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5 Ways to Create a Strong Virtual Culture

Remote work makes your company culture vulnerable. Here’s how to build a strong remote culture.

By Gustavo Razzetti

October 12, 2020

Remote work isn’t going away anytime soon. On the contrary, despite the initial tensions, both companies and employees realize the many benefits of working from home.

However, adapting to new technologies and new ways of working is not the biggest challenge. The organizational culture is the most valuable asset at risk as companies continue to operate remotely. 

Gallup research shows that about 60% of employees cannot fully agree that they understand what their company stands for. The result is even worse for those working from home – remote employees feel even more disconnected from core cultural components.

Remote work puts trust to the test. People must believe that their colleagues will do their job at their own pace and time. Enabling a remote workforce is not business as usual. There are critical differences in working in-person or remotely: communication, trust, and collaboration must adjust.

Creating culture requires not only adapting to remote technology, but adopting a new mindset. In this piece, I will share the five most critical culture shifts to succeed in a remote work environment.

1. Focus on Outcome, Not Face Time

“Can you help me control whether my employees are actually working from home?” the CEO of a large financial services company asked me. It wasn’t the first time that I heard this kind of request and nor it would be the last. From bosses who want their teams to be on Zoom all day to managers who want to monitor what remote employees are doing, many fail to confuse face-time with productivity.

Most executives were raised to manage people that were at the same location. Visibility used to be a usual practice to manage people. Managers could observe who arrived on time or late and who was working at the computer. Their mindset is that being busy equals productivity.

The paradox is that people think that the further away people are, the more they need to check-in and see if they’re doing their work. The reality is that, the further people are from their bosses, the more trust and autonomy they need.

Remote work amplifies bad management practices. Controlling bosses become more controlling. Working remotely requires more than ever that managers understand that they need to focus on the output, not face time. Is work getting done? Are goals being met?

Netflix’s culture of freedom and responsibility provides a great playbook for organizations that want to succeed in working remotely. Have fewer rules and control while keeping the bar high, aligned on the desired outcome, and let people choose how to get there.

As Patty McCord, the co-author of Netflix’s culture code wrote on Powerful, “Great teams are not created with incentives, procedures, and perks. They are created by hiring talented people who are adults and want nothing more than to tackle a challenge, and then communicating to them, clearly and continuously, about what the challenge is.”

By focusing on the output, not face-time, managers can show their team members that they trust them, and remind them of what matters – the work, not just showing up.

Avoid hopping onto Zoom for daily check-ins by clearly defining success metrics for each employee and tracking these goals, often over Slack or other platforms. ​

2. Create Impromptu Virtual Team Rituals

Casual conversations and spontaneous encounters help to unearth and solve day-to-day problems quickly and effectively.

An important element of IKEA's culture are fikas – employees meet for a small-talk over coffee and a piece of cake. These impromptu conversations go to unexpected places and help solve workplace issues.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh believes in the power of “collisions” – running into different, diverse people encourages random conversations that end up in collaboration opportunities. To promote “collisions” Zappos reduced its density of office space to about 100 square feet per employee (one-third of average in the US). Research has shown that proximity increases the chances of people seeing each other and starting impromptu conversations.

But, what happens in a virtual environment?

Zappos is known for hosting dozens of company-wide events. The company translated that experience to a remote work setting by offering over 21 virtual rituals, including sending employees kits for Pride parades before everyone dialed in and celebrated together.

Zappos also sent a herb garden kit to those who signed up; people start posting pictures on the Slack channel and receive praise and feedback from colleagues. This ritual is inspired by the Llamaste Garden – a place of peace and reflection for all Zapponians ­– where everything harvested is shared and distributed among the employees.

Other companies encourage team members to have impromptu virtual coffees or schedule a five-minute “quick connect” with one colleague per day. The Slack app Donut can randomly choose a partner to serendipitously connect with for virtual coffee, peer learning, and more.

The key is to intentionally design rituals that promote human interactions, bonding, and collaboration.

3. Working Remotely Requires Balancing Synchronous and Asynchronous Activities

In a business world dictated by in-person meetings, people were trained to operate in synchronicity – working in the same place and simultaneously. However, operating remotely requires a different mindset, giving people more freedom to determine when they want to work.

Asynchronous means “not at the same time” – it involves sharing information, presentations, and documents that people can view in their own time, and then providing feedback at a future meeting or via tools like Teams, Slack, etc.

In a remote setting, mastering an asynchronous workflow is crucial to maximizing productivity, collaboration, and happiness. 100% remote companies, like GitLab, discourage the use of synchronous meetings – the company has no offices, and their 1,300+ employees determine the working hours that best suit their lifestyle.

Distributed Work - 5 Levels of Autonomy by Sam Harris

There are different models of remote working, as shown in the chart above. However, even if you don’t work 100% remotely, there are many benefits of incorporating asynchronous communication.

Turn information-sharing meetings into asynchronous ones. Jordan Husney, CEO of Parabol, recommends recording demos or presentations using the video app Loom, sharing it via Slack, and then having people provide feedback – when they can – on a team task board so progress can be monitored.

As Husney tells me, “Just eliminating information-sharing meetings off everybody’s calendar can save a team several hours a week: just think about how each person having more focus time, would positively impact team performance.”

Balancing synchronous and asynchronous interactions is vital to avoid dysfunctions and unnecessary stress (working from home requires people to adapt to other challenges such as homeschooling, their partner’s schedules, limited office capabilities, etc.).

Some tips to consider for balancing synchronous and asynchronous communication:

–- Get rid of the idea that teams need to meet all the time by making team members comfortable about working asynchronously.

– Use textual communications for teams that are spread across different time zones. Not only is this more inclusive (works with screen readers and translation tools), but it also helps document everything, making information available to all at the same time.

– Limit video calls to team building, learning, and brainstorming.

– Consider an always-on Zoom channel per team where people can hop on, linger however long they want, and see who’s there, thus encouraging impromptu conversations (a virtual version of watercooler conversations)

 – Recover the value of phone calls. Research shows that a sense of connection doesn’t come from seeing another person but rather from hearing their voice.

– For synchronous meetings, create a space where those that can’t attend in-person may send their ideas or comments recorded via video or in a textual format, so that everyone can participate even if they aren’t present.

Mastering the art of communicating asynchronously has a prerequisite: obsessive documentation. It’s a mindset shift which requires understanding that remote working doesn’t need the recipients to be available or actively working at the same time. Embrace a hybrid model.

As Husney reflects, “Just a short while ago, it was unfathomable for a team to consider giving up using email for internal communications and switching to a platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams. You, too, can make the shift from using a meeting to broadcast information and gathering feedback to using an “asynchronous” process to do the same.”

4. Remote Teams Document Everything (Yes, everything)

“The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory’” –  Chinese proverb.

Documentation is the foundation of successful remote teams, building stronger, more informed, trusting, and connected collaboration. When you’re working from your home, you don’t have the luxury of visiting someone’s desk to ask a question or join a conversation. It would be best to create an efficient way for people to find answers without needing human help.

GitLab recommends the following steps:

Establish a Remote Handbook

Create a single source of information that everyone can access and contribute to. You can start with a single company webpage or repository in Notion or Ask Almanac.

Everyone should put the time and effort into systematically documenting decisions, new research, changes to processes, etc.

Document Company Goals

Each department and team should document their quarterly goals or “objectives and key results” (OKRs). Goals should be discussed monthly and adjusted accordingly.

Document Onboarding

Create a single space for new employees to access everything they need to know about the company and their job.

GitLab provides onboarding buddies to support newcomers and hosts a GitLab 101 for new GitLabbers to ask questions.

Documents Instead of Water Cooler Conversations

As mentioned before, written documentation is more inclusive than water-cooler conversations – everyone can provide input, not just those whom are present.

By documenting everything, you can ensure no one is left out of the conversation and that all perspectives are considered.

Make Documentation Everyone’s Responsibility

GitLab’s employees embrace a “pay-it-forward” mentality; by helping new employees gain all the answers; they train them to do the same.

Making documentation everyone’s responsibility ensures inclusion and avoids the burden of having a few people take care of it.

Document Your Virtual Meetings

Make meetings optional, inviting only those who can or want to attend. Build a clear intention and agenda for each meeting so people can come prepared, take notes, and document everything for absent attendees.

Parabol offers a meeting app that helps facilitate effective meetings, from check-ins or team building to team retrospectives. Although it was developed with agile teams in mind, any team looking to conduct powerful, well-documented meetings can benefit from using it.

Documentation is both a science and an art. It takes time to develop the right approach. Initially, it requires a lot of time and effort, but it helps save a lot of energy – and avoid mistakes – in the long-run. I strongly recommend that you download and read GitLab’s Remote Playbook for more insights on effective documentation.

5. Build Trust Remotely

I left this idea for last – even it’s the most critical for success – for one reason. I wanted to first address the unique remote working challenges and then address trust within that context.  

The more meetings a team has, the lower the trust. Controlling managers and organizations use meetings to “see” their people and feel in charge.

Working remotely requires an extra level of trust: “Can I trust that people will get things done without checking in or forcing a status meeting?” 

Operating asynchronously can quickly lead to a breakdown; it requires a mindset shift and builds trust faster to deal with issues related to (a lack of) visibility, time zones, flexibility, miscommunication, and personal stress. How can you move from cognitive trust to an emotional trust?

Martha Maznevski, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Western Ontario, describes this shift as moving from “head trust” to “heart trust.”

“Head Trust” is the belief that someone will do what they say they are going to do. It comes from experience with the other person’s expertise, capabilities, skills, and conscientiousness. “Heart Trust,” on the other hand, is the belief that someone will look after your interests as much as they can, especially when you are not there.

Trust is crucial to avoid small issues from escalating. As the GitLab handbook reads, “Someone who took the afternoon off shouldn’t feel like they did something wrong. You don’t have to defend how you spend your day. If you are working too long hours, talk to your manager to discuss solutions.”

Head Trust is necessary to form any team – it’s the belief that you have the right team members. However, Heart Trust is vital to deal with complex tasks, ambiguity, and uncertainty – it requires that people behave as one, even without everyone being present and when facing uncertainty.

As Jordan Husney said, “Any manager has to balance thinking about the goals of the team (i.e., its work outputs) vs. how the team works together. While shifting to remote work has been difficult for many, one thing is true: it’s forced us to think more about how we work together, and how we leverage technology to work together. The reset in this balance has opened all sorts of new possibilities for changing work for the better.”

Working remotely challenges how teams play and work together. Balancing asynchronous and synchronous tasks is challenging. Adapting to different tools and dynamics requires building “Heart Trust,” not just “Head Trust.” Team members should rely on their colleagues to take care of their interests when they are not there.

Being flexible is crucial to course correct and deal with changing priorities. Inclusivity helps incorporate everyone’s perspectives and see what is working and what isn’t.

Fully benefiting from working remotely is a journey, not a destination. Your culture is at risk. However, adopting the right mindsets will help you come out the other side, more agile and stronger.

Do you need help building a stronger remote culture? Reach out and let’s discuss how we can help you.

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