How to build a great culture (and make a bigger impact) with a remote team

Leanne Beesley
Oct 2, 2018 · 11 min read
at TechBBQ in Copenhagen

Hey folks

I did a keynote at TechBBQ in Copenhagen last week about building culture in a remote team, so sharing my slides & presenter notes here in case there are useful for anyone!

I’m deffo not the expert on remote teams as Coworker.com is just 17 people right now and 3 years old, but there’s a bunch of stuff we do now that never occurred to me to do in the past (and wish I’d thought about it sooner).

So here we go…..

Like a lot of you here in this room, I’m a startup founder.

And my startup journey began because I had a problem.

Before Coworker I’d been working remotely for about 5 years. And every time I went to a new city or country I would waste SO MUCH TIME trying to figure out where to work from.

Coz y’know, if you’re looking for a place to sleep, you’ve got booking.com, Airbnb, Tripadvisor.

But if you’re looking for a place to work, somewhere with great WiFi and a great community of other entrepreneurs, there was nothing.

And it got me wondering, why isn’t there a global platform for places to work?

And so we built Coworker.com, which is now the world’s largest platform to find, book and review coworking spaces in 158 countries.

Coworking spaces have been getting a lot of attention in the media because of WeWork and its $20 BILLION valuation.

And although coworking spaces attract all kinds of people and companies, they’re especially great for people working remotely.

Studies show that working from a coworking space instead of working from home increases people’s happiness and productivity so if you have remote employees, offer them a coworking space membership as part of their contract…

And that’s what we do! When it came to building the Coworker team, having a fully remote team was the obvious choice.

Why limit ourselves to talent in 1 city when we have the entire global talent pool at our fingertips?

Our team now spans across 11 countries; Toronto, Barcelona, London, Bucharest, Australia, Thailand, Philippines, Bolivia, Mexico, Malaysia and more.

Sometimes what I’ve noticed is that some people have stereotypes of what remote work actually looks like.

There is this prevailing cultural stereotype that working remotely is something that only freelancers do or people who are not committed to a company.

And that is just not true.

The International Workplace Group did a survey of 18,000 mid and senior level professionals across 96 international companies.

And turns out, 70% of them work remotely at least once a week.

And over 50% work remotely at least half of the week.

And it’s not just BIG companies.

If you look on AngelList, which has a really popular job board for startups, there are currently almost 7000 remote jobs with startups currently hiring.

And almost 1500 of these pay a salary of over $100,000 a year.

So if you have a startup and want to attract the best talent to come work with you, you’ve got serious competition out there.

And if you’re not thinking globally when it comes to hiring great talent, you’re missing out on some amazing people.

But why is culture so important?

As a startup founder, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of focusing only on product instead of your team and company culture.

But you’ve got to remember that as the founder or CEO, you are responsible for the combined output of your team members.

And creating the right culture can massively improve their performance, increase their output, and fast-track your overall growth.

People think that it’s harder to build culture in a remote team, but in some ways it’s easier.

Because you can’t fall into the trap of thinking trivial things like a ping pong table will build your company culture.

It seems like a lot of people don’t understand what culture is.

Culture is not a department of a company or a task that can be delegated to someone, like a chief culture officer.

A lot of startup founders get culture wrong because they see it as icing on a cake.

But really, it’s the FLOUR that you bake the cake with.

A focus on culture has got to permeate through every single layer and element of your company.

So let’s start with the foundation.

You cannot build a house without a rock solid foundation. Because if the foundation is weak, everything will come crumbling down.

It’s the same with startups.

But it’s even MORE important in remote teams.

Because the #1 reason remote teams fail is when the people on your team don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to focus on. They don’t know if they’re doing a good job so they feel insecure and scared. And so they go silent.

And this is when your startup will start to die.

If you’re together in an office, you identify these problems really quickly and nip them in the bud. You can tell from people’s faces, from their energy, from what they chat about over lunch.

But when you have a remote team, you need a lot more structure otherwise you won’t notice problems until it’s too late.

And it’s these 3 things here — job descriptions, OKRs and reporting — that make the biggest impact on building a strong foundation.

Let’s start with job descriptions!

When we first started growing our team, I made a lot of mistakes.

And the biggest one was having vague job descriptions.

People join your team because they believe in your mission and want to make an impact, but they not mind-readers.

People thrive when they know what they are responsible for.

And having a framework documenting what that is, is so important — not only for increasing productivity but as a foundation for company culture.

This is an example of one of ours.

As you can see, reporting responsibilities is actually the largest section and that’s because part of our culture is instilling a sense of ownership.

A lot of metrics people are reporting are things that I could easily see for myself if I logged into our system and looked at the dashboard.

But then there’s no sense of ownership.

If people on my team don’t feel fully responsible for their metrics, then we lose that part of our culture which is so important for growth.

And btw we actually refresh our job descriptions every quarter so these are living breathing documents that each employee is responsible for maintaining as their role evolves over time based on changing priorities of the company.

Something I wish I’d known about when I first started Coworker and started earlier is OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).

So this is a goal setting framework that a LOT of companies use in their teams and it’s done quarterly.

It is great for ensuring that everyone on your team is aligned with the direction of the company and can see exactly how they personally can contribute to the big big goals.

I’ll show you in a moment how our documentation looks with the nitty grittys.

But here’s how the flow works:

As the CEO or the founder, you set the company goals for the quarter. These are tangible goals: metrics, specific targets, the most important things that you know will take your startup to that next level.

Then you have one on one meetings with each of your department heads. You talk through the company OKRs, and talk about what their department can do to make these goals happen. Then together you set the OKRs for their entire department.

And then your department heads repeat that process with everyone on their team.

So before the new quarter starts, everyone has an individual OKR specific to their role with KPIs to aim for.

Everything flows upwards with a laser focus so nobody goes off track and everyone makes the biggest impact possible.

Here’s how it looks.

This is a screenshot from our Community department OKR which is customer support and social media.

You don’t need a fancy tool — a google spreadsheet with tabs is fine.

And it’s a really effective way of making sure everyone stays on focus and understands the impact they can make.

Although in the ideal world everything would go smoothly, but this is startup world.

Things veer off course all the time. And that’s ok.

But what’s not ok is if you don’t know about it. Or your department heads don’t know about it.

But you don’t want to build a culture where people feel micromanaged.

So reporting needs to be positioned in the right way as something fun, natural and again tapping into that sense of ownership.

You want to create a culture where people are not reporting because they feel like they have to….

…but because they feel pride and ownership over what has been accomplished that week and they want to share that with you.

And there’s no right or wrong structure.

Let people choose a format that works for them. Above our examples of two of ours.

Everyone on our team has a slightly different way of reporting that they created themselves.

People are busy, you want to remove as much friction from reporting as possible and keep it as simple as possible.

Next up is communications.

Because once you’ve got the foundation sorted, now you start building up from that.

Some of these are obvious — having a really great process for task allocation. The best project management tool is one that everyone uses.

And to build a bias towards action into your culture, install this desire in everyone in your team to want to tick things off their lists. As a startup you need to keep moving all the time so build this into your culture.

Other things we do — a weekly company update by email, sometimes video, showing all the great things accomplished the previous week. All those reports you received on Friday — take the wins from those and tell the entire company. Celebrate. Remind them of the vision, the mission, and how we’re on a path to get there.

And in that weekly update I embed a video which we call “Ask Leanne”. During the week, we have an anonymous survey where people on my team can ask me anything.

“Why did we launch a certain feature? What is this tool we’re using. Are we on track to achieve our goals?”

And then I answer all their questions on a video every week because transparency is another important important part of our culture.

I mentioned earlier about Celebrating Wins — we created this #cool_stuff channel on Slack about a year ago as a place to share all the small wins and milestones we hit.

But for the first 3 months, it was only me posting in there.

It felt so awkward.

And that defeats the purpose — culture can’t be top down, it’s only real if your team are living it.

So don’t give up if your initiatives don’t work straight away.

It takes time for culture to take root so don’t feel like you’re failing and give up.

This is now our most active Slack channel and the culture of celebrating wins has finally taken taken hold.

And this is how our quarterly survey looks.

It’s just a basic Google Form, and it’s designed to be a pulse check on how people are feeling right now.

Are they happy in their role? Are they excited about the future and feel like they can learn and grow in their role?

Most early stage startups don’t have a HR department, and as a remote team you can’t see people’s faces everyday.

So it’s up to you as the founder to make sure your employees feel like they are in the right role with the right company.

Now the last of the 3 pillars is ATTITUDE.

1. There’s a good chance that if you have a remote team you may have a mix of full time employees and part time freelancers.

Treat everyone equally.

Make EVERYONE feel like they are a valuable member of the team.

If you treat part timers and contractors differently, it’s really difficult to build a strong team culture.

2. One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered with a remote team is miscommunication.

It is so easy to misread tone of voice in an email.

Or a Slack message.

Or any kind of written communication.

This is especially an issue in multi-cultural teams because people communicate so differently.

Build a culture where people are aware of the very high likelihood of misinterpreting tone of voice and tone of text, and learn the different communication styles of their teammates.

3. And last but not least, Trust.

You have to have SO MUCH TRUST when running a remote team.

If someone goes quiet for a few days, don’t assume they chilling at home watching Netflix and freak out.

It’s your role as a founder to create an environment, a culture, where people are focused on results and they feel safe and secure in the way that they work to achieve them.

Read this: The Best Thing About Being A Startup Founder (and why TRUST is so important)

In conclusion, culture is not a handbook.

It is not something you think about later once the product is bigger, or the team is bigger, or you get an office.

It’s the way everyone in your team works, the way they communicate and the way they feel working for your company.

— —

If anyone here on Medium has any questions, happy to answer them!

Disclaimer: always best to take my advice with a pinch of salt though as I’m still figuring all this stuff out along the way 😂

Leanne Beesley

Written by

Founder. Maker. Angel Investor.

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