Corine Tan is cofounder of Kona, a Techstars-backed startup building the culture platform for remote teams. She is a remote work influencer. This article, based on interviews with 200 fully remote companies, was previously published on the Kona website.
A fantastic company culture used to mean luxurious office couches, grass-stained coworkers in company jerseys, and well-stocked dining halls. Now, these spaces are empty, replaced by the living room couch, pasta-stained toddlers, and a crowded kitchen. Most tech companies will continue to work remotely through the pandemic; giants like Twitter, Facebook, and Google have already announced plans to go fully remote. To succeed in the long term, companies need to adapt their culture to a remote environment.
Culture leaders need to act fast. Mounting evidence, such as this 2020 Gallup poll, indicates that remote workers are experiencing burnout and working longer hours. Remote employees are feeling isolated, overworked, and uprooted. In the absence of office space, company culture is what establishes a sense of interconnectivity for vastly distributed teams.
Thankfully, building a fantastic remote culture is nothing new. Fully remote companies have been at it for over a decade. Many have documented their processes in remote work handbooks, and their employees love to talk about it.
We’ve conducted hundreds of interviews with managers at stellar remote companies. Here are eight characteristics that the best remote cultures share:
Guided by Vision
We spoke with the Head of People at a 100-person startup this week, and he said that his company had the best culture he’d ever been part of. Why? Because every teammate felt invested in the startup’s success and deeply connected to the company vision.
We saw this ethos echoed in our interviews with managers at award-winning remote companies. Employees love their work because their company vision improves the lives of their coworkers, customers, and the community.
An engaged workforce is often the biggest indicator of effective company culture. Inc’s “Best Workplaces of 2020” notes that honorees had an average engagement score of 90 percent, with dedicated employees who found meaning in their work. Engagement provides a great company health metric, but it’s a lagging indicator.
Building up team-wide engagement across time zones revolves around making employees feel cared for. That means leading by example and expressing how everyone contributes to something greater than they are.
Rooted in Values
Transparency, gratitude, collaboration, inclusion, empathy, be resourceful, pay attention to details, time for self-reflection ... These are some of the values at iconic remote companies Buffer, Zapier, and GitLab. However, these are much more than phrases and mantras for an occasional blog post. The most established remote cultures put their company values at the center of everything they do.
Values are often mentioned in team dialogue, guiding important decisions and serving as reminders of the company’s foundation. GitLab created dedicated Slack emojis to offer kudos for actions that reflect certain values. Other companies have allotted funds so coworkers can reward value-based actions with perks and gift cards.
Most importantly, values dictate documentation and remote processes. For example, “transparency” guides Zapier toward recording team meetings and creating open feedback cycles. The value “focus on self-improvement” at Buffer leads to a four-day workweek and its “right to disconnect” mentality. Values are only effective when put into action.
Invested in People
When we think of what separates a mediocre company culture from a fantastic one, benefits likely come to mind. There is certainly a correlation between generous benefits and award-winning company culture. Inc’s “Best Workplaces of 2020” cites 100 percent of honoree companies offering health insurance. More remote companies are creating wellness, family support, and mental health programs to ease COVID-era stress. Others set aside funds for grocery delivery and exercise memberships.
Regardless of the colorful packages companies offer, the most effective remote companies invest in the holistic well-being of their people. To give a sense of company costs, a VP of people ops said they reinvested all the money they would’ve spent on an office on people-centric programs.
Learning and development are huge among fully remote companies with an emphasis on burnout, emotional intelligence, and manager training. Remote cultures see their people as their biggest asset and plan for the individuals’ long-term careers.
We’ve noticed that teams with fantastic cultures often have a People team with dedicated roles for wellness or employee experience.
Serious About Fun
Effective company culture becomes a wonderful antidote to the isolation many remote workers experience. Our favorite cultures prioritized fun in everyday work and took an intentional approach to socialization.
Fun Slack channels create mini-communities around sports teams, pets, foodies, and gamers. The Slackbot Donut pairs acquaintances for casual 1:1s to share stories and lunch over Zoom. Virtual company socials and happy hours range from Jackbox Party Games to elaborate terrarium-building sessions.
Relationship building while remote takes extra effort. Remote cultures invest in and facilitate these interactions because trust drives engagement.
Balance over Productivity
The strangest problem we kept hearing in our interviews was how difficult it was to get employees to take a vacation during the pandemic. COVID blurred the line between work and home in 2020, and for the past several years, natural disasters have prevented entire states from going outside. Folks have spent time working instead of taking time off. The best remote companies see a lack of real breaks as a problem.
Mandatory no-work days and vacation weeks speak to the larger sentiment of great remote cultures: Maintaining work-life balance is more important than producing short-term outcomes.
This sentiment is echoed in many async company cultures that avoid meetings to improve flexibility and family-centric schedules. GitLab is fantastic at this, encouraging disruptions by family members when Zoom meetings occur. Remote culture is about living and working in harmony, rather than sacrificing one for the other.
Another signal of prioritized remote culture lies in the diversity of the team itself. Remote work provides ample opportunity for hiring. The top companies take advantage of global talent pools and hire for “culture fit,” in addition to technical abilities.
Diversity isn’t just about hiring, though. The top remote companies celebrate differences in backgrounds with specialized programs for geographic regions and cultural identities. They invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion education and set quarterly goals for improvement. Their brands are vocal against social injustices and donate to community causes.
Millennials and Gen Z workers prioritize companies that reflect their social values. Remote work’s diversity is not a vanity metric; it’s a representation of the industry’s progress and shortcomings.
We often think of culture building as a top-down approach. However, the majority of managers we interviewed saw culture and relationship building as part of their daily responsibilities. Managers sit on the front lines, coaching teammates and fostering engagement in everyday work.
It makes sense, then, that the top remote cultures invest in manager EQ and effectiveness. They equip managers to put company values to practice: upholding transparent communication, encouraging growth through feedback, and self-reflecting to increased self-awareness. The result is teams with high psychological safety and greater outcomes.
Ideally, this last characteristic is true for any company, regardless of company culture. Leaders understand that their processes are far from perfect, and they actively innovate better solutions.
A VP at a London-based startup shared that their company reviewed its culture processes every quarter and conducted surveys to find issues. These culture-focused businesses rely heavily on team feedback. They never settle or lessen their investment in people, despite their awards and recognition for their success.
The resilience of top remote companies is what makes them capable of thriving in this extreme environment. By adopting a few of their traits, culture leaders can unite their teams in these troubling times.