Building culture in remote teams: why it’s important, and how to improve it

Culture was once a buzzword. No longer is that the case. Workplace culture has transitioned from being a forward-thinking idea associated with the Silicon Valley movers and shakers like Google, who were once considered ‘out there’ for their cool pool tables and chill-out spaces, to a pivotal aspect of every organisation that cares about their employees. With more and more teams working from home, another transition becomes apparent: building culture in remote teams.

Culture isn’t something that’s just nice to have. A report by business review and job website Glassdoor suggests that more than three-quarters of job seekers check out the company culture before applying for a role, while just over half say that culture is a more important factor in the decision making process than salary. 

Remote working & company culture

Enter remote working. The shift to remote working has made it difficult for organisations to maintain the same culture as they had before. But that’s not always a bad thing. The truth is that remote working could actually enhance company culture… if it’s approached in the right way with a humanistic management style by a leader finely tuned to the needs of their team and considerate of the different work personality types present.

A Gallup survey shows that, when employees do not work in the same physical location as their manager, they are 10% less likely to feel cared for, 10% less likely to feel valued, and 5% less likely to feel that they matter. All of these can pose a risk to culture if not addressed. 

The good news is that this situation can be avoided by working to build culture amongst remote teams. The bad news is that not many organisations are prioritising this. 

Research suggests that less than half of businesses have optimised their remote working culture for the long term. That’s particularly worrying as many reports have confirmed that the shift to remote isn’t temporary; that many are expected to remain working from home permanently. Right now, building culture should be a top priority as organisations move to confront a disparate set of leadership and management challenges

How to build a remote team culture

So, how can leaders work to build a strong and effective remote team culture? Believe it or not, video conferencing doesn’t play a role. In fact, the report above claims that around two-thirds of leaders don’t believe that ‘Zoom Happy Hour’ counts as culture. 

Building a culture in remote reams means more than just social time. It means following a simple 6-step process that develops a resilient culture that will stand the test of time in the new world of work

1. Communicate

The most important factor when it comes to building company culture amongst remote teams is to communicate it. New remote hires, for example, aren’t able to organically absorb the workplace culture through the environment. 

Leaders will need to communicate which purposes and values are at the heart of the culture they want to create. This could cover values such as collaboration, integrity, agility, people-centricity, or anything else. These messages should be communicated as early as possible, particularly during the selection and onboarding process. 

2. Refer

It’s not enough to simply communicate the workplace culture during selection and onboarding. Ongoing levels of consistency also matter. Smart leaders will be in the habit of referring back to the purposes and values on a day-to-day basis, working to align the work of the team, and the expected behaviours of the team, with the core values that make up the culture. Referring to the culture not only helps to promote it and keep it at the forefront of the mind, it also helps to better connect the team with the business. 

3. Lead by example

Whatever type of culture leaders choose to build, the best and easiest way to maintain it is to embrace that culture themselves. Leaders in essence lead by example. They will exhibit behaviours that match the foundations of the culture, and which work to enhance it, rather than challenge it. Implementing change is never easy, especially if that change is sizable. But leading by example, and leading through change, affords a valuable opportunity to get everyone on board. 

4. Praise

Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to call out and draw attention to those team members that have been following and embracing the new remote culture, and highlight them as strong examples. Use these embracers to your advantage, as team-wide influencers and as implementers of change. Be sure to publicly praise those that follow and embrace the work culture, and use these events as positive reinforcers that engage with non-followers. Team members, as well as their managers, can lead by example. 

5. Feedback

Leaders should ensure that they are regularly asking for feedback from their teams, asking questions such as ‘what do you like about the remote culture?’ and ‘where could we improve?’. Success depends on teams being closely involved in the culture-building process. Of course, leaders will need to address the fact that building culture in remote teams is a very new priority. The right building blocks might not be in the right place, but with team feedback, and with flexibility and an open mind, things can be changed for the better. 

6. Validation

Whether you’re building a new team culture from scratch or making changes to an existing team culture to make it fit the remote working environment more closely, validation is key. Being armed with the tangible evidence needed to justify and validate changes can help your team to better understand why the culture is being built and developed in the way that it is. If team members understand why you’re creating the culture that you are, they are more likely to be happier with the changes. 

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