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How to promote culture in a remote workplace

Companies that have operated remotely since inception offer their best advice for creating and maintaining company culture with a distributed workforce

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Remote workplaces can have thriving company cultures — it just takes some work, remote companies say.

As business leaders continue to navigate their post-pandemic workplace policies, many wonder whether remote options should be a part of the plan. One of their biggest worries: whether it will take a toll on their company’s culture. Fortunately, a few companies that have operated remotely since inception offered their suggestions on how to go about creating and maintaining culture while having a distributed workforce.

“Experiment with different ideas and find the sweet spot,” said Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard University professor who studies the future of work. “You need to have a bunch of pilots.”

Bosses say remote work kills culture. These companies disagree.

Companies including software development platform GitLab, social media marketing software firm Buffer and workflow automation platform Zapier were established as remote companies from the very beginning. Corel, a Canadian graphics software company, adopted a permanent remote-first policy during the pandemic. Here’s the advice they offered to leaders looking to create a robust culture.

Be intentional

Companies shouldn’t switch to remote work and expect culture to flourish on its own. Remote leaders said it not only takes buy-in from the company’s top leaders, but intentional effort to create a sense of connection and shared values when workers are distributed.

So, to make the process easier, develop some sense of strategy focused on how the company will aid workers in this new environment, remote experts say. What processes have to change if workers are spread around the nation or across the world? How will you ensure all workers are up to speed, connected and on even ground? Are there ways in which workers can connect, and is the company doing anything to promote or encourage that? Do there need to be additional resources now that there is no physical office everyone attends?

Asking key questions ahead of time can help alleviate some of the pain points that may come down the line.

Transparency is a must

When workers are distributed, transparency becomes even more important, experts say.

Remote companies have said that they’ve found shared documents or internal forums work best, and that workers and leaders should document all progress on projects, meeting notes, announcements, policies and decisions. Some companies have found making these documents or forums available to all employees helps everyone. That way, someone from another department can easily check in on a project for which they may need an update from another team.

Ensure all employees know how and where to get all the documents, they say. In this case, more is better.

“It’s about building a culture of trust,” said Danny Schreiber, senior business operations manager at Zapier. “We have a centralized place where we share companywide informationand people who join afterward can get caught up.”

Create spaces for socialization

Without an office, workers can easily go into their work cave and become isolated. But companies can do a few things to combat that and create energy that may be similar to the office environment.

“With a little creativity and ingenuity, you can make it happen,” said Jenny Terry, Buffer’s director of business operations.

Experts suggest creating time and space for workers to have casual conversations that may not be work related. For example, Zapier created channels on the communication service Slack that are solely dedicated to hobbies and interests. GitLab sets up group chats that last about 15 minutes for employees to get to know each other and also sometimes hosts virtual activities. And Buffer uses the Donut integration on Slack to pair employees across departments for 30-minute one-on-ones.

And even though they’re remote, the three companies say they consider connecting in-person invaluable. So they host companywide retreats and encourage meetups. GitLab goes as far as offering reimbursement for some travel-related expenses if employees want to see each other.

“It’s not just a virtual world,” said Wendy Barnes, GitLab’s chief people officer. “We do bring people together … but you have to be unique and intentional.”

Use tools to aid asynchronous work

Asynchronous work, or work that is done by teammates independently at different times, can be tricky.

“We are across multiple time zones,” Terry of Buffer said. “[The challenge is] how do we recognize when it’s okay for asynchronous communication and collaboration versus saying, ‘Let’s pause and get in the same room for next steps’ ”?

Remote companies say the best way to navigate asynchronous work is to have the most appropriate digital tools for the task and clear communication surrounding them.

Workers will need to find ways to collaborate, stay updated and see what their colleagues are doing. Some companies say they use a mix of social messaging apps like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google, shared documents on the cloud, white-boarding tools, forums and videoconferencing tools like Zoom and WebEx. But the need will depend on the job. Leaders should communicate which tools should be used when and workers should be briefed on how to use them, experts say.

Adjust management styles

A new style of working requires a new style of management, leaders and workers at remote companies say. For companies that have done this for years, managing remote workers means focusing on results versus daily or hourly tasks.

In some cases, that may mean training managers on how to navigate remote work properly. It’s no longer about butts in seats but rather reaching set goals, experts say. That may mean setting up regular check-ins and over-communicating plans and expectations.

“What it’s forcing organizations to do is to say to people, ‘This is what I expect the output to look like, here’s what done looks like and here’s how we will measure it,’ ” said Christa Quarles, chief executive of Corel, which adopted a remote-first policy after the pandemic. “It’s not, ‘I am going to watch what you’re doing at your desk all day.’ ”

Consider adding more perks

Remote companies say people often misinterpret culture as being the free kombucha or ping-pong tables some companies offer. Instead, it’s much more than that. Still, perks help — they just may look different from those that workers get in the office.

How the pandemic changed employee perks

Remote workers say helpful company perks include things like stipends for their tech and home office or wellness benefits like additional days off for mental health. Perks don’t create a culture, but they can add to it by helping employees feel more connected to their company, some workers say.

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