I read a blog post recently which found that maintaining company culture in remote teams concerned 70% of managers. It won't come as a surprise that I count myself amongst those managers.
The things that build an awesome team culture in an office aren't always possible for teams WFH. For example, before the covid-19 lockdowns our team did something fun together (at least) once a month. We've gone kayaking in the London canals, played board games and even went urban foraging in a local park (while supervised by an expert!). Reinforcing culture, and team building is more difficult online. So what do you do with everyone working from home?
After hours searching the internet I've determined that there are no right answers. What you can do is run low-risk experiments. I love to experiment with ways that improve how I manage my team.
I believe that we need to reflect on the things we do. In start-up life we have no space for (un-fun) rituals. We strive to add value to our team culture, and our customers' lives. Anything that does not add value (albeit sometimes indirectly) cannot remain.
One recent experiment we ran was an adjustment to our stand-up meeting format. A stand-up meeting is held at the start of the day, lasts for less than 15 minutes and consists of individual answers to the following topics: what you did yesterday, what you're doing today, blockers.
If done correctly stand-up meetings are excellent in person. They are often the starting points for fruitful conversations (after the meeting) and help us get things done. It's only natural we tried to use them to foster remote team collaboration. Sadly when done via video call it is clear that they tend toward being pointless. People wait to hear their name, and then they say their bit. If they're not speaking they're often zoned out... checking their email or thinking about the day ahead.
Okay, fine. Stand-ups online don't work, so what's the experiment? Instead of a video call stand-up what we do is write what we'd usually say. We add the written stand-up to a #stand-up channel in slack. In the meeting slot we just have a chat... about anything. I'm running surveys every now and then to measure effectiveness and most people seem to like it. From feedback:
A recent iteration came about because we noticed it was a bit difficult in bigger groups. Some people tended to dominate the conversation; others stayed quiet. So we use Zoom's free "breakout room" feature to split the group into groups of 3 people. If there's a group of 2 (or a quieter group), that's the room I jump into. There's a hard stop after 15 minutes with a 60 second warning and people pop back into the bigger meeting to say goodbye and arrange chats with anyone else.
As our experiment evolved, we realized the need for some boundaries to keep our chats positive and inclusive. That's why we've introduced two new rules: "No Work Talk, and No Politics Talk". It's not that these topics aren't important, it's just that we want to keep our casual conversations light and stress-free, and to ensure that all team members feel comfortable participating. Remember, this is an experiment too, and we're eager to see how these rules will influence our team dynamics.
Working from home will be with us for quite some time, so we need to keep experimenting with the where, why, and how we do things.