Culture Looks Different on a Remote Team — Here's How to Build It

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Darren Murph

remote culture

Among the litany of challenges and opportunities in the remote workplace is the notion of culture. Specifically, how to build culture in newly remote teams, and how to sustain it in teams which will never go back to work in exactly the same fashion as before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Even executives responsible for culture realize that previously referenced playbooks aren’t delivering in a suddenly remote world.

How Did You Define Culture Before COVID-19?

The first exercise is simple: open up a blank document and write down “What’s it like to work here?” Document the examples of people treating each other well, as well as anecdotes on what collaboration and iteration look like at your firm. Proudly document what makes your workplace quirky and differentiated, honing in on the elements that wouldn’t be obvious from the outside. 

Start broad and get detailed. Eventually, this document becomes a key talent acquisition pillar and operates as the single source of truth when defining how colleagues should treat one another and external parties.

One question begets another. If you’re wondering how to build culture in a remote setting, you must first ask this: “Why did our existing culture require four walls and a ceiling?” Culture which was defined as the energy or vibe emitted from an office — augmented by musical choices, paint selections, and carefully chosen coffee — was always at risk of coming undone. 

If your existing culture was not documented, this moment in time provides an ideal opportunity to remedy that. You’re ostensibly working with the same group of people who contributed to your pre-COVID culture. The task is to write down what always was.

Culture Looks Different during a Pandemic

Right now, culture is less about workplace rah-rah and more about intentionally reallocating that energy to serve society. 

Leaders are concerned that workplace culture is eroding, and many assume the shift to remote is the culprit. While this may be jarring, there’s another variable at play: a global pandemic. 

Even your culture champions, the most enthusiastic of team members, are under unprecedented duress. Many are struggling to work while doubling as a homeschool teacher, or concerned about the wellbeing of neighbors and community members. The energy they once allotted to championing workplace culture is being used up elsewhere, rightly prioritized to focus on new stressors in life. Complicating matters further is that few employees are willing to state this for fear of being penalized for taking their focus away from work, and not living up to expectations. 

WEBINAR: Building Culture in Remote Teams

As leaders, we must model empathy and understanding. Rather than assuming that workplace culture is eroding, consider showcasing how people in your organization are using their energy to support others outside of the workplace. Hearing stories of colleagues supporting first-line workers, neighbors, and community members will bolster morale at work. Being open about taking time away from work to be there for others who are struggling in the midst of a pandemic will create even stronger bonds at work. 

Culture is Entirely About Values

Values are the bedrock of an organization, serving as the North Star for decisions and treatment of people. In a colocated setting, it’s easier to briefly acknowledge values as words on a wall, and never actually cite them and study them in the normal course of business.

In a remote setting, properly articulated values aren’t optional. Leaders must utilize this moment to elevate their company values. Consider adding sub-values which define how a value is exemplified in a remote setting, and open your values up for everyone to contribute ideas.

Values are too important to be dictated by a few team members at the top of an organizational chart. People throughout the firm may have excellent examples of values being lived out; provide them a tool that allows proposals to be submitted in an effort to continually define values. (At GitLab, we use GitLab to maintain and iterate our Values page. Almanac is a great option as well.) 

Workplace Culture is Built Outside of Work

Curious, interesting people who are empowered to live life to the fullest will inevitably contribute the most to workplace culture. 

For many colocated firms, they’ve become a source of social fulfillment. Workers accustomed to filling 100% of their social quota may struggle with their new remote reality — who are they if not defined by a physical workplace? 

Remote culture is largely built by empowering people to fill their social quota outside of work, in local neighborhoods and communities, and then bring that culture to work. Too many leaders are looking to replace onsite lunches with virtual lunches and happy hours, instead of empowering workers to look to their communities to further define who they are as people.

We’re humans first and colleagues second. Rather than building game rooms and onsite fitness centers so workers have no reason to disengage with work, leaders should equip teams with tools and documentation that enable them to be maximally efficient at work. When the work is done, encourage your team to carry that energy into their local communities, reinforcing a family and friends first mentality. 

HR Exchange Live: Employee Engagement and Experience APAC

HR Exchange: Employee Engagement and Experience APAC includes sessions with top experts in the HR field along with applicable, real-life examples of how a robust culture supports the workforce and the company’s bottom-line.  We also provide access to some of the most well-known and cutting edge solution providers to help provide technology and strategy to enhance the employee experience paradigm within your company. This FREE to attend event allows you to dial in from the comfort of your desk and listen to HR leaders live or on demand!