness at what they do in your physical absence. And building a culture in a remote environment is an excellent place to start.
In this post, I will be sharing my thoughts on the kind of remote work culture conducive to team morale. Enjoy!
1. What is ‘Organizational Culture’?
Let’s start with a quick definition run-through, so we are all on the same page.
Organizational culture is the environment that you create for your employees. It helps determine staff work satisfaction, motivation, and productivity.
It refers to the underlying message in the decisions, actions, and conversations taking place at work. The right culture rebrands your business and gives it a facelift. It takes both employer and employee well-being into account that improves performance at the workplace.
Building trust within remote teams begins with letting in people who breathe life into your written values. It motivates, supports, and nurtures professional growth and creates a feeling of belonging!
2. Building culture in a remote environment
Whether a physical or virtual workspace, building culture starts with a process called “values blueprinting.” Leaders are interviewed for their insights on what they think and believe in, making for positive work culture.
These inputs include:
- Purpose served by their company’s products and services.
- People who are a source of inspiration to them.
- Process for employee recognition, mediation, and conflict resolution.
- Change management goals.
- The direction of company growth.
These are assessed by a separate value committee that ensures the right people embody the desired remote work culture. It sets a precedent for hiring processes. Values blueprinting helps recruiters onboard people who are not only competent for the role but also abide by these values.
The right remote work culture recruits and retains top talent, improve work satisfaction, and boosts productivity. It gives your employees the cues to respond to situations and affirms if the actions they take are correct. This applies regardless of if you’ve just started or have been working for the company for several years.
The factors that shape organizational remote work culture include, but are not limited to:
- Outcomes: The results achieved, which indicate whether or not your employees perform in sync with what leadership expected.
- Attentiveness: Your degree of awareness of ongoing or previous issues and what troubleshooting measures to take up.
- Recognition and benefits administration: Standardize the process for awarding incentives for work performance.
- Equality: Fairness in conduct and appraisal without discriminating on the grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, and disabilities.
- Hierarchy: Hierarchy dictates the structure, reporting lines, authority, and responsibilities. It indicates areas you will and won’t compromise.
- Balance of power: Strikes a balance between risk-aversion and change compliance.
3. How is remote work culture different from traditional work culture?
Remote work culture differs from traditional work culture in that it emphasizes on:
- Overcommunication: One of the biggest setbacks to remote work is that workers miss in-office interactions. But with the right messaging platform, you can keep your team organized, connected, and engaged. They can create groups for work and non-work related discussions. This gives them a break without delaying tasks on the To-do list.
- Increased collaboration: Your team’s virtual participation and presence should reflect their ability to stick to the plan. Encouraging teams to collaborate ensure that members get help and complete more work on time. After all, two heads are better than one!
- Self-discipline: It’s a remote workers’ responsibility to stay on track. Mastering self-discipline ensures that they don’t give in to the temptation of diversions.
- Establishing virtual rapport: Employees have more freedom to decide how to cultivate working relationships. They can stay linked to their teammates and keep banter and work-related conversations separate.
Communication forms the core of a remote team. It determines how connected and informed teammates are, and in turn, their ability to stay on top of their schedule. Let us head over to the next section to see how revised communication etiquettes impact remote work culture building.
4. Communication etiquettes within a remote cultural setup
The usage of communication tools differs when teams are in brick-and-mortar spaces or remote. Co-located teammates have more options, such as hallway, watercooler conversations, and messaging apps. These enable them to check in with those physically present as well as their remote and distributed counterparts.
However, the downside of remote teams is that they do not have as many synchronous communication options. Consequently, members over-rely on emails and teleconferencing platforms such as Skype, Slack, and Samepage. The risk of this flip is that the time you choose for an update can go way off. And sans audio cues, the intent and underlying sentiment in a message can be misread.
Timing is everything. Being mindful is key to avoiding misunderstandings between intent and action. For instance, your teammates may not always be free when you are. They may have their head down in work and get delayed notifications.
Before fearing the worst, factor in some time for them to go through those channels you tag them in. A few messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp, allow you to enable read receipts and confirm that your message was delivered.
You could configure settings for the team such that you can keep track of conversations without having to chase anyone repeatedly.
Let us next take a look at the workforce most impacted by a remote work culture.
5. Who is shaping this change in culture?
We have millennials to thank for this. They are the next most significant workforce representation after Gen X. The transition to full-time remote and distributed work setups will be fueled by the new workforce influx.
In the context of technological transformation, generation X set things into motion three decades back. Still, it’s the generation following them that has reaped most of the benefits, which include cultural changes too.
As both a millennial and remote manager, I can vouch for the appeal of remote work culture for the present generation. Besides reinforcing positivity, it offers increased flexibility, a challenging learning curve, and plentiful growth opportunities. More than a paycheck, these workers value a culture that encourages innovation and creativity.
There is a reason that companies voted Best Places to Work tend to attract a more extensive and competitive applicant pool. Los-Angeles based HR consulting firm Korn Ferry surveyed over 1000 respondents. And 23% of them revealed that the company’s remote work culture influenced their decision to pick a job over another.
6. How to build a strong culture with a remote team?
6.1 Hire the right people
Remote work culture is for, of and by the people.
It starts by hiring the right personalities. An applicant knows they have to impress and will tell you what they think you want to hear.
We naturally zoom in on applicants whose skills and areas of expertise fit the job description.
To give everyone equal footing, a cultural fit assessment should also go into your selection criteria. Presently, this can be a little daunting, what with even hiring processes going virtual. One, you don’t have the advantage of visual and social cues to read potential applicants. And two, you have no sure way of knowing if the person you see online can work well with others.
What you could do is create a mould of desirable traits to compare against incoming profiles. Most situational judgment tests are untimed. However, you have the option to set a time limit if you want to gauge how applicants respond under pressure.
Prospective candidates can get an idea of the type of workplace situations they’re likely to face if you hired them. They can demonstrate their leadership, communication, and critical thinking abilities here. You’ll be able to determine if their soft skills complement or clash with their technical competencies from their responses.
Base your decision to proceed or not after a more thorough understanding of what their strong and weak points are. It only takes the toxicity of one bad hire to go viral and bring everybody else down. To straighten out your hiring processes such that they commit to onboarding members whose professional conduct aligns with the company mission.
6.2 Measure Remote Team Engagement
When different departments coalesce remotely, there will be conflicts and confusion which hide true potential. This is why you should measure the effectiveness of remote work culture. It lets you know what your organization provisions for, and what to improve on to keep talented members. You can use survey sites to create a custom-entry form.
Upload it on a watercooler chat (a joint group that has all your members in it). Have the team fill it out by a specific date. Customize your questions according to the team answering it. The answers you get highlight issues impacting an individual or team performance as a whole.
These surveys give insights into how your teams think and function without being intrusive. It lets you determine the genuineness of problems and helps you address them proactively.
Gathering feedback involves your team in the process of building culture rather than just following it. Besides, they know what keeps them engaged and what won’t. They can come up with suggestions for process improvement, conflict resolution, and behavioural adjustments that you can try out!
6.3 Celebrate diversity
Sitting behind a screen shouldn’t limit your team members from getting to know one another. The best work culture is one that not only embraces diversity but also celebrates it. Being mindful of your employees’ cultural heritage can help you understand their social norms. You can make moments more memorable with time-honoured traditions.
Have your teams fill out an internal survey on their roots. This can be a fun learning exercise, especially with a dispersed remote team!
You then have a lead for organizing cultural activities for remote teams. You can have everyone dress to the colour of a particular country’s flag. Better still, turn your camera on and organize virtual potluck meals for your teams!
Such remote team rituals reinforce the type of remote team communication etiquette you expect your members to follow. However, if it gets a lukewarm reception, you should also be prepared to let these initiatives go. The point is to show that you care about your staff.
6.4 Make accountability clear
Accountability goes both ways. Team culture thrives only when members feel that they truly belong to the organization.
The first step towards achieving this is to make them accountable for the work they are assigned. Only then can they add the most value in context to the business strategy. Set clear expectations for all your remote workers and use messaging and collaborative platforms to hear from them as well.
Your team shouldn’t turn on each other and resort to bullying and transferring blame when the going gets tough. It stands in the way of improving team morale.
Instead, keep everyone accountable for their work, not in-seat hours. Creating this accountability not only keeps your teams grounded but also makes dealings transparent.
In other words, everyone is clear of the dependencies within their work. Team members know who to connect with when the need arises. Management should make their workforce aware of the changes in governance and leadership as and when it’s decided. Only then can they know who to report to.
6.5 Recognize the stalwarts
A remote work culture recognizes exceptional workers, no matter how long they’ve been working remotely. Here are a few tips to take employee recognition forward:
- Run performance numbers by individual contributions to identify who made them. You can then create a list of people to thank for the next weekly call.
- Initiate virtual appreciation days on group chats. Highlight who is behind the success on that particular day, or week.
- Incentivize unplugging with e-commerce vouchers, or a complimentary off to workers who’ve been putting in overtime while working remotely.
- Assign e-mentors to junior or new hires to help get them through onboarding, probation, and subsequent assignments. An e-buddy eases workers into the routine and is a central point of contact for any issues faced.
- Video in with zoom and use breakout rooms to split up virtual teams into smaller sizes. This feature comes in handy when organizing team bonding exercises.
Failing to appreciate the high-performers is fatal for employee morale. They gradually lose interest in what they do and cause others to follow suit. Pretty soon, your top talent turns out to be mediocre. Make it clear where you stand on performance and rewards for quality of work.
Organize one on ones on a quarterly basis to check in with your employees. Assess if there was any improvement between the last conversation and the present outcome. Remember, your staff is observing your actions just as you’re observing them.
When they see stalwarts being appreciated and rewarded, they too are encouraged to aim higher. Besides, appraisals are an opportune moment for them to know what they’re getting right and what they could improve further on.
6.6 Emphasize on continuous improvement
Don’t make building up remote work culture a one-time exercise. The mark of strong and positive work culture is one that lets employees adapt to dynamic business shifts. The steps to working on cultural improvements are to-
- Keep your teams involved and informed at all times, no matter where their location. In doing so, change measures face less resistance. For example, reskilling and upskilling measures. Make them aware of the external market conditions. They can then use their newly upgraded skills to a) remain employable and b)steady the business against any fluctuations.
- Appoint a trustworthy (and preferably, senior) point of contact, to convey news and business updates to physical, distributed, and remote teams.
- Recenter virtual meetings around relevance and moderate announcements. Everyone present can raise questions, which include how these updates impact individual departments, roles, competencies, and knowledge areas.
By focusing on continuous improvement, your priority remains to be more intentional about fostering transparency within the organization, thus preventing stagnation.
7. Tips for sustaining remote work productivity
Most businesses fear that culture building for remote teams takes a considerable chunk of the expense and time. But nothing could be further from the truth. According to a compilation of CultureIQ statistics, spending effort on company culture and brand helps companies hire right. It also increases employee referrals and, in general, attract more diverse candidates.
But what happens after you hire the talent and then transition into a remote work culture?
How can you be sure your trust in them is paying off and how they feel about the business? Here are ways to help you help them;
7.1 Take a clear stance on work policies
Flex work can mean different things to different people. This is more so if the team comprises gig workers. These employees aren’t a permanent part of your setup but still work in a distributed network. Be clear about the hours to be logged in, what counts as work, and how to compile documentation. This lets workers know what they’re signing up for.
7.2 Prioritize meaningful work
Realistically speaking, not everything can be a priority. And yet, competing interests often end up overriding each other. As a result, teams are unclear about what they should take up next. Members who work remotely know that they have to be more demonstrative about their engagement during business hours.
The bad news is, they can end up spending more time reconciling records than on the task at hand. As a result, they end up switching jobs without delivering the desired results. As a remote manager, you should prioritize work in a remote environment so that meaningful work is more prominent. Put simply, assign a higher priority to work based on its end-value.
7.3 Specify requirements and expectations
Communicate your expectations clearly and in advance. Give it in writing after in a place your teams know to refer to long after the initial rounds of discussion. It keeps deadlines real, and organizations more responsive.
7.4 Create a sense of community
Organize your onboarding processes by starting small and splitting it into small-sized groups. The fewer the number, the more comfortable everyone would be about opening up in the virtual space. Give your team a heads up before doing the meet-and-greet.
7.5 Be open to employee feedback
Ask your employees for feedback on processes that have or haven’t worked. Their feedback can draw your attention to things that are slowing them down. Together, you can come up with creative alternatives to motivate your remote team on a distributed network.
7.6 Appoint buddies in a mentoring program
Companies like Microsoft have jazzed up their mentoring program by appointing a ‘buddy’. The buddy acts as a single point of contact for new hires. This is all the more essential for teams that are remote and distributed. Ever since we started working remotely, my marketing team also adopted a similar practice.
We don’t call ourselves “buddies” of course. But we have the support system necessary to help everyone stay on the same page. From what I hear though, our organically evolved buddy system has helped our staff become actual pals.
7.7 Introduce remote retrospectives
Schedule sessions with the remote team and rotate it around individual availability for a virtual sit-down. Ask them how their weekly workload has changed since they started working remotely. What would they want to be done differently? These ‘retrospectives’ can be held before daily stand-ups. You have a more thorough idea of how people are approaching problems and working with each other.
7.8 Encourage unplugging:
A recharged employee is far more effective at what they do. They can think clearly without a work hangover from the previous day. Don’t make early logins and late checkouts the norm, unless circumstances change during usual business hours. Encourage your staff to take a mini-break midweek. Break up the monotony with regular team-building activities. This helps reduce incidents of unplanned absences.
8. Final thoughts
It is the people who turn an ordinary company into an extraordinary one. Employers should enable a remote work culture before their teams move to a distributed and remote set up.
Shaking things up culture wise can invite and retain the exact fit you want to see working for you. Out of the 25 company culture building insights compiled by Builtin here, I like the CBInsights approach. They reward those hungry for knowledge with incentivized learning opportunities, which helps them in their business continuity plans.
Let’s not forget the impact of employee feedback. What former workers say can either stunt or sway organizational growth. Positive reviews enhance employee goodwill.
Furthermore, it boosts your business visibility on networking sites like Glassdoor. And the higher the corporate culture rating, the more likely you are to attract competent workers, hand over fist!
Your cultural reputation precedes you, which is all the more reason to continue building upon it!