editione1.0.2Updated September 6, 2022
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Much like workplace communication norms, company culture has been heavily shaped by physical presence. Proximity has long been a proxy for what constitutes culture, despite not being the primary factor that establishes any given culture, nor a guarantee that a culture will be healthy. The belief that remote teams won’t have a cohesive culture is the same belief that maintains that co-located companies have good cultures to begin with. As we cover in Remote Company Culture, shared values—and the specific practices of communicating and promoting those values—largely shape a group’s culture whether group members are co-located or not. Values can and should be written down, shared liberally and regularly, and revisited as a company grows and changes. Like many other written, asynchronous practices, values—and the culture built from them—can survive, and even thrive, in remote settings.
importantWe don’t intend to downplay the difficulties involved with establishing and scaling a healthy remote culture. But like any other aspects of remote work, it’s a matter of doing the work. And most importantly, it’s a matter of realizing that culture isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it phenomenon. Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab—arguably the fastest-growing all-remote startup out there—acknowledges the work required to maintain their culture:
It’s a daily, intentional challenge. I’m working a lot on onboarding right now. One of our biggest risks is “losing the values that bind us.” When we have too many new people coming in too fast, they are figuring out where they fit in. If you’re not careful, they don’t realize they have permission to do things differently. If too many of those people come in and “talk louder” than others, then the culture starts to tip in that direction. Any leader who appreciates the culture they’ve built has to continually watch out for that. Your natural inclination is to get them in and working quickly, so you don’t have the time to teach them to do things differently. The thing that GitLab has going for it is that stuff that we let people leave behind is what people usually want to leave behind. It’s like hiring a new soccer coach, someone who views the field the way the old coach taught them. If you take that person and then add a flood of new players, it’s hard for the existing players to teach them their playbook.*
Digital nomads can and do thrive in some cases, but traveling consistently consumes more time, money, and energy than staying in place, and many remote companies still are not willing or organized enough to support nomadism for one or more employees. The unique demands of digital nomads (along with other remote work factors like isolation and lack of social support) are some of the inspirations for organizations like Remote Year, which puts digital nomads into cohorts and provides logistical and on-site support for people traveling and working remotely.
contributeWe aren’t covering digital nomads in this Guide, but we’d love to hear more from people working this way to help us inform potential future updates.