Every company has a culture, even tiny startups with just a handful of people.
It’s a really important part of building trust and solidarity between your team members, creating an environment where they can work closely together to make the most of each person’s unique still set and insights.
Company culture is what brings everyone together in pursuit of an organization’s goals.
Today, remote work is on the rise, and it shows no signs of going away any time soon.
Improvements in long-distance communication and collaboration have made it possible for people thousands of miles apart to work closely together.
With communication tools like Skype and Slack, it’s a cinch to stay in touch at any time. Add in collaboration-friendly productivity tools like Google Docs, Trello, Salesforce, Dropbox, and other business software solutions, and suddenly, a team of workers can get things done smoothly without ever having even met each other in person.
As of 2017, 20-25% of the workforce telecommutes in some capacity, at least occasionally. Among people who are not self-employed, and who work for a company, remote work has risen by 115% since 2005.
The convenience and benefits of remote work are great for many kinds of businesses, especially small ones whose key team members do work that doesn’t require them to be present in person.
Job tasks common to many professions — including programming, copywriting, marketing, and even sales — can be handled just as easily from a home office in Indianapolis as from the company’s physical office in San Francisco.
While remote work has a lot of benefits for both workers and employers, one of the potential downsides is that creating a strong company culture isn’t always as obvious and straightforward.
Why Do Small Businesses Need a Well Defined Company Culture?
At first glance, “company culture” or “workplace culture” might sound like little more than buzzwords.
Just another flavor of the week among executives, like “leverage,” “team building,” “Six Sigma,” and “synergy.”
But while company culture creation is kind of trendy right now — meaning you run into a lot of fluff about it — at its heart, the concept can be integral to a successful business.
This is especially important for remote teams. A lack of regular face to face contact does have some psychological effects on people and can be an obstacle to creating a sense of togetherness.
So, you have to work around the distance. You have to put a little more effort into making sure your workers really feel like a team.
Remote teams need a strong culture more than any other group of employees. If you really want your business and your workers to thrive, you want to start on the ground level and work on building a cultural vision from the very beginning.
When everyone’s thousands of miles away from each other, it helps a lot if you can really make people feel like a team, like they’ve got a strong professional connection with one another.
This can be the difference between a chaotic, disorganized workflow where the left-hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing; versus a tightly organized and cohesive team that works together in synchrony to get things done with maximum efficiency.
How to Create a Strong Company Culture in a Remote Work Environment
So how do you actually go about designing a company culture?
This is a process that’s going to take you some time, with some iteration and refinement. It’s something very human, and there’s an element of intuition.
It’s not something where you can just crunch up some numbers in a spreadsheet and get an exact, precise answer. It takes some trial and error.
Here are some concrete actions that you and your remote team can take together to create a strong company culture and enriches and informs everything that you do.
1. Understand what “company culture” really means.
Creating a strong culture is a big workplace trend right now, so there’s a lot of buzz.
It can sometimes be hard not to get distracted by the “bells and whistles.”
You see a lot of content out there about companies — often hip tech startups — doing things like setting up ping pong tables, putting together communal lounge areas, replacing desks and cubicles with exercise balls and standing desks, catering organic vegan lunches, and even putting communal beer fridges in the breakroom.
This stuff is all very well and good, especially for certain kinds of companies where the teams work best in a laid back atmosphere.
But workplace culture isn’t about craft beer and ping pong tables. Those things are great, but they’re the icing on the cake.
When you’re giving some thought to your own business and its culture, you need to start with the basics.
Especially for remote teams, where creating a workspace that’s more lounge than office doesn’t really apply in the same way.
You don’t have to feel like you need to hold business meetings in a company Minecraft server.
It’s more about facilitating strong communication, putting solid workflow processes in place, and making sure it’s as easy as possible for everyone to work together to get things done.
It’s not about where you work. It’s about how you work.
2. Use the right tools.
For remote teams, cloud-based software is absolutely essential. There are tons of different programs out there for different applications.
To build a great team culture from the start, you need to figure out the right tools to optimize your workflows and keep everyone on the same page.
Some of the software tools that work well for tons of remote teams include:
- Slack. Slack is first in its class for business communication and remote collaboration. It’s kind of like Discord for business, but with distinct features geared toward work rather than play. Slack is an excellent “home base” for a business built on remote work, acting as a communal meeting room where everyone can get together and talk.
- Trello and Asana. These two project management systems use the kanban card system, originally developed in Japan by Toyota to manage assembly lines. As it turns out, kanban is a great way to keep track of projects and workflows in tons of different industries.
- Google Docs and Dropbox. These tools are geared toward file sharing. Google Docs, in particular, is a great way to organize access to documents. From bookkeeping spreadsheets to Powerpoint presentations, to drafts of your latest marketing copy, it can be an indispensable tool for remote businesses.
- Salesforce and other CRM solutions. Need to keep track of leads and customers, making sure all the team members that need access can get the information instantly? Salesforce is the industry leader in customer relations management (CRM) systems. It’s perfect for your remote salespeople and marketing professionals to keep their end of things running smoothly.
These are just a few of the awesome tools available for remote teams.
You may need to do a little research to find the best fit for your particular business. But with that said, you’ll probably need a few basics like a document collaboration service (like Google Docs), a project management system, and a communication platform.
3. Define your company’s goals and values, and communicate those things with your remote team.
What kind of company are you?
What are your organizational goals?
What are your goals for your employees?
What values motivate you to do the things you do?
These are all things you should think about if you want to start creating a strong culture and a sense of camaraderie among your remote team. If possible, try to include your team members in this process.
A great place to start with this is defining your company values and mission statement.
Company values are a general set of 10,000-foot level guidelines that delineate what your goals are on a human level.
You can get the ball rolling on this with a group brainstorming session.
Here’s a general process you can try out with your team, developed by a company called Culture IQ that offers consultancy services and a survey platform to help businesses develop a strong, well-defined culture.
- Throw out an idea — whoever’s ready first can start.
- Jot it down. See what everyone thinks about it. Does the idea have potential? Is it too vague, or too specific?
- Repeat this process with a few different ideas from your team members. Take the idea, jot it down, and talk about how to refine it.
- Let it marinate, so to speak. Set aside what you’ve got so far, and then come back to it a week or so later with “fresh eyes.” If you take some time first, you’ll be able to look at what you have a bit more objectively.
So what kinds of questions can you ask? What kinds of ideas gel with a company value manifesto?
- What’s important to our team? (Examples: delivering great work; helping our clients’ businesses grow; connecting consumers with the right products for their needs.)
- What brought us together and keeps us together as a team? (Examples: a strong professional bond; a shared desire to reach the same goals; a desire to help clients or customers as best we can.)
- If you’re faced with a difficult decision, what values or principles will guide your decisions? (Examples: having the courage to take on a tough assignment and find a way to make it work; perseverance in the face of difficulty; putting our clients’ needs above all else.)
- What part of our company are we proudest of? (Examples: our top-tier creative work; our dedication to our clients; our bold innovation.)
Here’s a quick overview of what that company came up with.
- Treat people with respect.
- Be resourceful.
- Be creative.
- The person is more important than their resume.
- Make human decisions, informed by metrics but not solely defined by them.
- Stay flexible.
- Celebrate the journey you’re on with our team.
4. Schedule a meeting at least once a week that includes everyone on the team.
Skype is a great option for this, if you prefer voice or video calling. If you prefer text chat, you can do this through Slack.
A weekly virtual team meeting is a great way to bring everyone together on a regular basis, so everyone can catch up and get on the same page.
This helps prevent “siloing,” especially on larger remote teams that aren’t just three to five people.
People in different business functions can kind of end up splitting off into “subteams,” or just working on their own without much contact with any of the other team members.
For example, you might have a remote copywriter who works directly under your marketing coordinator, who’s also remote.
But they never really need to communicate much with you (the owner), or with your lead web dev, or with the VA that handles your bookkeeping and data entry.
When two workers’ respective roles don’t bring them into much contact with each other, there’s a sort of an isolation that can take hold. On smallish teams, this can be an issue. In a massive company, Bob in the fifth floor marketing department, containing 25 people, doesn’t need to know anything about Jenny in on the eighth floor in the 50-person accounting department.
But in a small team of just a couple dozen people at most, that kind of lack of contact can make a difference psychologically.
Regular company-wide meetings can easily be put together using only virtual tools like Skype, and it’s a great way to subtly reinforce everyone’s sense of being on a team and belonging to a culture.
That kind of thing can make a surprisingly big difference psychologically, helping boost people’s sense of contentment and satisfaction with their job.
If Possible, Try To Schedule In-Person Meetings
This may not always be possible, and if it is, there’s a chance that not every team member will be able to make it.
But with that said, something like an annual meetup at your company headquarters for remote workers can be a great way to forge social bonds among your employees, facilitating team cohesion.
Get Ahead of Remote Work’s Stumbling Blocks with a Strong Company Culture
A strong company culture helps your employees feel a sense of solidarity with one another, and a sense of social belonging within your team.
It also helps keep communication crystal clear and help everyone work together to get things done more smoothly.
At the end of the day, remote is just another way to structure a company – and in any good company, culture is king.