Remote Startup: Part 3 - Remote Culture
Part 1 of this playbook was all about legalities and logistics; Part 2 covered your remote work policy and tools. In Part 3 (this article), we’ll give you some handy resources to build or re-ignite remote teams.
First we’ll take you through the 6 pillars of culture. They are the building blocks that can be applied to any type of framework: fully remote, hybrid and even in-person, if you have a team that spends 100% of their time in the office.
But since remote working comes with its own set of challenges, in the second section we’ll give you tips and show you what to watch out for when managing a distributed team.
Last — we’ll close with a good dose of insights and inspiration. Who doesn’t need some?
Is culture that important for remote companies?
In remote companies, people predominantly work on their own, manage their time and keep themselves motivated. So culture is not really that important, right? More of the opposite.
Whilst being autonomous and organised is an important prerequisite you should look for when hiring your team, there are some factors (or lack thereof) that make culture even more critical when adopting a remote framework:
- Human contact. A casual chat in the kitchen prepares the ground for when employees get together to work on complex projects. Whilst you might try to deliberately hire extroverted people (they seem to be easier to build rapport with, right?) you’d find that sometimes the best fit for the role is an introvert who needs a warm-up or an ice-breaker.
- Physical proximity. Bumping into someone in the corridor or in the lift works as a reminder: “Oh, here is Mark. I completely forgot to let him know about the integration plan. Let me tell him it's coming.”
- Communication. Having teams that can work autonomously is a desirable outcome… to a point. Too much independence can lead to isolation and silos if smaller groups start to set their own agenda. When the lines of communication get severed, individuals and teams veer off the direction set by their manager or the company itself.
- Collaboration. Solving complex problems requires talents with different skills, approaches and backgrounds. Cross-functional, multidisciplinary teams can even help you survive a recession. But when teams don’t gel and recognise each other’s contribution, they can’t be efficient nor innovative.
- Innovation. Can you guess what the two key ingredients of an environment that promotes innovation are? Yes, you got it: communication and collaboration.
As you can see, culture has a direct impact on your company’s output and productivity.
The 6 pillars of culture
A great place to start is to ask yourself: what does great culture mean to me? What’s the end result? And is it the same for my team?
Spoiler alert! At the end of the article, we’ll see how a CEO of a tech startup realised that his approach to work was very different from his team’s and how he had to make adjustments to his leadership style.
O.C. Tanner, a leading research and education institute on corporate culture, has identified six key elements to consider when defining the best practices for your company:
But don’t worry, we will save you the academic dissertation and go for a more practical approach. Because we know you’re busy.
For each of the pillars we’ll give you some key questions, quick takeaways, and examples from startups that are walking the talk. And if you ever want to go down the rabbit hole, we’ve also included some recommended reads for each of the pillars.
Key Question: very few companies can clearly articulate why they do what they do. What is their purpose behind the product or service they offer?
Is your organisation clearly communicating its vision and do employees understand how their work contributes to it?
Takeaway: successful organisations have adopted a community mindset to connect with employees and help them find meaning in their work, increase their sense of belonging, and feel more fulfilled.
Example: as a company that helps people achieve their life goals by delivering tailored benefits packages, Evive has a cause-centric culture. They support employees’ interests by providing opportunities to volunteer or start a passion project. They also implement programs, such as the ‘Go green’ initiative that inspired employees to reduce their ecological footprint, both at work and in their personal lives.
Recommended Read: Start with why — Simon Sinek
Key Question: are you creating space for growth and learning by empowering smart, risk-taking collaboration and decision-making?
Are you giving your people the freedom to fail?
Takeaway: success in startups comes from learning from the inevitable stream of mistakes you make along the way. In the right environment, failures become opportunities to develop and do things differently.
Example: at Spanx, CEO and founder Sara Blakeley holds an “oops meeting” where she talks through a recent mistake she’s made. To keep things light, she usually ends her story with a semi-choreographed dance to a song whose lyrics relate to her mistake in some way.
Recommended Read: Black Box Thinking — Matthew Syed
Key Question: Do your employees know what success looks like? And how are you celebrating wins, both big and small?
Takeaway: setting clear objectives helps make tough choices on business priorities. To make sure everyone works towards those goals, communicate them throughout the company, from entry level to CEO, and have a system to track progress by collecting relevant data at regular intervals.
Example: Entrepreneurs Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google with revolutionary technology and a compelling vision, but no business plan. Venture capitalist John Doerr taught them how to apply the proven operating excellence approach based on Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). He explains how he first came across OKRs during his time at Intel and how this technique of setting simple goals with specific, measurable actions within a set time frame has supported some of the most successful business ventures since.
Recommended Read: Measure What Matters — John Doerr
Key Question: is great work being acknowledged and are you giving recognition in a personal and sincere way?
Most managers do not put recognition high on their list of priorities, thus bypassing one of the most effective ways to boost morale, performance, and productivity. In what way are you different from them?
Even when managers believe they are showing appreciation, employees often feel undervalued and unacknowledged. What system do you use to understand if your team is feeling appreciated?
Takeaway: showing authentic appreciation to your employees for their work helps them feel positive about their jobs, motivated and committed to contribute to the company’s goals.
According to O.C. Tanner, a powerful way to show appreciation is to harness the power of symbols (such as awards) and present them as part of a timely and personalised ritual.
Remember: there are different ways to communicate appreciation and encouragement to others. An individual will value a certain language more than another.
Example: Asana has harnessed the power of recognition in a few different ways. They use the final five minutes of their weekly meetings to offer kudos or show gratitude — at all levels, not just from the top-down.
When it comes to cross-company appreciation, Asana also uses a flag, which during company all-hands is transferred to a team in recognition for a recent achievement or contribution. Asana also has “Love” projects, where people post appreciation for individuals, teams, or causes they care about.
Recommended Read: The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace
Key Question: what are you doing to make your employees feel like they really belong? And are you really listening?
Takeaway: employees’ sense of fulfilment increases when organisations create an environment that supports work-life balance and individual growth, and fosters a thriving workplace community.
Example: Hasbro’s Employee Networks bring people of diverse backgrounds together to share innovative ideas, and suggest business solutions for the company. They help accomplish business goals tied to Hasbro's mission, purpose and culture, and create a platform for employees to build deeper connections with each other.
Hasbro regularly conducts employee surveys and, in 2021, they started conducting annual employee engagement surveys to gather feedback on priorities, performance and growth, and ensure their employees feel valued and empowered to deliver their best every day.
Recommended Read: 11 Books To Read If You Want To Be A More Inclusive Leader
Key Question: are you a leader-breeder? Are you fostering leaders capable of mentoring and inspiring? Can they help employees connect to one another and feel included?
Drawing lessons from military protocol, parenthood and evolutionary theory, Leaders Eat Last provides a wide range of examples of how to navigate stress in the workplace and foster an environment that lets teams do their best work.
Takeaway: for startup founders, the concept that good leaders empower their teams to function on their own is crucial.
Leaders are employees, too. Increasing their recognition and reducing their stress will improve leadership and reduce burnout.
Example: Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, believes that: “Organisations need to completely rethink what they are about and what it means to lead. It’s not about one person or even those residing at the top anymore. In today’s world, everyone has to adopt a leadership mindset. We have to think of ourselves as members of a leadership community.”
Recommended Read: Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't
How is your company culture? How do you perform across the six pillars of culture? Use O.C. Tanner Institute’s culture checklist to understand in which area you’re doing great and where you need to level up your game:
Boosting culture in remote workspaces
Before we get into this section, let’s clear the air. Probably no one has nailed remote working yet.
Certainly, many companies have made strides since 2020, when the whole world got thrown into remote working from one day to another. But no CEO could say they have found the perfect recipe for remote working. Undoubtedly, the companies that are getting the best results are the ones who have experimented with different approaches and have embraced failure — remember the second pillar?
Here are some tips and watch outs to help you boost your remote culture. Take the time to try, test and digest them to find what works best for your team.
- Make the most of remote working. The CEO of a small company in Manila was amazed to see that, when given the freedom, many of his devs preferred working at different times of day and night (as late - or early - as 3am). The biggest surprise was seeing their productivity increase since going remote.
- Get physical. When it comes to human connection, nothing beats in-person, face-to-face interactions. Even if your staff is spread across the world, plan a yearly event to hang out, celebrate wins and get excited for the year ahead (which is exactly what we do at Luno).
- Get virtual. If meeting in person is not an option, don’t give up the benefits of the real world. As mentioned in Part 1, you can set up a virtual water cooler or build digital spaces for your distributed team to interact.
- Focus on communication. With reduced physical interaction and human contact, it is even more important to communicate with your team. Schedule regular meetings to discuss the progress on projects, but don’t forget to check how employees are feeling in relation to their inclusion and contribution to the broader company goals.
- Foster healthy and courageous communication. Sincere communication is the only way to test the level of engagement of your staff. Try to embrace Radical Candor and encourage your team to have difficult conversations.
- Local culture impacts global interaction. As shown in The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, the ways people from different cultures talk and behave has a direct impact on team performance and business outcomes.
- Every employee is different. Even if coming from the same country or city, remember that people are all wired differently and it is important to adapt to their language of appreciation.
- Culture can’t be delegated. Everyone needs to be a culture leader and an employee experience advocate.
- Don’t try to force it. Even if you have a clear idea on what creates great culture, don’t be too prescriptive. If you allow people to opt-in and out and give them enough time, you’ll have better chances of succeeding.
- Great culture doesn’t happen by chance. Leaders must start by consciously adopting practices and behaviours of the workplace they aspire to create, but a healthy culture requires consistent commitment from everyone. Remember: this is a long-term game.
Mary Kay Ash’s statement, “a company is only as good as the people it keeps”, still rings true in times of Web 3.0, decentralisation and token-based economics.
So what's one more thing you need to get you started on your journey towards the ideal remote culture for your startup? The insights and thought-provoking reflections of some inspirational leaders, of course.
Kelly Jackson, Chief People Officer, Luno:
“One of the most impactful [policies we have implemented] is our ‘Remote but Reachable’. This is the ultimate in providing Lunauts with the flexibility in when, how and where they get work done. Whilst we know that overwhelmingly flexibility at work supports women, especially mothers who still tend to be the primary caregiver, actually we’re really proud of how this policy supports diversity beyond gender.”
Mike Adams, Founder & CEO, Grain.com (full LinkedIn post here):
Aaron Hurst, Author, and Kathrin Belliveau, Chief Purpose Officer at Hasbro:
“When pursuing an employee experience that engages workers, companies too often make the mistake of looking at only one-size-fits-all solutions. They vow to provide more flexibility, opportunities, and an inclusive culture. While these factors matter, they don’t cover what is often the most important one that’s missing: a personal sense of fulfilment.