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Here’s How to Build an Amazing Remote Work Culture, According to Three Experts

Experts from Help Scout, Buffer and Boldly share their insights...

Suddenly, the move to remote work is in historic full force. 

With the onset of COVID-19 and country-wide shutdown orders, companies are scrambling to figure out how to transform their brick-and-mortar workplace to a remote one.

The process is challenging, but not just from a technical standpoint. Working remotely isn’t just a shift from in-person to video chat, but about creating and preserving a workplace culture that amplifies the day to day experience of employees and clients despite location.

In the world right now, we’re seeing incredible examples of communities finding ways to come together while apart, and companies who are interested in building incredible remote cultures should be taking note. Not only is it necessary for business, but it’s also essential to the human spirit. 

A great remote culture doesn’t happen accidentally but instead emerges from leaders being intentional about creating one. For this article, I interviewed three remote-culture-building experts, Collette Holtorf, our Chief of Cheer at Boldly, Leah Knobler, Director of Talent Acquisition at Help Scout, and Hailley Griffis, Head of Public Relations at Buffer to share their insight.

Build on Your Foundation

When Collette jumped into her role, she inherited an established team culture to build on. 

From day one (almost eight years ago), Boldly has focused on creating an uplifting, and connected place to work—regardless of location. In fact, it was actually the need for location independence that brought this team of moms, dads, military spouses and caregivers together; marginalized groups in some workplace cultures, all working together for the common goal of advancing their careers and flexwork in general. 

Collette’s advice for culture-building starts by looking for your foundation. What are those threads of culture, those shared values, and commonalities that make you who you are as a team — and then finding every way possible to enhance them.  Maybe it’s a passion for service, maybe like us you’re mad for the pets that share your home offices – whatever it is, look for what binds you. If you’ve got a great culture already, how can you make it even more fun, engaging, and passionate when you’re working remotely?

For Help Scout, a healthy remote culture has another foundational element: inclusivity. Leah explains that distributed teams, like Help Scout’s, can even enjoy an advantage. 

“Building an inclusive culture takes intention and effort whether you’re co-located or remote, but having an office isn’t required. Being remote-first has been an advantage for us, in that we’re already being incredibly thoughtful about everything we do because we know it has to succeed in a remote way.”

For Hailley, it’s also about being sure the root of your culture has a clear vision from the get-go. 

“There are several indicators to a healthy culture, one of them is that the culture is defined. Left to its own devices, company culture can become quite random, but once leadership has defined the culture and shared that with the team that’s already a great step.”

Connect the Team by Being People (not Just Colleagues)

For remote teams, loneliness can sometimes be an issue, and a dangerous one unless you consciously counter it. Researchers have found that the harmful physical effects of loneliness are comparable to those of smoking — up to 15 cigarettes a day. 

Team communication shouldn’t be solely project-related. Your team members aren’t just avatars or email addresses, they’re people with a need for connection. 

Boldly uses a variety of ways to keep the team connected including a monthly newsletter called The Loop. Besides keeping everyone in the loop, the newsletter also has a feature called “Yours Virtually,” in which team members take it in turn to share their story, their background, pictures of their family etc. It’s a personal way for everyone to get to know each other. At the end of the newsletter, team members can leave comments to say hello.

“Our remote team loves getting to know each other because they have REAL colleagues and coworkers,” Collette said. Team members build support networks and don’t feel alone because “you have not only a face and a name, but a family, and an enormous rabbit called BunBun.”

At Help Scout, they use a “Monday Video” which Leah creates each week and shares with the entire company. Everything from team birthdays, new hires, and updates on the business are included. There are also special segments (e.g. “4 Questions With Leah”).

“We love the Monday Video because it’s asynchronous,” Leah said. “Everyone can watch at a time that works for them and it keeps everyone in the loop in a fun, silly way.” 

For Hailley and Buffer, the team likes to keep its work and play in the same space. “We want our employees engaged and participating in the online places where work happens, for us that’s Slack and Threads.”

Creative Fun Humanizes the Team.

Scavenger hunts for items in their house. Costume contests for holidays. Sharing funny pet photos. Celebrating birthdays.

Collette believes regular fun is vital, even on days when there’s no obvious reason to celebrate — and especially in times when there seems to be very little going on to celebrate. “We have Slack so we do a lot of fun things in our #water-cooler slack channel,” she said. “It’s like our own little social media.”

Is this just frivolous and distracting, or does it have value?

Collette pointed out that these kinds of things truly do unite the team. They put a personality on the names that might otherwise only be known by their email signature. This humanizes your team and makes up for the kind of culture and interaction you find in traditional workplaces.

Leah described saving a retreat that was canceled recently. They decided to try creating a “remote” retreat instead. “So many people have come forward to help plan it and think of creative ideas for things to do, so it’s become a rallying point for the team and demonstrates how helpful and supportive our culture is,” she said.

Strengths Matter More Than Weakness

Remote culture is more than just the way you come together as a team for fun and communication, though. It’s as much about the underlying values that your company and team stand for enacted in a remote environment.

A focus on strengths is a way to encourage growth and positive feelings that lead to empowered team members. This is something that needs to come from the top down. Leadership has a great deal of control over making this happen in action and in what they say in situations.

When a problem arises, the question isn’t who caused it, and what they did wrong—but what could be done differently. How can it be fixed for next time? What can we learn from this?

It’s a choice to look at things in a positive and constructive light.

One way Boldly handles this is in giving team members a say in what they do, and the clients they work with. This approach has been fine-tuned over time to pair team members and clients for magical chemistry.

Keep the Culture Organic

No matter how hard you try to make things amazing, you can’t force a “culture” onto your team.

Organic culture is sticky only if people naturally align with values and each other. But forced attempts fall flat (and can even be annoying). People don’t participate long-term in artificial culture. And by artificial, I mean both false cheer and leadership that adopts a “do what we say, not as we do” approach.

One of the main, culture-related reasons great employees leave is because they see behaviors from leadership that don’t stack up with those carefully crafted values and mission statements.

Organic culture means values are genuinely embraced at every level.

Then, pay attention to what gets engagement, and be okay with dropping what doesn’t click with your team. Listen to your team’s suggestions. Keep an eye out for ways your team naturally connects and consider if it should be adopted. 

Don’t force too much too soon. As Leah noted, culture should scale with and reflect your company and leadership. “We talk so much about diversity and inclusion at Help Scout. We really want to create a company where people feel like they can bring their authentic selves to work.”

If you want to take the pulse of your team and their engagement in your culture, Hailley suggested it’s easiest to simply ask them. “Measure employee engagement through surveys — seeing how many teammates both participate in the survey and respond positively to questions asked about their work.”

Culture is for Everyone

Even more than our own teams, our clients want us to build great remote workplace cultures, too.

Why? Because a vibrant culture creates happy people who do amazing work.

Actively pursuing a positive culture has benefited Boldly team members. They have a sense of pride in what they do. They value and appreciate each other. They want to help each other.

“I’ve never been happier in my career with a company or position,” Collette said.  “I truly love what I do, and truly love the company. I’ve never felt alone, and I work remotely!”

Clients can’t help but notice the difference.

They don’t like to deal with high turnover because they are constantly working with someone new. Long-term relationships matter to them. If you have a happy team, they stay longer, do better work, and everyone is better for it.

According to Hailley, it’s most important to remember remote culture is always going to start from the top down.  “From what I’ve seen work, it’s really helpful for leaders to set the ground rules for what working remotely means and how the team communicates and treats each other at that company. From there, they can work to empower the rest of the team to be a part of building the culture as well.”

The overall takeaway from this should be music to any founder’s ears because of its simplicity – creating a great remote culture means following your heart, staying true to your values and appreciating your employees for who they are — not as roles, but as people. 

Whether you’re a seasoned remote culture or making the transition, what is your experience?

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