What Does “Culture” Mean For a Remote Team?

Avatar by Amy Steinberg Published Feb 25, 2020 Last updated Feb 25, 2020

Many companies are experiencing a growing realization that their “corporate culture” matters to the success of their teams. The corporate culture tends to be a wide variety of elements, including:

  • How people treat each other and communicate.
  • Traditions, processes, and strategies that are common in the organization.
  • Personality traits that are highly valued in the company, like “thoroughness” or “blunt honesty”.

Many of the markers of corporate culture are seen as surface-level items: a company is playful and creative if they have a ping-pong break on Thursday afternoons, or if they are heavily design-focused if their offices are full of modern furniture. While the physical space of an office can promote or hinder corporate culture, it isn’t the sum of the cultural norms. 

The fact that culture is something other than just the optics of the office is welcome news to those who want to foster a particular corporate culture in a remote team. There will definitely be moments where creating a positive remote culture is different than promoting your workplace values at the office, but it is still possible to create the culture of productivity, teamwork, and work-life balance that many companies strive for, even in a remote team.

Here are five key aspects of your remote team culture, each of which can be promoted without working onsite.

What is the Tone of Our Communication?

While there are some basic standards for professional communication in the workplace, the standards for email and instant-message conversations aren’t as explicit or well-known, especially if you also have members of your team from various generations. One thing to consider making explicit with your remote team is the tone of communication: if your company values expediency, can you create a routine set of abbreviations that allow you to communicate effectively without sounding terse and angry? If your company values politeness, what are the appropriate levels of formality for informal contexts like a Slack channel? Look at examples of communication with your remote team, perhaps during a video meeting, and ask them what their first impression of the messages are. You may realize that your team was experiencing frustration or feeling discouraged because no one was clear on what certain communication meant.

What are the Hallmarks of our Customer’s Experience?

Another idea to consider are “touchpoints,” or each of the times when a team member interacts with the client or customer. The way that you interact is part of their overall impression of the company, and without the opportunity to demonstrate the best forms of customer service in person, a more clearly defined set of guidelines may be helpful. Talk to your team about the qualities of their best customer interactions and codify some methods for giving this level of service throughout the customer experience.

What are the Reasonable Requests for Workplace Flexibility?

A company that is already committed to remote work may seem highly flexible, but there are often coverage needs or response-time concerns that mean that one cannot simply “work wherever you want, whenever you want.” Help your team understand what kinds of requests will be considered and approved when it comes to workplace flexibility, and help them know that, as a remote team, there may be different kinds of check-ins than there would be in person.

Workplace flexibility goes hand-in-hand with good management, and a highly hands-off approach to remote work can eventually result in lowered productivity due to lack of accountability. At the same time, if you deny a request to start work an hour earlier in order to be able to get a child off the bus in the afternoon, and there’s no compelling reason to do so, you will be burning an unnecessary bridge with that team member. Establishing the balance of workplace flexibility helps team members feel confident about what will and won’t be approved without feeling like any of these decisions are capricious.

How Do We Get to Know Each Other?

 If you aren’t having after-work happy hours or lunch in the break room, how do you connect with your team members? Is there an opportunity for outreach to each other at industry conferences, or a chance to have “office hours” with an open video chat line on certain days of the week? While it is wise to avoid wasting time, especially when big projects are happening, there does need to be a way to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Reading a leadership book together or taking a StrengthsFinder evaluation can be ways to keep the conversation focused on work while learning more about how each team member thinks and what they bring to the table. Make sure that your team does feel like they are growing more understood over time, since this camaraderie can help them make great choices in their workplace decisions.

How Do We Approach Challenging Contexts?

The way a company handles problems is key, and when the leadership of a remote team has to solve a problem, the team members learn a lot about the corporate culture. Whenever something difficult comes up, do your best to outline the rationale for the eventual solution. Try to extrapolate your values from these situations when you need to solve a challenge that comes up with your team members, be it interpersonal, a major mistake, or an unrealistic expectation from a client. Throughout these conversations, you are establishing norms for your team members that help them to stay cool in a crisis and follow the values of your company, so these moments really matter.

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