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7 tips for maintaining company culture, remotely

Oh, no! Another article about remote working!

By Rebecca Bellan

Is it possible to keep your company culture in tip top condition when the whole team is forced to go remote? 

In our latest Sifted Talks, we were joined by Courtney Seiter, VP of people at Hologram and former director of people at Buffer; Natasha Lytton, head of brand, marketing and portfolio support at Seedcamp; and April Hoffbauer, senior manager of recruiting operations and insights at GitLab to find out how to make friends, onboard new joiners and communicate as a remote-first team. 

1. Creating a company culture remotely is a thing — but it looks very different

Company culture isn’t super easy to define. “It’s basically every communication, every conversation, every emoji, tool, decision that your company makes,” says Seiter.

It’s also not super easy to create — and when you’re not in an office, trying to build a new company culture looks very different. 

Seiter says one way to engage people remotely is to host a talk on company values. For example: does your company value transparency? What does that mean to your staff? What ideals can you rally around when you can’t physically be together?

“One way to engage people remotely is to host a talk on company values.”

Building company culture also means giving your staff the opportunity to make connections that aren’t work-related. When Seiter worked at Buffer, the company had a ‘buddy system’ where employees were paired with someone from outside their team. They’d meet up every week to discuss goals, problems and wins — or just chat.

Team members should also have a hand in establishing their company’s culture, says Lytton. Seedcamp’s weekly socials are steered by a different team member each week. They also created a Telegram chat for the express purpose of sharing fun stuff that wouldn’t make it into the usual work Slack channels.

“We want to create a space that’s not overly structured and where people can realise that not all you do is work just because we’re remote,” she says.

2. Poll your staff

It’s important to check in with employees, and give them a chance to complain. Polling your team and asking open-ended questions can reveal frustrations that need to be addressed — but make sure you’re ready to act on them.

“Anytime you poll, you should take some action on what you’ve learned,” says Seiter. “Otherwise people will get tired of being asked their opinion and nothing changes as a result.”

For example, Seiter recently asked her team why they were missing the office. She found it was the serendipitous moments people missed the most, like chatting at the coffee maker, or striking up a conversation in the hallway.

“That gives me a signal. How can I create more serendipitous moments in remote work?” says Seiter.

3. ‘Planned serendipity’ sounds like an oxymoron, but it works

With the right tools, spontaneous moments can still be replicated for remote staff. 

“It’s about finding a way where folks can collide in different ways, maybe cross-functionally or outside their normal circles to create that facsimile of serendipity,” says Seiter, whose team has used tools like Slack to randomly pair different coworkers together for a coffee or chat.

If socialising isn’t happening naturally, this can also be facilitated. Lytton says a company she used to work for held a weekly ‘Storytime’ where a new person shared their life story. “It’s an opportunity to open up about who you are and what you’re interested in, and then people can go from there and ask questions,” she says. 

Hoffbauer says her team has used tools like Notion, a collaboration and management software, to let team members post their guilty pleasures. “That’s something people can immediately connect to if they identify with it,” she says. “Having these silly things on your team page is important for people to think, ‘Oh, that’s my kindred spirit. We’re gonna get along great.’”

4. Encourage people to stop working — and mean it

Work-life balance is tricky when you go remote. Companies should be encouraging their staff to close the laptop and walk away from their desks — and reminding them they’re not letting anyone down by doing so. 

In order to help people switch off, Seiter says Hologram has created a communal contract for Slack. Employees are encouraged to set their notifications to Do Not Disturb, for example, so people can still message but without feeling like a bother. 

“Everyone is responsible for their own wellbeing, but they’re supported and feel like they have what they need to actually be able to disconnect at the end of the day,” she says.  

Hoffbauer says encouraging staff to actually sign off has to start at the top: “At GitLab, we noticed working hours increased during lockdown, so we created one day a month called Friends and Family Day where the entire company is shut down. Nobody is on Slack or email. You’re not expected to work at all.”

5. Consider implementing an asynchronous workflow

Remote companies can hire global staff and allow their employees to easily relocate, but the downside is teams are now spread out across multiple time zones. Having an asynchronous workflow allows people work when it works best for them. 

“A lot of offices just tried to replicate the 8 to 5, but what about those parents whose kids are home and distance learning? Or elderly parents you need to take care of now?” says Hoffbauer. “You have to create an environment where people can work when they can. I have people on my team who literally block out a naptime on their calendars and I’m all for it. If that’s what you need to do to be productive, do it.”

Hoffbauer also says companies should create an up-to-date handbook with internal processes, from HR guidelines to marketing style guides, that everyone has access to. That way, someone in Australia might not be waiting around for someone in New York to answer her email, and remote employees don’t feel disadvantaged.

“If you do happen to have a coffee chat where an idea is germinated, the first thing is to document that so the remote person hasn’t missed out on that conversation,” says Seiter. “It adds overhead and can be taxing, but you really want that documentation to be an ever-evolving resource for everyone on your team.”

6. Make it easy for new hires to be autonomous

When you’re in a new office, there are just things you soak up through osmosis. But, Lytton says, you can replicate that remotely.

“We’re over-indexing on inviting people into meetings where they perhaps don’t need to be, but where they can soak up all of that information,” says Lytton. “The ways in which people speak and hearing how language is communicated is so critical.” 

Lytton’s onboarding system begins with no more than two and a half hours of actual interfacing time per day. Rather than constant meetings, Seedcamp provides new hires with information and links to materials they can read on their own, giving them a chance to soak up language and company tone. 

“The ways in which people speak and hearing how language is communicated is so critical.” 

7. Meet in person, when it’s safe to do so

“I don’t see the office going away in urban cities,” says Lytton. “I think companies will want hubs more than ever, but going there will be more purposeful in terms of why you’re going there. Maybe you’re not going there to work and be on a computer, but you’re going to bounce around ideas in person.”

Seiter echoed Lytton, and said offices should be repurposed into more of a coffee shop atmosphere, a place for casually working and socializing. To set this tone, “think about what you can do during that in person meetup that you couldn’t do on Zoom to make that time feel really special,” says Seiter. 

All three panelists pointed to the idea of meetups and company retreats to bring teammates together throughout the year. GitLab, Hoffbauer says, as an all-remote company, has a budget for employees to travel and meet up in person. Company retreats also give an opportunity to build a company culture over an extended period of time, as well as experience a new place as a group, when travelling is safe again.

“We’ve focused on team bonding in the past or have done a sort of hack week. It’s important to take advantage when you’re all in one spot,” says Seiter.

Sifted Talks is back on Friday February 12 as we explore the shift to remote working and what this means for startups and how they can take advantage of this.. ‘Borders without boundaries: Who needs an HQ anymore?’. If you’re interested in attending this talk, register to attend the virtual talk here.