Keeping the culture in remote culture

Sep 17, 2018

Maintaining a company culture when everyone is co-located is hard. Doing it remotely is even harder. But it's far from impossible.

As someone who's been working on remote teams for the past several years, first at Compose and now at Serverless, here are some things I've learned about how to keep remote culture great. Hint: it starts with leadership.

Remote companies need the right employees

Let’s be honest, for a lot of people, remote work seems ideal. They'll have some autonomy not always afforded in an office environment, freedom to work hours that are more conducive to their lifestyle, and pants aren’t (always) required.

But is it right for everyone? Probably not. It takes a ton of self-direction and self-motivation to do remote work well. And if this isn't something you're heavily screening for during the interview process, it could end up in unhappiness for both sides. Obvious previous remote work or independent work is ideal, but you won't find that in every candidate. So you have to make work expectations clear: yes, they'll have some work flexibility, but they can never miss meetings, and they'll still have to work a full day, they need to be in frequent contact with their team, etc. Speaking from personal experience, my previous company, Compose, took a chance on me. It totally worked out.

When new people do come on board, you'll need a way to make work visible. Allowing people to work silently in the dark can be to the detriment of an employee and the company. For example, everyone who joins Serverless gets a buddy to help navigate working at Serverless and get used to how we work, including remote work.

Companies also need to decide if remote is right for all positions. Even in a remote-first company, there may very well be a geographical need to mind. If you have a tech salesperson, it’s pretty important that salesperson live somewhere near a tech hub. Does your management team need regular meetings to hash things out? If so, they need to be in compatible time zones.

These are important factors that need to be addressed to make sure your culture works.

Communication is key

In an office, employees gather around the water cooler, grab lunch together, go out for events or drinks, and have opportunities for less formal communication with one another.

In a remote-first or remote-only environment, those water coolers don’t exist. You have to create a way for your team to chat. When you work remotely, Slack becomes your virtual office. We have a #team-chat channel for the team to talk, #misc channel for random junk, #music channel for sharing music, and #standups for daily standup checkins. And we use them. Not only that, we heavily invest in emoji reactions so people feel heard.

These specific channels provide a place for remote employees to connect with one another based on common interest, not just because they’re on the same team. It’s a great way to breakdown silos that naturally pop up.

One other key part of our communication at Serverless are gifs. We share gifs in presentations, in Slack, in email...pretty much anywhere we can. They show a little more about the personality of the person choosing them than a typed response.

Must be willing to try and fail

When something doesn’t work, the team has to be ready to have tough conversations, come together, and shift focus. You can’t do that without taking chances and being willing to fail. An idea may sound amazing on a call; when implemented, it may be just as awesome, or it may fall short. You don’t know until you try.

Take the Growth team here at Serverless: when I started, we were documenting everything we do in Confluence. Confluence is a powerful tool and is integral in how our company documents and communicates, but, at the end of the day, it was more than we needed. So, we sat down together during our company retreat to look at options. Ultimately, we landed on switching to Asana for tracking what we were working on.

Since we use Confluence company-wide, we still update the Growth page in Confluence with links to our Asana tasks. It’s easy to view the Kanban board and see what everyone is working on, and to click to show more details about the projects.

No substitute for face-to-face

Tools like Slack make communicating remotely so easy. We can get real-time feedback, collaborate, and get ideas right when we need them. But if that’s the only way we communicate, we’re going to fail at building relationships, our teams, and our culture.

We make video chats mandatory for meetings, and even use them just to talk casually now and then. Shortly after I joined Serverless, one of my teammates invited me to a 1-on-1 video chat just to get to know one another. We talked books, weight lifting, Christmas, the arts, friends, family, hometowns. In an hour of chatting, I felt like I made a friend on the team.

On a more “business” level, we have team syncs every Monday, I have 1-on-1s with everyone on the Growth team bi-weekly to catch up on projects and sync, and our team has an All Hands video call to go over company reports. During our All Hands, every team member builds a slide where we share some good things that have happened in our lives over the last two weeks and any challenges we’ve faced.

All of these things are great when it comes to building a team, but nothing replaces team retreats.

Every six months, the Serverless team comes together from around the world. We meet up in a central location, strategize for the next six months, prioritize projects, and present on how the company is growing. We also have team building activities like Battle of the Air Bands, and down time to sit and chat over a meal. We get the chance to visit and share with each team member, and develop real relationships that help us to better understand who we’re working with, what’s important to them, and how to better communicate.

Feedback is a must

One last key element to building and maintaining a culture with a distributed team is providing a channel for feedback. Serverless practices Radical Candor, which encourages and empowers each person on our team to provide candid feedback in an open and honest environment. This candor is an open dialogue between all levels of the company.

To make this work, you need buy-in, and wholehearted participation, from the leadership. Companies succeed when they take feedback from employees on what is working, what isn’t, and what could be done better. Teams succeed when managers listen to what employees need. It helps everyone. And that feedback must be acted on. When leadership listens, everyone feels like they have a voice and a stake in the company, which pushes each person to do more to guarantee success.

A remote-first culture isn’t easy to define, is tough to build, and takes constant nurturing to maintain. But at the end of the day, you have the opportunity to work with people from around the world, with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, all coming to together to make what you’re building that much better.


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