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Toolkit: How to Build a Strong Culture in Remote and Hybrid Teams

Building culture remotely is hard, but not impossible. Try these exercises. You don't need an office for that.

By Gustavo Razzetti

November 10, 2021

15 tools to build culture remotely – you don't need an office for that

"How do you build and sustain culture in a remote environment?" or "How can I keep my culture alive if people are in office only a few days?" I hear these questions often at Fearless Culture. Both CEOs and team leaders reach out worried that the culture will suffer because of the hybrid workplace revolution.

Remote work is here to stay. That's my immediate answer. Rather than forcing people to spend more at the office – to sustain culture – the question is: How can we build a strong company culture despite teams working remotely?

In this post, I will answer that. And I will share 15 actionable tools to help you build a strong remote culture.

Note: Most organizations are experimenting with different hybrid models –remote-first, hybrid teams, digital-first, distributed, etc. To keep it simple, I will primarily use "remote" over "hybrid" or others.

The Challenges of Building Culture Remotely

Remote work is far from perfect. It has many challenges. However, it provides lots of benefits for employees and businesses alike – from increased productivity and engagement to flexibility and meaningful work.

Building a strong remote-first team culture requires more than just fun team activities or icebreakers. It's about facilitating stronger relationships, communication, and collaboration.

Managing a distributed team – a mix of employees working from the office, home, or both – requires more intentionality, process, and rules.

Yes, balancing flexibility and accountability requires principles and design to avoid turning it into chaos.

Some of the most common challenges for remote teams include: Hiring and onboarding new employees, overcoming cultural barriers, dealing with communication issues, keeping the culture alive, balancing freedom and performance, adopting asynchronous-first collaboration, and promoting psychological safety in a remote environment.

This toolkit includes team exercises, rituals, principles, and conversation starters. They will help you deal with the challenges of managing your team - building culture – in a remote environment.

The curated tools go beyond the usual bonding and team-building activities, focusing on areas that create a more profound, long-term impact. Experiment with them and see which ones stick.

A good rule of thumb: If one tool serves your fully remote team members – the employees who feel the most disengaged – it will also benefit the broader, hybrid company culture.

Successful team bonding helps people to do their best and most fulfilling work together. It boosts communication, collaboration, and trust. Here are 15 specially curated tools to get you started.

Tools to Build Culture in Remote Teams

1. Washing Instructions

Never take colleagues for granted. Before assuming how people want to be treated, read their washing instructions.

This activity – created by agile coach Pia-Maria Thorén – uses laundry labels (Do Not Bleach, Hand Wash, Natural Dry, etc.) as a metaphor to describe how team members want to be treated.

For example:

• Don't talk to me before I've had my two espressos

• I like to listen to music when I work

• I hate when men interrupt me

• Please do not distract me if I am in a productive flow

• I take things personally – handle me with care

This activity will help you understand your colleagues, their habits and peculiarities, and increase belonging. "You, too, want to be treated delicately?"

Variation: Invite people to design their own washing instructions labels.

2. Challenge Assumptions about Others

Each team member is not only unique, but also multidimensional. That we know one of their sides doesn't mean we could guess the others.

The "I Am, But I Am Not" is a provocative activity by Stonehill College that encourages team members to challenge their assumptions about others' traits. It's a great reminder of our biases – an invitation to let go of stereotypes and open our minds.

  • Create a MURAL board with everyone's name on it
  • Add open mad libs with the following structure: "I am _____, but I am not _____."
  • Ask team members to reflect on who they are and the wrongful assumptions others (can) make because of that particular trait
  • Encourage participants to write as many statements as possible – at least five per person
  • Allow teammates to share theirs – one at a time – and then reflect on what they discovered about others and themselves
  • Before wrapping up, debrief as a team on what everyone can do better to avoid stereotypes getting in the way of collaboration
Activity and image shared by Manal Sayid

3. Onboarding Buddy

The primary experience of a new employee can make or break your culture. The first five people with whom a new hire talks dramatically shapes how they'll perceive the organization. Pair them with the wrong people and culture will suffer.

Well-designed onboarding experiences are critical to help people understand the "way we do things around here." They should also provide emotional support to help people feel welcomed as well as quickly navigate the system.

This is especially challenging for remote employees.

Assigning an onboarding buddy can ease the pain. Buddies help new hires get acquainted and share knowledge on company policies, norms and rules, behaviors that are rewarded or punished, etc. Most importantly, they become the go-to person to support the new employee during their first three months.

At Microsoft, new hires with assigned onboarding buddies showed a 36% increase in overall work satisfaction at the 90-day mark.

The buddy system also works in a group setting. Being part of a group makes it easier for everyone to support each other.

Miro onboards remote employees in cohorts to help build strong relationships. Crazy Egg, a SaaS startup, assigns "squad hosts" to every group of new hires to create a comfortable environment, while "functional stewards" are there to offer technical support.

The buddy system accelerates results by providing a more human experience. Doing it in cohorts helps create a sense of community between new employees.

4. Walk in Your Team's Shoes

Perspective-taking is the perfect exercise to mentally walk in someone else's shoes. It develops empathy by inviting team members to reflect on the challenges minority groups face, becoming more supportive and understanding.

Guide the team through this activity following these steps:

  1. Have all team members share their backgrounds considering multiple characteristics (education, sexual orientation, race, religion, etc.) – capture all responses to codify the diverse profile of the team
  2. Pair each team member with someone whose background is completely different from their own across one or many variables
  3. Have each person write a few lines on the unique challenges they imagine their partner has to deal with because of their background
  4. Encourage each duo to share and discuss findings
  5. Debrief with the entire team

Perspective-taking produces more empathic teams, according to research. It helps build positive attitudes and behaviors toward minorities.

5. Eliminate the Noise

This is not about getting rid of sound, but the clutter. Having too many ideas after brainstorming is daunting, clouding people's judgment and critical judgment.

Exhaustion can drive to groupthink or aim for the lowest common denominator – the best ideas are usually the ones that are killed.

Rather than "idea selection," practice "noise elimination."

I've been using this approach with remote teams with excellent results. Before voting on all ideas, encourage the team to eliminate those that are a distraction. Start by removing ideas that offer nothing new, are too conservative, or don't necessarily solve the problem at hand.

Now challenge the remaining ideas – one by one. Is this a concept that we feel proud of? Will this idea take us to the next level? How will I feel tomorrow if this is the only idea that gets approved? Use similar questions to complete this second elimination round.

Once you've eliminated the noise, it's easier to evaluate fewer ideas with more attention and less pressure.

6. Avoid the Office

Contrary to popular belief, working at the office should be the last resource. The office space should be treated like an offsite – a space for reflection and deep collaboration. Also, consider how it can level the playing field for those who live far away from the office.

Innovation facilitator Grace Lau shared with me her experience with new, virtually-formed teams. Team members who live close to the office deliberately decided NOT to meet face-to-face. This wasn't a rule that the leader imposed, but rather a principle the team adopted.

The point wasn't about meeting or not meeting in person. The team's decision was about sending a clear message to those who live far away from the office. It was an act of empathy and awareness to overcome the proximity bias. By leveling the playing field, everyone felt respected, building solid relationships.

Being at the office should be the last resource: use it for action, not a distraction.

7. Celebrate Mission Moments

How can people live their purpose when they are not at the office? Purpose, values, and principles feel even more fluffy when people are not together. However, it doesn't have to be that way.

At Signify Health, a US-based healthcare-tech company, employees are on a mission to change how care is paid for and delivered so people can enjoy more healthy, happy days at home. Through technology, analytics, and networks. Signify Health lessens dependencies on facilities and prevents adverse events.

So, how do you make people rally around such an audacious mission?

Through action, not words. That’s where the power of storytelling comes to play. Signify Health uses Mission Moments to connect associates with the company purpose.

Mission Moments are short but powerful stories told by real people. Customers and clients celebrate how their lives have improved thanks to the work of Signify Health associates.

The stories are captured in videos and played in remote company events throughout the year. Each video portrays a unique human story, connecting people’s work with the company’s purpose.

Mission Moments also play a key role in connecting engineers, data scientists, and technologist with something bigger than themselves – the human side of their work.

8. Work Less, Achieve More

More work doesn't mean better performance. Overwork harms your team's motivation, productivity, and creativity. Sometimes, less is more.

Switching off not only helps teams recover, but also do more meaningful work. That's one of Buffer's key lessons after implementing a four-day workweek for almost two years. The extra day builds in reflection time that teams usually don't have. It creates a space to solve problems while they're not working.

Buffer's CEO Joel Gascoigne explains the journey, "In the beginning, we experimented with teams deciding the day, but knowing which day and having adequate time for cross-team collaboration was a challenge. Frankly, it felt quite chaotic. Now, we do Fridays other than Customer Advocacy which rotates the day."

Working one less day doesn't mean accomplishing less. On the contrary, it means working harder. People feel driven to do great work in those "precious" four days.

With greater freedom and flexibility comes greater responsibility, too.

As Gascoigne adds, "(A four-day week) should feel like a privilege, not entitlement. So, if you get your tasks and goals for the week done, awesome - take that day off. If you didn't quite do enough for us to reach our goals, spend part of Friday working."

9. Nothing About Me Without Me

This principle has become a rallying cry of collaborative decision-making advocates. It started in the health care space – no doctor should make decisions about people's health without their input – and quickly infiltrated the workplace.

"Nothing about me without me" is a principle that ensures people are consulted during decision-making.

If a decision will affect people’s jobs, future, personal lives, etc., it makes total sense to include them in the process. It doesn't mean that the final decision will keep everyone happy, but that every voice will be heard and considered.

Many organizations use an advisory process to take care of this. Although there are many variations, the essence is the same. The Advice Process, a term coined by Dennis Bakke from AES Corporation, states that before making a decision, you must first seek advice from:

  • Everyone who will be significantly affected by the decision
  • People with expertise in the topic at hand

Hugo, a meeting software company, applies a weighted voting system for making decisions. The vote of those affected by the decision weighs 2X those of the rest. This approach is built on the principle of "nothing about me without me."

Respecting people requires including them in the decision-making process, especially when the outcome will directly affect them. However, looking for advice doesn't equal consensus.

10. Share the Virtual Jetlag Pain

Nothing makes a team stronger than dealing with hardship together. Sharing the pain is the secret sauce for high-performing virtual teams. That's one of David Burkus' key pieces of advice to make a remote team feel like a team.

Considering the different time zones – and rotating meeting times – ensures every teammate gets their fair share of convenient meetings, late nights, and early mornings.  

Have a deep respect for your colleagues' time zones. In Fearless Culture, we alternate our open workshops to adapt the time to attendees from all continents. Sometimes, it's our team who stays late until midnight, so participants don't have to.

Use online tools to be more aware of the different time zones or find the most convenient day or moment for everyone – when it's Friday for you, it could be Saturday for others.

The world clock meeting planner makes it easier to schedule meetings while visualizing everyone's "logical times." It also has an event announcer where participants can check their local time with just one click. Needless to say, we use it all the time for our open workshops.

World Clock Meeting Planner

FIO, a Google Chrome extension, lets you visualize multiple time zones every time you open a new tab – acknowledge time differences at a glance.

Remember, when working with distributed teams, everyone should share the pain – leaders included.

11. Record Synchronous Meetings

While live video meetings boost morale and get everyone on the same page, usually, a big majority of invitees can't make it. Avoid leaving people behind by recording your team meetings – whether it's a daily, weekly, or all-hands.

Recording meetings also offers people a choice – they can take care of critical issues and watch the recording later.

GitLab, a fully remote organization, has regular company-wide calls on Zoom that are automatically recorded and saved, making it accessible to everyone.

As Emilie Schario, Data Engineer at GitLab, explains, "Our company call is the best way to get all the updates you need. New hires, bonuses, promotions, important changes – all that information comes through there. Folks who can't attend can read the company call minutes or watch the recording later."

Video is a powerful tool. Watching a recorded meeting is an easier way to catch up than simply reading documents.

You can also use recorded videos to explain complex topics without having to hold a meeting. I use this option a lot with my clients to share follow-up activities or to debrief a workshop. It reinforces the asynchronous-first approach.

12. The 5-Second Rule

Silence is a powerful tool – usually associated with a lack of participation. However, silence is necessary for team understanding. If everyone's talking, who's paying attention?

The 5-Second Rule is a technique to encourage people to become better at listening.

We know silence is uncomfortable. However, not paying attention or interrupting each other is much worse.

If you're facilitating a meeting, pause after you ask a question. Don't surrender to the pressure to fill the void. Slowly count up to five – those five seconds will feel like an eternity for you and the team.

The 5-second rule provides a space for people to reflect, speak up, or listen to others. Soon, people will get used to it and start benefiting from the pause that precedes conversation.

If silence feels uncomfortable, imagine how most people feel when they have to speak out in a group video call. The 5-second rule is a pause that invites people to take space. For example, when you ask, "Any questions?", wait silently for at least 5 seconds before speaking again.

Variation: Have only the team leader abide by the 5-second rule, letting everyone else talk freely. This will train leaders to pay more attention.

13. Ask Me Anything

Ask Me Anything sessions (AMAs) are a great opportunity to address your team questions and anxieties in an open, transparent environment. You can hold them quarterly or monthly – cadence is important so people look forward to it.

AMAs can be conducted via Zoom or Teams, allowing all remote team members a chance to participate. Remember: rotate the time zones (maybe hold two at different times on the same date) and record it for those who can't attend live.

Transparency is key. The leader should answer any question regardless of how relevant or challenging they are. People can submit questions in advance or in the moment – you can use an upvote system to start addressing those who are more interesting for the majority.

Ask Me Anything sessions not only promote transparency – they also improve communication and keep distributed teams informed about what's happening across the company. Thus, they increase belonging and curiosity.

Variation: Facilitate AMAs at a team level, giving each person the center stage – rotate who gets to answer and who asks anything.

14. Does It Need to Be a Meeting?

Scheduling a meeting with your team should always be the last resource. Whether you're planning a face-to-face event, a Zoom call, or a synchronous brainstorming on Slack, think twice before you send the invite. Does it need to be a meeting?

Teams can create a more human environment by using asynchronous tools. You can record a video to explain a challenge the team needs to solve, brainstorm on virtual whiteboards, and comment/ vote on ideas asynchronously.

However, when you really need to host a meeting, make it count. Plan ahead to maximize outcomes. Different time zones require more coordination. Synchronous communication is vital – when used in moderations, it's even more effective.

Async Messaging app Twist recommends the following criteria for planning productive meetings:

Synchronous communication is best used in moderation. Spend most of your workday on deep work rather than non-stop pins, meetings, video calls, and other interruptions. Use meetings for productive discussions, not just to get together or share information – status reports don't need to be a meeting.

15. Celebrate Your Team

Recognizing the accomplishments and improvements of team members helps build camaraderie and motivate everyone. Acknowledging all wins – no matter how big or small – is a great way to make colleagues feel proud and valued.

Unfortunately, most teams don't make time for celebrating wins. Some don't even realize how important it is for morale and teamwork.

Being grateful for both individual and collective accomplishment builds momentum and increases productivity, too. The best way to practice it is together.

Employees at Veamly get together on a Zoom call for "Gratitude Monday." Everyone shares what they're grateful for – regardless of if it's work-related or not. The goal is to promote a culture of appreciation and remind each other to embrace it.

As Emna G., Veamly's founder and CEO, told GitLab, "Some Mondays, you've had a bad weekend or you've woken up on the wrong foot. For me, I try to push my team to take a moment, pause, and really feel it. We see the difference when we remember what we're grateful for."

The "Small Moments Jar" team ritual is another way to recognize everyone's contributions. Create a virtual jar in which teammates can write on a sticky note something extraordinary a colleague did. From helping out on a deadline to learning a new skill or organizing a virtual birthday celebration – everything counts.

Once a week, the Jar gets "opened," and each person shares their notes, acknowledging the person who earned the glory.

Why Keeping a Remote Team Connected Is Critical

Never underestimate the power of a strong team connection. It's one of the key factors to drive successful, high-performing teams.

When your team members work from different locations, they're missing out on connecting with each other and the company culture. Research shows that remote employees tend to feel mistreated and left out. Thus, productivity and morale are harmed.

Whether your team is hybrid, remote, or asynchronous-first, the above exercises will help them improve how they play together.

You can build a strong culture despite working remotely. Try the different activities from this toolkit. You don't need an office for that.

Reach out if you need help to build a strong remote workplace culture.

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