There’s no standard definition of company culture. In fact, it isn’t even something people talked much about until a couple of decades ago.
But as more and more companies put effort into building culture, what they’re building is, as Michael C. Mankins wrote in Harvard Business Review, “the glue that binds an organization together.” It’s the set of values, norms, habits, beliefs, attributes, and characteristics that make a company a unique place to work.
Related: What exactly is a design culture?
Culture is important because it directly influences things like employee happiness, engagement, retention, and recruiting. But it can also be a competitive advantage. Culture influences business decisions at all levels—think about how Apple has a culture built around design, or how Zappos has one built around customer service. It extends beyond the way people within the company interact with one another to how they interact with customers, suppliers, vendors, and partners.
It’s also one of the most difficult things to replicate. A strong culture that leads to strong results in the marketplace is extremely defensible because it can’t be cloned by competitors the way a product feature or design might be.
“Company culture directly influences things like employee happiness and engagement.”
Parallel to the growing focus on culture in the workplace, the workplace itself is also changing drastically. Most notably, perhaps, is the accelerating shift of work—especially digital and knowledge work—out of traditional offices and toward telecommuting arrangements.
So, what does culture mean for remote companies?
It’s easy to imagine Google employees developing a shared vision and values over a game of foosball or a kale salad at the company commissary. But how does that happen when coworkers are separated by geography and may not often (or ever) meet in person?
For remote teams, building a cohesive culture can be more difficult without the advantage of being able to get everyone in the same room for team-building exercises or without the daily serendipitous meetings that happen in the halls or open floor plan of a traditional office. But here’s the secret: remote companies and traditional companies define their cultures in much the same way. The details on the execution of the process might be a bit different due to the unique circumstances presented by each type of company, but the process itself is basically the same.
“Company culture comes from the people, not the physical space they inhabit.”
Here are 2 things to keep in mind when thinking about remote company culture:
- Perks ≠ Culture. Companies like Google and Facebook famously offer their employees amazing office perks—free laundry, catered meals, yoga classes, etc.—but these things aren’t why those companies have great culture. It’s the other way around—perks exist to support a company’s culture. Remote companies can have a great culture even without the free beer fridge in the lounge. That also doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t offer cool perks as a remote company—many do!—but those things on their own don’t a corporate culture make.
- Culture is as much designed as it happens organically. A company’s culture is created by the people who work there, but it’s not as though they don’t have control over the process. Creating a work culture is (or can be!) a conscious thing that companies do. The culture comes from the people, not physical space they inhabit.
With that in mind, here are 6 things companies can do to build a strong company culture. These things aren’t exclusive to remote teams, but they are things that remote companies should pay special attention to when it comes to designing their culture.
1. Start with strong values
Anil Saxena, a partner with the workplace consulting firm Great Place to Work, told Fortune magazine culture is a reflection of the shared values and mission of the company. You can’t say, “I want our culture to be X” unless “X” is a reflection of the values that your company already follows.
Companies should spend time actively thinking about their values. At Saent, we spent a month last year developing a set of shared, internal values that inform how we treat each other, how we treat our customers, how we design our products, and how we bring them to the world. Our values feed into and support our company mission, and our culture flows from them.
While we explicitly sought values that reflected our own personal ideals, we also found that many of the values we settled upon grew out of our existing work practices and habits (in our case, being a remote team). For example, at Saent we value transparency, which leads us to be open, honest, and fair with our customers. That value is also reflected in our distributed structure, which requires that everyone always has access to all the information they could possibly need to accomplish their work. (More on this later.)
Importantly, our values are not written in stone. We expect them to shift and change over time as we grow and mature as a company and add new and diverse voices to the team.
2. Instill passion
Your company’s values provide a guiding force for your culture, but only if everyone is on board. A company that values thoughtfulness might have a culture where long-term thinking is encouraged and rewarded. But if everyone isn’t operating from the same playbook, that can create tension and seep into your culture. Maybe some people begin to put pressure on others to focus on short-term wins and to come to decisions faster; you can see how that would change the culture of a company that purports to value introspection and broad horizons.
Making sure everyone is aligned on and passionate about the core values that drive a company is important to building a cohesive culture. This is true of both remote and in-person teams. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone should always agree—dissent and varied viewpoints are the engine of progress—but it does mean that everyone should share passion about your vision and values.
“Culture is a reflection of the shared values and mission of the company.”
One of the best ways to achieve this is through storytelling. Tell stories that reinforce your values and celebrate when they’re put into practice. Take our example company that values thoughtfulness: Rather than chastise someone for acting too hastily, you could tell stories about the times when deep thinking worked. Build a mythology around why that particular value is important and it will reflect in the culture.
This is particularly important in remote environments, where those stories aren’t immediately apparent unless explicitly told (when you don’t see your coworkers every day, storytelling is a way to keep everyone connected). These stories, when told publicly, can also help you to attract the people who are most likely to have passion for your company’s culture and values.
3. Be inclusive
Culture can’t be dictated. While it’s true that values are consciously defined and so company culture is created, it can’t be forced. Successful cultures are inclusive—they’re not top down, nor are they really bottom up. They come out of a process that involves all stakeholders working together to determine what shared values and ideals make up that binding glue.
This can be difficult for remote teams. Offices provide numerous opportunities for people to come together and both consciously and organically create the type of working environment they want. For distributed teams, those opportunities are fewer, mostly due to logistics (different time zones, no physical presence, interactions that are mediated by technology, etc.).
Remote teams must be deliberate about inclusivity. Schedule regular time for coworkers to chat (and not just about work!), get the team together in the same location when you can, open and support multiple channels of communication, put a premium on group work and collaboration, and encourage regular status reports.
4. Communicate well
Good communication is important for any organization, but it’s paramount for remote teams. A key theme being repeated here is culture is shared, and sharing relies on communication to happen.
Communication goes 2 ways: it’s not just about transmitting messages to one another, but about listening and being heard. Teams that are comfortable communicating will develop their own group personality through shared experiences. For that to happen, you need to create a place where people feel like they can bring their whole selves to work, be honest, and feel valued.
Remote companies can nurture this type of environment by prioritizing good communication skills during hiring, providing the necessary tools, channels, and opportunities for communication, and by giving people space to be themselves.
Remote-first company Help Scout runs weekly informal team meetings they called “Friday Fikas” that randomly pair two of the company’s employees for a video chat. These one-on-one meetings allow Help Scout’s team members to get acquainted with each other in an informal setting. They forge relationships that go beyond just work and the regular meetings allow colleagues to be themselves with each other.
“Culture is shared, and sharing relies on communication to happen.”
5. Trust and transparency
One of the best ways to create an inclusive and open space is to operate from a place of trust and transparency as a matter of course. This item might feel a bit out of place on this list since it seems more like a specific value than a general principle, but it is one of the most important concepts for remote teams to instill in their culture.
Even if you have the most communicative team in the world, a defining characteristic of remote work is always that much of what you do you’ll do on your own. And for people to succeed while working autonomously, they need to feel trusted and they need to be transparent. Trust so that they can make decisions on their own, and transparency so they’re always equipped with the information they need to make those decisions.
More importantly, though, none of the other things mentioned above can happen without trust and transparency. You won’t have a passionate team that buys into the vision and mission, a team that is inclusive or communicative, unless you also bake trust and transparency into everything.
6. Make good choices
Some elements of your culture will happen organically by virtue of the way your team’s personalities mix and the individual values people express. But a lot of your culture is designed, and how well your company actually practices the culture you’re trying to build has a lot to do with the choices you make.
Think about this example from Duke behavioral economist and author Dan Ariely: “How many people right now have rotting fruit and vegetables in the refrigerator? Lots. Lots of people have a lot of stuff they paid a lot of money for, and by the time they get around to checking on it, it’s too late. They take it to the garbage in a sad little funeral. The reason why, is bad design.”
“Stop expecting emails to be answered after work hours.”
We put those fruits and veggies in hard-to-see and annoying-to-open bins at the bottom of the fridge, instead of at eye level, where we display things like beer and leftover takeout. Your work culture is the same. Whatever values you want your company culture to reflect need to be designed into your work environment.
It’s what Ariely calls “choice architecture.” If you want balance to be at the center of your culture, for example, don’t design work systems that make it easy for people to overwork or monopolize each other’s time. In other words: maybe nix the shared calendars and stop expecting emails to be answered after work hours.
No one size fits all
One thing to remember as you build your company culture is there is no one size fits all. The values you express as a company and the culture that develops will be unique to your company, your vision, your mission, the things you want to accomplish, and the people you want to attract. As Anil Saxena told Fortune magazine, “You’re not going to have nap rooms at a mining company.”
That’s okay! Not everyone can be Google and Facebook, nor should you want to be.
Culture is unique. What works for one company, won’t necessarily work for another. But if you start with strong values and vision, the rest will follow.
More posts on working remotely
by Josh Catone
Josh Catone runs content, marketing, and partnerships, for Saent, a globally-distributed hardware and software company building tools to help people focus and be more productive. He’s been working remotely for over a decade and is the author of Pajamas, a blog about remote work, and the founder of Teamview, a video standup tool for remote teams.