Remote teams: 5 ways to build culture

As remote workgroups become more common, shorten the distance with these culture-building tips
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Twenty years ago, the concept of working from home was just starting to take hold. Today, it has become a fixture of office life. A study by Owl Labs found that 52 percent of workers work remotely at least once a week, and 68 percent work remotely at least once a month.

Teams in which one or all members work remotely are becoming increasingly common as communication and collaboration tools improve. Understandably, more employees are choosing to sign on from anywhere in the world rather than relocating and facing the joy of fighting traffic.

However, one of the biggest challenges for remote team members is that they may not feel woven into the fabric of the company and its culture. Too often, management treats off-site employees as an afterthought instead of making a concerted effort to get them engaged and involved with the team from day one. But neglecting remote team members can breed miscommunication, resentment, burnout, and general dissatisfaction.

Let’s look at five ways culture can be baked into remote teams.

1. Call in the troops

At least once a year, arrange for everyone to be in the office during the same week – or better yet, hold an off-site retreat. Have the team participate in fun team-building activities, go out to dinner together, and encourage everyone to get to know each other outside of work.

[ Looking for a remote work opportunity? Here’s how to prep: How to interview for a remote IT job. ]

Regardless of how you structure it, this is a great time for the team to bond, and employees can take these valuable connections home with them.

2. Embrace video

A few months ago, our team abandoned face-to-face daily scrum meetings in favor of calling into GoToMeeting. Engagement promptly plummeted. I could see my co-workers providing their individual updates, then tuning out to bury themselves in their work.

Then a funny thing happened. Everyone was asked to turn on their webcam for meetings going forward. The in-office team interactions that flourished during our face-to-face scrum meeting then showed up across the entire team. One remote employee had grown a full beard. Another had a cat who really wanted to participate. Anyone whose camera pointed at their belly button or behind their head got a good ribbing. This regular banter has continued for weeks since the video experiment, and it has brought a positive new dynamic to the team.

Video has the power to erase the miles that separate people. Where it can be difficult to assess tone and nonverbal cues through chat and email messages, video enables valuable face-to-face communication. Try to promote video in all your online meetings.

[ Want best practices for online meetings, as a leader or participant? Read also: Online meeting tips: 6 ways to present yourself better. ]

3. Praise helpful team members

The positive things team members do to advance the efforts of the whole can easily be overlooked in remote teams. These daily contributions are critical to keeping the team running efficiently, and when they aren’t acknowledged, contributing team members can feel taken for granted. Make it a part of the team’s culture to highlight those who help you.

Make it a part of the team’s culture to highlight those who help you.

In each morning’s scrum update, our team reviews what we worked on and calls out those who helped us achieve our goal. The magnitude of the assist doesn’t matter. It is our way of saying, “I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to help out. It means a lot.” This highlights positive behavior to the group and encourages future contributions.

4. Create a virtual water cooler

Whether we realize it or not, there is downtime in the office. Some departments take a 2 o’clock walk together; others cross paths in the breakroom at lunchtime. These interactions are essential to building connections that go below the surface. Teams need these informal interactions in the virtual realm as well.

Create a channel in your chat software to discuss non-work issues. You’ll need to set some guidelines around this channel, but it should be a fun place to converse. You could spur communication by having each employee reply to a weekly topic, such as“What is your favorite country you’ve traveled to?” or “What TV shows are you addicted to?” Co-workers will quickly find common bonds and build relationships around them.

5. Institute mentoring

When you hire a remote associate, they are inherently an island. Even if you do a great job onboarding and inundating them with your company's culture, if they can’t put it into action, your efforts will be wasted. This is where mentors can be really helpful in cementing culture in new hires.

Assigning each new employee a mentor provides them a go-to person for all questions about how the team operates.

Assigning each new employee a mentor provides them a go-to person for all questions about how the team operates. The mentor can monitor the new hire to ensure they are participating in culture-building activities and help them get involved if engagement is lacking. The mentor relationship can also be leveraged to build a web of connections throughout the team.

Remote work is here to stay. According to PGI News, companies with fully remote workers can save $10,000 per year in real estate costs. Employees also cash in, saving an average of $7,000 a year in childcare, commuting, food, and clothing costs. Remote work is also great for employee retention. Buffer has a 94% retention rate, which the company attributes largely to the fact that its staff works remotely.

In this new remote work reality, businesses need to recognize that their approach to building a company culture with onsite teams doesn’t necessarily translate to remote ones. They need to increase their efforts to make remote workers feel valued and included.

Creating a culture for remote employees takes work and follow-through: It won’t be solved in an afternoon. But the increase in worker satisfaction and overall cost savings makes it well worth the additional effort.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

Mark Runyon works as a director of consulting for Improving. For the past 20 years, he has designed and implemented innovative technology solutions for companies in the finance, logistics, and pharmaceutical space. He is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and is a contributing writer at InformationWeek.


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