Creating a distributed company culture

Culture is crucial.

Katy Atherholt
5 min readOct 26, 2018

How do we influence culture?

Often led by a set of values or goals, company culture is recognized as important but without a clear understanding of why. I believe this is where we see what we recognize as a toxic culture, it’s a glimpse into mismanaged teams and companies.

Whether deliberate or not, culture exists in all aspects of an organization and reflects on its inner climate. Kristi Riordan, COO of the Flatiron School, emphasizes that there is a difference between creating a company culture and maintaining it.

“The desired values and behaviours of a strong culture are articulated, modelled, reinforced and rewarded. When culture is not properly established, nurtured and used as the core operating system of an organization, actual employee behaviour can stray very far from aspirational values.”

If company culture is what happens when a CEO leaves the room, what if they were never there to begin with?

What does distributed company culture look like now?

Diverse and Inclusive

Automattic supports, the 15th most trafficked website in the world, from more than 60 different countries. Fully distributed, with a team of over 800 people — they operate based on their creed, prioritizing an open source mentality and treating communication like oxygen.

The whole company meets each year in a different place around the world to collaborate and connect. At their 2016 meet up they decided to share their diversity and inclusion guidelines with the public. Those guidelines included a commitment to making their products localized and accessible, part of their internal culture benefiting the global community.

Financially Flexible

Remote since the start in 2011, Zapier credits a cultivated trust to having a successful remote team. They also emphasize the value of meeting in person, either for their bi-annual company-wide retreats or during the year to start new projects together.

“In addition to the all-company get togethers, small groups of us might get together on an ad hoc basis throughout the year to coordinate the start of a major project or feature. Usually this is just one person jumping on a flight to visit another person. If this seems expensive, that’s because it is. But the great part is that you’ll likely have the money to cover this plus more since you don’t have to pay for a central office that everyone is working in.”

Being flexible with spending allows each distributed team to decide where to reinvest the money saved on a maintaining a central physical location into whatever their team needs to be most effective.

Open and Authentic

Buffer is all about transparency. They share their salary formula along with each employee’s income on a public spreadsheet because they’re that committed. Beyond standard health care benefits, the company also invests over $4,000 each year to provide online mental health support for the employee as well as their children and partner through the Joyable service. The most unconventional benefit are the Unsick Days, where each employee is encouraged to take one day off each year to schedule preventative health care appointments.

“86% of workers would cancel or reschedule a preventive care appointment due to workplace pressures. In this kind of climate, how can we at Buffer be true to our value of “living smarter, not harder” and support our teammates in prioritizing their health?”

Company culture is an opportunity to design the employee experience with intention

Each remote company has a different approach to bridging location gaps to create a shared community. There is a similarity in their processes, all focusing on clear communication, reflection and ongoing accountability for the culture they want. Unconventional ideas like the UnSick Day demonstrate the extent to which these companies value their employee's well-being.

Being distributed forces each team to further develop opportunities for connection and cultural development. Keeping a focus on sustainability and iteration at the core of this process is crucial. Collecting data early and often will set teams up to maintain an open, collaborative dialogue. Taking some personal ownership in the company culture is also a great indicator of how invested and valued the team is feeling.

What other opportunities exist for distributed team culture?

Location Flexibility

Allow space for a location to change as people move through different roles and stages of their life. Automattic encourages their team to live where they work best, even if that means moving around the world. This gives individuals a sense of freedom to change their situation without having to leave the company and seek out a new role.

Accessible Hiring

Commitment to cultivating a diverse and inclusive culture means removing as many barriers to entry as possible. Consider the necessary ability and financial cost of commuting each work day to a traditional office. A culture built on that requirement is choosing to ignore many potentially valuable team members. discusses the core aspects of a thriving company culture as providing flexibility, recognizing employee needs and investing in employees success on a personal level. In a study by, 58% of remote workers said the number one benefit to a remote lifestyle is the flexibility.

Remote workers may seem to add complexity in maintaining a culture, but being distributed leads to a more intentional company culture than a traditional office setting.

With its inherent flexibility and communication-based environment, remote teams can easily create a unique and effective culture to benefit their company and communities.

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