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Remote culture has to be an inalterable part of your company’s DNA.Nick Francis, CEO, Help Scout*
A major issue for remote companies who want an intact culture is not making the necessary changes to involve remote employees in that culture. Companies do face different degrees of challenge here. Some must come up with a way to manage culture across a main physical office space and a handful of remote offices; some have to contend with major time zone differences among a more largely distributed team; others are looking to create a cohesive culture across international borders.
What is more important is that remote companies, whatever model they choose or is feasible for them, operate within certain constraints that force the development of new practices, norms, and behaviors that can be useful for all types of companies. The fact of a distributed team—no matter how it is distributed, no matter how far—factors into almost all decisions, and it’s imperative for companies to be explicit about the values and associated practices that people need to support when working autonomously and asynchronously.
Have a “Remote First” Attitude
Remote first isn’t the same as remote friendly or ability to work from home. Remote first is a whole new way to organize companies.Amir Salihefendic, founder and CEO, Doist
While “remote first” is often used to describe a company that has been fully remote from the beginning, having a “remote-first” attitude can apply to any company that has some percentage of remote employees. It means prioritizing the policies and behaviors that ensure remote employees are as involved in the culture and company decisions as anyone in an office, and have the necessary information and structure to get their work done largely autonomously.
Opportunities and powerful questions emerge when an organization adopts a remote-first way of working. The lessons learned are applicable to fully remote and hybrid models alike, and are perhaps even more important for hybrid companies, as they manage discrepancies and possible disconnects between different styles of working.
As the Twist guide to remote work shares about the hybrid part-remote, part-HQ model, “This may seem like the best of both worlds, but it can be challenging to make remote workers feel as though they are part of the team.”
Many companies at scale cannot practically become fully remote. But companies are getting smarter about how to integrate the best practices of remote work to enable them to build stronger cultures. Remote workers make up almost half of Mozilla’s total workforce, and they have focused on making sure remote workers are fully part of the company’s culture by embracing a “remote-first” attitude. Here is how one worker reflected on their time working remotely at Mozilla:
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As a remotee, you always feel connected to your team, because you’re not a “special case.” In fact, I feel more a “part of something” here than I have at jobs where I’ve had to drive to an office every day.*
If a company is trying to embrace work in a remote setting while maintaining one or some of its offices, it may be hard to move away from defaulting to in-person meetings and sharing context through casual conversation and creating knowledge pockets. To combat this, creating an intentional communication architecture and a set of collaborative team agreements can get everyone on the same page—one which is largely asynchronous, and written down. When everyone communicates the same way, regardless of where they are, it levels the playing field.
Ben Cheng, CEO of Oursky, wrote about his company’s failure to shift from office-based working to remote work, and highlighted documentation as one major gap:
Assumptions and lack of documentation became obvious. Balls are dropped or people reinvent the wheel because they are unaware another team member has taken action already.*
importantSome companies mandate practices such as having everyone join video calls from their own computer, even if they’re in an office, to eliminate the perceived and actual power differences that can arise when some people attend remotely and others from a central conference room. Companies have a variety of different values and practices like these; see Working Together When Apart for all the details.
Geography Adds More Complexity
For remote companies, particularly those with employees across the globe, there is an added dimension of factoring in national and ethnic cultures. This may be both beneficial and challenging. For example, employees may feel more freedom around their dress and religious practices, but may follow different norms when it comes to communication, working hours, and taking time off. While many companies are well-informed on cross-cultural business practices in today’s business world, remote companies have more of a need to explicitly address best practices for their employees early and repeatedly, especially when they start to hire people internationally.
In a TEDx talk on managing remote teams, Ricardo Fernandez, who has managed hundreds of people remotely, found that using a common framework (such as the one offered in Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map, though there are many others) was a good way to consider many of the more challenging national cultural differences in a remote team setting. Clearly evaluating how, why, when, and where your team communicates is an important part of managing these kinds of differences. You may also want to try out some of the more purpose-built tools such as Culture Mapping and Team Canvassing. You can read more about codifying how your team works together in Remote Team Agreements and Protocols.
With remote teams, having a clearly documented set of values and an employee code of conduct that helps codify baseline expectations for behavior and defines what is unacceptable, will provide a reference point when establishing whether or not something is out of line with the company’s values.
A code of conduct defines preferred and unacceptable behaviors at a company.
A code of conduct is best maintained somewhere easy to find, like the company wiki, intranet, or handbook. You’ll want to revisit it regularly—at least once a year—as standards for what is and isn’t appropriate workplace behavior do (and should!) evolve over time. If you don’t have a code of conduct yet, starting from an open license code of conduct can help. A few resources for getting started with your own include:
Recurse Center codified their Social Rules, to help create a friendly, intellectual environment.
Buffer’s Code of Conduct, which shows us how it can aid in the moderation of tone in writing.
In an international team, a strong company culture is vital in order to navigate the questions around differing national norms. In these cases, it’s helpful to be explicit that the company values and culture will supersede national cultural preferences. Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process by Andy Molinsky is a good resource on managing cross-cultural differences while creating a cohesive set of company values and a shared culture across geographic divides.
The Use of Tools
If it weren’t for online tools, there’s no way we could do what we do at Buffer.Courtney Seiter, Director of People, Buffer*
The tools and related policies a remote company chooses for communication, project management, and workflow have a direct relationship with the norms, behaviors, and ultimately, the culture of a company. Looking at how employees use these tools without written operating instructions will expose underlying values and assumptions, which may not be compatible with the culture the company wishes it had.
story “Companies often don’t put enough thought into the technologies that are powering their companies, either opting for the tools their peers are using, or the hottest unicorns on the market. With remote work especially, the applications that your team communicates, project-manages, and does goal setting with, are also the tools that have a direct impact on productivity and culture. There’s an opportunity for decision-makers to curate the culture they want by selecting the tools which foster their intentions. For example, if you want to enable a more asynchronous work environment, saying that but operating via an ‘always on’ app like Slack is paradoxical.” —Steph Smith, Integral Labs
Tools and Transparency
Transparency is not a universal value—some companies believe that the less context employees have, the better. But if your company is fully distributed, a hybrid, or involves remote workers in any way, success is contingent on codifying transparency as a core value, and on promoting policies and cultural behaviors that uphold this value.
Synchronous communication tools like Zoom or Skype, asynchronous tools like Notion or Google Docs, and hybrid tools like Slack, will not automatically make a company transparent, and will not automatically create a cohesive culture. For that to happen, you must use tools intentionally with these goals in mind. For example, Stripe makes every email transparent to anyone in the company. In addition to transparency, Stripe values limiting internal politics, and that influences how they use their tools: “The open flow obviates a lot of internal politics and avoids the sort of accidental surprises that sometimes crop up in organizations.”
Communication Through Tools
How employees communicate through different digital tools is a big part of what defines a company’s culture. Think of it like this: if you were to join your company today, how would you be expected to act within the confines of different communication tools? This can reveal underlying assumptions in your company culture that you either will want to eradicate or codify through policy changes in an operating manual or handbook.
For example, if you didn’t respond immediately to a DM on Slack, would your colleagues be mad? If you set a meeting without asking for your colleagues’ availability and ensuring they had the mental space for the meeting first, would they wish you had? Both of these scenarios tell us a lot about the cultural fabric of a company. In the first instance, the company has a culture of reactive communication. “We move fast, no matter what,” might be their motto. In the second instance, the company values transparency and empathy, represented in the culture through these actions employees take when communicating.
Reinforcing behaviors that incentivize employees to react quickly in digital communication can establish a cultural norm that reacting as quickly as possible is more important than carefully considering the best course of action, or prioritizing other people’s needs. This kind of culture can distract people from focused work, makes it difficult to prioritize tasks, and promotes burnout.*
GitLab takes this a step further, by establishing a policy of maintaining Slack chats for only 90 days. This establishes a cultural norm that Slack is for short-lived discussions, and not for managing projects or maintaining visibility over the long haul.
Policies around tools like this don’t necessarily say “Never use Slack.” But they do establish companies’ expectations around different tools—when, how, and for what—is best codified, taught during onboarding, and kept available for all employees to read at any time. The clearest way to do this is have a communication architecture, and associated team agreements that are clearly documented in your handbook. Together, these cover the tools a company uses, how the company expects everyone to use them, and specific differences or unique implementations on individual teams. (See Working Together When Apart for more.)
The Role of Leadership
When it comes to remote work, like any new policy a company is testing out, if leadership equivocates, the thing will fall apart. Yahoo! famously ended its remote-work policy in 2013 when a new CEO, Marissa Mayer, took over. In a memo, Mayer wrote, “The best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”
As we’ve already seen, there are many ways to foster great communication and decision making at remote companies, not to mention promote the happiness and productivity of employees—but work has to be done for those companies to take advantage of all remote work has to offer. If leadership is not dedicated to changing the way people communicate ideas and they way they support employees in these necessary adjustments, remote work will not have the opportunity to prove its benefits.
Failing to do so can create a culture of inequality and distrust. If the founders and/or the CEO have not fully bought into remote working, they may be signaling throughout the company that in-person work is more important, and that in-office employees are more highly valued. Employees will sense that.
Luckily, it is through the culture that leadership can both demonstrate their commitment to their remote employees, and actually influence the culture they want to see.
If the same values don’t apply to the leaders of the organization, employees notice quickly. This can have both negative and positive consequences. If employees see their manager negatively calling out an employee in public in a Slack channel, they may question the psychological safety of the team. On the positive side, if employees see a leader following through on not working while on vacation or limiting their work hours, they may believe that the company respects the value of work-life balance.
Within remote companies, many CEOs actively share lessons learned with their employees, often in the form of public blogs. MarsBased founder Àlex Rodríguez Bacardit realized that he hadn’t been doing a good job role-modeling the company’s value of not overworking:
On another occasion, we spotted one or two of our employees working too much. They’d stretch their days too long, and then they’d work during the weekend. Why? Because they saw us, the founders, doing it. Once we took the resolution of working a maximum of 40 hours per week no matter what, all became normal, and it’s been a great investment for the company.*
Stories are often one of the most effective ways to communicate the beliefs, values, and underlying culture of an organization. Many organizations share these stories during hiring and onboarding, and they might be an explicit part of the company’s branding. They become the company mythos, serving as morality tales to help guide employees to make the culturally “correct” decisions in the future.
If leaders tell stories of cutthroat deals or employees heroically overworking to “save the day,” they communicate specific values and assumptions, regardless of whether those are the publicly espoused organizational values or not.
story “I recall an all-hands meeting at a tech company I used to work for, where people were expressing concerns about overworking and burnout. The CEO stood up and talked about his own experience, and how he felt he led by example. ‘I don’t work that much really, only 60–65 hours per week,’ he said. I looked around and saw a lot of wide eyes and shaking heads. That’s when I knew my time was limited at that company. My husband and I were talking about having kids, and I was trying to imagine how that could possibly be a healthy place to work while raising a family.” —Courtney Nash, Director of Editorial, Holloway
While many companies’ stories stem from the company’s early days—especially at startups—leaders and managers can also proactively look for emerging stories as a way to give employees a tangible example of values and norms. They might even create a document or Slack channel where employees can share such stories with the company. Hotjar held a contest for employees to submit 30-second videos detailing stories of great employee behaviors and cultural contributions.
Evaluating how performance management is handled is critical for remote companies, where inconsistency in how it treats employees can be trickier to spot. How a company handles feedback, rewards, and recognition are both policy decisions and part of a company’s culture, because they are based on what the company values and in how the company communicates those values.
A big part of a company’s culture is whether and how it recognizes success and employee’s efforts. When a company doesn’t hold something like “appreciation” as a value, it might not care whether employees are recognized for their work. “Doing the work is expected, and your salary is your recognition,” they might say. This can drastically affect employee motivation, especially in a remote company, when people may already feel like no one knows what they spend their days working on. They might be recognized for their work in the context of a 1:1, but those moments are hidden from the rest of the company.
This is why many remote companies encourage employees and leaders to offer public praise to others. Public praise for a job well done is also a way to provide context to all employees about what big or small projects are going on in another department that they can’t see. Some companies explicitly integrate this kind of appreciation into their digital communications, such as GitLab which uses values-based emojis in Slack. At Doist, this is actively encouraged: “When someone on your team delights a customer, leads a successful project, or brainstorms and builds an interesting feature, their success should be celebrated.” There are a number of tools that can encourage this behavior, such as Taco, a Slack plugin for praising peers; and Bonusly, a peer-to-peer bonus allocation tool. (See more in Giving Public Feedback Remotely.)
How a company decides to pay people across a remote organization reflects how they value the work their employees do, by location and by department, and their philosophy about the nature of remote work. Does a remote worker in Chattanooga make the same salary as HQ workers in San Francisco? Do engineering leads make the same salary as sales leads, regardless of location? While financial constraints and talent markets may play into these decisions, how a company ultimately decides who makes what is a reflection of their values, and if employees are aware of what they see as pay discrepancies, the culture may suffer the effects. Many companies make their pay methodology more transparent in order to foster trust between leadership and employees, and so candidates understand how pay is determined before joining. (See more in Compensation for Remote Employees.)
One of the clearest cultural signals to employees are the types of behaviors and related performance levels that result in someone being removed from the organization. When companies hesitate to eliminate employees who are clear violators of norms and values, they undermine trust in the overall culture. In a remote company, there may only be a few employees who are aware of an individual’s toxicity—those who work directly with that person, who interact more regularly. Employees across departments, even leadership, may not be aware of what’s going on. Therefore, leaders need to be very receptive to any concerns about values violation and toxic culture that might be brought up to them. When employees have a handbook covering values and culture, they are likely to be more comfortable and confident bringing up what they can point to as a violation of those stated norms and expectations.
When someone is fired at a large remote company, not everyone might be aware. It’s important to proactively communicate to the company when someone is fired. At Help Scout, they share the information with the direct team immediately on a video meeting and then share the context with the entire company via Slack. (See more in Sharing Difficult News with Remote Teams.)
If the person was fired for a breach in behavior, rather than violating the ex-employee’s privacy and calling out exactly what they did, this might be an opportunity to reiterate company values and cultural expectations. Workshops or town hall meetings can be arranged to prevent future missteps. If documentation needs to be updated to reflect the situation, get on it right away.
Recruiting and Onboarding
The passing on of solutions to new members is required in the definition of culture because the decision to pass something on is itself a very important test of whether a given solution is shared and perceived as valid.Edgar Schein, culture researcher and expert*
The onboarding process is crucial to a company’s culture. New employees cannot be expected to absorb culture through osmosis, especially when they are remote; you can instead share and explain norms and expectations in an intentional way at the very beginning, as GitLab does:
A team member’s first experience with company culture is unavoidable. The onboarding experience serves as the first post-interview encounter with culture, and it is essential to infuse the importance of values into that experience. Remote onboarding should set aside time for a new team member to read and digest a company’s values, which serve as a company roadmap to culture. Consider having a mentor or onboarding buddy specifically ask questions related to values, providing opportunity for the new team member to dive deeper into how they are lived day-to-day.*
In addition, companies can use onboarding as a way to pressure-test the stated culture against reality. Schein noted that adding new members to a team tests whether the underlying assumptions of the group are valid. At Basecamp, new employees are expected to identify inconsistencies in the handbook from their initial experiences:
If you’re reading this just after joining the company, it’s particularly on you, actually. It’s harder for us slowly boiled frogs who’ve been with Basecamp for a while to spot the broken ways.*
While much of a successful onboarding process is similar to any type of company, the most important elements of the process for a remote company are around making sure the new hire feels connected and part of a team as early as possible. Many companies assign new hires a “buddy” and some even fly that person to the new hire’s location within the first couple of months. You can find out how to handle this in detail in Onboarding Remote Employees.
Keep in mind that onboarding begins well before the new hire has signed a contract. It’s important for the company’s culture to be an explicit part of its value proposition to candidates, and part of the branding that will attract great people in the first place. Especially for a remote company, where potential employees may be concerned about culture cohesion and community, being explicit about what makes your culture great can be a game changer for individuals who value the same things. If you’re not willing to advertise what makes your culture great, or you don’t know, it might be a sign for leadership to get together with employees and figure it out.
Building and Cultivating Trust in Remote Teams
If I had to pick the one thing to get right about any collaborative effort, I would choose trust. Yes, trust. More than incentives, technology, roles, missions, or structures, it is trust that makes collaboration really work. There can be collaboration without it, but it won’t be very productive or sustainable in the long run.Larry Prusak, Senior Advisor and Faculty, Columbia University, author, Working Knowledge*
In most organizations, trust goes in many directions. The organization trusts the individual to perform their duties, and the individual trusts the organization will provide the means to do their work, and will also fulfill their end of their agreement, such as paying for that work. There is also a network of trust among employees. Organizations that rely on knowledge work are built on the expectation that individuals will fulfill their duties to each other, so that collaborative work can happen. We trust that everyone will play their part, on time, so we can all perform well.
It’s harder to build trust when teams are separated. Remote employees don’t have access to serendipitous opportunities to physically spend time with coworkers, like having lunch or going out for ice cream or happy hour. Being in the same space makes it easier to bond, so distributed organizations may need to be deliberate in how they build and maintain relationships that foster trust with their employees, and also may need to strive to create a culture and environment that enables employees to build trust with each other.
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