Why does company culture matter more for remote teams?

Aaron Asaro
15 Oct 2020

6 minute read

Effective company culture is a force multiplier. With it team leaders can distribute decision making. Without it even small decisions need to go up the chain of command. It stands to reason that for a remote team, being clear about what the company culture is is important.

When people speak about corporate culture today, things tend to get wishy-washy. Corporate culture was first defined in 1951 by Dr. Jaques as: "the culture of the factory is its customary and traditional way of thinking and doing of things, which is shared to a greater or lesser degree by all its members, and which new members must learn, and at least partially accept, in order to be accepted into service in the firm..."[1]. It's a long definition that approximates to "you need to fit in with how we do things around here."

A key point in Dr. Jaques's definition is that corporate culture sets out what new-hires need to do to integrate. To help new-hires it's important that you are able to clearly articulate your corporate culture. At the least it'll make you more effective at hiring. It will also help new and existing staff understand the boundaries. Further, it can show team members where the opportunities for innovation are.

All leaders strive for their teams to work in lock step. Distributed teams need to do this despite team members being many miles apart. Without clearly defined culture it will be difficult for people to know if their actions align with the company strategy. In a remote team, if you aren't deliberate about the culture you're creating you'll end up with a hot mess.

People in co-located teams can quickly get a feel for how people work by paying attention. In a remote team it is more difficult. You can't read each chat message or listen to each phone call. You also miss out on non-verbal communication.

An effective remote team culture requires that the company is explicit about it's values, and priorities. The values must not just be words on a poster, but enacted in every decision, conversation and plan. Praise people and analyse results in context of those values. Company values can and should change over time as you learn about your team, and your customers. When changes in values take place they need to be deliberate and communicated early.

Here are some practical examples of how values can distribute decision making:

  • Should I go the extra mile for this single customer with an unusual scenario, or do I instead spend my time making customers happy on average?
  • Can experiments and proof of concepts go out in the world to test ideas, or does everything that's shipped need to be robust enough to handle a huge audience?
  • How do I respond to a customers technical question - friendly and cutesy, or corporate and reliable?

There are two pillars to remote team culture.

  1. Easy to understand values that are a part of each conversation and decision.
  2. Regular informal communication between people that work in the company.

Informal communication is difficult to introduce and sustain in remote teams. It helps if the company leadership sets the example, but it can also be a grassroots effort[2]. If there isn't a suggested approach to introducing informal communication arrange it. Gitlab encourages people to spend a few hours each week[3] chatting informally. That's a bitter pill to swallow for the bean counters. We are social creatures; you see a similar amount of time invested in the informal relationships of effective co-located teams. Informal communication also goes a long way to help overcome the sense of isolation people can feel when wfh.

For anyone in a remote team it is imperative that you:

  1. Get the real company values clearly defined.
  2. Bring those values into each conversation and decision
  3. Get more conversations going, and inject a bit of fun to bring you closer to your colleagues.

Get together, even though you're apart. Work is better that way.


Footnotes

  1. Dr. Elliott Jaques, "The Changing Culture of a Factory.", 1951. ↩︎

  2. "Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi ↩︎

  3. https://about.gitlab.com/company/culture/all-remote/informal-communication/ ↩︎