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This section was written by Paul Millerd.
What Is Company Culture?
Company culture is not the office foosball table.Paul Spiegelman, author and speaker*
Company culture is a description of the traits and behaviors of people at an organization; it is defined by the set of behaviors that are tolerated, encouraged, or discouraged. Culture may or may not be founded on a set of company values, and company culture and an individual team’s culture may differ.
A section about culture in remote companies could quickly become about, well, everything. Culture is a notoriously permeable phenomenon—with different incarnations across different organizations—and it impacts and is shaped by nearly every aspect of how people within an organization interact. To help think about fostering a healthy remote culture in your company, we suggest thinking about culture in three ways: what you value, how you communicate and enact those values, and how you get together.
Edgar Schein’s Culture Framework
In the 1980s, MIT professor Edgar Schein developed a framework for making sense of organizational culture:
Organizational culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.*
Schein’s framework identified three levels of company culture:
Artifacts are the visible symbols of a culture that people can easily see or identify. They can include anything from the style of people’s dress and the tools or technology they use, to the types of offices given to different members of the organization.
When people talk about culture, they often discuss artifacts, such as a foosball table in the break room, free lunches, or whether or not a company has an open-office plan. But artifacts also encompass the type of documentation companies produce—such as handbooks and onboarding materials—and the types of tools they use.
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Company values (or company core values) are the foundational beliefs that are meant to guide a company’s behaviors and decisions. They often reflect a set of goals, strategies, or philosophies about how the company should operate.
Values can vary widely across organizations. The values of a publicly traded corporation might look very different from the values of a city council or a military organization, though there may still be some shared values among all three.
Assumptions are unconscious beliefs that often are taken for granted. Assumptions are most commonly the underlying drivers of an organization’s values and artifacts, and are related to things like the nature of time and space, and human behavior and relationships.
Although Schein’s model was developed prior to remote work becoming common, it remains relevant as a lens for remote leaders to understand their company, its culture, and the underlying norms and behaviors of employees. When unexamined individual assumptions don’t line up with a company’s stated values, for example, friction can arise, and that is even harder to deal with at a distance. For this reason, it’s critical that remote organizations establish and document their values early.
Start With Values
The terms company values and company culture are often used interchangeably to refer to a company’s beliefs about the world and their “way of doing things.” But they are not the same. Having a clear set of company values is tremendously important to the success of a business. These values guide decision-making in all parts of the company, whether high-stakes strategic decisions, ethical decisions, or smaller day-to-day decisions (which, in aggregate, are just as important). Clearly stated values also provide a structured way to resolve disagreements.
cautionCulture without values puts you in the dangerous position of repeating patterns and behaviors that do not line up with how the company wants to see itself or what the company wants to accomplish. It’s worth noting that a company without explicitly defined values will still have a culture—just one that stems from the personalities and behaviors of its leaders and early employees, rather than one having any careful thought, design, or purpose. This can breed similarity of thought, behavior, and demographic makeup, none of which are good for a company’s business or employee retention.
It’s also worth noting that explicit values won’t prevent the development of toxic or unhealthy cultures. For example, a company might create a toxic culture by prizing overwork and self-sacrifice “for the greater good.” Uber’s culture was infamously tied to a set of well-documented and regularly reinforced values.* A company whose stated value is, say, “move fast and break things” might not expect cultural behaviors like asking questions, seeking input from all sides, or documenting process.
Defining and documenting values carefully, sharing them company-wide, and making sure that this documentation is accessible for all employees to refer to when making decisions, are essential steps for maintaining a strong culture at remote companies.
Defining Company Values
Companies are built in the image of their founders and leaders. Any list of values that are incompatible with the way leaders act is probably doomed to fail. When founders or early employees don’t recognize this, they are unable to manage any discrepancies and company values and culture can become toxic. As early as possible, it’s wise to record the values of the company and the values you want all employees to uphold. One of the biggest mistakes companies can make is waiting until they’ve hired a bunch of people; let your values inform hiring from day one.*
How do we make our best decisions? (Think of a recent decision you made that had a good outcome. What process led to that?)
What are we bad at?
What can never be tolerated?
How do we resolve disagreements?
If you’ve already made your first few hires, it’s worth looping in the rest of the team when defining the values that will define the company. Using the list above, you can ask them what they think the company’s values are or should be, and what they think is important to the company culture. Everyone can write these down and then discuss them together. This can help ensure that value-setting isn’t too top-down, and can also expose instances of when a company’s leaders are lacking awareness of their own limitations.
If you have been operational for a while, a great strategy here is to look at people who have been successful (and not successful) at the company so far, and figure out what makes them different. Were they really passionate about the mission? Did they have a particular way of collaborating with others?
During a scary moment of meaningful turnover during Bonobos’ early days, we articulated what we viewed to be the five core human values of the best people we had ever hired. I made the list by grouping the thirty people we had hired up to that point into three buckets: the ten best, the next ten, and the ten who hadn’t worked out. I asked myself what really separated the top ten from the bottom ten in terms of their humanity.Andy Dunn, co-founder, Bonobos*
In addition to being well-defined and explicit, you will want your company values to be the following:
Congruent with the company’s actual behavior. The people at your company—especially leaders and founders—reinforce values through both talk and action. You want to be able to ask anyone at the company what those values are, and get a pretty consistent answer. Also, it’s important for the way your company hires, fires, and promotes people to be reflective of those values.
Compatible with your mission, strategy, and goals. One of Quora’s values is “agility,” which can be great for a consumer internet company, but may not be as wise in an industry with heavy regulation or high cost of mistakes (like healthcare).
Unique and memorable. Values like “integrity” or “honesty” are so general that they could apply to any company. So unless your company has a unique take on what they mean, they are less likely to be remembered.
As a next step, it’s worth thinking about which of those values are most important to the success of the business. Most of the values of a company’s leaders should be compatible with the company’s mission (otherwise, there are bigger problems). But no person (or group) is perfect, and there might be traits or values that are critical to the company’s success that a founder can’t or doesn’t anticipate.
Documenting and Communicating Values
There should be no unwritten rules in remote culture. Intentional documentation is essential to avoiding dysfunction within a remote company, and this also applies to culture.GitLab Handbook*
One of the biggest challenges and opportunities of being a remote company is coming up with processes, norms, and practices for codifying and communicating values.
importantIt’s critical to document values in writing at a company’s earliest stages. The intent is to make the implicit assumptions and behaviors of early team members explicit by developing a set of values which clearly articulate to future members of the company how they are expected to make decisions. Your values are ideally the earliest entry to your company handbook.
The documentation can take many forms. Examples of how companies think about articulating and documenting their values and culture are publicly available:
Many of these companies make this information public as a way to share lessons with others and to attract people who might fit well within their cultures, based on the company’s values and on what they esteem in their employees. Whether or not you share this information publicly, it’s critical to make it available for all employees to consult asynchronously whenever they need and for whatever reason.
Values Based Hiring
Culture fit is shorthand for the many vague assessments or unexamined feelings hiring teams sometimes use to determine whether a candidate “belongs” at a company. While in most cases the intentions behind these decisions are not sinister, testing for this kind of vague quality can devolve into a “friend test” or “likability test” where candidates are assessed not on potential to do the job, but on similarity, kinship, or familiarity to the assessing employee.
It’s important to avoid hiring for culture. Instead, you will have better results by hiring for traits that are related to a new hire’s ability to perform the values the company upholds. Just as company culture and company values are often thought of as interchangeable, traits and values can be confused. While values refer to guiding principles and beliefs, traits are the inherent parts of someone’s personality that may help or hinder their ability to abide by stated values.
Traits are characteristics of a person that describe how they tend to feel, think, and behave, such as patience, adaptability, and being detail-oriented.
When hiring remote workers, looking for traits that will enhance the culture is important. For remote teams whose culture values written communication, it’s becoming more common to hire for communication ability, even for jobs that haven’t required strength in that area in the past. This is a good example of how all of these concepts fit together. If a company’s stated value is open communication, the cultural behaviors to promote are transparency and vulnerability, and the trait that can be hired for and rewarded within the company is humility. A high-ego individual might struggle to express doubt or ask for help, and therefore lack the ability to uphold open communication as a value.
In addition to hiring for traits related to a company’s values, there are certain skills that can also work to uphold values and influence culture. For example, given the importance of written communication in sharing values and norms with a distributed team, some remote companies have been proactive in recruiting candidates who are strong writers.
Hire great writers. If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever; their writing skills will pay off. That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand.Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO, Basecamp*
Guerric de Ternay, who has been a remote worker for more than a decade, underscores the value of written communication:
The reason communication has to be central is that remote workers can’t afford not being on the same page. When something bad happens, their ability to recover from it depends on how well they communicate. Sharing feedback and feelings as well as putting yourself in your colleagues’ shoes are the minimum required to solve any problem. Writing is the essence of most of what remote workers do. From programmers to marketers to designers to customers support teams, everyone writes in their daily job.*
At Zapier, writing is one of the skills they explicitly look for in job descriptions:
You’re a skilled written communicator. Zapier is a 100% remote team and writing is our primary means of communication. You’ll use written summaries and reports to communicate vision, strategy, plans, findings, and results to the engineering and full Zapier team.*
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:
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.
Trust isn’t just about good feelings or liking the people we work with. Building a culture of trust makes a meaningful difference in both employee engagement and company outcomes by enabling higher productivity, better-quality products, and increased profitability.*
Many in-person organizations use physical presence as a proxy for trust and may not in fact have a deeper ethic of trust within teams. In remote companies, employees need a shared understanding of how to think about trusting their teammates and leaders.
Employees are treated with respect as people and professionals.
The workplace is fundamentally fair.
Transparency builds trust. Many companies—especially remote organizations—value transparency because it improves credibility and lowers the chances of miscommunication. Monzo, a hybrid remote team in London, calls this “transparent by default,” and in addition to being internally transparent, shares a lot of information directly with their customers. Buffer identifies transparency as its first overall value:
“As individuals, we view transparency as a lifestyle of authenticity and honesty.
As a team, we view transparency as an effective way to work remotely and establish a culture of trust.
As a company, we view transparency as a tool to help others.
We share early in the decision process to avoid ‘big revelations.’
We strive to make all communication clear and avoid making assumptions.”
A couple of tactics for maintaining transparency—beyond the broad strokes of detailed, asynchronous documentation and communication—include:
Keeping employees informed. Surprises erode trust. Telling employees there’s a new hire on the day they start, or many sudden changes of plans, isn’t a good way of maintaining employee trust. Whenever and wherever you can, it’s best to ensure everyone knows what’s coming up, especially when it’s not just good news. When teams are kept in the loop, they can lower their defenses. If things go wrong, they will then trust that they will know about it with sufficient time to react or to understand how change will affect them.
Acting on feedback. Collecting feedback through employee surveys and anonymous forms is a useful way of learning about employee engagement. The value of this feedback isn’t in the collection of it, but is rather in the action that follows it. Once the company knows about any problems, it faces the choice of acting on them to maintain trust and improve engagement of their workforce, or risking eroding what trust they do have.
In our remote setting at Doist, we’re never on the clock. We don’t have dedicated hours you need to work and we’re not using team time-tracking or screen monitoring tools. With this setup, you’re measured purely on output. It’s about what you produce, not how many hours it took you or whether you did it at 6am or 6pm.Fadeke Adegbuyi, Marketing Manager, Doist*
Since it is almost impossible to observe if employees are working or not, most successful remote companies tend to shift their focus toward results. This entails granting people the autonomy (and associated tools, documentation, and organizational support) to make decisions and solve problems on their own as much as possible. It also involves a general level of trust that people are doing their best and getting their work done. Scott Hanselman reflected on the pressure he felt as a remote worker at Microsoft, where he often felt that a lack of trust drove him to work long hours to prove that he was doing good work:
Working remotely requires your company to trust you can do the work not only without them seeing you, but also without constant physical interaction with your teammates.*
A few key tactics that help improve autonomy and build trust in remote teams include:
Retiring the punch card. Traditional organizations believe that compliance, and even trust, can only happen if there’s presence. Distributed work requires that organizations free themselves of this notion. By definition, the organization must trust that work will happen when they can’t watch. Not trusting your employees will not only cost you as you build structures and processes for compliance; it will erode engagement, productivity, and the quality of outcomes. To build a modern company, it’s imperative that you free yourself from archaic notions of how work is supposed to happen. This means retiring the physical, virtual, and mental punch cards, and working on giving employees clear goals, healthy communication practices, and a thriving collaborative environment.
Reducing bureaucracy. In a distributed team, getting approval or permission to spend money can take a long time because communication can be slower. If employees are trusted to use their own and other people’s time responsibly, then why not do the same with actual money? You can do this with the policies you create for travel, expenses, and tool procurement.
cautionHowever, the shift of the burden to the employee to manage their own time can often lead to people feeling overworked. Here’s Martin De Wulf on the challenge of always needing to show output:
I am not naïve, and I know that in the end, in software engineering, most jobs are really about results (you will get fired in the end if you produce nothing), and not means; but in remote working, since people are not seeing you work, you might feel more obliged to show results everyday, even if it forces you to work way past eight hours a day.*
Offsites and Retreats
For all the emergent popular culture about the wonders of remote work, there remains one inextricable issue which goes largely unacknowledged: Great teams need human connection—and human connection does not happen through computers.John O’Nolan, founder and CEO, Ghost*
Happier teams are more effective teams. Regardless of your internal wiring—introvert or extrovert—people strive for connection, and remote work can have a tendency of fostering cabin fever and isolation, which affect productivity as well as well-being. There’s a demonstrated link between the amount of social support people have at work, and having lower rates of burnout and higher productivity and job satisfaction.* Buffer found that remote workers who went six months without seeing any colleagues experienced significant dips in motivation, a symptom of burnout.
Expensify brings together their team for a month-long retreat each year.*
Retreats tend to focus on building connections, engaging in planning or hands-on experiments, presentations, learning, and celebrating achievements:
GitLab gets together once every 9–12 months in an event they call “Contribute,” which is a mix of workshops, presentations, and company awards. The goal of the off-site is to “get to know the people in the GitLab community better” as a way to build relationships for collaboration. Employees are able to bring one guest or significant other to attend events with them.
Buffer shifted from twice-a-year retreats to once a year as the company got larger. It held a 5-day retreat for all employees in 2019, which included a “day off” for exploring with colleagues. The focus of the week is to help people form more direct personal connections with each other, and realign everyone with the broader mission of the company.
Zapier has run 10 retreats for “team sizes of 7… to 185” people and had to shift its focus as it has grown. Early in the company’s history it paired the retreat with a “mini-hackathon” to solve company problems. In 2019, they shifted to replacing it with an “unconference,” letting employees self-organize around a number of topics and breakout sessions.
Basecamp meets at its office in Chicago twice per year to share company updates and give employees space and time for informal meetups, working sessions, and presentations. During the meetings the company also sets aside an hour for anyone to stand up and appreciate their teammates’ “accomplishments or general awesomeness over the previous six months.” Outside of the retreats, teams can schedule their own “mini-retreat” once per year to work in-person on a project.
Trello didn’t have a big retreat for the entire company, but instead supported smaller team-selected offsites, giving them budget to choose an event best suited by availability and location.
When planning retreats, there’s a few things companies can do to ensure their success and enjoyment for everyone:
Convenience. While fun, exotic locations are definitely desirable, you will also want to factor in ease of travel and logistics, including requirements around passports and visas. Especially for employees with families, multi-stage trips to far-away locales can require significantly more time away.
Safety. Some locations may not be safe for LGBTQ+ employees, either as a destination or a stop-over. It’s imperative to do a bit of research to ensure any location you’re sending people to (or through) won’t put anyone at risk.
Inclusivity. Yes, Vegas ticks the boxes for convenience, and general safety. But it’s not so great for people who don’t drink or want to be around all Vegas has to offer. And Bali might work for everyone, but many people won’t want to hang around their colleagues in bathing suits, so group activities and events should stick to acceptable norms for professional gatherings. If you have people with disabilities or other specific needs, you’ll need to account for those as well.
Families. A big benefit of remote work is people being able to spend more time with and be closer to their families. You will want your budget to include provisions for partners and kids to come along, and to have child care and activities available for them as well.
importantIf you have one or more offices, consider having office visits for remote employees, which which may be more effective for collaboration than retreats or offsites.* If there’s no physical office, companies can enable teams to get together on their own.
Hotjar, for example, gives employees a €2,000/year “Work Together Budget,” where employees can fly around the world to connect with their coworkers. (This is in addition to their €4,000 Home Office Budget, €2,000/year Holiday Budget, €1,000/year Personal Development Budget, €200/month Working Space Allowance, and €200/month Wellbeing Allowance.)* Doist flys new team members out to spend a week working in-person with their onboarding mentor.*
Hanging Out Virtually
Although you get to know people in a certain way by spending time with them, you can also connect deeply with people by getting to know them in their own natural habitat. When you meet regularly over video and see each others’ homes, families and pets, you can easily understand them more fully as people than you do in a limited workplace setting.Sarah Milstein, Senior Director of Engineering, Mailchimp*
If your company can’t afford retreats just yet, all is not lost.
In between in-person opportunities, or before they become available, companies can invest in non-transactional remote communication. Many companies know that connections are not always going to be built solely through collaborating on projects, and remote work requires more intentionality around building community—it will not form automatically, even if cultural norms and expectations are documented along with company values.
Encouraging a culture of celebrating wins collectively, praising each other for group achievements, and then taking time out for personal connection also promotes social cohesion and a sense of accomplishment, and helps fight the disconnection.* These shared rituals and joint, team-based celebrations both promote social connection, and discourage the type of individual competition that can exacerbate unhealthy work habits.
To build community, a little can go a long way. Here’s a variety of approaches used by remote companies:
Digital team lunches. These involve carving out a day per week when everyone sits down via video chat over lunch—even a hybrid company can have everyone get take-out or bring their lunches and join from a conference room or their desks. There’s even a company that handles the logistics for holding a virtual pizza party for a remote team.
Home office tours. You can encourage people to show their workspace either via photos or as a virtual tour on a video call.
Paired calls. Buffer does casual calls in pairs or threes, using an automated bot for Slack that sets up “donut chats.” Upworthy does this with “serendipity calls,” and there’s also HeyTaco! Such practices encourage people to take work time for a casual chat, where you take a break and get to know another teammate.
Virtual happy hours. Holloway has a monthly happy hour, where the distributed team gets together over Zoom and a drink of choice, no work talk allowed.
Team learning sessions. Specific teams can host their own “brown bag” or learning-focused sessions where someone presents on a specific topic of interest that they’ve been working on.
Slack channels. Most companies using Slack or other chat apps have #random, #fun, #music, #books and a host of other interest-based channels where people can visit and chat about non-work things they share in common.
GIFs and emoji in Slack can also help people express their personalities* (though you’ll want acceptable use to be part of your communication architecture). Other opportunities on Slack exist, like the app Icebreakers, or having a dedicated channel to share music.
Virtual games. Having fun with others builds relationships. Games can be a low-cost way of bringing people together and helping them build relationships. The Miro team has a great set of ideas for games teams can play virtually.
Getting to know your teammates outside of day-to-day operations is important in working more effectively with them. As we cover in team communication agreements, these interactions help fill the gaps and answer questions like:
What motivates you?
How do you best learn?
How do you prefer feedback to be given?
These interactions help employees feel connected to one another and to the company and its mission. And they’re just plain fun.
importantIt’s also important for people on your team to connect with other people outside work. You can’t simply assume they have either friends or family to fill that need. A good practice is to encourage your employees to participate in local community events, reimburse their coffee shops visits, and pay for co-working subscriptions or even gym memberships. Anything that gets people out of their homes and interacting with other people will lower their mental-health risk.
Most people genuinely want to do a good job. In a remote team, there aren’t any silly rules about having your butts in a seat during certain hours of the day. This means at the end of the week you either have something to show for your week or not. This means you trust that your teammates are getting something done. But also your teammates trust you.Wade Foster, co-founder and CEO, Zapier*
Rebuilding trust when it’s damaged is an imperative for all companies. Managers of remote teams need to keep an ever-present eye out for hard-to-diagnose signs of conflict or degraded trust within their remote teams. This can include things like communication that is “business only” and never includes any chitchat or personal exchanges; team members not speaking up and admitting when they make mistakes; individuals overworking and not asking for help; and people explicitly complaining about other members on the team (either to each other or to management). We cover tactics for dealing with this in Managing Conflict in Remote Teams.
More broadly speaking, leadership at a company has an outsized impact when it comes to resolving broken or degraded trust within their organization. Buffer’s CEO publicly took the blame for mistakes when his company had to lay off several people, while invoking the company’s values and promising to uphold them in the future:
The fact is, the challenge that I created has now irrevocably changed people’s lives. I put the company in this position. I had poor judgement and took the wrong actions in many different areas. Especially at this time, I want to try to live our value of transparency and share everything about the big mistakes we’ve made, the tough changes we’ve decided upon as a result, and where we go from here.*
Setting the tone in this way likely helped to eliminate speculation about what happened, while rebuilding trust and expressing that leadership has the credibility to help turn the company around.
In my research I’ve found that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.Paul J. Zak, Professor of Economic Sciences, Psychology, and Management, Claremont Graduate University*
At its core, organizational culture shapes how an organization learns and solves problems. In the early stages of a company, culture may be shifting rapidly, but also be very coherent, meaning there is a clear connection between the day-to-day assumptions employees are making, and the espoused values and artifacts. Early employees understand the “why” behind most decisions as a result of the company being smaller and typically having direct access to influential decision makers.
As the company scales, subcultures may emerge, typically across specific teams, functions, or business units. Schein specifies that culture may emerge at the group level, among “a definable set of people with a shared history,” when they have:
Been together long enough to have shared significant problems;
had opportunities to solve those problems and to observe the effects of their solutions;
taken in new members.
Automattic, which has almost 1K employees, used cluster analysis to understand the communication dynamics of the company. They found that they have seven larger “cliques” in their company, largely focusing on project-related discussions. By looking at who is connected to whom, they’ve concluded that they have more of a project-based culture than a team-based one.
importantCulture is built on a company having a set of internal artifacts, values, and assumptions that helps the company and its teams solve problems. The people at your company and the nature and scale of those problems will change over time; so will your culture. For some companies, this change may be more rapid and tumultuous, which requires an even greater focus on understanding your culture while documenting and supporting how it is changing as a result. Schein notes that this is an ongoing process to “uncover the unconscious assumptions that are hypothesized to be the essence of the culture.”
This is not an easy task for any organization. For remote companies, it may be even more challenging, as many of the behaviors and norms that could be observed in an office are instead happening virtually and asynchronously between distributed teams, potentially throughout the world. This challenge is reflected by a recent growth in culture and remote-specific roles at companies, such as Chief Culture Officer, Head of People, or Head of Remote.***
Culture, just like the remote tools and processes you intentionally put into place to support focused, asynchronous work, is not a set-it-and-forget-it phenomenon. Companies, from leadership down through managers and individual employees, will need to continually take stock of their values, if and how they are being upheld, and what factors may be forcing the organization to adapt and change.
Communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT*
Communication is a foundational human behavior. We communicate for a wide variety of reasons: to gather and share information; to ask questions and learn from other people; to express our wants and needs; and to form social relationships and deeper connections.
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