The Washington Post
Promoting culture in a remote workplace? It’s work.
Remote workplaces can have thriving company cultures — it just takes some work, remote companies say.
Many business leaders wonder whether remote options should be part of their post-pandemic workplace policies. One of their biggest worries: whether it will take a toll on their company’s culture. A few companies that have operated remotely since inception offered suggestions on how to create and maintain culture with 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 need to have a bunch of pilots.”
Software development platform Gitlab, social media marketing software firm Buffer and workflow automation platform Zapier were established as remote companies from the beginning. Corel, a graphics software company, adopted a permanent remote-first policy during the pandemic. Here’s the advice they offered.
Companies shouldn’t switch to remote work and expect culture to flourish on its own. Remote leaders said it not only takes buy-in from top leaders, but effort to create connection and shared values when workers are distributed.
Remote experts say to develop a strategy focused on how the company will aid workers in this environment. What processes have to change if workers are spread around the nation or world? How will you ensure all workers are connected and on even ground? Are there ways in which workers can connect, and is the company promoting or encouraging that? Do there need to be more resources without a physical office everyone attends? Asking key questions can alleviate pain points that may come down the line.
Transparency is a must
When workers are distributed, transparency becomes even more important, experts say.
Remote companies have said they’ve found shared documents or internal forums work best, and that workers and leaders should document progress on projects, meeting notes, announcements, policies and decisions. Some companies have found making them available to all employees helps. That way, someone from a department can check on a project that may need an update from another team. Ensure all employees know how and where to get documents.
“It’s about building a culture of trust,” said Danny Schreiber, senior business operations manager at Zapier. “We have a centralized place where we share companywide information and people who join afterward can get caught up.”
Create spaces for socialization
Without an office, workers can easily become isolated. But companies can combat that and create energy that may be similar to the office environment.
Experts suggest creating time and space for workers to have casual conversations that may not be work related. Zapier created channels on the communication service Slack 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 30-minute one-on-ones.
The companies also say they consider connecting in-person invaluable, so they host companywide retreats and encourage meetups. Gitlab goes as far as offering reimbursement for some travel-related expenses if employees want to see each other.
Use tools to aid asynchronous work
Asynchronous work, which is done by teammates independently at different times, can be tricky.
“We are across multiple time zones,” said Jenny Terry, Buffer’s director of business operations. “How do we recognize when it’s okay for asynchronous communication and collaboration versus saying, ‘Let’s pause and get in the same room for next steps’ ”?
Remote companies say the best way to navigate asynchronous work is to have the most appropriate digital tools and clear communication surrounding them.
Workers need ways to collaborate, stay updated and see what their colleagues are doing. Some companies say they use social messaging apps like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google, shared documents on the cloud, whiteboarding tools, forums and videoconferencing tools like Zoom and Webex. Experts say leaders should communicate which tools should be used, and workers should be briefed on how to use them.
Adjust management styles
A new style of working requires a new style of management, leaders and workers at remote companies say. For companies that have done this for years, managing remote workers means focusing on results, not daily or hourly tasks.
That may mean training managers on how to navigate remote work. It’s no longer about butts in seats but reaching goals, experts say. That may mean regular checkins and over-communicating plans and expectations.
“What it’s forcing organizations to do is to say to people, ‘ This is what I expect the output to look like, here’s what done looks like and here’s how we will measure it,’ ” said Christa Quarles, chief executive of Core. “It’s not, ‘I am going to watch what you’re doing at your desk all day.’ ”
Consider adding more perks
Remote companies say people often misinterpret culture as being the free kombucha or pingpong tables some companies offer. Instead, it’s much more than that. Still, perks help — they just may look different from those that workers get in the office.
Remote workers say helpful perks include stipends for their tech and home office or wellness benefits like additional days off for mental health. Perks can add to it by helping employees feel more connected to their company.