How to Maintain Office Culture When You Aren’t in the Office

Work-from-home is here to stay, but these tips can help your organization come together while staying apart.

Kristen Morith
Aug 6 · 9 min read

Like most offices in North America, we locked our office doors on March 16th and moved our whole team remote. And like all those other offices, switching to a full work-from-home setup brought a slew of work-life changes to our team. We knew, especially with a shift this abrupt, that we’d need to make some changes as an organization to ensure our team felt as supported, engaged, and capable of doing their work as they’ve always been.

We decided early on that we needed to make our company culture a focus, and so we created a team to dig in on the changed circumstances and how they were impacting our teams. From our research, we were able to surface a few key findings that helped us create a roadmap we’ve been testing and iterating against. There is no silver bullet solution, but we believe these findings can help any organization dealing with these sudden and sweeping changes. Here’s our guide to how you can start to reinforce the important parts of your company culture.

Survey Says…

To begin with, we recommend conducting a survey of the entire company. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated, you really just need to get a baseline understanding of two things: 1) past experience individual team members have with remote work, and 2) their views of how this experience is going so far. Remember, you want to get as many colleagues’ input as possible, so keep the questions simple and the survey short.

The next step is to conduct more in-depth, one-on-one interviews from the respondents to help gain clarity on what the baseline results really mean. It will depend on the size of your organization, but we selected 20 participants from among the company’s four core disciplines to interview (with a bit more weight given to those who responded they were finding it harder to work from home, in order to more closely investigate why that might be).

Some things we expected to hear (it’s hard to parent and teach and work!) and some we were pleased to hear (we were well prepared to work remotely), but it was the pieces that we were surprised by that gave us crucial insights into our key challenges. The mix of qualitative and quantitative results will give you the clearest idea of what is and isn’t working for your team, but if conducting a survey and interviews isn’t feasible for some reason, these key findings from our research can still help you get started on making a difference for your teams today.

Key Findings

Key Finding #1: Remote culture needs to be deliberately created and cultivated.

Feeling engaged is about more than just liking the work, it’s about feeling connected to the people you work with and enjoying the experience of being at work. Now that we exclusively interact online, it’s easier than ever to feel disconnected from colleagues.

Launch parties when projects finish and get-togethers to celebrate achievements and company milestones don’t feel the same over video call — we knew we needed to find more creative ways to bond and to celebrate. The good news is, there are lots of remote-friendly options (we’ve visited llamas at the Cincinnati Zoo, learned to make pasta from a professional chef, and attended virtual yoga classes) that can help bring a bit of the light-hearted joy of the office into online celebrations.

But it’s not just the novel, one-off experiences that are lost when offices go remote. The social activities that occur organically in the office — like bumping into a colleague from another department at the coffee machine or stopping by a friend’s desk for a chat — have disappeared as well. And these activities are absolutely critical to feeling engaged at work.

Here are some steps you can take to tackle the isolation and siloing effect of WFH, and encourage more social engagement in your organization:

  • Use an app, like the Slack App Donut, which randomly pairs people up for a “donut and a coffee” virtual catch-up. It’s great for facilitating cross-department and cross-project communication. Bonus suggestion: create a new time tracking category for it, so that individuals feel more supported to take this time out of their day to connect.
  • Create a new calendar layer in your company calendar system dedicated just to social events. It makes it easier for everyone to find out about informal events, so individuals can surface and join activities whenever they want.
  • Take a page from GitLab’s Handbook and host a Virtual Lunch Table, which is a standing daily video call that anyone can join, allowing teams to recreate the social experience of having lunch with colleagues in the office. In a similar vein, we added a morning and afternoon coffee slot to our calendars, to help facilitate those coffee machine bump-ins.

Whatever you choose to do — whether it’s inviting farm animals to your next meeting, learning how to taste coffee as a team, or attempting to escape from a virtual escape room — finding ways to inject a bit of life and levity into the everyday routine is important for ongoing culture building and engagement. Just remember, your efforts will only work if your teams know about them, which means you need to get really good at communication.

Key Finding #2: Thoughtful communication takes effort to get right.

Communication is often an afterthought — we all know how to talk and type, so why think any further on the subject? — but in times like these, continually inspecting your processes and adapting to changing circumstances is crucial. Because it’s so important to understand how the changed circumstances are impacting your teams, ensuring clear and open lines of communication matter now more than ever.

Work is personal
With stress and pressure coming from all directions (the pandemic, lack of childcare/schooling for kids, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and increased financial stress), checking-in on teams becomes more important than ever. But with voice and video calls it’s easy to miss the non-verbal cues we normally pick up on in person that let us know someone is struggling.

Work to establish a comfortable norm for your teams to communicate openly about their challenges. One solution could be to create a space, like a Slack channel, where people are encouraged to share when they’re having a hard time and to take time to check in with each other. Another solution could be to set aside time at the beginning of stand-ups and other meetings for this purpose. Whatever you do, be deliberate about it. Communicate clearly with teams that these spaces exist, and what is and isn’t expected of their participation in them.

Clarify priorities and don’t be shy about asking for what you need
For many of us, the nature of our work has changed. New tasks, more projects than normal, and changing priorities are all impacting how we understand ourselves and our roles within our organizations. And alongside the changes in work, the demands at home have shifted too, with family commitments and other concerns that need to be worked around.

In situations like these it’s absolutely essential that teams clearly communicate priorities, and that team members feel empowered to honestly and openly ask for what they need. Let your teams know that time-shifting to watch a child or to take advantage of safe hours for running errands can be accommodated. Be crystal clear about what must be accomplished and on what timelines, and equally clear about what can be dropped when circumstances prove too complicated. As long as everyone knows when and how to reach one another, and what the must-dos are, there shouldn’t be any issues.

Over-communicate
When we’re exclusively connecting online, our reliance on written communication sky-rockets. (Video and voice calls play a role, but we’re all familiar with “Zoom fatigue” so it should be clear why written communication is still #1). Getting information down in a recorded and referenceable format is our best way to stay on the same page. Even if it sometimes feels a bit tedious or redundant, having written records that everyone can refer to and confirm understanding against is crucial.

Here are a few best practices our project teams have been using in Slack to keep their teams aligned:

  • Use multiple channels for each project. Have a general project channel as well as one for each role involved in the work, such as development and design, so relevant information reaches the right people.
  • Have everyone take their own notes during meetings and share them in Slack using the “Create a Post” function. It ensures that everyone is aligned and no one has missed anything.
  • Thread conversations to make them easier to follow (and to find later)
  • Always provide context. We don’t want to leave anyone guessing about what they’re supposed to do or what something means.
  • Be thoughtful about the words you use to eliminate the chance for ambiguity or confusion

When we talk about over-communication, some folks recoil in horror thinking of the glut of emails and IMs. And they’re not wrong, it can quickly become overwhelming. That’s why you need to establish a cultural norm of bringing the discussion back on track, where it isn’t seen as a personal attack but as an opportunity for greater ease. Creating specific, separate channels for things like industry chatter, casual banter, and individual projects can help give individual contributors the chance to exert control over what information they receive and when.

For more communication tips, we also recommend checking out GitLab’s handbook, which is an excellent resource we’re referring to as we continue to refine our own communication strategies.

Key Finding #3: You need a single source of truth for things both big and small.

We all know the importance of team alignment when it comes to project work, but the need for a single source of truth goes beyond project work — it’s crucial for the ongoing cultural functionality of your organization, too.

A company-wide wiki has always been a part of our operations. But as the pandemic has worn on, we’ve realized just how essential it is not only as a resource for our processes, but also as a way to share our company values, to communicate about internal engagement and support programs, and to reference the policies our teams care about now more than ever (such as our sick leave policy, for example).

We’ve also come to realize there are gaps in the information available and areas for significant improvement in how the information is presented. When you’re co-located it’s not such a big deal for it to be incomplete, out of date, or missing information — it’s easy to turn to colleagues for information. But when everyone is remote it’s harder to know who to turn to, and can take much longer to find the answers you need.

However you tackle this — a bespoke solution like Significa or Basecamp have gone with, or something more like Notion — the need for a space that houses crucial information has never been higher.

Conclusion

Great remote culture doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes time to consider what type of remote culture you want (it might be different from your office culture) and to experiment with it. Even though we feel that we had a strong start in March, we’ve learned a lot since then and continue to iterate on our process. Culture is one of those things that is never truly done. It will continue to change over time.

Relatively few companies were fully remote before the pandemic. You’re in good company if the last few months have been challenging in unexpected ways — we all have a lot of catching up to do. But if you can prioritize relationships, keep communication thoughtful and open, and make it easy for people to find the information they need, then you’re well on your way to success.

How has your organization tackled remote engagement? We’d love to hear your tips in the comments!

And be sure to check out our remote collaboration tool to facilitate better Q&A sessions— it’s open-source and completely free. Visit http://askaway.cc/ to learn more!

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