Off-key and wailing like a sick coyote, I burst into song in the middle of a video conference when an eager team member tries to speak while on mute.
It’s a form of punishment because no one loves my singing but people miss it when I’m out. This small tradition, begun years ago after too much coffee, set the tone for our remote team meetings and opened the gates to camaraderie, zealous teamwork and a feeling of belonging to a special group.
For the corporate world, it’s an unlikely tool to spark team members, hundreds or thousands of miles apart, across time zones and borders to partake in a re-launched company culture initiative and I definitely did not learn it in my years managing teams in a brick and mortar business world. But, under the circumstances, such an oddball tactic was sorely needed.
At the time, our 100% remote company was stretched to the limit and rocked by resignations, terminations and in-fighting. Fortunately, most of the remaining employees were good people, talented at what they had been hired for and open to change. It was clear, however, that change wasn’t going to happen unless it had a framework: a culture.
I learned early on that a positive company culture is vital to the success of remote companies and was witnessing firsthand what happens when it’s missing. The right culture spurs a 45 year old project manager in Jacksonville to voluntarily leap to the aid of a 23 year old developer in Oakland who isn’t even working on one of her projects. It’s what keeps people online, monitoring group chats just in case someone needs feedback, even after they should have signed off for the day. The best company company cultures inspire heroics.
Pardot’s David Cummings hit the nail on the head.
Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur. Develop a strong corporate culture first and foremost.
– David Cummings, Co-founder of Pardot.
What’s your remote company culture like? Isolated? Siloed? 1984-esque Big Brother? It’s time for change.
Pearls Don’t Grow On Their Own
At some point, all remote managers discover that the benefits of employing a remote workforce can also become the leading challenges. Once a remote company grows beyond the founders, managers must plant the seeds of the culture that they want to grow along with the headcount. And you, pantless manager, need to be one of the seeds.
A piece of spaghetti or a military unit can only be led from the front end.
― General George S. Patton Jr.
I do realize that a group of lone wolves working from cafes and kitchen tables isn’t a military unit or pasta but my favorite 20th century general’s quote is spot-on when it comes to establishing a culture that enables a remote company to scale.
Culture directives won’t work. Go ahead and shred the memos. If founders and managers don’t exhibit the behaviors that grow and maintain a successful culture every day, then you can’t expect anyone else to. And since remote employees aren’t in the same office to witness an accessible management style evoked by fun neckties and framed posters of discount inspirational sayings, remote managers must demonstrate the desired cultural traits with words and actions.
Act As a Flat Organization
Treat everyone the same on a daily basis and encourage the newest or most junior employees to do the same. When a team’s faces and avatars are lined up across the bottom of the video conference screen, everyone appears equal. Run with that. Don’t allow distances between employees to be greater than they already physically are by permitting traditional office ceremony to infect a remote company’s communication. In my company, every email about being out sick or going OOO for a dental appointment is met with an instant onslaught of memes and sarcastic humor no matter who sent the email. This (mis)behavior creates bonds and opens vital paths of communication across hierarchies and reporting structures that withstand the forces of stressful deadlines and heavy workloads.
With the pomp and ceremony out of the way, managers are motivated to roll up their sleeves and dive into the daily fray. If you want team members to rush to each other’s aid in times of need, then you must to be the first into the breach. Yes, leaders should be thinking big thoughts and planning ahead but being the first to publicly volunteer to help a team member crying uncle cultivates the exact behavior that builds the strongest ties between distant employees.
Hire to Fit or Enhance
Once teams begin following management’s lead, be careful not to sabotage the growing company culture by hiring for skills alone. This often requires a shift in interview tactics.
If a company’s remote interviews seem like police station interrogations, managers aren’t likely to find candidates who are also the best fit for the company’s culture. Job interviews should be similar to team meetings. Candidates who feel at ease are more likely to show their true colors. In at least one interview with each qualified candidate, include a current team member who demonstrates the best aspects of the company. Prompt them to explain what goes into making their company great and ask the candidate to describe how they would act in real scenarios the team faces every day.
Be on the lookout for true hermits, hotdoggers and ego-maniacs who naturally assume they would be a great fit in a remote workforce. Non-management employees are often the first to detect these personality traits. Hire those who not only can do the job well but can clearly demonstrate that they easily fit into and enhance the culture you are propagating.
Connect Teams Once a Day
With the right people in place, keeping them fully connected is vital. Without regular and reliable connections between team members, or all those efforts to encourage a positive culture are nothing more than wishful thinking. Set up a daily video conference or at least a conference call with the members of functional teams that includes the team’s direct supervisor. They don’t need to last long. My teams get a lot done in fifteen minute stand-up meetings but we often tack on another fifteen minutes of non-work discussion either before or after. Team members report that these meetings and the extra time to personally connect are the highlight of their workday.
Imagine that. The most critical meeting for keeping a company running smoothly is what employees look forward to most.
Team members meeting among themselves is immensely valuable but the teams themselves should also stay strategically connected. The flatter hierarchies and multi-hat requirements of most remote companies mean that there is often a lot of crossover among teams and yet, silos develop.
One developer or a small group tasked with seeing a special long-term project all the way through can easily become disconnected from the rest of the company. Remember that no one is bumping into them on the way to the coffee machine or sitting down with them to chat over lunch. They are literally on their own, and without a system to keep these potentially-isolated individuals and teams connected, it’s not unusual for remote employees to go weeks or months without speaking to other co-workers.
The solution is to establish a weekly meeting with alternating team members. Pick one or two from each distinct team but try to stay below ten in total. I have found that six is the optimal number for these meetings so that everyone gets to speak within a fifteen or twenty minute time limit. The set agenda usually revolves around each team member stating what their team is working on and what they personally are tackling that week. Not only does this meeting rekindle cooling connections, it often ends with a team member taking a new idea or insight back to their own team.
Open Communication Channels
With all these enthusiastically attended meetings informing and delighting distant teams, it’s easy to overlook the importance of establishing the most appropriate channels for remote communication.
Traditional office-based companies suffer when secrecy is rampant. Every closed-door meeting or serious-looking quiet side conversation is grist for the rumor mill of suspicion and misery. The same happens unintentionally in remote companies. Without appropriate guidelines for communication and established open channels, the majority of discussions happen in private by default. Not every conversation belongs in a public company forum, but most are better off in one.
Company culture, efficiency and effectiveness are enhanced when most conversations take place where interested parties can watch, learn and jump in with ideas and feedback.
A useful guideline is that any conversation you would conduct in the middle of an open plan office belongs in a public Slack channel or group email. I can’t begin to list all the times that someone at my company has jumped into an open-channel chat between two people with a “wait a minute” moment that saved an entire project from potential disaster.
Open up, trust and reap the benefits.
As your remote company grows, the culture will naturally adapt but it can only flourish if the principles and examples set in the beginning by founders and managers encourage the best from everyone. Likewise, be prepared to protect it when necessary. Don’t allow poisonous employees to derail your company’s hard won cultural assets.
Prune when necessary and openly reward when appropriate. Culture is the heart of your remote company.