Changing market trends, an increased desire for work-life balance from the millennial workforce and tech-enabled workplace solutions are leading more and more companies to offer increased flexibility and remote work opportunities. Though remote work has increased by 400% in the last decade, COVID-19 created additional pressure on businesses: Many were forced to quickly transition to remote operations or close their doors forever.
For some businesses that have been thriving in the remote workplace or have global teams, this quick shift was an opportunity to get even further ahead of the curve. For others, the transition revealed unforeseen challenges that are still being worked through. While most pain points vary depending on the business area or value proposition, companies in all industries face a common remote work roadblock: How to maintain company culture when team members rarely – or never – interact in person. You can better support and retain your team with some practical ways to build, grow and promote team culture in a remote landscape.
What is Team Culture?
Most people can agree on a common definition for “team culture,” but the way it’s practiced and the values that drive it will vary by company.
The way your teams interact and work plays a key role in your business’s success — and the most valuable interactions go beyond ping-pong tables or Thursday afternoon happy hours. Take time to intentionally explore and define what ideal, healthy, interactions look like for your team. Interview your team members. Learn from other companies with strong internal cultures. Reward team members who emulate the culture you’re trying to build.
In a unified environment with defined teamwork and culture expectations, every team member is empowered to champion the same mission, core values and workplace expectations.
The Value of Building a Strong Team Culture
Teamwork and culture affect more than workplace productivity — they help team members build interpersonal relationships and make it far more natural to work with one another. It’s easy to catch up on life, talk through a project roadblock or translate a murky client email with your co-workers just steps down the hall. In-person teams also offer automatic accountability, as well as built-in touchpoints and a community that fosters strong team bonds.
Remote work eliminates those touchpoints and can make it more difficult to instill meaningful team culture. However, when a team is unified (both in-person and remotely) by a strong work culture, goals are accomplished quickly and efficiently.
Why Creating Culture in Remote Teams is Doubly Important
When the “fun” aspects of typical company culture – like field days, potlucks, holiday parties and after-work happy hours are removed, work-related interactions are reduced to emails, Slack and virtual meetings. This environment might be ideal for a small percentage of people who prefer to focus and enjoy their own space. For most, though, these interaction channels, coupled with the digital burnout widely experienced this past year, can make interactions feel impersonal and lifeless since getting right to business leaves little space for personal connections.
Research shows these personal connections are important – in their employee engagement survey, workplace engagement guru Gallup asks the question, “Do you have a best friend at work?” This query may seem odd, but it’s backed by the notion that team members who aren’t getting what they need from their job will be even more likely to leave if they also lack a connection with a “work bestie” to help them enjoy their role. On the flip side, when those connections are built, they’re powerful — 36% of interviewed professionals told Gallup they’d be willing to take a pay cut if their workplace better prioritized this ideal.
Common Remote Teamwork and Culture Challenges
When employees aren’t happy – especially remote team members who don’t have the benefits of in-person teamwork and culture – they may start looking for a different job, which can negatively impact retention, your bottom line and even motivation for remaining team members. Some common challenges companies face creating culture on remote teams, as reported by Workplace Insights, include:
Eighty-eight percent of remote employees report that they are over-reliant on email, an infrequent or inefficient alternate means of communication between teams. Infrequent communication also makes it hard for employees to know if they’re going in the right direction, since managers may be less likely to offer feedback and development with too many asynchronous checkins. These challenges can lead to a higher risk of miscommunication and workplace inefficiencies, leaving remote teams confused without getting the basics right and developing a clear shared focus and team ethos” according to Workplace Insights.
Lack of Resources
A lack of effective management and communication tools can drastically reduce their chances of success, including missed due dates and project errors. Thirty-one percent of surveyed teams say poor project management and communication is the top reason projects flop. Unclear tasks contribute to another 12%, resulting in a 43% failure rate overall. Simply put, without setting your remote team up for success with the right tools, they’re more likely to experience failure and team disconnection.
Overload or Burnout
Eighty-three percent of surveyed professionals feel overwhelmed by the number of emails received on a daily basis, and nearly 75% feel overworked. Drop-in “pulse checks” with in-person employees can help identify these feelings, helping managers alleviate them at the moment. But exhausted remote team members with fewer touchpoints are far more likely to show signs of burnout without a balanced company culture and strong team.
Four Ways to Strengthen Company Culture on Remote Teams
As a fully remote company from Day 1, Instant Teams strives to promote four values that help grow and maintain teamwork and culture across our organization.
1. Have Fun
Promoting a healthy remote work culture starts with building unity and community on your distributed teams. Putting work to the side and having fun with your team allows these personal relationships to form organically; strong personal and professional relationships naturally encourage better communication and productivity. For something unique, Airbnb’s online team-building activities are a great resource to help your team have fun. Offering activities ranging from private, group yoga and cooking classes to team trivia hosted by your favorite drag queen, Airbnb’s (and other similar) virtual resources can help your team have fun and let loose (once work is done!).
2. Optimize Collaboration
Formal and informal communication channels free up managers and team members to communicate and check-in openly without taking time on anyone’s calendar. The right combination of tools (email, Slack, Zoom, etc.) and flexibility promote better teamwork and culture, allowing remote teams to collaborate and connect – without interrupting anyone’s workflow or eating up valuable time. If your team operates both in-person and remotely, make an effort to include distributed teams in planning, execution and team-building activities whenever possible; this is a great way to build team culture from afar and remind remote team members they’re valued.
3. Practice What You Preach
Do you tell your remote team members that work/life balance is important and encourage them to mute their work-related notifications in their non-work time so they can relax, unwind and enjoy life outside of work? Your answer might be “yes,” but unless you’re also doing those things — and leading by example — your teamwork and culture promotion will fall flat. When community, teamwork, and rest are exemplified by leadership, the effects trickle down to your larger remote team to eliminate toxicity and strengthen your team – all because you walk the walk. When you don’t, your team notices that, too.
4. Prioritize Mindful Communication
Remote teams almost always require increased communication to be successful by keeping you in the loop with the broader organization. However, even well-intentioned communications can feel overwhelming to remote team members since their workplace interactions are limited to digital communication. Intentionally balance team member check-ins, project updates, day-to-day activities and real-time pulse checks with synchronous (Zoom meetings or voice calls) and asynchronous (email and internal messaging) communication to minimize the volume of communication and protect your team from burnout.
It’s also important to keep in mind that, especially on remote teams, not all team members are working at the same time. For example, an urgent email sent at 4:30 p.m. Hawaii time will reach a Nashville, Tenn.-located coworker close to 9 p.m. By maintaining reasonable expectations and clear communication boundaries, you’re demonstrating that you value your remote team and will be able to better foster a culture of respect and understanding.
No matter which industry your company serves, it can be a challenge to maintain company culture – especially when managing fully or partially remote teams. Take the time to know what your team culture looks like (or how you want it to look), and to understand how it’s invaluable for remote teams. This newfound knowledge might motivate you to strengthen your culture to avoid some challenges unique to the remote work environment. Then, by taking the next step to determine achievable results, you’re more likely to successfully create – and maintain – culture in remote teams.