Welcome to the future, everybody!
Things that seemed like the domain of sci-fi movies are now commonplace: We can chat with each other over video, information flows all over the world instantaneously, and you’re no longer limited to doing your work at a desk. You might attend a department meeting from your kitchen, your garage, or even your couch.
Almost everything has changed. It’s a brave new world. Well, mostly.
One thing that hasn’t changed despite all our technological fast-forwarding: The importance of a strong company culture.
It’s become a mainstay of job descriptions. Companies everywhere want potential applicants (and their employees) to know about their awesome culture and how hard they work to maintain it. Everyone they hire needs to be a cultural fit.
We loosely define culture itself as the behaviors and values your company endorses and operates by. More broadly, it’s the experience of working at a company. Do you go to work eager to see your coworkers and happy about the work you do? Is everyone in the company on the same page about how they handle certain issues or face potential problems? Those are signs of a strong culture.
But if you decide to go fully remote, you give up on all that, right? Not necessarily. You can still build a strong company culture even if your team never sets foot in the same office. Here’s how to go about it.
What goes into a strong culture?
You can’t spell culture without value.
Well...yes you can, but let us explain.
Your values are what set you apart from other companies. They dictate what you will do for customers, for each other, and in some cases for the world. Even if you’ve never written your values down, you certainly have them. Maybe you won’t work for a client who berates and belittles your team, for example (translation: you value compassion and calmness). Or you believe your employees when they come to you with a potential problem (translation: you trust them and value their contributions).
See what we mean? A strong company culture is built on strong values. Here are some of the values we’ve seen across the board in company cultures we admire:
Trust As humans, we don’t always trust freely. That’s unfortunate, particularly in an interconnected community like an office. The act of hiring someone indicates your trust in them and it’s up to you to maintain that trust and do right by your people. If your employees don’t trust you, they aren’t going to come to you with problems that could rapidly spiral out of control. If you don’t trust your employees, you won’t listen to them or heed their advice if they do come to you.
Communication This is typically a byproduct of trust. It’s not just about being willing to go to a higher-up about a problem, or discuss the latest product with your department. Do you confide in one another? Do you talk about things unrelated to work?
Accountability Those who contribute to a strong company culture usually aren’t just in it for the paycheck. They care for their work and their colleagues; as a result, they’ll have high standards for themselves and their coworkers. That means holding each other accountable.
Shared leadership Yes, the top brass will always be the top brass. But a strong company culture allows everyone to take initiative and voice their thoughts, ideas, or concerns. This creates a sense of ownership. If everyone has a stake in things, the entire company will mean that much more to them. It’s deeply impactful not only on their state of mind, but also on the product or performance they end up delivering. People who care about a place—who feel that ownership—work much harder to help it do well.
What culture challenges does a remote company face?
Historically, companies have built their cultures after long hours spent in a shared space together. A fully remote team doesn’t have that option. It’s still entirely possible to craft a culture you’ll take pride in, but first, let’s acknowledge some of the challenges a remote team will face:
Highly reduced facetime—or no facetime at all We admit it—there can be something comforting in meeting with people face to face, whether it’s in a room or at the water cooler. Remote teams can do a lot with video chat, and software is getting better all the time, but there are far fewer spontaneous interactions.
Pitfalls of written communication The reality is you won’t be on video chat at all times, and thus will be communicating important information to each other through emails and chats. Sometimes things can come across poorly or be misinterpreted, spawning hurt feelings and resentment, eventually leading to problems within a team.
Reduced collaborative efforts If you’re all remote, there’s no way you can work closely together on a project, right? You’re missing that spontaneous element, that ability to stop by Julie’s desk and say, “I had this amazing idea for this campaign, can we sketch something out?”
Onboarding/training difficulties There’s no real way around it: A lot of workers are used to face-to-face contact; being introduced to a company virtually, and being relegated to virtual onboarding, can inadvertently lead to a mental disconnect. It’s often easier to keep people engaged when you’re in the same office space; will they be motivated enough to keep learning if you aren’t in the next seat over to help? Are they going to be comfortable “pinging” their coworkers for assistance instead of, say, poking their heads over a cubicle side? And what if you already have a really awesome in-person onboarding program that your entire staff raves about—can you adapt it for a digital workspace? Should you try? And that’s just scratching the surface. What happens when someone’s computer locks up, or their email malfunctions? “Technical difficulties” takes on a whole new meaning when you can’t dispatch an IT person directly to a desk to fix this issue or that. If your tech support people are remote, too, they’ll be troubleshooting from a distance, which can lead to slower resolution of problems.
An uneven playing field This tends to crop up when part of a team is remote and part of them are still going to the office. It ranges from a piece of news hitting office workers first to the in-house team being able to air concerns in real-time to the VP of Operations. This can lead to remote workers feeling like an afterthought, which in turn can pave the way for resentment and schisms between the company’s departments.
Whoa. That’s a lot of potential roadblocks you need to get around.
But have no fear! If you build out your company values and live by them, there are ways around these issues. But it all has to start with defining your culture.
How to define your culture
What do you stand for? What change do you want to see in the world?
Do you need a moment to think about it? Go ahead and write down your thoughts (really, write them down). We’ll wait a few minutes.
Have your answers? OK.
A strong culture has its own core values. These are the guiding lights you operate by; the things that influence everything you do. We’d argue that culture and values are symbiotic; one leads to another. You can use values to come up with company culture, or company culture can lead to stated values.
If you’ve never done this before—or if you just need a refresher—we have good news: You can define your culture by following the three steps below:
Step 1. Build out your core values.
If you haven’t defined your culture or values yet, now is the time. Your values are what matter to you as individuals and together as company.
And this shouldn’t be a project solely for the executive team. Remember how we said part of a strong culture comes from shared leadership? Pull in team leaders. Pull in developers. Pull in your sales team. New employees and those who have been with the company from the start.
Step 2. Live by them.
The key to creating and maintaining a strong culture is to live by your values. They aren’t just something you throw out in press releases during a marketing binge; they are your everyday values. If these values are not something you can maintain, don’t build your culture around them.
Here’s an example. At Mindspace, one of our values is “Explore as a lifestyle.” This value is all about curiosity, exploring the world around you and trying new things. We focus intently on solving the unsolvable for clients in our day-to-day, but we also set aside time each month for employees to learn and share about topics that interest them. Also, because the value of trust is important to us, we offer unlimited PTO and an intimate atmosphere where colleagues feel more like friends than, well, colleagues. Check out the rest of our values below.
Make it public
So you have values. Congratulations! Now what do you do?
Make sure everyone can see them.
Yes, we mean everyone.
You don’t need to go on a media blitz. But consider adding a page featuring your values to your company website. Link to that page on your social media. Write a few blog posts about what your values mean to you, and why they’re so important.
Going public with your values brings a whole new level of accountability to your company. Sure, maybe not all of your customers are going to spend a ton of time exploring your website. But those that do will see what you stand for, and if they like it—along with your products and services, of course—you have every opportunity of converting them into lifetime fans.
Make sure your values are spelled out internally. Interpreting them through colorful, creative posters gets the point across and contributes to your decor. Adding a phrase or short sentence from them to email signatures is another way. Turn one of your values into a banner that runs across the top of the company chat software. Add a section about your values to the company handbook.
The more places people can see these values, the more they’re subconsciously internalizing them. And something magical happens when everyone is using the same playbook: Accountability. If you’re all on the same playing field, living by the same values, then you can all hold each other accountable. The burden is moved from the shoulders of the management layer (where it often ends up) and spread throughout the organization.
Amazing things happen when you’re all rowing in the same direction.
Hire for culture
When you hire someone, you’re indicating to them and to the rest of the company that you trust this individual. You trust that they will operate according to the company’s values. You trust that they will learn how to do the job they were hired to do.
Can they lose this trust? Absolutely. But go into their first days and weeks believing that they have every intention of living up to your hopes and expectations.
Ideally, you’ll hire someone with both the skill set to get a job done and the right set of values. Remember, skills can be sharpened or learned; if faced with hiring someone who’s a whiz at the job but doesn’t get on with your team vs. someone the entire team adored but is maybe more junior than you wanted—ask yourself, Can we train this person?
Every hiring process looks a little different. But we’ve seen the following utilized to good effect when a company is trying to hire a cultural fit.
Set clear expectations. There are two elements to the role you’re hiring for. The first is the job itself; if you’re hiring a writer, for example, you’ll expect them to produce a certain amount of content each day, week, and month; they’ll likely be assigned to specific types of projects. But what will this individual contribute to the company besides their writing?
Talk about values during the interview process. In a best-case scenario, your potential new hire will have reviewed your company’s values, either on your website or via some documentation. You might ask them how they’ve embodied these values in prior roles or situations. This is the time for you to discuss what your goals are and how their potential role might fulfill those goals. What kind of behaviors do you expect them to display? If you occasionally need to work late nights and this person is firm on shutting off the computer at 5 every day, that’s already a conflict of values.
Find out how they prefer to work. Does your potential new hire require a lot of supervision? They may not be the right person. Remote teams are always going to perform best when they’re populated by self-starters who don’t need to check in with a manager every five minutes. If your interviewee doesn’t mind barging off into the unknown, they might be an excellent fit.
Bring in other members of the team. Sure, you can say, “I love this person” and hire them on the spot...but unless you’re hiring for a personal assistant role, this individual will interact with other members of your team. Get their opinions of the newbie by scheduling out micro-interviews. Spending 5-10 minutes chatting with the people who will be their colleagues gives both sides a chance to feel each other out. It also gives your current team a sense of responsibility and ownership—both important stakes in a strong culture.
Look toward the future. Yes, you want someone to fit into your existing culture, but don’t immediately write off the outliers. You want someone to add to the company culture, not someone who immediately assimilates and becomes utterly invisible. You are not the Borg (unless you are, in which case your onboarding is really easy).
Create an engaging training program. For the love of Thor, don’t just send your newbies a 500-page PDF to read and then call them trained. You want your new folks to engage with their learning, not just sit back and treat it as one more thing they need to do. We’re big fans of gamification, and have created gamified training programs for companies like Google, Starbucks and FedEx that keep employees’ minds engaged while they learn.
Encourage communication and feedback
The single most important thing a remote team can do is communicate with each other. They don’t have the option of popping over to a desk or meeting by chance at the water cooler. That doesn’t mean you can’t all talk to each other. It just means your efforts to communicate must be deliberate. You need to seek each other out.
If you don’t, people simply stop listening. Communication grinds to a halt. Small issues that might have been smoothed over via a conversation or two snowball into grievances. The entire machine eventually breaks down because of all the little pebbles and sticks stuck in the wheels.
So what’s a leader to do?
Get them talking.
A remote office does face challenges in this area; sending a message via chat or through an email just doesn’t always feel as natural as walking into an open door and saying, “Hey, can we chat for a second?”
A remote team needs to get past that—quickly.
Video chatting allows you to schedule one-on-ones and department meetings as you normally would. Department gatherings are a critical way to get your entire team together. Yes, if you’re all new to working remotely, seeing all those faces on a screen instead of in a room can be a bit strange. Yes, timing your responses so you don’t run over each other takes some effort. Acknowledge the weirdness if it’s there. If you end up accidentally cutting someone off, apologize and let them continue. Honesty and a sense of humor go a long way.
Make sure you're listening.
A strong culture doesn’t just depend on good sentiment between a manager and the people beneath them. It begins with the higher-ups.
It’s one thing for an employee to trust their manager and colleagues. These are, by and large, the people they interact with daily. The higher-ups—whether they’re directors or even the executive branch—often become shadowy, mysterious figures only discussed in whispers. “I heard the VP of Marketing has an awesome novelty sock collection,” someone types into the department chat. “Sssh! I heard he monitors all the chats for mentions of socks,” says another.
Don’t be that company.
Occasional “skip-level meetings” can go a long way in taking the mystery out of the VP’s sock collection. You essentially “skip” a level; instead of meeting with their direct manager, a staffer might meet with a director. Even a brief, 10- to 15-minute video chat can pull back the veil on upper management and the executive team. Seeing each other as people instead of just roles or titles goes a long way in strengthening trust and creating a culture people will embrace.
Some additional ways to build your communication:
Shorter review cycles We’ve all experienced the standard yearly review. Let’s think about that for a moment. A worker gets a lot dumped on them during that review—what they do wrong as well as what they do right. You can usually craft long-term goals, but short-term versions are more difficult to craft. Think about requiring more frequent reviews.
Daily check-ins We don’t mean daily one-on-ones or daily department meetings, although you can certainly work those in if time permits. Gather a department together for 15-20 minutes in the morning or afternoon and chat about things besides work.
Group gatherings Remember: You’re working with people, not titles. Schedule regular Happy Hours (booze optional) for departments. Take snack breaks together; you can even set up separate chat rooms or video sessions dedicated solely to food, if that’s your jam (no pun intended). We’ve had good results from using software like Donut, which matches you up with another colleague for a few minutes at a time and lets you recreate the water cooler/coffee break experience from the comfort of your own home.
Themed chat rooms Most chat programs give you the option to create as many new rooms as you like. Set up spaces for people to chat about the latest streaming entertainment. Got some readers on your team? Start a book club. Rooms for foodies, coffee aficionados, and Westworld conspiracies give people a place to gather and talk about the things that are important to them.
Celebrate Did Larry just get a promotion? Did the company score a new client? Is it your beloved mascot’s birthday? Celebrating good news brings people together. One word of caution: Watch out for celebratory emails; that “reply all” function can choke your inbox for days if you’re at a larger-sized company. Dropping a congratulatory message into a company chat room is usually safer (and faster).
Learn from others
And now, a word of wisdom: You are not the first company to go remote. Not by a long shot.
Other companies have already swapped the office for the homestead. They all had their reasons for such a move, and if you look carefully at their statements and rationale, you’ll see that many of these reasons reflected the culture they’d developed over the years.
Twitter: Twitter had already begun phasing in a remote work model, seeing clear benefits in being able to hire people anywhere, rather than just one location. Circumstances eventually pushed them to make remote work a permanent element, though they’ve indicated they will one day reopen offices for those who prefer it.
Zapier: CEO Wade Foster has said that once Zapier was in a position to hire employees, they went for people they knew—who happened to be scattered across the country. Working remotely “just worked” for them, and they never did get around to requiring people to come into an office.
Nationwide: Yes, Nationwide is on your side if you want to work from home. CEO Kirt Walker said, “We decided early on … not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” This is a powerful lesson for any company; in short, if something goes wrong, fix it, learn from it, and move on.
Mindspace: Yes, it’s happening—we’re talking about ourselves. We already had flexible and remote work arrangements prior to the pandemic, but since have gone full-time. We’re loving #remotelife right now and think it might become a permanent thing for some or all of us. Want some pointers on how we’ve managed? Hit us up! We’d love to chat.
Get the tools
Your team won’t be able to engage with each other at all if you don’t give them the tools to do the job:
Video meeting software + chat software (often they come together)
A computer powerful enough to run them
Headsets, mice, etc
Make sure your tech support people are standing by and ready to assist anyone who’s having trouble.