How to actively build and maintain culture in a remote workplace

Team and organizational culture is something that must be thoughtfully created and fostered, especially in a distributed workforce.

Woman in video meeting

Image: iStock/dusanpetkovic

Everyone knows workplace culture is important, yet for many technology leaders culture was an ethereal idea best left for the folks in HR to worry about. However, savvy leaders have long recognized that culture could make or break their teams' long-term ability to perform at a high level. A focus on culture became especially important in the seemingly quaint pre-COVID era, when it was a "seller's market" for technology talent, and the culture of your group could be a key differentiator when recruiting or retaining staff.

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Concerns about culture were easy to leave by the wayside as we responded to more pressing concerns, yet I've seen surprising variations in different company and team cultures. As someone who previously visited and interacted with many different companies in their physical offices, I now have the opportunity to interact with an even larger group of companies and teams as I drop into their remote workplaces via Teams or Zoom. Working remotely has been treated as a bit of a monolithic activity, yet there are surprising cultural nuances among different companies that are worth understanding and actively grooming in your own organization.

Plan your culture or you might not like the result

Perhaps the biggest failing in creating and maintaining culture is a failure to consider what kind of culture you as a leader want to create and maintain. Organizations that are admired for their company cultures didn't get there by accident and didn't magically hire people that accidentally created that admired culture through some individual trait. Rather, they actively planned what kind of culture they wanted for their organization or team, and then considered whether their actions contributed to or took away from that culture. For companies with extremely strong cultures like Amazon, everything from the language system that employees use, to the timing and number of people you invite to a meeting have been carefully planned to contribute to the company's culture, which is formally spelled out in Amazon's Leadership Principles.

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If you assume that culture is just some magical thing that you have no control over, your team will likely emulate your behaviors, for better or worse. If you consistently arrive late to meetings due to an overcrowded schedule, your culture certainly won't include punctuality and may devolve into a chronic disdain for meetings. Even simple things like complaining to peers about your thousands of unread emails will slowly, subtly, and surely create a culture where reading and responding to emails is not viewed as important.

Managing and fostering culture becomes doubly important in a remote work environment because your teams' exposure to you comes in concentrated doses and we lack the physical cues and informal interactions that accompany office life. Expressing frustration or offering dozens of apologies when your wayward child comes into your home office creates the cultural expectation that interruptions to remote work are not acceptable, a rather difficult burden to foist onto your teams that might be contending with entire families at home and an untenable balancing act of work and family obligations. Similarly, spending half of a scheduled meeting talking about an object in your office, or doting over your children might go too far in the opposite extreme, sending the message that video interactions are primarily social affairs and one need not come prepared to work or deliver at their best.

Start with empathy

The easiest place to start as you consider your team culture in the era of the remote workplace is with empathy, putting yourself in your team members' shoes and asking yourself what kind of culture would allow different individuals to do their best work. The intern who's living in a small apartment will have different concerns than the VP working in a spacious suburban home with a dedicated office. Teams might be missing informal social interactions and need an outlet to feel connected with their colleagues.

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Write down three to six statements that you'd like an employee to make when asked about the culture of his or her team. You might even ask your team for input, or test those statements to determine if they're directionally correct, or particular items resonate more or less than others. With some guiding principles established, pick one item from the list, and determine two or three things you as the leader of the group can do to foster that statement and bring it to life. For example, if one of your statements is "I feel connected to my team members at a personal level" then some of your activities could be "Create an informal group for planning and testing remote socials on Friday afternoons." Another might be "Embrace interruptions by showing interest and empathy when a team member has an interruption."

With some forethought and relatively simple behavioral examples that you as a leader demonstrate, you can maintain your carefully crafted culture or begin the process of retooling an accidental culture created due to a lack of attention paid to maintaining your culture as you struggled with other concerns.

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