While Lightning Media Partners has always been fully remote, the COVID-19 pandemic brought work-from-home into reality for many organizations and companies. Even as shutdowns and restrictions relax, remote work environments may be here to stay.
While seen as a perk by most, remote work environments, hybrid work schedules, and work-from-home abilities come with their own set of challenges, one of which is building a company culture.
After years of working remotely with a team of full-time employees and freelancers, we’d like to think we’ve learned a lot about building culture remotely. While our culture changes with every new hire we make, there are several ways we strive to build culture as a remote team.
How do you define company culture?
Company culture, work culture, and organizational culture are all synonyms for the physical, emotional, and mental environment of an organization for its employees. Company culture also extends to the values and belief systems a company upholds for its employees.
Defining a clear culture in a workplace not only gives the organization a personality and specific characteristics but helps managers and leadership hire employees that will best fit into the environment that’s been specifically designed.
What’s the difference between remote culture and in-person culture?
Most employees think of in-person company culture as “regular” culture. It’s the company culture or environment that all employees experience together because they work in close proximity with each other. Recently, studies and public discourse have shown that toxic culture at in-person workplaces is fairly common in America. In the study, nearly one in three respondents reported leaving a job due to workplace conflict.
Remote culture, on the other hand, can manifest differently for each employee, as employees do not work side-by-side and can sometimes span the nation or globe. While potential issues of toxic workplace culture (like in-person harassment) can be mitigated by remote work offices, it also opens up the opportunity for different problems like micromanagement or a bad work/life balance.
The main difference between both cultures is location. However, while location plays a part, the essence of a company culture shouldn’t be based on where employees are; instead, company culture should be based around values and how employees are treated.
How does remote culture affect employees?
In 2021, studies show that Americans will spend nearly one-third of their lives working. For somewhere at which you’ll spend 90,000 hours of your life, it’s vital to be in a positive work environment — or understand the long-reaching effects a negative culture can have on not only your work performance, but personal life as well.
Having a high-performing or healthy remote work culture is all the more important because remote work blurs the line between work life and home life. The responsibility of preserving that delicate balance lies not only with the employee, but the employer as well. While a bad day at the office can sometimes be forgotten after a 20-minute commute home listening to music or a podcast, remote employees work where they live — meaning no commute to “cool down.” The nature of working from home also invites “real-life” distractions into someone’s workday, from children, pets, and partners to unexpected deliveries and doctor appointments.
The best remote work culture understands that employees are human, identifies and does its best to deliver based on individual needs, and remains flexible to ever-evolve with the flow of business and personal life.
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Best remote work culture ideas
While I may be a bit biased, I believe Nicole and Sean have created an incredible company culture at Lighting Media Partners. Below, I’ve listed six ways I’ve noticed Lightning Media Partners embraces and supports a healthy work culture that any remote workplace can establish.
Invest in establishing honest and clear communication
Communication is the basis for all relationships — and work relationships are no different. As such, it’s no surprise that this study found that 86% of executives, educators, and employees think poor communication is the No. 1 reason for failures in the workplace.
While we all communicate differently, it’s important to establish the precedent that being honest, open, and clear is a good thing, is never a “bother,” and won’t be laughed at or ignored.
Honest communication at Lightning Media Partners includes clarifying projects’ direction and scope, being upfront about time constraints, sharing opinions — even if you’re the only one who thinks that way, and remaining transparent about work satisfaction.
Nicole and Sean have put a lot of work into establishing and reinforcing healthy communication practices. They are always available to answer project questions, do not contact employees outside of their set business hours for work-related conversations, and continually check in on satisfaction — often offering to swap around projects to ensure the best fit for everyone on the team.
Ensure everyone understands expectations
Under the umbrella of communication lies expectations. If someone doesn’t understand what is expected of them — whether it was communicated poorly or not at all — the project is set up to stumble into potential pitfalls. Expectations outline objectives for everyone involved in a project, from client, to manager, to project executor and serve as a benchmark to rate performance.
While some believe fully-remote offices have the disadvantage of not being face-to-face to answer questions, fully-remote and hybrid work environments can transform this into a positive. Besides, how many times have you walked down the hall or called a coworker with a question only to find they’re with someone else or in a meeting? Utilizing instant messaging platforms like Slack or Google Chat ensures questions can be answered and expectations can be set no matter where employees are working.
Offer benefits and perks that reflect employee needs
In a study from Rogers Gray, researchers found that 40% of employees asserted their loyalty to their company would increase if the benefits they received were more customized to their individual needs.
What does that mean?
It looks different for every company — because each organization’s employee pool is unique — but could include benefits like:
- A flexible work schedule (my personal favorite from Lightning Media Partners).
- COVID-19 recovery PTO.
- Coupons or company-sponsored gym memberships.
- Mental health support and/or services.
- Home office stipend.
- Voluntary benefits like accident insurance, pet insurance, etc.
- Employee-run charity events.
Fully-remote teams are at a disadvantage for building connections between employees when compared to fully in-person teams — but that doesn’t mean fully-remote or hybrid teams can’t achieve the same level of connectivity or better. Instead, leaders need to creatively problem solve by regularly talking to team members, identifying their motivators and detractors, and offering solutions that make every person feel like a valued member of the team.
Continually ask for (and implement) feedback
While lots of bosses ask for feedback, only a fraction actually implement the actionable insights employees offer. Falling into this trap can be lethal for remote teams and decimate employee morale.
Feedback can come in many forms — from concrete answers on survey questions to a drop in performance or efficiency after establishing a new process. When asking or looking for feedback from the team, it’s important for leaders to identify their goal. Do you want to know the general consensus or are you looking for the root cause of a problem you’ve seen repeatedly? Are you looking for a quick fix or a long-term solution? How much of a process are you willing to change or abandon based on the feedback received?
Remote and hybrid teams face technical challenges in-person teams don’t, like issues with a VPN or video conferencing software. Feedback at every stage of software adopting and implementation can mitigate frustration with these inevitable challenges. If you’re able, invite your team to be part of the software decision. Let them try the different softwares you’re considering, analyze their feedback and reconcile it with your top picks, and then present the final options.
If software and processes are already established, creating standard guides and an always-open line of communication for issues (whether technical or not) like a Google Form can enable the team to feel supported and listened to, and leaders to identify repeat issues and understand and find a solution for employees’ frustrations.
Build in flexible time for casual conversations
A study performed by Slack found that while remote work is a net positive, employees’ sense of belonging can suffer in both a fully-remote and hybrid work environment — especially for those who haven’t worked remotely for an extended period of time.
By working team-building time into the calendar, remote teams can really get to know each other off-the-clock. Depending on the size of your team, “casual conversations” can look different. Whether you organize a quarterly happy hour, offer interest groups like book clubs, virtual movie nights, or online cooking classes, or put together a yearly retreat in which everyone has the opportunity to meet face-to-face, it’s important to foster employee relationships outside of work to create that sense of belonging among the team.
Maybe your team is too small or too large for the suggested ideas, or you don’t have the budget to pursue them yet. Building in time for casual conversation can be simple, though! By opening a dedicated channel on your chosen communication platform (we use Slack) to hold non-work conversations, like weekend plans or thoughts on a newly-released movie, you’re creating a virtual water cooler that gives employees a space to relax and be themselves.
Hire for both a culture fit and skills
While HR professionals tend to disagree on what is most important in a hiring decision — hiring for skills versus hiring for a culture fit — both are equally important for building the most ideal team.
If you hire only for skills (one of which should be the ability to work remotely, well), you may run into an issue of butting personalities, failed expectations, or other mismatched work culture issues. Studies have also shown that positive culture and collaboration leads to a more productive team than one that doesn’t get along.
However, if you only hire for a culture fit and not skills, there may be a slower upstart in productivity while the new employee is onboarded and trained. Leaders also run the risk of potentially hiring someone who gets along great with colleagues but just doesn’t have the skillset to help the company remain productive and grow.
Mistakes to avoid when building remote culture
Here are some tips for mitigating issues in remote team culture.
Hiring employees who aren’t suited for remote work
Remote work isn’t for everyone — COVID-19 revealed that reality. While some employees loved working remotely, others couldn’t wait to get back to the office after shutdowns and restrictions were lifted.
Leaders of remote and hybrid teams should hire employees who are adequately-suited for working from home. This usually means they’re autonomous enough to complete their work to a high standard within a given time frame. Employees who aren’t suited for remote work may exhibit unhappiness, procrastination, lack of motivation, regularly distract others on communication channels, or half-complete assignments because they’re unfocused. Similarly, retaining an employee who used to enjoy remote work but has shifted focus and no longer thrives in the environment is dangerous and can breed resentment, unproductiveness, and bad morale.
The negative effects of hiring or retaining someone who is unsuited for remote work may be a drop in overall company productivity, time, training, and resources invested in the wrong organizational fit, and lower company morale.
Setting unclear project expectations and instructions
As discussed above, setting unclear expectations can be a recipe for failure. Employees should have a clear understanding of their projects — including scope, goals, and timeline — to meet expectations. Setting clear expectations in a fully-remote team improves productivity and gives employees goals for which to strive to and exceed to grow in their professional career.
Having poor communication
Running a remote or hybrid team is a busy job that hinges on constant clear communication. Poor communication tends to be the root cause of many other issues, including employees failing to meet expectations, interpersonal issues, and more.
Communication will look different for each organization but one constant should remain: accessibility. Employees need to know where, when, and how to talk to you if they have a question or issue. Leaders should be responsive as well (outside of blocked-out times for meeting and deep work) and set a precedence of communicating until an employee’s question is answered. Employees should never feel ignored, shamed for asking questions, or demanded of things without regard for their schedule or feelings.
Ignoring employee feedback
As human beings, no one enjoys being ignored — especially in situations where your opinion or thoughts were specifically asked for. However, some employees do feel that feedback is either negatively one-sided (they only receive criticism and aren’t asked to provide the same feedback for the business) or ignored altogether. Luckily, avoiding this mistake is easy. When asking for feedback, state up-front how the responses will be used. Track the responses to give yourself a historical record of the information gathered. If the survey becomes a bust, employ good communication and be transparent with employees, telling them the analysis didn’t show conclusive results, and assert your future plan to rework and re-distribute the survey.
Building a remote work culture can be difficult.
It doesn’t have to stay difficult, though. By investing in yourself and your team, remaining open to change, understanding how your team’s wants and needs will evolve, and sharing common goals, values, and beliefs can keep a remote team culture positive, healthy, and productive for employees.