Chapter 4: How Remote Company Culture Differs From Co-Located Company Culture and What to Expect

Remote company culture, even if you have occasional meetups in person, is completely different from that of a company with co-located employees. First of all, the employees have the opportunity to build better relationships with one another because they see each other every day. Then, there’s the point that company activities and recreational events are much different.

Most of these things are self-explanatory, though, because remote work is, well, remote. One thing they both have in common is a need for culture. Make no mistake about it: Remote company culture is different, but it’s still necessary. Unfortunately, it’s also more difficult to build.

What Is a Remote Team and How Does It Look Like?

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For starters, the working space for a remote team is incredibly diverse. This is because no one is working from a central location — for the most part — and everyone is free to choose the space where they will do the bulk of their tasks.

Some team members may choose to spend their time in a home office. Others may choose to spend their time in a coffee shop or a library. Surprisingly, some may even choose to rent an office space just for themselves — away from home — to help them remain focused and productive.

Remote teams must also provide their own equipment. There are ways for business owners and managers to provide stipends or expense accounts for remote workers, but this is not common. This usually means that remote workers naturally have more accountability and responsibility. They must provide not only their own tools for the trade, but also maintain them. This is also one of the reasons why company operating costs tend to be lower with remote teams.

Furthermore, because remote workers must supply themselves, this also means they are familiar with the equipment, software, and tools they will be using. There are instances in which you still may need to train your workers, especially if their duties involve working with a proprietary, developed in-house platform. But, for the most part, remote employees will be solely responsible for the training and research that goes into a project.

Pros of a Remote Team Over a Traditional, Co-Located Team

To a great extent, this can be described as virtual teams vs traditional teams. Let’s take a look at some of the pros of a remote team, as opposed to a co-located one:

  • You have access to more potential candidates and can hire them faster. This is because you are not confined to a local area search, but can instead seek help nationally and even internationally. Your team has the freedom to work and complete projects on their own time. This means they can push work hours later or earlier as they need.
  • If you are located in different time zones with a structure of who is on-call, you can respond to problems in a timely manner. You don’t have to worry about issues cropping up late at night when the office is closed.
  • Operating costs and overhead are both much lower because the cost of running a remote or virtual team is minimal. You don’t need to pay for office space, electricity, food and supplies, business-level internet access, furniture or other various amenities.

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Cons of a Remote Team Over a Traditional, Co-Located Team

Remote teams face challenges co-located ones may not:

  • Remote work is arguably more difficult to manage, as most team members must be completely self-managed. Employees and workers are on their own, and they must research and put in time on their own. They must manage their own hours and efforts, and they must reach out for help on their own. This setup is not ideal for everyone.
  • Company culture takes a huge hit, because employees are not all in one location and they can’t easily spend time with one another in person.
  • Communication is difficult, and the urgency of a problem matters little. In other words, just because you need to fix something NOW doesn’t mean it’s possible. You need to get in touch with the right parties first, which can take time.
  • If at some point, you decide you want to transition to a co-local team, it’s not going to be possible. This would mean forcing everyone to move to a central location, or getting rid of everyone and starting over from scratch.

Examples and Case Studies of Switching to Remote Teams

One way to decide if this set-up can work for you is to look at how others have taken on the task.

Example 1: Formstack

Formstack — an online data management firm — benefited greatly from switching to an all-virtual team. It actually came to be because the CEO, Chris Byers, had to move to Oklahoma City, where his spouse had taken a position. This led him to entertain the idea of hiring remote employees.

Today, his company is comprised of employees from all over the world, including the United States and Europe. For two years after switching to a remote company, the revenues grew by more than 40 percent each year.

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Byers was hesitant to admit the remote setup was the answer, but he did say: “There may be some productivity elements from being remote that you don’t get from being in the office.”

Example 2: Glide Consulting

Adversely, Nils Vinje, of Glide Consulting, indicated that, in order to make his virtual team more efficient, he had to shed predispositions of what worked for a co-local team.

For example, one policy he had always followed was to be available to his workers always, no matter what time of day it was. When he transitioned to a remote system, he followed this same practice, but soon found that it didn’t work.

Vinje revamped his system and came up with one that worked much better for his remote team. This included doing away with traditional meetings altogether, honing his communication and team coordination and keeping everyone in the loop.

Strategies for Keeping a Remote Team Functioning

As you learned from the examples above, remote teams function differently than co-local ones. Here are some important strategies you can use to keep your remote team operating efficiently and to foster company culture.

  • Communication channels must always remain open in one form or another. It doesn’t matter if it’s email, a chat tool or a video conferencing tool like Skype.
  • You must identify the appropriate communication channels for specific discussions. Email isn’t always ideal.
  • Make sure everyone has access to a video communication tool or program and the hardware to use it (like a webcam).
  • Screen sharing tools can help tremendously in a pinch.
  • Collaborative platforms are necessary, especially for documents and spreadsheets.
  • A project management system is necessary — so make sure you use it!
  • Allow for flexibility when it comes to hours, but also try to push for a consistent schedule.
  • Track everything, including work output, hours worked, attendance and productivity rates.
  • Pay team members well, and don’t be afraid to offer further benefits when applicable.
  • Setup an on-boarding and training process for new hires.
  • Host and organize in-person meet-ups to get your team acquainted with one another.
  • Understand and respect your employees’ time. Don’t ask them to put in extra time for work that you’re not willing to do yourself.
  • Come up with a clear plan of attack and hierarchy for who should respond to emergencies, and decide how the process should work.
  • Host regular meetings/discussions where you talk about what’s working for your team, and allow members to speak up — and provide ideas.

How You Can Build a Remote Work Culture

We touched on company culture in a previous section, but we didn’t explore it thoroughly enough. Let’s take a closer look at how to build culture in a remote team.

Why Do You Need Culture?

In order for employees to remain productive, happy and loyal, you need to ensure that the place where they work — or the process their job calls for — encourages these things. You don’t want your team members to dread “clocking in” for the day.

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In reality, employees should look forward to work. They should enjoy the company of their co-workers and colleagues, the atmosphere work provides and the relationships and experiences it has to offer. After all, we spend a large majority of our lives at work — even if that work is done remotely.

To accomplish all this, you must build a positive culture. It matters, and it helps sustain employee happiness and loyalty. Why should you care about happy workers? Because happiness means increased productivity and higher quality work.

What is culture, anyway?

If you follow a lot of business and entrepreneur-related blogs, then surely you hear the term “culture” mentioned a lot. So let’s take a brief step back.

According to Anne Morriss and Frances Frei from Harvard Business Review, culture:

“…Guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is, of course, most of the time.”

It makes perfect sense that you’d want to establish a culture for a remote team because no one is looking over their shoulder when they work or collaborate.

Are there tools to help?

We’ve already established that building a remote work culture is necessary. The next question is how you build that culture when your people are spread across several states, countries or even continents.

Culture is not just about all the fun and excitement that happens at work — it’s how you work. How you handle encouraging and congratulating your team after a job well done. How much work everyone puts in to complete a task, compared to how much they’re expected to. How you communicate with one another, and where it’s done.

Ultimately, it’s about the entire atmosphere of your company and everything your team exudes.

The first step, then, to building positive culture — especially as a remote team — is to rely on the tools that allow you to engage with one another every day. In addition, it’s about building a positive experience for your people with those tools and platforms.

In other words, the tools that will help you build culture are the same tools you use every day for work.

Don’t be afraid to chat about more than just work, too. Encourage employees to get to know one another and get involved in each other’s lives. Did someone on your team just have a baby? Send them a gift card, and encourage your other team members to send along a present, too! It doesn’t have to be an expensive present — merely showing team members you care about them is the goal.

Stay on a little longer after meetings, just to play catch up with your team personally. Organize meetups or online activities and game sessions that everyone can participate in.

Do something unorthodox and spring for a premium service that will improve your remote workers’ experience. For example, use Uncover to provide premium Spotify and Rdio access for employees — everyone loves to listen to music during the day.

Positive Relationships Are Crucial for Culture

As you can see from some of the examples listed above, encouraging positive relationships between team members is absolutely crucial for culture.

Even at a distance of hundreds of miles away, if team members can’t stay positive with one another, it’s going to put a damper on your production line. It will contribute to strained relations and slower work habits, and may even lead to drama branching out to other employees.

It’s difficult to imagine something like that happening, but if you’ve ever had experience with a co-local team, then you understand it’s possible. Once your team becomes demotivated — even if it’s with one another — things get extremely stressful and difficult for everybody.

When teams understand their part in the larger equation, they know the value they bring to each project and when working with others on their team.

Be open with your team. Set clear goals and avoid ambiguity. Share knowledge with them and have them share knowledge with each other. Look for chances to educate or learn.

If your team feels they truly have a shared understanding of the collective goal, positive relationships form and collaboration grows.

How to Strengthen the Culture of Your Remote Team

Some popular ways to strengthen the culture of your remote team are:

  • In-person meetups.
  • Team challenges and activities.
  • Attend local events and outings (maybe have everyone meet for a music festival).
  • Discussion boards, like forums and chat tools.
  • Encourage social interaction, even via social media.
  • Encourage positive and fun interactions between everyone (post memes in group chats to show emotions).
  • Create a buddy system that allows team members to collaborate more openly, and hold each other accountable.
  • Sponsor community campaigns or allow team members to do so where they live, to represent your company.
  • Attend related jobs fairs, conferences and fun events together as a team.
  • Offer perks that you wouldn’t see elsewhere, like premium access to a music service.

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Remember — don’t be afraid to think outside the box and do something that’s relatively unheard of!

 

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