Last week, Lattice held a roundtable discussion on Building Culture Across Remote Teams with four remote culture experts:
- Katie Womersley, the Director of Engineering at Buffer, a globally distributed team with no offices.
- Nassim Kammah, an Engineering Manager at Mailchimp, where he leads the Search team, a fully distributed team in three time zones.
- Laurel Farrer, a Distributed Operations Consultant that collaborates with the world’s top remote-friendly companies.
- And finally, panel moderator Julian Lute, an Organizational Culture Consultant who helps leaders build strategies that harness culture to foster innovation and deliver measurable market value.
(Naturally, it was held over Zoom.)
The group discussed everything from hidden benefits of remote work culture to communicating on dispersed teams to how to working from home affects productivity. We’re sharing key takeaways from the conversation to help you improve your culture across remote employees!
1. Build remote culture into your overall culture.
Companies often start thinking about remote culture when they have an employee move away. “I think it’s very common for companies to kind of slide into remote work,” said Katie Womersley, Director of Engineering at Buffer, a fully remote company. “Perhaps you have a lead developer on the team needs to move. Do we want to lose this key person?” This is a pretty natural shift for companies as they scale — the problem is when these employees shift to remote work without the company’s culture shifting to remote work as well. However, with a bit of planning, “You can have [remote workers] as a full part of your company, not an afterthought or a contractor,” said Katie.
This is particularly important when it comes to teams that are mixed, with some team members being remote and some in-office. Often, Laurel Farrer pointed out, this can create conflict — especially when it comes to conducting team meetings. The way to circumvent that is when you go remote, go all in as a team. “The first step is to standardize your tools and processes so that they are the same tools and processes regardless of whether you’re working from home, on the road, or in the office.”
2. Focus on work output, not the appearance of working.
All the panelists cautioned against setting up remote work systems if leadership or managers have not bought in. If leadership isn’t all in, the remote worker will suffer for it.
When it comes to remote culture having a negative impact on productivity, the panelists agreed it was a “misguided” conception. In fact, said Nassim, the way people think of remote workers — as not working as hard because they’re not in the office — is something remote workers are always worrying about. “You always have that nagging feeling of having to overcompensate for,” he said. “You could exit the office and you always end up working way more and burning yourself out way more than if you were in the office.”
The problem, said Laurel, is that, “Everybody understands the perks of remote, they’ve heard about the benefits and that would be great, but it’s just not for my team because of productivity.” Of course, this is partly based on how companies think of productivity. “[Often] productivity is based on a sense that when people come to the office and they are in the office, that is productivity. They can hear the phones ringing, they can see the cubicles and that’s productivity.”
“If you’re dealing with the leadership team and they’re saying, look, we be able to see people to feel that they’re doing something. You don’t have a remote work problem, you have a trust problem,” added Katie.
But when you focus on measuring results, that’s when leadership understands very quickly that where you work doesn’t have a negative impact on productivity.
By redefining productivity to be more about output than the appearance of work getting done, you also learn to trust your employees more. “You don’t need to see someone on a computer to assume they’re going to do great work,” said Nassim. The way to change these misconceptions is to assess, “What is your end result, what do you want to see? What are the deliverables? Because at the end of the day, what matters is what ships.”
3. A remote workforce improves your talent pool, but it’s not for every employee.
Convincing leadership to welcome a remote work culture can be challenging. This is especially true in the startup space, where it can be very difficult to fill a competitive role where there is a competitive talent landscape. But since Buffer has an entirely remote workforce, it doesn’t have that problem, according to Katie. “We’ll put a job ad up, and we’ll get up to 1,500 applicants for one role.” And it makes you more likely to find someone who really fits the company, she said. This is especially helpful in the startup space, where it can be very difficult to fill a competitive role where there is a competitive talent landscape. But if you open up your candidate search to employees outside of your office HQ, you broaden your talent pool to the best candidate for the position, rather than the best candidate in your city. “You know, what are the chances that the person who’s going to be best for the job is going to be located within a four or five mile radius of your office? Just what is that probability?”
But it’s also important to make sure that the people you hire remotely can be remote. “I would say,” said Nassim, “being remote is not easy and it’s not for everyone. Some people will never be able to be remote and that’s okay.” We often have a picture of what remote work looks like — being in pajamas and working from the couch. “The reality as a remote worker is far away from that,” said Nassim. “It’s not for everyone.”
So when you’re hiring remote employees, especially those who have never been remote before, it’s important to lay out what your expectations are and frequently check-in to see if the arrangement is working for the employee. For some people it’s the perfect solution for good work/life balance — for others it’s a bit more complicated.
4. Set remote employees up for the same success that you would employees in your office.
Remote employees need a different set of office benefits than your HQ employees do. Remote working doesn’t solve all an employee’s problems. For example, if a in-office employee might never request a new chair because there are plenty of options floating around the office, but a remote employee doesn’t have that many options! So while ordering a new chair for a remote employee may seem like an additional benefit, it’s actually something that they may really need to achieve the same productivity as their colleague in HQ.
This mentality is especially true for hiring and retention strategies, said Nassim, you need to really provide for the remote employees you end up hiring. Don’t go, “We not going to make it easy for you to work. We’re not going to give you a laptop. You already working from home. You shouldn’t enough to complain for all of this stuff when you go and you support the strategy, you go all in and you make sure that the remote so going to be included and everything is going to work for them.”
Instead, treat them like you would an employee in the office: make sure they have all the tools they need to do their work. Buffer subsidizes internet and/or a coworking space like WeWork, and/or coffee from the coffee shop you work at. Employees get a $500 stipend for setting up and $200 for getting whatever equipment they needs. Finally, the company sends laptops, headphones, etc.
5. Make the extra effort for onboarding remote employees.
The panelists also discussed the unique needs of onboarding for remote employees. They specified three focus areas for this: Assign people that remote employees could go to for advice and help. Second was encouraging and subsidizing HQ visits by remote employees. And lastly, turn their hiring into an “event.”
According to Nassim, the key for remote workers at MailChimp is meeting as many employees as you can the first week, visiting the office at least four times a year — with the explicit premise that you’re not expected to ship during that time. “You can do that from home when you have time, when you’re in the office, you’re here to meet people.” A visit is first and foremost about face-to-face time.
Buffer has a three buddy system for onboarding where each new hire has two points of contact within the company in addition to their manager and detailed onboarding plan. They have a “role buddy” who is someone with the same role who can show them the ropes, and a “culture buddy,” who is usually from a totally different team but in the same time zone. The latter is especially important for employees who are remote for the first time, said Katie, because that culture buddy helps them figure out the details of their remote work experience. For example, the schedule that works for them, and whether they want to work in a home office or check out a coworking space. We found that this amount of onboarding investment, especially in those first six weeks, has really helped to build a strong team,” said Katie. It prevents Buffer from becoming “a fragmented network of freelancers with open source projects.”
Laurel corroborated this, adding that, basically, the most important aspect for remote employee onboarding is making sure the employee feels “very educated” and “understands where they can go to find answers.” “That first day of a remote job is a strange thing like you opened up your laptop and you think, well I hope this is legit,” said Laurel. So “making it a big splash and shipping out some swag and setting up a bunch of meetings, it really helps initiate that feeling that you’ve joined a team.”
6. Make communication deliberate.
One of the biggest things the panelists discussed was the importance of effective communication within the company. Obviously, this is true whether or not you have remote workers — but one of the benefits of remote workers and a distributed workforce is how communication becomes very deliberate. The way you manage change communication with remote workers is the same as with any culture: overcommunication.
Katie even has spreadsheets around this idea, with checkmarks for how often an employee will hear about change. This can keep track of 1:1s as well as different mediums such as emails, meetings, Slack, etc. It’s also about creating a remote environment where remote employees still feel connected to the change by telling them, hey, this is what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, what are your thoughts on how we can do that more effectively? What is your advice? So you’re constantly asking people to buy in into that change. You’re not just managing how it happens to them. You’re asking them, how can we make this change really effective for you?
7. Give remote workers the time and space they need to bond with their coworkers.
Finally, when it comes to team building experiences, it’s just as important for remote employees to actively bond with their co-workers as it is for employees who are in the same office. Julian, the discussion moderator, mentioned his own experience — where he grabs a remote coworker to get lunch together while video conferencing — or a “recurring, virtual tea.” “Depending on the week I might have a glass of wine,” he added. It’s mainly a way to decompress.
It’s also important to do this in order to change people’s minds about how they think about remote work. “One thing we realized was we needed to be very clear with people that it’s okay to use your work time to do these more social chats,” said Katie. Her company noticed that people weren’t joining book club or engaging in social activities even on Slack, even when the entire team was remote. Conversations were kept work-related. “We realized it’s because people felt like they needed to get eight hours of work done and complete all their tasks. And then it was only separately in their own personal time that they felt it okay to engage in these kinds of social activities. Now, when you’re at an office and your team goes out to lunch? Nobody thinks that that’s not work.” Part of building a remote work culture is being clear that building relationships at work is part of your work, that water cooler talk is essential to good work. “You don’t work like exactly the same amount of hours as you would have otherwise,” said Katie, but that team bonding is essential — for both productivity and employee engagement.
On his team, Nassim said they also share pictures of when they were kids, food they’ve cooked, etc. “In every staff meeting that we have, usually we saved the first or last 5 to 10 minutes for sharing something personal that you’re comfortable sharing. What are you doing this weekend? What did you cook last night? What are you reading right now? And those little moments of getting to know each other that you don’t get when you don’t, you get that for free when you’re in the office, you don’t get that when you’re remote.
According to Katie, those informal connection points are another hidden benefit of a remote company culture: your real life becomes part of the work environment. “…You get to see people’s real lives,” said Katie. “Like I’m here in my tiny house outside of Pemberton, BC, population: 2000. And you can see the mountains and you get a sense of who I am as a person. I’ve seen most of my coworker’s kids. I’ve seen that dogs, I’ve seen their hedgehogs. People will bring their full selves to work in a way that’s very different when they working from their environments. I think it can be really powerful for your company culture to see people’s whole selves and to allow that kind of flexibility for people to take into their lives and their jobs in a much more custom way. We’ve also seen that it helps retention and engagement just so much when people don’t need to make these really, really challenging choices between what they value in their professional lives and what they value in their personal lives.
Remote teams and remote team members may seem unique, but in this day and age, they’re becoming more of the norm. There’s a lot you can do to set your remote teams up for success — and a lot of benefits you can reap as a result. And thanks to Julian, Nassim, Katie and Laurel, and their unique insights on how to strengthen company culture across remote teams, you can learn how to do exactly that.