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9 Expert Tips to Build a Thriving Remote Culture

How to foster a great culture when your team is working from home or distributed across the globe (according to leaders from Gitlab, Salesforce, Automattic, and more).

By Manuela Bárcenas  •   April 7, 2020  •   8 min read

The traditional office landscape is changing – and with this new way of work, new challenges are arising. One of these challenges is building a positive culture when your entire team is working remotely.

How can you, as a leader, foster a solid culture when your team is working from home or distributed across the globe? 🌎

We asked a panel of remote work experts from companies such as Gitlab, Shopify, Automattic, and Salesforce for their tips to build a positive company culture with a remote team.

Whether you’re an experienced remote leader, or you’re managing a distributed team for the first time, these are 9 best practices that you should consider:

1 Communicate (and uphold) your mission and values

One thing that remote companies learn very quickly is that culture is about more than ping-pong tables. In other words, your culture has to be built around a strong mission and values that unite the team.

Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of Gitlab (the world’s largest all-remote company), argues that communicating and upholding your company values is one of the most important things you can do to build a positive remote work culture:

If your team is working remotely for the first time, you can include your company values in your employee handbook or remote work policy. This will give employees the ability to go back and read those values whenever they are unsure about how to act or execute on their work.

As Jean-Michel Lemieux, CTO of Shopify said during our #ManagerChats, sharing your company values and maintaining a “laser focus” on your mission will help you avoid issues and quickly address the things that are not working for your team:

2 Create psychological safety

A study by Gallup shows that many employees hold back their contributions and ideas because they feel that the benefit of “saying nothing” outweighs the benefit of speaking up. In most cases, employees fear that their ideas will be rejected or that managers will go so far as to penalize them.

That’s why Heather Doshay, VP of People at Webflow says that the most important thing leaders can do to build a positive remote culture is creating psychological safety:

“A culture of psychological safety enables employees to be engaged. They can take risks and experiment. They can express themselves without the fear of failure or retribution. Juxtapose this type of culture with one where employees feel too intimidated to speak up or share a new idea. It’s hard to imagine these employees can mentally allow themselves to be engaged at work,” says Gallup.

Here are six ways to foster psychological safety in your remote team:

  1. Acknowledge your mistakes and weaknesses as a leader.
  2. Be open to feedback and suggestions from your teammates.
  3. Encourage your direct reports to ask questions and disagree with your ideas.
  4. Actively ask the quieter members of the team for their opinion during your virtual meetings.
  5. Instead of blaming someone for a mistake, address the problematic behaviour or outcome as a learning opportunity and use factual language.
  6. Measure psychological safety by asking employees how comfortable they feel sharing ideas and disagreeing with other members of the team.

3 Cultivate an environment of trust

In order to build a healthy remote culture, it’s essential to communicate higher-level decisions with your team (during your one-on-ones and weekly team meetings) and let employees know that you trust them to do their work – even when they’re working from home. 🏡

As Leah Knobler, Director of Talent Acquisition at HelpScout argues:

💡 Pro tip: In order to build a culture of trust, focus on your team’s output – not the number of hours that they are working. Finally, if somebody on your team is not producing the work they’re expected to, check-in with them and ask if there’s anything you can do to help.

4 Invest time in non-work meetups and ‘watercooler’ conversations

Another essential step to build a thriving remote culture is to create spaces and opportunities for casual conversations. A lot of companies (including Fellow.app!) have different Slack channels where employees can connect on topics such as:

  • #Food
  • #Pets
  • #Music
  • #Parenthood
  • #PersonalFinance
  • #RemoteWork
  • … and more!

This is important because, as Lea Jovy, founder of Location Independent said during our #ManagerChats, culture comes from people connecting with each other beyond the context of work:

Finally, one effective way to encourage team bonding with your distributed team is to organize events such as team lunches, book clubs, and friendly competitions.

According to Jonathan Ronzio, CMO at Trainual and Kris McGlone, Head of Demand Generation at Salesforce, these types of events can really help your team stay connected and transition to working remotely.

5 Avoid overload and burnout

When people are working from home, the boundaries between “work-life” and “personal-life” can fade very easily. That’s why it’s so important for you, as a leader, to set the example and encourage people to maintain a work-life balance.

One helpful tip shared by Sam Mallikarjunan, CRO of Flock, is to be respectful of people’s calendar blocks and timezones 📆:

💡 Pro tip: If you need to message your team outside their work hours, include a note clarifying that they can reply when they’re back the next day.

6 Break down communication silos

Another piece of advice we heard during our #ManagerChats was to share as much information as possible in your public communication channels. As Joshua Schnell, Director of Marketing at BuySellAds argued, sharing information (such as a team decision or feedback from your customers) publicly will help you avoid misunderstandings and communication silos:

Finally, Phil Gamache, Head of Marketing Operations at Close added that in order to build a healthy remote culture, it’s important for everyone on your team to have a 360-degree view of the company. This means that every employee should be able to read information and updates from other departments:

7 Schedule virtual standups and one-on-one meetings

It’s hard to build a healthy remote culture when your team doesn’t communicate on an ongoing basis. That’s why Aydin Mirzaee, CEO of Fellow.app argues that it’s extremely important for remote teams to schedule regular meetings where they can share updates, remove blockers, and make decisions:

If you’re new to the concept of daily standups or one-on-one meetings, these are two meeting templates that you can use to get started:

You can use a tool like Fellow.app to collaborate on agendas and assign action items 👇

Fellow helps remote teams have more productive meetings

Meetings Feature Fellow

8 Remind your team that they are valued and appreciated

One essential component of building a thriving remote culture is showing appreciation for your teammates’ work. As a leader, it’s important to recognize employees through public shoutouts, as well as private channels (such as one-on-one conversations).

As Laurel Farrer, founder of Distribute Consulting said during our chat:

Here are some unique ways to recognize and reward your remote employees:

  • Post a shoutout in a public team channel, so other team members can post their congratulations and react with emojis.
  • Surprise employees with a gift card and a thank you note.
  • Provide resources and time for your remote employees to work on their professional development.
  • Send company swag on their birthdays or work anniversaries.

9 Step back and question assumptions

Last but not least, it’s always important to step back and ask for feedback about your current processes (meetings, team rituals, collaboration across teams, etc). That was the last piece of advice that Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, shared during our chat:

If you don’t have much experience running a remote team, chances are you won’t get everything right the first time. You could realize that your daily standup meetings aren’t very effective, or that, perhaps, you should be checking in with your direct reports on a more regular basis.

The important part is to keep iterating and asking your team for feedback. In the end, listening to your team’s opinions and ideas will make you a more approachable and confident leader.

9 Expert tips to build a great remote culture

  1. Communicate your mission and values.
  2. Create psychological safety.
  3. Cultivate an environment of trust.
  4. Invest time in non-work meetups and watercooler conversations.
  5. Avoid overload and burnout.
  6. Break down communication silos.
  7. Schedule virtual standups and one-on-one meetings.
  8. Remind your team that they are valued and appreciated.
  9. Step back and question assumptions.

We hope that these tips helped you understand what it takes to foster a healthy and positive remote culture. If you’re interested in learning more, we have other great resources for remote leaders in the Fellow blog!

  • shopfiy
  • uber
  • stanford university
  • survey monkey
  • arkose labs
  • getaround
  • motorola
  • university of michigan
  • webflow
  • gong
  • time doctor
  • top hat
  • global fashion group
  • 2U
  • lemonade
  • solace
  • motive
  • fanatics
  • gamesight
  • Vidyard Logo