How to Build a Remote Company Culture

Contributed content / By Sam Wilson / 17 March 2020

Learn to address common challenges managers find when building a remote team. From setting up a “virtual water cooler” to establishing a results-driven management style, a solid remote-first culture can be built with these simple steps.

Many business owners and team managers commend the benefits of remote working: It’s a leaner (read: cheaper) approach; it allows you to attract staff looking for something other than a traditional nine-to-five job; and it gives your company a global mindset from day one.

In fact, according to a 2018 report from Upwork, 63% of US companies now have remote workers, and Regus reports that 50% of staff now work remotely for at least half the working week.

More and more companies are forming their own remote teams. After all, why spend money and resources running an office space, with lots of desks and people and stuff, when we can all work remotely?

The answer: Working from home isn’t always smooth sailing.

There’s a lot more to building a successful distributed team than adding everyone to Slack. Managed poorly, remote working can lead to isolation, procrastination, and, as countless studies show, even depression.

So how do you build a remote culture that really works? Let’s find out.

4 Crucial Tips to Successful Remote Working

  1. Focus on results
  2. Let employees get to know each other
  3. Don’t interrupt
  4. Get offline and meet in-person

1. Focus on Results

Remote working relies on trust and crystal-clear communication between teammates. The absence of body language, coffee breaks, and 15-minute stand ups means there’s zero room for ambiguity.

For established teams, working in our own little silos means that we’re quicker to make assumptions and there’s less chance that we will break them. Bad habits find it easier to stick, and knowledge gaps are left unfilled. At the same time, it can be difficult for new hires to know what their expectations are.

Both need a clearly defined role, with you on hand to lead them.

Your team, however, doesn’t need you to monitor their every move. We fear the unknown and so, just because we can’t see our team in front of us, it’s easy to slip into paranoia. Sure, this is natural, but it’s easy to start micromanaging. I mean, how do I really know what they’re up to right now?

Forget it, relax, and, most importantly, trust your team. Focus on outlining their responsibilities and creating fair but challenging, objectives. Discuss these goals with them ahead of time, and make sure they are tied to KPIs that can be measured, such as new sales and customer retention,.

Employees will either hit these goals or they won’t. This can be discussed and managed, but in the meantime, leave them to get on with it.

2. Let Employees Get to Know Each Other

Those of us who work remotely know that the focus can very much be on the work aspect here. And that’s the challenge.

It’s hard to structure our days, and it can be tricky to switch off. Sure, Buffer says remote workers are more productive, but all work and no play is not a good idea. It’s unsustainable, and allowing this attitude to simmer will spell disaster for the mental health of your remote team.

Ultimately, you need two ingredients to successfully build remote culture:

  1. Happy, motivated individuals: Happy people are sociable, helpful, and productive people. Unhappy people are not
  2. Employees connected through strong relationships

And this is the challenge. It feels like the drive to work remotely is focused entirely on productivity gains and cost savings. It can feel very transactional. We post a message, we set one of five available “statuses,” we join a rigid 30-minute video call, then we leave.

Yet, we’re not robots. We have emotional needs. It’s crucial to keep this in mind if you want to build a real team and not just a group of users on a Slack channel.

According to Buffer, 41% of remote teammates feel that achieving a healthy work-life balance and feeling lonely are their biggest challenges when working remotely.

What's your biggest struggle with working remotely?

Source: Buffer

To address issues surrounding work-life balance, encourage your team members to talk — not about work but about their plans for the weekend and how they feel today.

In the absence of a biscuit tin, a coffee machine, or a water cooler, create your own virtual space for casual conversation. Whether that’s just a few minutes on a group Hangout late on a Friday afternoon while you all wrap up for the week or a “gossip” channel dedicated to all your favorite emojis, it all adds up.

Let your employees get to know each other beyond just work

3. Don’t Interrupt

Although you should encourage team building, you’re not free to do as you please. Mike might not appreciate you sending him your favorite GIFs frequently when he’s busy designing this month’s marketing campaign.

Strike a balance. Think about the setup of a typical office. Sure, we make time to talk, grab a coffee, or embarrass ourselves at the office Christmas party, but does this mean that it’s OK to continually interrupt a colleague when they’re so clearly concentrating on their next big idea? No. Offline, it’s clear where the boundaries lie.


Yet, the rules online still seem unclear.

It’s important to be mindful; just because we can instantly message each other 24/7 doesn’t mean we always should. The key to this is differentiating between asynchronous and synchronous communication. Fancy words, sure. But it’s really quite simple.

asynchronous and synchronous communication

Source: Webopedia

Asynchronous is communication that is not done in sync, so the communicator and recipient leave a message for each other to read whenever they can. Think email or an update on Basecamp. You shouldn’t expect to get quick replies this way, however it does allow everyone to work to their own schedule without being interrupted.

Synchronous is communicating together, in sync. Think Slack or an old-fashioned phone call. This is a quick way to get the answers you need from your team, but it involves interrupting that person’s flow to do so.

Think about instant messaging in the same way as tapping someone on the shoulder. Offline, that can be  distracting (and very frustrating!), so we shouldn’t try to replicate this behavior online.

A good manager will ensure his or her team knows which channel to use and when, as well as why this all matters. Do you really need an answer right now, or can it wait?

Ensuring asynchronous communication is still a way, if not the main way, for your team members to communicate with each other about their tasks and projects. By doing so, you will safeguard the most valuable asset of any company: focused, uninterrupted time to actually do the work we’re supposed to do.

4. Get Offline and Meet In-Person

I prefer to think about my own company as having a “remote-first” culture. That’s not the same as a “remote-only” culture.

Far too many managers make it their mission to totally eliminate any offline communication once they decide to go remote. Instead, their team only meets and chats online. But why not have the best of both worlds?

Some of the most successful remote teams — think Buffer and Automattic (WordPress, Tumblr, WooCommerce and countless other products) — make company retreats a core part of their ethos. They find the opportunity to meet in-person essential to making remote working, work.

Instead of dictating that real human contact is strictly prohibited, try to organize chances for your team to connect offline. Whether that’s a team-wide company retreat on a far-flung Thai beach or just a few of your development team meeting for a beer, they’ll form closer ties and get to know each other.

They’ll also build a level of trust that’s hard for us humans to replicate entirely online.

Make Remote Work for Your Company

Remote work is here to stay, but as business owners and team leaders we still need to catch up.

With a team of 40 remote workers and a client base that all work together, I’ve learned the hard way at Virtalent, a virtual assistant company, that we can’t defer the difficult task of building a remote team — one that’s happy, productive and doesn’t want to head back into an office — to technology alone. It takes a concerted effort.

Fortunately, by adapting our management style, allowing our team members to be human, and proactively working to address the downsides of our technology-enabled relationships (think: stop tapping someone on the shoulder), it can certainly be done.

And I guarantee you and your team won’t look back.

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