Volunteer initiatives, holiday parties, group lunches—this is how companies used to build team spirit and solidify a work culture.
But times have changed. Today, more and more companies rely on remote talent to meet their business goals. With an uptick in telecommuting due to COVID-19, the trend toward remote work promises to continue.
On the one hand, this is fantastic news for hiring managers. You have a global pool of talent to choose from. On the other hand, this presents a new challenge: How do you create a cohesive company culture when professionals never meet face to face or may only be engaged for certain projects? How do you get team members to relate to one another digitally? What tools and tactics can you use to instill a team ethos that individuals can connect to?
While the traditional office setting may be less relevant, a strong company culture remains integral to your team’s success, whether consisting of full-time workers—in-person or remote—or mixed with independent talent. The Upwork 2020 Future Workforce Report emphasizes that true agility—the new competitive advantage for businesses in an uncertain era—is only possible if a company’s culture and mindset is aligned across all knowledge workers.
As a manager, it’s up to you to realize this vision. This guide provides the tools you need, giving you step-by-step guidance on how to assess your remote work culture, and providing five concrete tips on how to improve that culture. With this information, you can position your distributed workforce for success.
Assessing remote work culture: What to consider
Gauging an individual’s commitment to corporate principles becomes more difficult in a virtual environment. You can no longer rely on environmental cues. Learning how to understand the nuances of virtual behavior will help you determine whether remote workers feel seen and whether they feel connected to the projects they’re working on.
The tone of professional communication
Distributed teams require effective communication that is synchronous (in real time) and asynchronous (happening at different times). Synchronous communication might take place via chat channels like Slack, while asynchronous communication could be via email.
The first point in assessing communication is prevalence. Experts recommend more frequent and varied communication types for remote teams, for example, by mixing informal Slack chats with business-focused emails. Diverse tools covering textual, visual, and verbal communication allow for different team member’s needs to be met.
Do remote workers respond regularly or infrequently? Do they provide enough details in their notes if working asynchronously, which allows the next team member tagging in to move forward?
Engagement in virtual catch-ups
Virtual team catch-ups offer a means of overcoming the isolation often cited as a challenge by remote workers. They also offer practical benefits, by providing a forum to touch base on current projects or share skills. For example, a project recap can bring professionals together to discuss progress and express questions or concerns.
Whether formal or informal, keep record of how many remote team members take part in these virtual catch-ups. Are they present and engaged? Do they participate, ask questions, or make comments?
Openness between team members
If issues arise in the remote workplace, you want your team to feel confident that they can approach you with questions or concerns. Openness between team members shows trust, which is especially important in fostering a collaborative environment.
Team leaders can assess professional openness by initiating one-on-one exchanges. Sending a simple email to inquire whether a remote worker has any questions or concerns—not about a specific problem but processes in general—provides a platform for engagement that some workers may be too shy to proactively seize.
When you initiate such exchanges, is constructive feedback provided? Checking in like this generally promotes effective remote collaboration.
Strategies to improve your remote work culture
Every team is unique and needs to develop its own distinctive culture to reflect this. While you have to determine just how to promote an ethos in line with your broader corporate ideology, there are general guidelines you can follow to unite your distributed team. Get inspired by the following strategies.
Communicate your values
According to the Harvard Business Review, workers increasingly seek positions that allow them to intertwine their personal beliefs with those of the company. Communicating your team values from the start, even as you vet candidates, is thus crucial in ensuring everyone is on the same page.
Watch your tone as you communicate since this speaks to your culture. Whether you expect a casual or more formal tone, establish the mood with your own words. It also helps to convey values in terms of expectations, like anticipated availability. Just be aware of setting time requirements for independent professionals, since they have freedom to create their own schedules.
Reevaluate your onboarding
Establish your company culture for new workers during onboarding. Are the materials you use reflective of your corporate tone and vision? For example, if you encourage casual communication between team members (emoji and exclamation points accepted!), but your onboarding materials are outdated documents with a stodgy tone, this can be confusing for new team members.
Setting up a buddy system is one way to help newcomers connect more easily with the company. While a person may be hesitant to message the team leader with questions, they will be less reluctant to reach out to someone on their level. Just make sure to set expectations for a mentorship program—for example, suggest that the two individuals have a one-on-one video call every week for the duration of the project?—or it may go unused.
Balancing trust and accountability is one of the central challenges in managing remote teams. Using a project management platform like Asana allows you to see who is responsible for what, avoiding micromanaging and creating accountability. Accountability also gives people a sense of accomplishment and pride in their work. Celebrate milestones to affirm a positive culture that appreciates remote contributions.
For full-time employees working remotely, find ways to bring office perks to the digital world. Services like Office Pantry have adapted their business model so that companies can now send “care packages” to their remote workers. For example, you might announce a weekly or monthly contest for such a treat to motivate your team. Just make sure to create clear guidelines and expectations for the challenge to avoid frustration. You can also include independent professionals by rewarding them for a job well done after completing certain tasks.
Establish team rituals
Find unique ways to bring the team together digitally. It used to be that full-time workers could blow off steam with an after-work happy hour. You can still hold this kind of event via video hangouts. Wellness activities are another option and evidence of a corporate culture that prioritizes worker’s well-being. Online yoga, Pilates, or meditation classes are all possible. Other options include trivia nights with fun prizes or book clubs.
Such non-work-related activities help people to connect and feel more comfortable. Create an events calendar and invite workers to pitch ideas, too. As you brainstorm ways to connect professionals beyond business, be aware of over-reliance on video meetings. While these are useful for business purposes, they can be exhausting and result in “Zoom fatigue.”
Foster an open environment
An open environment that is judgment-free fosters trust in the team and promotes a cohesive company culture. Initiating a weekly or biweekly round-up email can pave the way.
Use it to provide business updates and highlight team members’ success stories (celebrate accountability!), including those of independent talent. At the end of the email, invite individuals to schedule a video chat with you if needed. Video democratizes meetings and creates a level playing field, making it a great communications tool.
Surveys are another efficient and practical means of collecting feedback. Tools like SurveyMonkey make the survey process easier than ever. Refrain from making surveys mandatory, which can feel authoritarian. Also, make sure that surveys can be submitted anonymously to assure honest feedback. Soliciting workers’ opinions proves that you value them.
This is also a great way to get feedback from independent professionals who may have keen insight into how contract work could be improved.
Find professionals who complement your remote culture
One of the most surefire ways to improve your remote work culture is by engaging the right people. That’s where Upwork can help—putting a global talent pool of independent professionals at your fingertips. Find out how to start building your remote team with Upwork today.