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Creating Culture in a Remote Team

Estimated reading time: 5 mins

Remote work is the future, at least for tech startups. Companies like Zapier and Invision (each with 100s of employees) have proven that it is totally possible to build a successful behemoth of a company without forcing everyone into an office in San Fransisco or New York City.

While being remote-first does have an incredible number of advantages over being office-first, building culture can be a challenge. Culture is something that remote teams have to actively think about and approach more intentionally than non-remote teams.

If your idea of remote culture is Zoom happy hours (even worse if you make them mandatory – how dare you!), then you’ve already lost the culture game. I’ve worked remote for nearly a decade – both building teams and working within teams – and while I don’t claim to have all the answers, here are some of the things we do at Commsor to foster a culture and build the company that we all dream of working at.

Define how you work

Culture isn’t just the non-work things that your team does, it is also how your team communicates, collaborates, and ultimately builds the business together. How much work you do, how you plan and make decisions, how the team communicates when things go well, and how your team recovers when things don’t go well. This creates the foundation for your culture. You can’t slap events, emojis and some GIFs on top of a shitty workplace and expect to build a great team.

Trust your team

Trust your team. That’s it. Trust is important in all forms of relationships, work or personal, but its absolutely critical in remote teams because you simply have no choice. Remote work is a micromanager’s worst nightmare and there should be no place in your team for such a management style.

Over-communicating, not assuming, and sharing progress on projects will go a long way towards building a foundation of trust. At Commsor we encourage everyone to share half-baked work rather than waiting for something to be perfectly polished. This also has the added benefit of enabling the team to provide feedback and input earlier in projects.

Establish a casual check-in and check-out

Every morning when I log into Slack, I’m greeted by three good morning messages from our teammates in the EU (5+ hours ahead of me), and then I add the fourth good morning. Similarly, we often say goodbye when logging off for the day. Not only is saying good morning and goodbye a nice thing to do, it also serves to let the team know when you’re around and working, allowing a strong asynchronous style of communication.

Don’t make these check-ins required, and don’t build structure around it (no logging times in a spreadsheet, otherwise you’re already a lost cause). Just let your team organically greet and say farewell to each other.

An example of a 'check-out' in our Slack

Create time and space for non-work things

Don’t force your team to attend ‘social events’ (you probably shouldn’t be forcing them to do anything anyways), but do provide the space and time for them to interact with other teammates about personal things.

At Commsor, these spaces come in a variety of forms. We have dedicated non-work channels, including #tea-room (our version of our virtual watercooler), #reading (for sharing interesting books, tweets, articles), #music (an endless stream of great music), where the team is encouraged to share and discuss fun things.

We also have a bi-weekly game “night” (with purposeful quotation around the word “night” because it ends up being a game late-morning for some of us due to timezones). This is totally optional, but allows members of the team to get together, play some games together, socialize and bond over non-work fun.

John with his new shirt Discussion about our pivot to a fashion business

At one of our recent game nights we played a Jackbox game called Tee K.O., where you have to create t-shirt designs and pair them with text from other players. It’s way more fun than it sounds, I promise! John ended up buying the winning design from the game as a real t-shirt, and if that isn’t culture, I don’t know what is.

Culture-add, not culture-fit

How often have you heard that a company is looking for someone that is a ‘culture-fit’ to their existing team? One of the biggest advantages of a remote team is the access to a wider, more global, more diverse talent pool.

On our team, every member has brought additions to how we work and interact as a team, some small, some large. Tomek started sharing what he was having for lunch, and now the team loves chatting about the great food their eating. John started sharing what music he was listening to, and now we have a dedicated #music channel!

Culture-add is how you build a diverse team. Hire people that will add to and improve your existing culture, not fit into some cookie cutter personality. You’re building a company, not a cult (unless you’re WeWork, but we all know how that’s worked out). Culture isn’t a top-down thing, designed to be set and led by a single person. Your team is your culture, empower them to help define and shape it.

Team retreats

Our team is currently 7, yet I’ve only met 2 of them face to face. While I certainly get a lot of virtual face time with them, in-person face time is still important and critical to really getting to know your teammates. While we haven’t been able to have a team retreat yet, we are planning on getting the team together in early 2021 (please wear a mask so I can finally meet the rest of our awesome team!).

For more tactical thoughts, I highly recommend this post from Wade Foster about how they run team retreats at Zapier.

While our culture at Commsor is ever-evolving, and far from perfect, I do think that actively thinking about and nurturing it from day one will prove to be critical as our team continues to grow. It’s never too early to start thinking about the culture and team you want to build, especially as a remote-first company.