Building culture in a remote organization
March 21, 2018 6:06 PM   Subscribe

Tips for an organization seeking to build a strong remote culture?

I work at a national (U.S.) organization that over the past few years has moved away from a place-based, headquarters-and-regional-offices structure to a team-oriented structure with an increasing number of folks working remotely, all over the country. (Including me. I kind of hate it! I miss seeing actual people.)

Ironically, or maybe not, I've been asked to chair a group tasked with developing strategies and recommendations to define and strengthen our organizational culture in our new structure, and I'm a bit overwhelmed at where to start. And we meet for the first time next Wednesday!

Slightly complicating, my boss's boss's boss - #2 in the organization - is the committee's vice chair, which makes me more nervous because I find him a bit intimidating. I also worry, probably projecting, that people won't feel they can be candid and we'll end up doing what we think he wants to do.

So, in no particular order, can you help me get unstuck?

- If you work in a remote/virtual organization, do you have structures/policies/ rituals/traditions that help build relationships and a shared sense of identity?
- Conversely, is there anything dumb or pointless or otherwise counterproductive that we should avoid?
- If you've participated in a culture-building exercise, can you share any tips, exercises or cautionary tales that will make it a good experience for those involved (and won't make them think someone made a mistake in picking me to lead it)?

Thank you all. I'll be over here with my plate of beans if you need anything.
posted by Sweetie Darling to Work & Money (15 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I've worked remotely for years now and I think scheduling regular check-ins by phone or Skype are key. It's one thing to talk about something over email or Slack, but actual conversations where you talk out loud feel less cumbersome and allow you to work out details and have a back-and-forth. I was a remote manager and sometimes my people had questions they tended to reserve until our phone chats, and I've been a remote worker and was incredibly frustrated by my boss who constantly canceled out check-ins and rarely went over stuff on the phone with me. I looked at those phone chats as an opportunity to ask things or float ideas I may not necessary want to do over email. So I would try to avoid falling in a trap of everyone communicating solely through email or Slack.

If your company has the money, an all-staff conference where everyone meets up face-to-face might be nice. Putting a face to a name can help people feel more connected. But I personally never felt those sorts of giant all-staff retreats involved getting that much work or decision-making done, at least for me, so YMMV.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:15 PM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

My company is like this and has surprisingly great weekly newsletters (depending on your position).
posted by likethenight at 6:16 PM on March 21, 2018

It may be a small / logistical issue, but one of the things that sometimes made working remotely difficult with certain clients was... sound quality. A regular video conference call can be great -- you have (some) emotions / face reactions communicated back and forth, which makes it seem more real. But a lot of echo / reverb (unsure of the exact reason/name/explanation) can put a (big) damp in the enthusiasm and force everyone remote to have to concentrate really hard to understand what's going on (instead of participating freely).

So: make sure your rooms / mics / setups sound nice. :-)
posted by vert canard at 6:27 PM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Annual in-person event is good for morale.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:34 PM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding annual in-person event. I am the only fully remote person on my team and although I love remote work, it’s definitely challenging at times. We’ve had team gatherings at the main office at least once a year and last year had two, one in summer and one in winter for the company holiday party. Getting everyone together in the same place is super helpful and connecting, and we do fun teambuilding stuff and workshops.

Also seconding check-in calls. Our team is split between two offices in two cities and we have a weekly meeting on Mondays with video chat which is pretty nice. If anything I think we might spend too much time hashing out work stuff over Slack or email and not enough time just hopping on the phone or doing a video chat. Seeing people’s faces makes a difference.

Do silly stuff like shouting out people’s birthdays in your office slack, if you have one. Have a channel to replicate some of that water-cooler type discussion. I think remote work is in many cases ideal in comparison to office work, at least for the work I do, but it does take more effort and outreach to foster relationships between team members. Calls and video chats can help fill in those gaps.
posted by caitcadieux at 7:00 PM on March 21, 2018

I've been working remotely for 2+ years. My company is completely remote - about 15 people, all in the US except one in Europe.

Agreed with the previous posters that regular check-in calls are important. When I first started, my boss scheduled standing calls with me for 3x a week. At first I thought those would eventually go away because they would be overkill, but they really aren't - as others have said, there's a big difference between chat/email and actual phone calls, and those calls are great opportunities for us to talk through stuff.

We also do two retreats a year - one in the spring in advance of a conference that we all go to, and another in the fall. We all stay together in an AirBnB, so we get to hang out like "normal" coworkers for a long weekend. We do regular retreat team building stuff and go out to dinner every night together.

It may sound silly, but we also bond a ton over chat like Slack. We have rooms for each client, but more importantly, we have "interest" rooms - one for pets, one for music, one for cooking, one for beer, etc. They generally get added when there's a convo going on in the main room that's bugging people. :) But it's nice to know about people's hobbies and interests and chat about them in a virtual water cooler kind of setting.
posted by anotheraccount at 7:22 PM on March 21, 2018

I spent the last 8 years working for organizations in the middle of this kind of transition. A few things:

- I think it's really important, if you want this to be successful, to reframe the default expectation from "most people are in a hub office and a few outliers are remote" to "we all work in different places and need to be able to communicate/collaborate effectively." It seems like a subtle thing, but it makes a big difference, and will influence a lot of other things, from how you celebrate birthdays (cake in the break room vs. recognizing birthdays on the weekly team call, for instance) to how you run meetings (voice-only conference calls vs. a really good, reliable video conferencing system).

- Whatever chat tool you use (you use a chat tool, right?), make sure the whole organization uses it as their tool. Not "IT uses Slack, and Marketing uses Skype, and Finance refuses to use any chat tool at all." The chat tool becomes a really important place for people to collaborate, commiserate, and bond. It's where people have watercooler chats and quick brainstorms. In my last org, we had channels/chats for fun topics too, like a Book Discussion group, or a Game of Thrones Group. This is something that should happen organically, but it shouldn't be discouraged, because it helps people bond and feel some community with their coworkers. As a manager, I also encouraged people to shoot the shit a little in the chats for the teams I managed. Not to the point of keeping people from getting their work done, but things like asking how people's weekends were, or giving shout-outs when a staff member had an accomplishment.

- In general, collaboration tools become soooooooo important. You'll want to have most meetings over video conference vs. phone conference; google docs or however you collaborate on docs becomes important.

- In-person meetings are important. Yes, the all-staff meeting/retreat. But also, team retreats or big project planning meetings are usually going to be more effective in person. However, this gets expensive and can be a burden on staff members with a lot of personal obligations (like kids, second jobs, other family obligations). So making those in-person meetings count becomes really important. Invest in making sure that you have people on staff who are good facilitators. At my last two orgs, we actually had a bunch of people who had "meeting facilitation" as a secondary role they played in the organization - they were skilled, trained facilitators who could come in and facilitate in-person meetings. But it's also good to make sure anyone who is regularly facilitating meetings (team leads, project managers) have good facilitation skills as well.

- Weekly check-ins between managers and their staff become super important. Check ins should have a clear agenda and next steps (this is a great model for how to run a check-in). As a manager I also always tried to make sure I text-chatted with the people I managed at least every other day in addition to the weekly check-in, even if it was just to ask how they were doing.
posted by lunasol at 7:23 PM on March 21, 2018

I work in a place like this that has won national awards because of its great culture. We have about 140 employees across 5 time zones, some in little clusters, some solo. Some things we do:

We have core values which are publicized and recognized all the time.

We use an internal online messaging system. (We use Slack, but there are lots of others.) We message and video chat with each other all the time.

Each person has been assigned to one of four "houses" (yes, like Harry Potter), with even representation across time zones and functional teams. Houses earn points. Everyone in the house with the most points at the end of the year gets an extra day's paid vacation.

We all meet in a 15-minute monthly meeting to recognize two employees-of-the-month, one for the eastern part of the country, one for the western. The employees-of-the-month get a round of applause and their house gets an extra 25 points.

We have a shout-out system. Anyone can, at any time, recognize a colleague for doing something nice or demonstrating one of the core values. Typically, folks get props for pulling together on a project, putting in extra effort, or just doing someone a favour. I've given shout-outs for a colleague who put together a reference document that has made our work easier, someone who took extra time to teach me something, and someone who changed a 20 kg bottle of water for me.

It's worth noting that none of the recognition costs a great deal of money, but there is leadership commitment to making it work. Everyone, including the owners and senior leaders, is assigned to a house. Human Resources is the official home of all this, but it's largely run by a social committee comprised mostly of employee volunteers who are allowed to take working hours to do this. You get nominated and elected to the social committee, and are only allowed to serve one year. This way it's not the same bunch of people. The social committee also puts out a stylish and polished monthly newsletter which only talks about employees and never the company. So there are pictures of people's pets, their opinions on books, music and film, letters to Santa, whatever, but nothing about the latest company achievement or policy.

And everything lunasol said.
posted by angiep at 7:29 PM on March 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

Not a ton of experience myself, but I thought there were a lot of interesting ideas in the Track Changes episode about this.
posted by acidic at 8:23 PM on March 21, 2018

The company I work for is fully remote, and has a company culture stronger than any other company I've worked for in person.
I was looking for guidelines for remote workers that had been published previously, and came across that answers a range of related questions from various companies, including ours.

Things that for me stand out in particular:
- Opportunities to meet in person to work in the same place, as well as travel. The company pays for accommodation in various locations that are hosted by one or two members from those places. These started as relatively infrequent events, but have grown into regular occurrences.
- Slack channels around various interests, both work related and not. For example, we have a cycling club where we share our rides via Strava and have set monthly goals with charity based rewards.
- Live Broadcasts where management would inform of developments in the company, new hires and other announcements. These are kept quite short (30 minutes), and are surprisingly entertaining. Once a year this would include awards for various achievements.
- As strong culture of personal and professional development, including allocation of resources (both financial and staffing) allocated to promote this.
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 9:34 PM on March 21, 2018

Nothing really new to add, but I will confirm the importance of these things that have already been brought up. My company is pretty small and most of us have a very long interpersonal history, but I think a lot of this would still be applicable to departments within a larger organization:
  • Definitely a group chat tool. Over the years we've gone from Skype to HipChat to Slack - so far Slack is the best by far. Its integrations with other services we use are tremendously helpful, as are built-in features like the ability to set reminders for yourself or for a whole channel. And yes, casual "water cooler" chatter should be expected and fostered in reasonable amounts.
  • Weekly voice check-ins. We do this every Monday morning as a way to ease into the week. Everyone takes a minute or two to give a high-level description of their current projects, and it's also a good platform for discussing team-wide matters. This is super-important; we've gone through periods where we get lax about checking in weekly and everyone winds up feeling like they're wandering alone in the desert; it's really valuable to have a general sense of what everyone else is working on even if it's unrelated to your own tasks.
  • Regular face-to-face working retreats. AirBnB has worked fairly well for us, although for larger groups it can be a challenge finding a big enough space, and amenities can be a crapshoot. But hanging out in a livingroom is so much nicer than going to a hotel and working in sterile conference rooms all day. We usually incorporate meal prep and eating together as part of each get-together, and we try to maintain a good balance of work to socializing/goofing off. As much of a pain as it can be to get retreats scheduled they're really vital for maintaining a sense of cohesion. We've been averaging 2-3 a year.
  • Preserve the concept of office hours. Just because people work from home doesn't mean they should be expected to jump on a problem at 9:00 at night unless it's a true hair-on-fire emergency.
  • Annual personal budget for home office related supplies, equipment, etc.

posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 4:25 AM on March 22, 2018

It's been awhile since I worked on a remote team. When I did the annual or semi-annual get-togethers and a stipend for internet/phone (so everyone had a good connection) were important.
posted by typecloud at 6:45 AM on March 22, 2018

One thing that helped at a previous place was a (very modest) budget for local people to meet up and have lunch a couple of times a month. I had colleagues that were 20-30 minutes in either direction from me; we'd find a spot in the middle and spend an hour together catching up. Seeing your coworkers face-to-face, without a specific business purpose outside of reinforcing culture, goes a long way. We'd meet at pretty modest places, and a meal for three of us was never more than about $50.
posted by AgentRocket at 6:52 AM on March 22, 2018

Zapier has a 100% remote team and they wrote a guide to remote work that you might find useful.
posted by ourobouros at 9:10 AM on March 22, 2018

Nthing the above suggestions. I had a boss I only met twice in person over a few years, and yet he checked in with my via skype daily for 2-5 min calls every day. I interacted with him more than any other boss, including those in the office next to me.

One thing that helps is creating space and time for chit-chat - this can be especially important for helping new hires integrate and making sure the teams aren't dominated by bff's. It can be as simple as getting everyone on a call to say 1 cool/interesting/new thing they experienced/purchased/accomplished. It doesn't need to happen on every team call and it doesn't need to take up too much time, but it helps to personalize the interactions (it's no longer boring Sharon who always harps about budgets, it's now Sharon who sails competitively and is laser-focused on her job).
posted by A hidden well at 9:32 AM on March 22, 2018

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