Raise your hands: How many of you still work in an office? There are a lot less of us nowadays. Buffer, for example, uses a 100% remote workforce. They have no corporate offices or cubicles, which means they don’t have the overhead that goes with all of those things. One of their number one strengths is that they are very open about their company, their policies, and how they work with and communicate with employees. They do share an issue with many of the companies who are adopting remote workforces: company culture. How do you keep employees engaged and connected when they are scattered all over the country, or in the case of Buffer, the world? Buffer is far from the only company that works entirely with remote employees. Automattic, the company responsible for developing Wordpress and countless Wordpress plugins, operates with a 400 person team scattered in 40 countries who not only don’t share an office, but don’t use email. Zapier has been 100% remote from the beginning, and has even written a guide to help remote workers and other companies learn from their experience. There are dozens, no, hundreds more examples. A quick Google search shows 125 companies with completely remote workers. What was once an outlying trend is now the norm. Company culture has endured a significant shift. So, how is remote company culture different, and how is it the same as that of companies made up of co-located employees?
Myths about company cultureFirst, we need to bust some myths about what company culture actually is. Often, company culture is ignored in a traditional environment because it is expected that it will form organically. The problem with this thinking is that the current climate of the workplace might consist of a culture of fear or laziness, and can destroy a company, if left uncontrolled, before anyone in management knows exactly what went wrong. Sometimes, human resources and management think company culture is a gimmick, and they share stories of how getting a pool table or a video game system totally turned around their company culture. The truth is those actions usually just fed into a culture that was already in place, but it misses the mark. Yes, company culture can be about the atmosphere, or having fun together, but it is always primarily about the work: how do we do the work we need to do, and how do we communicate about that work? Really, company culture is about two things: respect and trust. This is true whether you work in an office or work remotely. So how do you build these values, especially from a distance?
Set communication expectations and standardsToo often, this is a one-sided affair: a company sets expectations and standards for remote workers, including how much work they are expected to do and when. However, the employee often does not know what to expect from management or other members of their team. Communication is a two-way street. Employees need to know who is going to respond to them, and what to do if they need something from management or another team member they can’t reach. This is often an issue, even in a physical office, though there you have an “open door” policy, which means “if I am in my office and not in a meeting, and I have time to discuss your request.” In a remote setting, the employee cannot “see” a closed door or an empty desk. Status updates, schedules, and who to contact as a back up if they can’t get in touch with the primary person they need to contact are essential for remote workers. How should communication take place? Messaging apps like Slack are great. You can share documents through Google Drive, OneDrive, or even a custom app using Microsoft Graph or Sharepoint, depending on your company needs. To chat with remote workers and keep them engaged, or to hire new staff and ease the onboarding process, you can use an online chat platform like Brazen that lets you keep track of results, cvs, and conversations. Automattic does not use email at all, since the P2 app for Wordpress is an easy communication tool that lets employees and teams post updates that are easy to follow, without the chore of having to remember to “reply all” or CC and BCC the right list of individuals. Besides specific apps, which each company needs to determine for themselves, the rules of communication should be pretty simple:
- Use email or similar communication for work you want a record of, but is not extremely urgent.
- Use programs like Slack or Google Messaging for immediate needs and fun communications.
- Use program management tools like Asana or Basecamp to track workflow of certain projects, and communicate details about each.
- Use video whenever possible: Hangouts for quick, individual chats, and something like GoToMeeting for conference calls, virtual meetings, and presentations.
- Set times to touch base, no matter what, and never reschedule a remote one-on-one (other than for extreme circumstances).