One of the toughest questions asked by remote work opponents is how to establish a successful and healthy company culture with a distributed team. Granted, building and cultivating your company’s unique culture is challenging anyway, but especially tough when your employees are scattered across the globe. It is, however, certainly possible.
In general, company culture is the behaviour of
1. How people work together, and
2. How non-work related interactions happen.
In addition, company culture is the set of beliefs shared by the members of the organization.
A “good” company culture is one that enables employees to be productive, engaged and supported at work. Co-located companies often struggle with it, because they believe their great culture organically develops when people work together. Often, this isn’t true at all. Company have to consciously build culture. Wade Foster (CEO of Zapier) explains, “as a remote team, you don’t delude yourself thinking that culture will magically happen. You go in eyes wide open. If a strong culture doesn’t develop it’s not because you didn’t try, it’s usually due to another reason.”
One great example of a FROG (Fully Remote OrGanization) with a thriving culture is Olark. The company, which develops live chat software, has been around for almost 10 years. Even though they have been remote first from the start, they ditched their last remaining office recently, in October 2018, to go fully remote.
Kimberly Bringas, Olark’s “HR and Culture Enthusiast”, has helped Olark refine its identity and core values while growing to a company of 30 employees, mostly in the US and Canada.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Kimberly to describe Olark’s company culture in three words. She answered:
“Proactive, intentional, human.”
Coincidentally, these three serve well to outline how to build a great remote company culture in general.
Bringing the right people in
Determining “culture fit” during the hiring process is one key aspect of shaping a great company culture. However, it’s not about screening for “sameness”, but for values.
“Our focus is not to hire copies of ourselves, but to hire based on values alignment. We ensure that new hires have the skills they’ll need to excel in our remote work environment. We specifically look for people with proactive communication skills, who take that additional step to clarify and understand when something is ambiguous.”
Especially in a remote company when you’re relying on tools like Slack for instance, proactiveness is often one common personality trait of team members, which then shapes the company culture.
At acework, we included proactiveness in our “Remote Readiness” assessment, since it has come up over and over as a key trait when we spoke with remote companies.
Kimberly credits her manager (Mandy Smith, Olark’s Director of People Operations) with designing a hiring process that puts culture front and center. Mandy recently replaced the classic “culture interview”, usually done by only one person, with several culture related questions throughout all interview rounds.
This has two benefits:
I. By assigning each interviewer one or two culture questions, they’ll get feedback on culture fit from multiple people in the organisation. This reduces bias, and increases inclusiveness and diversity – two important factors for Olark.
II. It takes the pressure off a single interview to determine whether or not the person fits Olark’s culture. This benefits the interviewer, and decreases the risk of catching the candidate on a bad day.
Making culture part of the onboarding process
Olark wants people to feel settled by day two. That’s why they take employee onboarding extremely seriously. They encourage managers to use company-wide guides and processes to ensure each new hire receives a complete view of the company and its culture.
In addition, they use guiding questions like “Tell me about good and bad manager you have had. What specifically made them a good or bad manager for you?” They do this to learn how they can adapt their management styles. Therefore, Olark still acknowledges and caters to the different personalities of its team, as much as uniting people with the same values and in one culture.
Enabling Culture Builders
Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk and his book “Start with Why” have sparked companies around the globe to define mission statements and craft company values. In Olark’s 10-year history, the company has “started with why” for every process, structure and policy, whether that’s in Human Resources or elsewhere.
This ties back to Wade Fosters statement from the beginning of this article. Remote companies have to be intentional in building their company culture, strategically implement processes, and continuously review themselves.
At Olark, every employee plays an important role in building culture. The People Ops team looks for an interest in culture in every new hire, and considers it their responsibility to help shape and support ideas from across the company. In order to be effective, they have to work closely and be aligned with the C-Level executives and management team. Only when leadership is on board and fully supports the culture builders, can they design processes that work for the entire team.
Leading by example
In addition, leaders and managers must act as role models to establish new policies or processes. For example, Olark’s values include #make and #chill. #make speaks for their proactiveness, but #chill reflects their belief that great work can be done in 40 hours per week. In addition, they have a generous flex PTO and sick leave policy.
The People Ops team make it a point to encourage management to actually take time off to unplug completely, as well as take a sick day when they don’t feel 100%. That way, managers lead by example and the rest of the team feels comfortable to use the policy as well. Olark keeps everyone’s paid time off transparent by using PTO Ninja, a Slack app that tracks who is currently out of office, and for how long.
At Buffer, another “FROG”, team lead Marcus Wermuth ensures a culture of openness by speaking truthfully about mental health and seeking therapy with his team. We interviewed Marcus about mental health in remote organisations here.
Olark also has an open conversation about mental health. The reaffirming response of CEO Ben Congleton to an employee announcing she was taking a mental health day even went viral.
Many experts have already written about the effects of remote working on mental health. Some potential problems include loneliness, imposter syndrome and burnout, which an open and inclusive company culture can help to uncover.
Here are 3 of Olark’s best practices to build remote culture (that may work for you too):
“If you really knew me, you would know that…”: In team meetings or 1:1s, ask everyone to complete this sentence aloud before the meeting begins. For example, you might hear answers like “…I didn’t get a good night’s sleep, and am very tired today.” Olarkers find that this exercise removes assumptions and creates empathy, leading to more open work-related discussions.
The rule of 15: Stick to a maximum of fifteen text (e.g., Slack) messages back and forth before jumping on a voice or video call. Anything you cannot solve in fifteen exchanges of text should be addressed “face to face”. It’s part of a functioning culture to know the limits of every communication method you use, and when to switch to another one.
The water cooler channel: Create a space for people to just talk, “hang out”, and discuss non-work-related issues. Almost all remote companies acework has spoken to have some form of a water cooler channel. This can be a channel on Slack or Twist, or in form of a permanent Zoom or Hangout video room.
Successful FROGS also use these practices to build remote company culture:
Partner up: Donut is a Slack app that randomly pairs two or three employees together to catch up on whatever they like. Making it a weekly, or bi-weekly, occurrence, this “buddy system” creates conversations across teams. This doesn’t even happen that much in regular offices, and is especially great for remote teams.
“Show and tell”: At company meetups, let people present non-work related topics they are passionate about. You may be surprised who connects with each other afterwards.
Collecting feedback and establishing trust
As much as intentional policies and processes are essential to build and shape a remote company culture, keeping it close to the humans working with them is crucial. Therefore, Kimberly makes it her mission to collect honest feedback on every proposed policy. When she implemented PTO Ninja, she initially launched it with a small group of “beta-testers” within the company. She then based her decision to roll it out for everyone on the group’s feedback.
This goes hand in hand with the fact that trusting the team is her guiding principle. Olark doesn’t time-track its employees in the traditional sense, they only record what is legally necessary, such as sick leave. Time-tracking is a controversial policy: Some remote organisations swear by it, others consider it a micro-managing spy tactic detrimental to a trusting culture. A new policy like PTO Ninja had to first prove itself as non-detrimental to the trusting culture Olark has built over the past ten years.
Going the extra mile
Finally, Kimberly has shared more than once how much she appreciates her colleagues. This is partly due to the uniting and cohesive company culture, which enables everyone to be productive and engaged. In addition, the team at Olark seems to genuinely enjoy spending time together.
In addition to company retreats and team meetups, Kimberly and her director, Mandy, run a quarterly book club together. Most recently they covered Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead”, which already seems to be something the team at Olark does well.
You can learn more about Olark’s benefits program in this interview with Kimberly on Collective Health’s blog Benefits Decoded. In addition, Kimberly wrote about how to handle conflict on remote teams on HelpScout’s blog.
At acework we are warriors for greater flexibility and happiness at work. We are always curious how the rest of the remote work community gets this done. Get in touch and let us know your ideas and best practices (email@example.com).
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