Building A Remote Culture: 5 Lessons Learned

Kaylie Boogaerts
Jan 22, 2020 · 8 min read

These days, you hear and read a lot about how it’s so popular to allow your employees to work from home. Remote is the future, they say.

And yet, there is still quite a lot of resistance or fear around going remote as a company. The main concern is that managers will lose control — you won’t know what your team is working on — or if they’re even working at all — just because you can’t check on them by walking by their desk.

Other concerns of management teams are that distractions at home will cause lower productivity levels, that people will disconnect from their teams and won’t be able to collaborate well anymore, and that the company won’t be able to build or maintain a proper culture.

These fears may seem reasonable at first, but there are strong reasons to at least consider going remote. To summarize: through hiring remotely, we access not only a wider talent pool, but also a more diverse talent pool. The extra flexibility attracts highly talented people. Hiring remotely reduces office and commuting costs. We avoid office distractions and it’s been proven that people working remotely have higher productivity levels on average than people working in an office setting. The added flexibility and often better work-life balance reduces employee turnover.

Sounds great, right?! I think so too.

So, what should you take into consideration when you’re building a remote team and thus a remote culture? Here are our 5 key learnings.

1) Define your values and establish your culture

If you want to build a strong company culture, your values will serve as the foundation of that culture. You can go remote, build your team and hope for the best, and it might turn out well if you’re lucky. But if you want to build a culture or perhaps even maintain a culture that’s organically come to life, it’s time to define your values. And once you’ve established those values, you need to talk about them — repeatedly — so people know what the company stands for and, most importantly, you need to live by your values.

LaterPay is the first distributed company that I’ve worked for, but it’s also the company that has the most defined culture that I’ve experienced. Defining our values was a big project: it took surveys, a lot of analysis of those responses, and multiple conversations with team members and the management team.

Today our values live on our internal wiki, they’re a big part of our onboarding and feedback processes, we take them to our team events and we do our best to lead by example. Whenever we fail to lead by example, at least one of our team members will flag it to me or the management team so that we know we need to improve.

Setting values, living those values and thus building your culture is not only for remote teams. It’s crucial for any team and any company.

2) Think and act remote-first

Going remote requires a bit of a brain-shift. If you don’t deliberately make that shift, the chances you’ll have a healthy and successful remote culture are quite slim.

Have you ever been in a meeting where most people were physically in the meeting room but one or two colleagues called in remotely? If you have, you know that it often feels like those colleagues on the phone aren’t really there. That’s how it feels for them as well. It’s much harder for them to participate.

So what should you do? It might seem a bit ridiculous at first, but if anyone’s calling in remotely, just have everyone call in to the meeting. Don’t even book a meeting room. Or even better, have everyone call in to meetings by default.

That was something that we had to learn as well — more by trial and error than anything else. Today we’ll still sometimes have two people sharing one computer to call in, but that’s generally the limit. You need to create an environment that’s inclusive to your remote colleagues and the only way to do that is to think remote-first.

How does this work in principle? Say you happen to bump into a colleague and discuss next steps on a project. At LaterPay, we expect you to write those next steps down and share them with the rest of the team.
Maybe a Slack discussion got really long and wasn’t getting solved. Jump on a call and figure it out, but don’t forget to document the outcome and share it with the rest of the team.
You’ve got a decision to make but need input from your team first? Make sure that you leave enough time for your team members from other time zones to give their input as well.

This type of documentation and asynchronous communication go a long way.

3) You’re probably not transparent enough

It’s important to inspire and motivate your team and to be transparent about your goals, your strategy, your values, etc. That’s the case whether you’re remote or not, but it does require more effort for remote teams.

When you hire remote team members, you want to look for people who are self-motivated and who can keep up their energy even when they don’t have regular in-person contact with other team members. The thing is, you can hire the perfect people for remote work, but if you don’t include them in what’s going on, it won’t matter. If you want people to care, you need to give them something to care about. Be clear, open and empathetic about what’s going on in the company, in the team and about the context behind the decisions. Involve people and allow them to care.

One way to promote transparency is by communicating in public by default. In our case, that means encouraging people to have conversations and ask questions on public channels in Slack. Why? (1) Communication in private channels cannot be corrected or elaborated on if it’s incorrect and (2) someone you may not have considered might also benefit from the information that’s being shared.

We also put a premium on documenting everything. We know that it’s easier to create documentation than it is to keep it up to date. That’s why we also encourage everyone to help update documentation when they see something is no longer accurate.

We have a Slack channel for updates, where different teams provide a weekly update on the status of their projects. By documenting and sharing what we do, we avoid building knowledge silos as much as we can.

Another practice we have adopted is to hold company-wide calls every week to update the team on what’s going on, present special topics and much more. For example, right before the holidays, our management team presented the plans and top-level goals for Q1 2020 during one of these calls. They had previously held an onsite planning meeting with the management team and then, less than a week later, they were able to share the outcome with the entire team so that we could go into our holidays knowing what to expect when we came back.

4) Connection is a deliberate effort

When you’re developing a remote culture, you can’t count on people building relationships simply by randomly bumping into each other at the coffee machine, in the kitchen or during lunch. Instead, you have to make a deliberate effort to help people connect and build relationships. You have to support your team and give them opportunities to connect, while also making clear that it’s actually part of their job to connect with each other and to understand each other in order to build a solid foundation for good collaboration.

We encourage people to schedule time to just catch up with each other. I used to end those catch-ups saying “alright, gotta get back to work now.” That was until my colleague told me off for it, noting that this was work too, and very important work. And that colleague was so right.

For LaterPay, this means encouraging people to check in with each other regularly. Right at the start of their onboarding, I help new team members set up a bunch of meetings with key people in the team. Not just to get onboarded on what projects we’re currently working on and to get an overview of the product (although that’s a big part of the onboarding as well of course), but to meet people outside of their direct team and build the foundation for a relationship. That way it’s easier to reach out later on.

We have a Slackbot called Donut who pairs people up randomly every two weeks so they have a nudge to catch up with each other. We have a bunch of what we call social channels in Slack that are for non-work-related conversations, like pets (which is my all time favorite), general chatter, travel, wellness, art etc.

We also organise our AllHands twice a year. This is a company-wide team event, where we bring the whole team together in one physical location for 5 days. There we do updates, presentations, workshops and we give the different teams time to do their own thing. There’s also lots of food and drinks, which are great connection makers as well.

Meeting two times a year is a lot of fun, but it’s not that much time to spend together. So we recently decided to let our team members use part of their training budget to also travel to meet with and work alongside their colleagues.

5) Focus on the people

When you don’t regularly see your colleagues in person and you mostly see them as avatars within Slack and sometimes on video in a video call, it’s easy to forget that you’re dealing with actual people and not just avatars.

Even though you’re not all in the same office, don’t run into each other when you’re getting coffee or tea and you can’t go out for dinner and drinks after work, you’re still a team and you’re still there to make great things together and support each other doing that. You can still make time to share experiences, brainstorm or just talk things through.

So it’s incredibly important to actively remind yourself that you’re working with people, to be empathetic towards them and be there to support and celebrate with them. At the end, you get back what you put in when it comes to collaboration, support, trust and respect.

Summary

  1. Define your values, live by your values and use them as a foundation to build your culture.
  2. Create an environment that’s inclusive to your remote colleagues by thinking and acting remote-first.
  3. Step up the transparency as you’re probably not transparent enough.
  4. Connecting to and building relationships with your colleagues has to be a deliberate effort and it’s part of your job.
  5. You’re not working with little robots, so focus on the people.

Laterpay — Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes at Laterpay

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