Aug 21, 2019

How to make your remote teams feel a little less remote

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. Remote work boasts benefits for both companies and their employees, whether it’s reducing commute times and overhead, 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 have sizable distributed teams and, with the continued blossoming of collaboration tools like Slack and reliable video conferencing, there’s no reason to think this is some passing fad.

But distributed teams bring challenges with their 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. 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 and your interactions are largely over email, chat, and video.

Now, while most of us believe that the benefits of distributed teams outweigh these challenges, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to solve them. And yesterday evening, we had the pleasure of hosting a Culture Collective event where we looked at just how to do so.

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 distributed teams and company culture. Also, for a couple beers and some pizza. We had a really great night, learned a ton, and can’t recommend checking out the next Culture Collective event in your area enough. They were gracious, selected great speakers, kept things lively, and were just plain great folks.

So what did we learn about distributed teams 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 some values in a handbook is the same thing as having a culture and if you did, you likely found out that that really isn’t the case. 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, but one thing shined through the conversation: culture is largely organic. It grows out of the people you hire, their shared idiosyncrasies, 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 distributed teams

While a lot of culture can grow organically, it’s a bit harder with distributed teams. They’re together far less often and, 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, but most of them boiled down to this: you have to be intentional about including your distributed teams.

Need an example? 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 and they can chat about the movie with folks in headquarters. Plus, they get to celebrate success with you, even if they’re across the country or an ocean.

One really salient tip we heard that we wanted to pass along 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? 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 than the day-to-day of their colleagues who work face-to-face, knowing that you’re making an effort can go 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. 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.

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.

We’d again like to thank the wonderful folks from Culture Collective and our tremendous panelists for a fun Tuesday night. We’ll be back with more later this week. Thanks for reading!

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