Remote workers at an online meeting

Remote Work Culture: 14 Tips for Engaging Virtual Teams

When you have a great remote work culture, you know. How? Your turnover rate is low, and your employee engagement numbers are high. It’s the goal of every remote company. So how do you build a strong culture with a remote team? In this post, we share 14 remote work culture ideas that have worked for Smile and other fully-remote companies.

Why remote work culture matters more than ever

Remote work has finally become mainstream. According to Indranil Roy, executive director at Deloitte Consulting, more than half of the global workforce is currently working from home. Experts say that people will continue to work remotely for the foreseeable future.

This means the need for creating culture in remote teams is urgent, not just for business leaders starting virtual-first companies, but for traditional companies that have switched to remote work. After all, company culture impacts people, productivity, innovation, and ultimately, profits. Here’s how it affects each of these areas:

Photo by Caleb Minear on Unsplash
  • Recruitment and retention. Organizations with great work cultures are better able to recruit and retain top talent. Help Scout, a company known for having a great remote work culture, had only 11% of its workforce, or 20 employees, leave voluntarily since it was founded in 2011. Companies with toxic work cultures, on the other hand, struggle to fill open positions and have high turnover rates. This is bad for business, because organizations in the US lose, on average, $15,000 USD every time an employee leaves according to the Work Institute.
  • Engagement and productivity. When employees are engaged, they are more productive and miss fewer days at work, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace shows. But engaging employees has less to do with providing tangible things, such as standing desks and ping pong tables, than with cultivating a sense of purpose and belonging. In other words: employee engagement has everything to do with company culture.
  • Innovation. Company culture affects whether or not there is diversity in teams, how employees collaborate, and whether or not they have time and resources to pursue their interests—all of which impact innovation. The world’s most innovative organizations are the ones that have a culture that supports innovation. Google, which allows employees to work on personal side projects on company time, is an example.
  • Profits. Companies with a clearly articulated culture and purpose are more profitable. The E.Y. Beacon Institute and Harvard Business School studied companies for three years and found that 85% of those that were purpose-led experienced growth, while 42% of those that were non-purpose led had a drop in revenue.

People don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses and toxic work cultures.

Rohia Munavar, HR expert and marketing manager at Engagedly

What does company culture mean?

So we know that company culture influences business results. But what is company culture, exactly?

While company culture may include team outings, happy hours, or perks like snacks or office supplies, it’s much bigger than that. When we talk about culture, we’re talking about the values brought forward by the founders and lived by employees every day.

Photo by Official GDC. Source Flickr (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Company culture includes:

  • How new hires are onboarded 
  • How decisions are made
  • How problems are fixed
  • How employees talk to customers
  • How employees talk to one another
  • How quality and success are defined
  • How risk-averse an organization is
  • Social norms
  • Expected and accepted behaviors 
  • Systems used to complete work and track progress

Culture isn’t a foosball table.

Jason Fried, Basecamp founder and co-author of Remote: Office Not Required

Definitions of organizational culture

  • In “Remote, Office Not Required”, Basecamp founder Jason Fried defines organizational culture as “the spoken and unspoken values and actions of the organization.”
  • In this article on Harvard Business Review, IMD Business School professor Michael D. Watkins describes company culture as:

    • A process of sense-making, or shared beliefs and interpretations of “what is”    
    • A carrier of meaning, or shared beliefs and interpretations of “why it is so” 
    • A social control system, or a way to reinforce “right” thinking and behaving, and sanctioning “wrong” thinking and behaving
    • A form of protection, or a way to prevent “wrong” thinking and “wrong” people from entering the organization
  • Watkins notes that organizational culture is:

    • Shaped by the broader culture of the societies in which it operates, i.e. Facebook in the United States is not the same as Facebook in Japan
    • Complex: there can be subcultures within a culture
    • Dynamic: it can shift in response to internal and external changes

Culture is how organizations do things.

Robbie Katanga, project manager

Company culture myths

  • You can’t create a culture; culture is something that happens organically.

    It is true that organizations without a defined culture have unwritten rules about how to behave at work that employees implicitly understand. That being said, leaders can intentionally create, shape, and strengthen company culture.
  • Company culture is about in-person social activities.

    Although in-person events can help team members bond, they don’t define culture. “If anything, having people work remotely forces you to forgo the illusion that building a company culture is just about in-person social activities,” says Fried.
  • You need everyone in the same place to build culture.

    Remote-first companies with outstanding cultures such as Smile, Zapier, Basecamp, and Help Scout are proof that that is not true. Culture is about how employees work, not where they work.
Remote worker in home office
Photo by Standsome Worklifestyle on Unsplash

Remote work culture

Just like the culture of on-site companies, remote work culture is expressed, among other things, in:

  • Social norms, e.g. answering Slack messages and emails within 24 hours 
  • Expected and accepted behaviors, e.g. turning video on for conference calls
  • Beliefs about how to treat customers, e.g. “The customer is always right”
  • Systems used to complete work and track progress, e.g. Trello, Asana, Basecamp, Jira
Remote worker preparing for online meeting
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

14 tips for building a strong culture with a remote team

1. Go all-in or don’t do it

Every team member needs to have the option to be remote. When the full team doesn’t buy into remote productivity, remote employees may feel shunned and left out.

2. Equip remote employees to do their best work

Give remote employees the resources they need to perform well. Ideally, you should provide them with a stipend so that they can purchase what they need — whether that’s a comfy office chair or virtual coworking sessions — without questions asked.

3. Invest in People Ops

Many remote companies, especially startups, fail to hire People Operations (People Ops) managers. That’s a shame, since it’s distributed teams that need them the most. Help Scout co-founder Nick Francis agrees: “A lot of the issues faced by co-located companies at 50, 75, and 100 people actually have to be addressed in a remote culture at 10, 20, 35,” he says.

4. Trust your team members

Trust is essential in remote work culture. Micromanaging and surveilling are signs of a toxic remote work culture. Give remote employees the autonomy to make decisions and the flexibility to choose their work schedule.

5. Find a balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication

Whereas co-located teams sometimes suffer with too many meetings, remote teams are more likely to not meet enough. It’s important to strike a balance between real time and asynchronous communication. Chatting face to face, or in the case of remote workers—on video, helps with relationship building and clearing the air in moments of tension.

6. Establish a weekly check-in

Contrary to common belief, remote employees work more than office-based workers. But doing isn’t enough: in remote work culture, communicating about what you are doing is also important. Establish a weekly check-in via email or a team collaboration platform for team members to share what they worked on during the week and what they will be working on next.

7. Have project kick-offs and sync-ups

When a project is about to start, or when it’s time for a project update, it helps to get everyone involved in a video call. This helps ensure that everyone is on the same page and prevents misunderstandings.

8. Deliver critical feedback face-to-face

Giving and receiving negative feedback is never easy. Online, it could be even worse. When team members can’t hear or see each other, critical feedback may come out too harsh. That’s why, in virtual teams, it’s best to deliver feedback “face-to-face” through video calls.

9. Change channels as needed

The same goes for work conversations. If a discussion in a Basecamp group chat starts getting tense, move it to a call. Face-to-face, real-time conversation can clear up misunderstandings and dispel assumptions of negative intent.

10. Create an internal communication guide

Communication is crucial to remote work, which is why remote companies such as Harvest and Basecamp only hire good writers. But knowing how to communicate isn’t enough: remote employees must also know why, when, and where to communicate. This is where a guide to internal communication comes handy. Rather than leaving it to your virtual team to figure it out, tell them when to turn on their video cam, why they should avoid meetings, where they are expected to share what tasks they worked on, and so on.

11. Keep employees mentally stimulated

Being alone and free from distractions helps with focus and productivity, but it can have a negative effect on problem-solving and creativity. Counter that by encouraging employees to:

  • Work outside their homes, at least sometimes, if they can. Offer a coworking space stipend, like Basecamp does.
  • Buy books and share them. Let every employee buy one book a month to add to a shared Kindle library.
  • Keep learning. Offer a continued education allowance so employees can take classes — work-related or not.
  • Socialize. Virtual coffee dates help team members get to know one another at a personal level and prevent them from feeling lonely or burned out.

12. Plan remote team building activities

In remote teams, it’s harder for employees to bond. There are no in-person happy hours, no casual lunches, no bumping into each other in the hallway. Conversations are generally work-related. To fix this, you’ll need to create opportunities for employees to chat in real time about things other than work. Ideally, remote teams should meet up IRL at least once a year, and “socialize” regularly online.

13. Give feedback and recognition

Remote employees are twice as likely to receive corrective feedback and half as likely to receive positive feedback as in-office workers, says research firm Gartner. Be relentless about giving feedback and recognition. 

14. Reward employees

Show employees you don’t take them for granted by giving them gifts from time to time. Let them know how much you value them on special dates such as birthdays and weddings, as well as when they overperform at work. Online gift cards are wonderful and convenient — but remote employees appreciate getting stuff in the mail even more.

7 tools for building remote work culture

1. Basecamp

Basecamp team project

A project management tool as well as a team collaboration platform, Basecamp offers group chat; private chat; a way to assign and track tasks; a calendar; a way to share files; and more. 

2. Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting

GoToMeeting on laptop
GoToMeeting

Zoom, Webex, and GoToMeeting make video conferencing with multiple participants possible and come with cool features such as call recorder, group chat, private chat, and more. At Smile, we use Zoom for team calls and Slack or Google Hangouts for one-on-one meetings.

3. Google Docs

Google docs application

For collaborating on documents in real time, there is no application like Google Docs. With Google Docs, you always have the latest version of a work document, which isn’t always true with Microsoft Word docs. 

4. Slack

Slack channel connections

Slack is a favorite among remote workers, and for good reason. This beautifully designed, intuitive app functions as a virtual office for remote workers, who communicate privately via direct messages and openly in channels that are like chat rooms.

5. Caveday

Caveday meeting

Caveday hosts virtual coworking sessions called “caves” on Zoom to help remote workers become more focused and productive. But caves aren’t just about deep work — with virtual coffee breaks in between sessions, they’re also an antidote to loneliness and burnout. Caveday is available for individuals and teams.

6. Donut

Donut app

A Slack app for virtual coffee dates, Donut pairs up 2-3 people at random to create a semblance of the office social life for remote employees.

7. Kudos

Kudos app

Kudos is “an employee recognition software” that makes it easy for team members to provide feedback and recognition. The platform enables team members to celebrate one another by posting messages and video on a public wall, and offers e-gift cards, customized awards and certificates for employee recognition.

Engage your virtual team

Building culture in both co-located and remote teams requires planning and dedication. In the case of virtual teams, it requires taking into account the specific challenges of remote employees and tackling them with creativity and the right tools.

Looking to dive deeper into remote companies and culture? Check out these articles: 

Essential Guide to Remote Recruiting
Boost Employee Morale with These Science-Based Strategies
How to Onboard Remote Employees and Build a Stronger Team

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