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Building Company Culture with Remote Teams

Building trust, camaraderie and social strength into a remote workforce requires intentional focus and a multi-faceted approach. Here's our three-pillar strategy and some examples of how each takes shape in our own digital work world.

We’ve heard all the stereotypes about remotely distributed teams. Even after more than a decade of working remotely (pretty successfully, too), we still encounter confusion around how our teams can actually be, well, teams.

Certainly, building trust, camaraderie and social strength into a remote workforce requires intentional focus and a multi-faceted approach, but it’s more than possible. In fact, we’ve found that everything from one-on-one relationships to company-wide office culture can uniquely thrive in a remote work setup.

Following, we break down how this happens, narrowing in on three pillars that support our vibrant remote work company culture and examples of how each takes shape in our own digital work world.

Leadership that serves empathetically

Not only are those real, breathing, thinking, feeling humans on the other side of the screen, you are a real, breathing, thinking, feeling human, too. Your peers and employees will act how you act. This is true in physical office spaces, but especially true when you’re working together online, where it’s a different kind of challenge to “read a room.”

As a leader, your every communication, whether via words in an email or facial expressions on a video call, can make your company’s vibe a nerve-racking, high-alert situation or a friendly, welcoming workspace. Everyone takes their cues from you—especially while working remote.

TL;DR: Actions speak louder than multi-page Google Doc manifestos.

How we make it happen at Modern Tribe:

  • Let our personality show. On a video call, we can practically see the tension melt from attendees’ faces and shoulders when we smile or offer a personal anecdote that lets them get to know us beyond being the boss. Once a quarter or so, we also conduct an Ask Me Anything Q&A session via our #ama Slack channel, where the team can ask any and all questions of leadership. Participants follow the threads they’re most interested in and, even if they don’t ask a question, get to know us better by our responses. AMAs achieve two things: 1) Reinforce the transparency and trust we value as a business, and 2) put leadership in front of the entire team, which is particularly helpful since it’s not like we’ll just run into each other in the break room and get familiar that way.
  • Participate as a peer. Our team is based around the world, so we have interesting conversations about seemingly everything—from pop culture to international news to pie crust recipes. It’s important for leaders to contribute to these conversations and engage as, like we already established, the IRL humans they are. For example, a leader asking amateur questions in our agency’s Slack #running channel creates an opportunity to interact and helps break down any intimidation a hierarchy can impose.
  • Don’t hide when we’re frazzled. Can’t figure out how to share your screen? Gotta open a door for the whining dog? Need to pause on a project to complete another task? We’ve been there, and we’re honest about it, which gives our teams confidence to similarly raise their hands when they need help or simply need a break. This level of trust and openness is essential when working remotely; you can’t feel your team’s anxiety building or see the workstreams stopping like you can when you’re working physically side by side. Radical honesty helps you see everyone’s blind spots and troubleshoot early.

Teams that share individually

This is where three Cs come into (literal) play: curiosity, collaboration, and communication. Team exercises are safe spaces to ask random questions, learn how one another communicates without the pressure of a deadline, and get to know each member’s skills and interests outside of their job descriptions (which could come in handy on later projects).

The friendly feeling “teamwork” establishes will influence another C that’s imperative to most projects: creativity. It’s difficult to brainstorm and throw out crazy ideas—ideas that can transform into new client solutions—when you don’t feel comfortable with your team. But is it billable? Who cares. A strong remote work company culture is necessary for good work. And good work pays the bills.

TL;DR: Prioritize team-building exercises that are more than just another meeting.

How we make it happen at Modern Tribe:

  • Make time for work-related team development. It doesn’t have to be much to make a difference. Recently our Team 5 (composed of developers, designers, a strategist and a project manager), met for short bursts of time to create a team vision statement, a self-governing document that detailed their big-picture goals and interpersonal expectations. Then they shared their experience during our company-wide All Hands meeting, showing everyone that our leadership values and encourages this kind of work. Our agency teams, which are numbered one through five, have also found low-key avenues for work bonding, like giving themselves fun names for internal reference. Lookin’ at you, Miracle WIP, Dream Team, The Best Team, TeamTeamTeam (aka Team 3), and … Team Leonard.
  • Schedule virtual get-togethers. One of our teams does a regular pizza party, where they eat lunch together (preferably pizza) and talk. Our project managers start each meeting with a group activity, like desk yoga or a collaborative mindfulness exercise. And every team member’s calendar is dotted with team and company-wide invites, during which we can all call into Zoom and hangout virtually; these include evening “happy hours” (alcohol not required) and morning “coffee breaks” for our early risers or those who can’t hang out after work.
  • Create opportunities to see each other as individuals. In our onboarding process, we include a required step for new recruits to add a real photograph of themselves as their avatars on all our tech tools and platforms (email, Slack, Jira, etc.). This way we know what everyone looks like and can better recognize each other on a call. Speaking of video calls, we always turn our cameras on unless there’s a good reason not to. It’s weird talking to a blank screen.

A company that connects holistically

If defining your company’s culture proves elusive, the problem could be that you’re not considering all the factors that contribute to company culture. How are you coalescing your larger community around the principles of your brand and cultural values, while also giving them room to contribute and evolve the conversation themselves?

There’s the obvious: annual events, team outings and scheduled hang time. These are easy wins when it comes to building camaraderie. But a strong culture should also be staked by community-wide standards that are applicable from the top down, so everyone feels safe, un-harassed and welcome to contribute.

Some things to keep in mind: All HR in-office rules apply online and are important for setting boundaries around acceptable forms of interaction; even remote employees are your brand ambassadors; and inside jokes (jokes HR would smile upon, of course) are little things that can go a long way. Bring all these ideas together, and you’ll have earned a taco emoji (we’ll explain).

TL;DR: A tangible culture is formed by inclusive traditions and transparency, which allow organic relationships to grow.

How we make it happen at Modern Tribe:

  • Start as early as onboarding. We talk to new employees about our company’s key values and attributes, and we clearly outline the conduct we expect from them across channels. This includes training on creating a respectful workplace culture, managing unconscious bias, and education on how microagressions can manifest in an all-remote environment (and how we address them when they arise). We record our annual State of the Tribe presentations as well as town hall meetings, which are chock full of important information about our company. We publish these recordings on our intranet for those who can’t attend and for our new employees to watch during their onboarding. On Slack, we share photos and bios contributed by new employees on their very first day via our #announcements channel, where we also celebrate daily work anniversaries and birthdays. Onboarding to a “culture” can feel impersonal, so we keep things light, too: One of our product strategists, Leah, creates funny artwork for all new employees, which we mail to them as part of a surprise, swag-filled, personalized welcome package. Here’s Tyla, QA Analyst, in one of Leah’s finest masterpieces.
  • Create traditions, but don’t force them. Mandatory fun is no fun at all! But don’t be afraid to establish recurring events or opportunities for employees to socialize together. We have a Dungeons and Dragons club that’s currently doing a DND campaign, as well as occasional ad hoc game nights, where we’ve played video games and digital board games together online. There’s also our Cookie Swap; during the holiday season, our Cookie Commissioner assigns each participant someone to bake (or, let’s be honest, buy) cookies for, which we then ship to each other all over the world. We post photos of our goodies in our #cookie-swap Slack channel. Most importantly, we make time for in-person interaction. Every year our team travels to a new destination, preferably somewhere with a beach, to talk tech (or not!) and get to know each other in person—it’s an annual gathering we cherish.
  • Let your tech in on the joke. As our examples demonstrate, a company can lean heavily on a multi-layer chat tool like Slack to create a bonded community despite the distance. We have channels for pretty much everything, where we talk about work projects, sure, but also recipes, parenting woes, fitness tips, wanderlust goals, and pet photo sharing. We also leverage our ever-evolving digital skills to keep running jokes going strong: The bot HeyTaco has inspired a Modern Tribe tradition of sharing taco emojis as trophies for a job well done, or there’s also the AaronIpsum generator, built by Marketing Producer Hazel using randomized words from Senior Backend Developer Aaron’s always entertaining Slack messages. What about when we need something team-related we can actually get our hands on? There’s a Modern Tribe Swag Shop for that.

Help your employees feel at home while they work from home.

In addition to our day-to-day work from home tips, we can offer our expertise on finding your rhythm as a distributed team and creating a future-facing, intentionally flexible business with a strong remote work company culture.

Email to set up some Q&A time with our leadership team. We can also coordinate a custom webinar for our crew to get together with yours and brainstorm potential solutions to your new remote work challenges. Physical office not necessary.