Distributed teams are all the rage these days. They’re deployed by many successful companies. JetBlue, Kalpan, Xerox and even big companies like Dell allow staffers to clock in and clock out in their pajamas. And it seems there’s no stopping this trend.
Inspired, the folks at StatusPage.io, a company that helps tech businesses deal with downtime communication efficiently, were very positive about being a distributed team. The co-founders Steve Klein, Scott Klein and Danny Olinsky knew it was going to let them live where they wanted, hire the best talent around the globe, and work from anywhere. All that jazz.
But over the past couple of years, the challenges of being a remote team started to weigh in on them. So much so that they’ve changed their stance on building the team. Steve announced that remote just isn’t for them.
So exactly what befuddled the team and slowed them down?
While the founders cited productivity and communication issues as big obstacles, it was creating a strong culture they worried about the most.
They can’t be around to make every decision, so they rely on company culture (like all other companies do) to help employees make decisions the founders would want them to make. But that’s difficult in a distributed team. Remote workers can’t engage in water cooler gossip with their co-workers or attend interpersonal meetings during lunch breaks.
Culture is spread through founders interacting with team members and team members interacting with each other. Being remote means you have fewer opportunities to do this.
Why culture suffers in a remote team
In a distributed team, team members frequently don’t meet each other. They may not have a clear understanding of how to support their co-workers. In addition, they may hold different disciplines and therefore interpret responsibilities differently.
The biggest challenge is for firms trying to build a globally dispersed team, because research points out that higher level of intercultural diversity and temporal dispersion could bring down performance and efficiency.
Culture in remote teams requires members to share company values, and similarities in attitudes toward roles. In case of StatusPage.io’s attempt at being a distributed team, remote collaboration tools help, but things aren’t where the founders think they could be by having a team in the same room.
A survey found that virtual teams find it more challenging to manage conflict, make decisions and express opinions than face-to-face teams.
Marissa Mayer’s statement backs up these notions. She explained,
People are more collaborative, more inventive when people come together.
Mayer decided to ban remote work at Yahoo after finding that remote employees hadn’t checked in to Yahoo’s VPN logs for months and office parking lots were frequently empty.
FastCompany recently published a great article on why teleworking can be dangerous for your company culture. An employee working out of office is missing out on small (but extremely important) moments of bonding, understanding, and coaching. The source gives a simple example: Imagine going to a baseball game with your friend versus text/chatting while watching the match on television. The dialogue and experience will be the same, but we all recognize that something is absolutely missing when both of them are not present physically.
Building a culture in a distributed team
Building a culture can be difficult when employees aren’t in one physical location, but it’s not impossible. Sooner or later you’ll have to face the unpalatable truth of putting together a distributed team, so it is smart to learn how to develop a company culture among remote employees. Here are 5 proven ways to do it:
1. Schedule regular retreats
Make it a policy to invite your remote staffers to headquarters at least 3-4 times each year. Organize a fun event, offer them free stay and take them for picnic. During your interaction with them, don’t focus just on business-related topics; team-building exercises around general happiness evoke positive emotions, and may help alleviate feelings of isolation.
For instance, Buffer’s remote team goes on multiple international retreats each year, which enables everyone to bond with each other. Joel Gascoigne, Buffer’s founder, explained the benefits of meeting face-to-face in a blog post.
Another example is of Acceleration Partners. They held a scavenger hunt this year around Boston. Team members were divided into small groups with matching tees and given some clues to figure out which landmark locations to go to next. Once they figured that out, they had to take group videos and photos and submit them to organizers over Twitter. Here’s an image of one of the groups:
Later, everyone had dinner in a restaurant and spent the evening discussing the joys of their adventure. The scavenger hunt turned out to be a great way for remote employees to get better acquainted with each other, bond, and share ideas about the company’s growth.
2. Be transparent in communication
Beyond the lofty instructions for working towards the company’s goal in a unified manner, founders/managers can utilize some very down-to-earth tactics to promote company culture among offsite employees. This revolves around transparent communication that encourage team members to ask and answer open-ended questions about their work and progress.
While doing this, make sure everybody takes part, not just the extroverts in your distributed team. Taking out formality associated with discussions will encourage the less talkative to speak up. The more laid-back you are during your communication, the better your team will be at being transparent and honest. Take a look at how the team at Buffer talks:
Lauren Anderson, content and brand manager at 15Five, revealed that transparency is one of the values their company and its distributed team live every day. The managers are always available and open to feedback.
The fundamental promise of transparent communication helps them peer with the heart and mind of each team member, who share ideas and challenges that they may be afraid to share otherwise. For instance, employees may find greater value in telling what an authority figure wants to hear, but asking open-ended questions would encourage them to tell the reality of a situation.
3. Be mindful of different cultures
If employees are present in the office each day, it won’t take long to start learning about them. You can start getting a sense of their cultural values if they’re coming from another country, and what personality traits they possess. But this is a challenge when dealing with remote employees, so make it a point to learn about each of your staff through informal discussions like the ones mentioned in the previous tip.
For instance, an Asian employee will have different internal traits than a European employee. Think about elements as how you deal with communication and company values for instance. Some cultures will have reports ready a day before deadline, some will feel that a few hours after the deadline is still on time. It’s important to actively listen and study each member, and then facilitate their values by modifying your approach towards them.
You want to know about things that lie in the bottom part of the cultural iceberg model.
In addition, you can show each member of the team that their region is a priority by sponsoring a conference or asking them to be your brand ambassador for that region. By facilitating their presence at an important conference, or sponsoring their membership to a local organization, you’ll help employees feel an important part of the team.
4. Hire the right staff
Every recruited individual will affect the culture of your remote team. Therefore, who you hire will define the foundation of the culture you want to promote. The right fit will know about the process of working outside the office, and will be willing to help team members (even if it doesn’t benefit them directly).
In this aspect, it’s important to have a comprehensive onboarding process to introduce new hires to core values. This will provide them the opportunity to learn how to practice these values. Onboarding makes them feel welcomed, and better prepared to adapt to the existing culture. And if necessary, a manager can be assigned to provide coaching to employees who struggle.
Take a cue from Automattic’s hiring approach. They seek self-starters, people holding a high degree of independence, and value feedback. Creative director at the company, Dave Martin, stated the following:
Telling people no is hard, but mistakenly bringing on the wrong people can be much worse. While you want to always be kind, and helpful to all applicants, your primary responsibility when hiring is to ensure that only the best people get hired. That is priority number one.
You can read about the company’s full approach to hiring remote workers here.
5. Encourage social interaction with tools
It’s beyond question that social interaction is important for remote teams. Intense but fun collaboration is important for both productivity and developing shared experiences. Software tools can be used for face-to-face calls, file sharing, chatting, time tracking, etc. Teams that stay monogamous to these interactions tend to adapt well to the company’s culture.
For instance, you can use Slack to communicate and collaborate company-wide. The tool provides a common ground for managers and remote workers to share ideas and have casual conversations that normally take place in an office setting. There’s even an option to create hashtags to connect remote workers with specific departments.
Groove has published a list of useful tools for social interactions. They call Slack their ‘virtual water cooler’.
Shared interactions are something all employees (in-house and remote) can relate to, and an opportunity for distributed staffers to bond over. With these tools, you’re telling employees that they’re not out there on their own. You’re telling them what’s going on at the company and everyone will tackle it together.
Armed with this knowledge, you’ll feel more confident in your aim to build a company culture amongst a remote team. At the end of the day, the effectiveness of your team won’t depend on where staffers come from but what they can do together. And that’s what makes for a great company culture.
What are your thoughts? Can you think of additional ways to build a strong culture in remote teams? Feel free to leave comments.