Remote–or if you prefer, “distributed”–teams are on the rise. Check any study on the phenomenon and you’ll notice that it’s growing. Which makes a ton of sense. Managing remote teams boasts benefits for both companies and their employees. This is true whether you’re reducing commute times and overheads, keeping families in communities they love, and unlocking a talent pool that’s worldwide instead of clustered in a handful of adjacent zip codes. Some 40% of global companies say they are leading remote teams across sizable geography. Moreover, with the continued blossoming of collaboration tools like Slack and reliable video conferencing like Zoom, there’s no reason to think this is some passing fad.
But leading virtual teams bring challenges along with all the benefits. And a lot of those challenges are cultural. After all, remote employees don’t run into each other in the hall and strike up casual conversation. Instead, you need to be creative when managing remote teams. Essentially, your challenge is to figure out how to keep your remote team connected because they can’t recharge together with an afternoon walk for coffee. It’s harder for them to huddle up and whiteboard the solution to a particularly tricky problem. And above all else, it’s just harder to get to know people when we’re separated by time zones with interactions mainly over email, chat, and video.
Now, while most of us believe that the benefits of leading remote teams outweigh these challenges, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to solve them. Smart people are doing just that. And yesterday evening, we had the pleasure of hosting a Culture Collective event where we looked at remote culture, heard first-hand stories, and, well, learned a lot about best practices for managing remote teams
Our CEO, Tyler Muse, was joined by Jade Applegate (an Engineering Program Manager at Indeed), Robleh D. Kirce (Leadership Trainer and Coach at LifeLabs Learning), Jully Kim (Dir. of Engineering Programs at Zendesk), and Mathias Hoegh-Hansen (Marketing Dir. at Topio Networks) for a wide-ranging conversation about managing virtual teams and company culture. Also, for a couple of beers and some pizza. We had a really great night, learned a ton about managing remote teams, and can’t recommend enough checking out the next Culture Collective event in your area. They were gracious, selected great speakers, kept things lively, and were just plain great folks.
So what did we learn about managing remote employees last night? Well, we’re here to summarize:
Culture isn’t something you create in a lab
The evening started with a simple question: “what exactly is culture?” Perhaps you’ve worked at companies that think putting values in a handbook is the same as having a culture. If you worked in such companies, you likely found out that values don’t get embedded just because they’re in a handbook. You can’t simply say your culture is one thing or another. You can’t wish it into being.
Our panelists were full of stories about bizarre Slack rituals and funny hats and why Californians do more hugging than New Yorkers. One thing that shined through the conversation: culture is largely organic, especially when you’re managing remote teams. It grows out of the people you hire, their shared idiosyncrasies, and the way they value each other (or don’t, in the less ideal scenarios). It’s a common language that emerges between your team as they grow and build together. Sure, you can hire for culture (and you should!) but that doesn’t mean that culture will stay stagnant. In fact, you want it to evolve. Stay true to your values but let your culture grow and morph with the attitudes, rituals, and little inside jokes that make any team or group of people unique and interesting.
You need to be intentional about Managing Remote Teams
While a lot of cultures can grow organically, it’s a bit harder when managing remote workers because they’re together far less often. On top of that, if you have a headquarters or offices where most of your employees are, remote employees can often feel disconnected from that office culture.
Pretty much every panelist had a story about this, about a lesson they learned from a mistake they made. Although, most of the stories boiled down to this: you have to be intentional about including your distributed teams.
A Couple of best practice examples
Need an example for managing remote teams’ best practices? We’ve got some. Take something small like a movie outing. Say your team at headquarters just had a great product release and they get treated to an afternoon off to see a popcorn movie with their coworkers. Well, what about your remote teams? How does that make them feel? Chances are: left out. So what you can do is simple: send your remote teams a ticket voucher, give them the afternoon off, and tell them to go see the same film. Sure, they aren’t in the theater with you, but you all had nearly the same experience. They can then chat about the movie with folks in headquarters and feel part of the experience. Plus, they get to celebrate success with you, even if they’re across the country or an ocean.
One really salient tip we heard with regards to managing remote teams best practices was around all-hands. It’s typical that companies with physical locations have all hands together in the same room. But have you considered having everyone call in when leading virtual teams? This is something we do at Lingo Live and it really does work. The idea here is the same: you’re flattening the experience for your employees. Nobody feels like a second-class citizen when everyone’s getting the same benefits and similar experiences. And even if remote employees know their day-to-day is different, knowing that you’re making an effort goes a long way.
You can’t really measure culture but that isn’t all that important
During our Q&A, somebody asked a simple but really great question: “how do you measure culture?” The response, largely, was that you can’t.
Good culture is a bit like the Potter test: you know it when you have it. Sure, you can hire for cultural fit and be inclusive and live your values, but measuring culture is hard. The thing to focus on isn’t measuring culture, it’s improving it especially when it comes to managing virtual teams and making them feel included. It’s easier to measure what you’re doing better than you were last quarter than trying to affix a metric to something that’s a bit hard to truly catalog.
That said, if you want to measure culture, two things stuck out. The first is the simplest: surveys. This is one area where surveys actually shine. Because culture is all about how your team feels, ask them! At the very least you’ll learn ways to improve managing remote employees.
But the other measure we heard was a bit more provocative. Look at what you say your values are, then understand where you’re missing the mark. If you say “ego-free” is a value and you have a lot of people on the team that are “me” not “we” people, chances are you’re falling down on that value.