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Chris Dyer

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Remote control: how to build culture across a team of remote workers


Building a great culture is hard work. We tackle it every day inside my own company, PeopleG2, which offers employment screening solutions. And I hear about it whenever I consult with other companies about cultural strategy or speak to a group on the subject.

The unwieldy job of melding vision, values and operational nuts and bolts is unrelenting. But it is necessary and rewarding work.

While nailing down culture is a challenge on a good day at the office, in a remote workspace the task has its own special nuances, particularly when people are dispersed. It helps to agree on exactly what “culture” – a sort of working identity that employees can feel every day – is.

I see it as the combination of easily articulated ideas such as vision statements and values, combined with the harder-to-see norms, behaviours, beliefs and systems.

In other words, culture is composed of lots of important small things that add up to big things. These issues get amplified in remote work settings, which is why it’s important to focus so diligently on identifying cultural influences and cultivating the best ones.

Remote-specific challenges

Remote work allows companies to leverage a great culture without the restrictions of a traditional workplace. However, for organisations with less than stellar cultures, the remote setting can be a detriment, as the usual support systems break down.

Knowing how to build the right culture around your virtual teams holds the key to a significant competitive advantage. That’s because happy employees perform better and project an appealing public identity  – all of which affects your company’s bottom line. So how can you hold things together when many of you are apart?

Take a moment to reflect on your staff’s location. Is 100 percent of your work force remote, like mine? Does the majority work offsite, or just a handful of folks? These distinctions create different dynamics.

The best remote organisations take advantage of software and integrated systems to achieve what’s known as unified communication.

If you have a corporate office where some people go, the culture is often created there and “sent out” to everyone else. Just a few people in a remote setting will be trying to keep up with what’s going on at the office and not actively impacting group culture. If you have two equal groups operating in different locations (remote or not), you likely have two different cultures. If you are all, or almost all, remote, then your culture really is decentralised and ready to be supercharged. Determine where culture is being created, to ensure your focus is accurate.

First, ensure you have laid an intentional foundation by issuing mission and value statements and proclaiming “why” your company does what it does (hint: making a profit is not the correct answer.)

Make sure your entire staff is well versed in this information. Then, á la business writer Daniel Pink, structure their roles to provide them with: a) the autonomy to do their jobs; b) the ability to learn and master skills daily; and c) a sense of purpose to work in a deep and meaningful way. Reviewing these aspects periodically is even more important for remote companies.

So is finding the “right” way to interact and exchange information from afar. The best remote organisations take advantage of software and integrated systems to achieve what’s known as unified communication.

Open up communication

The goal is to personalise communication channels to individual needs and styles. From the phone, email, chat and instant messaging to customer relation and accounting systems, each component should make the employee an all-star.

The unified communications industry is ever changing, and it can be tempting to choose one platform simply by default or price point. Test a few systems to see what works best for your people. Here are some of my company’s favorites:

  • HipChat allows us to chat internally, create “rooms” for targeted discussions, and easily store documents and links for reference. It also has valuable video chat and screen sharing capability. Similar to Slack; just pick one and stick with it.   

  • UberConference gives everyone a free conference line with screen sharing. All of my staff get access on their first day.   

  • Google Drive lets us store files, collaborate on documents, and keep track of revisions. Similar to Dropbox. Just pick one.

  • BaseCamp provides online content management. We use it to onboard new clients, track major projects, and ensure completion of each step of complex processes.

  • Masergy provides phone service, handles incoming calls, and lets remote teams transfer phone calls to another employee—a big issue for us. It also offers video chat and more, without the big price tag of other systems, and no equipment is needed.  

  • BaseCRM is a user-friendly, clean, and sexy way to track your sales process. It does what you always hoped Salesforce would do, without the price tag or complexity.

  • OneNote/EverNote enables note taking that you can search later. Awesome!

  • Intercom allows us to answer client requests on our website, and track and rate our customer service interactions. It is easy, affordable, and our clients love it.

  • Outlook offers a free individual email service, similar to Google’s Gmail. We prefer Outlook, but Gmail-based email is better for some. Just get everyone using the same thing.

In the end, these tools and your comprehensive approach should make your employees more effective with their time. The best way to know this is to ask them. Anytime you try a new system, get their input on how it would work best.

Employees need to be deeply present in what they are doing. We expect their attention when they are working. But, we should respect their space when they are not.

Then, after a trial period, blind-survey them, asking: How has this new system helped you? Has it helped you work more efficiently? What about this system would you change?

Based on their answers, improve the set-up and test again. You will either find a great system that employees like, or you will realise it needs to go. Don’t be afraid to pivot and try something else.

Virtual boundaries

Finally, in your push to crystalise great culture, help your remote staff establish working boundaries. Working from home is a gift. But it can be a curse to those that do not know how to avoid distraction when work should be done.

Employees need to be deeply present in what they are doing. We expect their attention when they are working. But, we should respect their space when they are not. Time away from concentration, as well as dedicated “no work” policies during vacation, provide a mental health boost.

Remote workers often feel they are “always on,” always working, and burn out quickly. Helping them set boundaries and establishing an off-site work ethic will drive productivity and morale to new levels.

Running hard and taking breaks is always better than constantly jogging. If there’s an unspoken pressure to always be available at your company give the PeopleG2 policy a try: We say, when you go on vacation, if you’re wired, you’re fired.

It’s extreme, but we set the standard that everyone’s mental health and right to time away from work are important. Then, when they are working, we get their full attention. It’s a great cultural equation that works.

Chris Dyer is the author of The Power of Company Culture: How any business can build a culture that improves productivity, performance and profits, out now and published by Kogan Page.

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