How to Build Remote Work Culture & Why It's So Important
Culture isn’t just about snacks and foosball tables. It takes more to foster a connection between a company and its employees. It takes mindfulness, intention, and rethinking how your employees work together. How do great distributed teams cultivate a winning culture? Keep reading for top tips from remote-oriented companies like Crazy Egg, InVision, and Automattic—and from our own distributed experts at Miro.
Why is culture so important?
Company culture is important because it affects how your employees and customers perceive you—and this greatly determines how successful your business will be. Since remote teams are physically distanced, building a culture is a bigger challenge, but the need is even greater without in-person interactions to build culture. When a company lives up to its core values, its culture will transform employees into advocates, enrich their wellbeing, and ensure the company retains its top talent. And with the Covid-19 pandemic shifting much of the world to working from home overnight, having a process in place to build a remote team culture is more relevant than ever.
11 steps to build a remote culture
In offices, culture can evolve organically through team activities, collaboration, and other IRL shared experiences. The time teams spend together gives them a sense of purpose and belonging. Building a remote team culture can also happen organically, but it requires more deliberate thought and proactive effort to shape. Here’s how you do it right.
When building a remote team, you’ll need to rethink all processes, from recruiting, onboarding, career paths, and performance reviews, to collaboration, tools, and project management. Check out our full guide to remote onboarding.
1. Set a foundation of trust & psychological safety
This is a big deal for any workplace—a great company culture offers a work environment characterized by trust and mutual respect. What is psychological safety? Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defined it as ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’’ This is not a trivial thing—the rewards of fostering psychological safety are great.
“Teams that are emotionally connected can be vulnerable with one another because there is a baseline of safety and trust in the relationship. This means they’re more willing to share that crazy idea or push back when they see something that they don’t agree with.”
— Jesse James Garrett, Chief Creative Officer at Adaptive Path
How can a company cultivate an environment of psychological safety with remote employees? Here are the key ways:
Behavioral: It all starts at the top. It’s important that company leaders show up with humility, curiosity, interest, and fallibility. Leaders set the expectation that it’s OK to make mistakes, and should be proactive, and promote participation. As leaders, ask for feedback from remote employees often via all-hands meetings, smaller “town halls,” or via surveys or 1:1s. Ask your teams to do the same with each other.
Structural: Teach teams to give constructive feedback that avoids blaming and making things personal, then ensure feedback is baked in to how you work together. Set up meetings and sessions that are designed to give candid feedback or to really critique work. Make sure feedback is given via video call so employees can hash it out face to face and avoid misunderstandings. All of this will help boost employee engagement for the whole team.
2. Increase time to value through onboarding
When you bring people on board, it’s your responsibility as a hiring manager to make sure the person has all the right resources to be successful in their role.
Here are some steps you can take to support the new employee and secure quick wins for them:
Develop a 2-week plan: Full-time remote workers take longer to onboard. Creating a plan and setting all the meetings will reduce the stress and anxiety new hires can have. It also ensures they are getting intro'd to all the right people, processes and projects they need to right away.
Start small: Develop a clear plan to help the employee know what onboarding will look like 30, 60, or 90 days out. Give them small tasks or projects at first, and be sure to hand-hold a little by introducing them to cross-functional partners and checking in regularly.
Onboard in groups: This is a great way to minimize effort and redundancies during onboarding, but it also creates a sense of community among new hires. Crazy Egg uses this approach: they hire in groups, and appoint seasoned employee “squad hosts” to welcome them and “functional stewards” who are there for technical support.
“By having a steady, structured cadence and cycle, you balance the integration of new people with the completion of existing work.”
—Suneet Bhatt, former GM at Crazy Egg
3. Communicate the mission and goals clearly
It’s much easier to create a high-performing remote culture if everyone on the team understands the company’s vision. Settle on a clear and concise way of describing that mission, communicate it to your teams, and continue to reinforce it. This reminds people of the importance of what they’re accomplishing together.
4. Be explicit about your work policy
“Flexible” or “remote” work can mean different things to different people—are employees expected to be online a certain number of hours each day? Will they need to travel to HQ on a regular basis? Include those specific expectations in your job descriptions, so applicants are 100% clear about what they’re signing up for.
5. Prioritize meaningful work
In a remote team, it’s easy for people to feel like they need to respond to requests immediately to show that they are staying actively engaged. However, it’s important to agree on that everyone has space to carve out time for meaningful work that requires uninterrupted attention. It’s important to create boundaries within remote teams. You can agree together how to do it: time blocks on the calendar, status settings on Slack or a full weekday with no meetings.
6. Establish regular rituals
Set recurring team meetings that establish a pace for projects. At Miro, many of our teams are Agile and regularly conduct sprint planning, backlog grooming, and retrospectives for projects. We also have bi-weekly calls for OKR traction, 1:1s, and department meetings, as well as quarterly company all-hands.
“We have certain rituals that are very team oriented (stand-ups, retros, etc.), and they help teams be autonomous and iterative in the process.”
—Aloka Penmetcha, Director of Product Management at Pivotal
7. Define how you work together
Different people across the organization may have different ideas about what a flexible working situation entails. Have a dialog with your team to assess needs, expectations, and what’s reasonable. Additionally, studies have shown that teams that are more emotionally connected, and engaged work more effectively together. Be sure to set a clear process for collaboration and communication.
Don’t forget to acknowledge the differences in the way people and learn and work. It’s a good idea to do exercises like taking the 16Personalities test and writing personal manifestos to help team members understand each other. Also, provide a venue for watercooler conversation that allows team members to talk about non-work related topics and get to know one another.
8. Schedule some face time
Meeting face to face is important for relationship building. If you can, leverage offices to bring teams together during onboarding. Or, you can schedule regular in-person team off-sites or summit meetings. Here’s a tip if your business is working on lean budgets and can’t afford to host people in expensive cities like SF: plan off-sites in a less expensive metro. Just have your entire team meet and rent a local co-working space for meetings. Regular meetings over video conference using apps like Google Hangouts or Zoom is also a great way to get your team synced on a weekly basis.
“We bring people to the office for onboarding. A new hire’s first 1-2 months are spent at the office to build the relationships and build the context and help them be successful once remote.”
—Aloka Penmetcha, Director of Product Management at Pivotal
Miro's distributed team takes advantage of every in-person opportunity.
9. Collect feedback regularly and make adjustments
If you are not experienced in running a remote team, chances are you won’t get everything right the first time. Ask each remote employee to pay close attention to the process and tell you what worked and what didn’t. This will allow you to continuously improve the process for your future hires.
You don’t need to stop gathering criticism after employees are fully onboarded. Set the expectation of regular feedback. Ask for it often, reflect on your efforts, listen to your employees, and make adjustments as needed. This culture of constructive feedback will help you, and make your employees feel like they’re safe to speak their minds and be heard.
Here's a remote retrospective template that can help you gather feedback from the team:
10. Find creative ways to keep people engaged
Keeping remote employees engaged over time is a great way to foster a positive culture. Host a virtual happy hour or a breakfast session where people from the same field (for example, product development) can discuss their challenges. Sometimes you don’t even need a separate meeting for that – you can incorporate some of the team building games into your regular calls or start a Slack channel to exchange photos of your pets (at Miro, we love our #miro_mascots).
11. Create mentorship programs
One of the most important aspects of building trust and a sense of belonging in a remote team is helping people grow and learn from their peers. Incorporate rituals that will help everyone grow individually as well as a group: discuss each person’s goal at a performance review and set a metric to measure progress, host a workshop on giving feedback, or start time weekly for regular lunch and learns.
FAQ about remote work culture
How do you create a remote culture?
Building a remote culture requires a more concerted effort than in the office. You need to have a specific vision for your culture and create it through your hiring decisions, the goals you set, and the way that your team communicates.
How do you maintain culture while working remotely?
Maintaining a remote company culture is done through virtual team-building activities, frequent meetings where the whole team can sync, one-on-one time between employees, and channels where employees can chat.
How do remote teams work together?
Communication is key: you’ll need a workflow management app like Asana or Monday to keep track of tasks and apps like Slack where the team can sync.
Next up: How to Manage a Remote Team