How to Promote Culture in a Remote Workplace

Remote workplaces can have thriving corporate cultures — it just takes work, remote companies say.

As business leaders continue to navigate their post-pandemic workplace policies, many are wondering if remote options should be part of the plan. One of their biggest worries is whether this will impact their company culture. Fortunately, a few companies that have been operating remotely since inception have offered their suggestions on how to create and maintain a culture while having a distributed workforce.

“Experiment with different ideas and find the sweet spot,” said Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard University professor who studies the future of work. “You must have a group of pilots.”

Bosses say remote work is killing culture. These companies disagree.

Companies like software development platform GitLab, social media marketing software company Buffer, and workflow automation platform Zapier were started as remote businesses from the start. Corel, a Canadian graphics software company, has adopted a permanent remote priority policy during the pandemic. Here’s the advice they offered for leaders looking to create a strong culture.

Companies shouldn’t transition to remote work and expect the culture to flourish on its own. Remote leaders said it takes not only buy-in from key company leaders, but also an intentional effort to create a sense of connection and shared values ​​when workers are distributed.

So to make the process easier, develop a strategy focused on how the company will help workers in this new environment, remote experts say. What processes need to change if workers are spread across the country or the world? How will you ensure that all workers are up to date, connected and on level ground? Are there ways workers can connect, and is the company doing anything to promote or encourage this? Are additional resources needed now that there is no longer a physical office that everyone attends?

Asking key questions ahead of time can help ease some of the pain points that may arise.

When workers are distributed, transparency becomes even more important, experts say.

Remote companies said they found shared documents or internal forums worked best, and that workers and managers should document all project progress, meeting notes, announcements, policies and decisions. Some companies have found that making these documents or forums accessible to all employees helps everyone. This way, someone from another department can easily check on a project that they may need an update from another team.

Make sure all employees know how and where to get all documents, they say. In this case, more is better.

“It’s about building a culture of trust,” said Danny Schreiber, senior director of business operations at Zapier. “We have a centralized place where we share company-wide information and people who join later can catch up.”

Create spaces for socializing

Without a desk, workers can easily enter their basement and isolate themselves. But there are things businesses can do to combat this and create an energy that can be similar to the office environment.

“With a little creativity and ingenuity, you can make it happen,” said Jenny Terry, Buffer’s director of business operations.

Experts suggest creating time and space for workers to have informal conversations that may not be work-related. For example, Zapier has created channels on the Slack communication service that are solely dedicated to hobbies and interests. GitLab sets up group chats that last about 15 minutes for employees to get to know each other and also sometimes hosts virtual activities. And Buffer uses the Donut integration on Slack to pair employees across departments for one-on-one 30-minute interviews.

And even though they’re remote, all three companies say they find the in-person connection to be invaluable. So they organize company-wide retreats and encourage get-togethers. GitLab goes so far as to offer reimbursement for certain travel-related expenses if employees want to see each other.

“It’s not just a virtual world,” said Wendy Barnes, GitLab’s director of human resources. “We bring people together…but you have to be unique and intentional.”

Use tools to facilitate asynchronous work

Asynchronous work, or work done by teammates independently at different times, can be tricky.

“We cross multiple time zones,” said Terry of Buffer. “[The challenge is] how do we recognize when asynchronous communication and collaboration is okay rather than saying, “Let’s take a break and come back to the same room for the next steps”?

Remote companies say the best way to navigate asynchronous work is to have the most appropriate digital tools for the task and clear communication around them.

Workers will need to find ways to collaborate, stay informed and see what their colleagues are doing. Some companies say they use a combination of social messaging apps like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google, shared cloud documents, whiteboard tools, forums and video conferencing tools like Zoom and WebEx. But the need will depend on the work. According to experts, leaders should indicate which tools should be used and workers should be instructed on how to use them.

A new style of working requires a new style of management, say leaders and workers at remote companies. For companies that have been doing it for years, managing remote workers means focusing on results rather than day-to-day or hourly tasks.

In some cases, this may mean training managers on how to properly navigate remote work. According to experts, it is no longer about having butts in the seats, but rather about achieving set goals. This can mean putting regular checks in place and over-communicating plans and expectations.

“What that forces organizations to do is tell people, ‘This is what I expect the outcome to look like, this is what the outcome looks like, and this is how we’re going to measure it,'” a said Christa Quarles, chief executive of Corel, which adopted a remote priority policy after the pandemic. “It’s not, ‘I’m going to watch what you do at your desk all day.’ ”

Consider adding more benefits

Remote companies say people often misinterpret the culture as the free kombucha or ping-pong tables some companies offer. Instead, it’s so much more than that. Still, the perks are useful — they may just look different than what employees get in the office.

How the pandemic has changed employee benefits

Remote workers say helpful company perks include things like allowances for their technology and home office or wellness perks like extra days off for mental health. Perks don’t create a culture, but they can help by helping employees feel more connected to their company, some workers say.

Tell us about what’s happening in your workplace.

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