From cutting office costs to choosing from an international pool of candidates, remote work offers plenty of perks to founders and their companies. However, one concern looms large in this age of ‘meetings by camera’ and conversations via Slack: How do you build a thriving remote company culture that creates a vibrant online office environment, maintains productivity, and attracts top talent when your team is spread across the world?
In the aftermath of the pandemic, many employers realized that employees could do their jobs equally well — if not more effectively — from the stress-free comfort of their homes (or local coffee shops). It’s a win for both parties: employers save on overheads and employees can optimize the time they would’ve spent commuting.
I could wax lyrical about the benefits and freedom that remote work offers, but if I’m honest, there are also potential downsides to be aware of: isolation, lack of camaraderie, feeling disconnected from the greater ‘business whole’, etc. Before we get into the upsides and downsides, and how to navigate them, let’s unpack what it means to have a company culture in a remote workforce.
Understanding Remote vs. Physical Company Culture
Remote work is nothing new — not in the tech sector, anyway. The first instance of remote work goes as far back as 1973 when NASA engineer Jack Nilles tested what he called ‘telecommuting’ by letting a team of IBM employees work from home. By 1983, IBM’s telecommuting workforce had grown to 2000.
Remote Work and Remote Work Culture
Apart from the tangible/intangible aspects, the differences between physical and remote company culture aren’t wildly different: the bottom line is that colleagues should respect one another and feel united by the parts they play in the greater goals of the company.
However, the lack of face-to-face interaction in remote environments can easily detract from this camaraderie, and implementing strategies to facilitate it is what ultimately separates healthy and unhealthy remote company cultures.
I think it’s safe to say that many of us prefer the comfort and flexibility of working from home. Even so, ping-pong and foosball matches, coffee station gossip, after-work happy hours, and even the annoying activities organized by HR all contribute to a feeling of unity.
Bearing this in mind, let’s examine…
The Pros and Cons of Remote Company Culture
The Benefits of Remote Work Culture
To key you in on the perks of remote company culture, allow me to introduce James Laws.
We recently featured James on episode three of our podcast plugin.fm. He’s a non-technical co-founder of Ninja Forms, and his company Saturday Drive — which he founded as a single office business in 2014 — grew into a multi-million dollar operation with 20+ employees distributed across the globe in less than a decade. How (the heck) did he manage to do it? Besides his entrepreneurial talent, a big part of James’s success stems from his passion for company culture. As such, he’s also established himself as a leadership and culture-building coach, podcaster, and blogger.
James’s team has been office-based (or co-located, as he calls it) and distributed (i.e. remote), and he firmly believes that a remote work environment is a happier one:
From my experience, the diversity of employees in remote companies makes for a more exciting environment. The Freemius team’s nationalities include Israeli, South African, Ugandan, Filipino, Indian, Argentinian, Armenian, and Ukrainian. I’m 99% sure I wouldn’t have daily interactions with people from many different cultures in an onsite office.
Improved mental health is another benefit. Personally — and I consider myself more extroverted than introverted — on-site office life didn’t work too well for me. The noise levels weren’t conducive to a peaceful writing environment, and just getting to the office after a commute required a few moments to dial into ‘work mode’ 😂
Okay — I think you get it. The high-level perks of remote company cultures are pretty obvious, but there are challenges too.
The Challenges of Building a Remote Company Culture
We at Freemius have the occasional misunderstanding — literally 🤣 As with most remote companies I’m aware of, English is our lingua franca. However, not everyone is equally fluent, and colloquialisms and expressions can find their way into conversation and get lost in translation. These cases of broken telephone do lead to occasional miscommunication but — if I’m being honest — they’re usually cause for (mutual) laughter.
Related to the occasional mixed message is the issue of time zone differences. I’ve mentioned our diverse nationalities: while Freemius operates on Central European Time, some employees are distributed too far and wide to fully conform to this schedule and log on (and off) at different times.
Miscommunication and time zone differences aside: the biggest downsides of remote work are isolation/loneliness as well as a lack of spontaneity and informal interactions with others. While this can have a major impact on healthy company culture, there are ways to address these issues, which I’ll discuss in more detail over the rest of this post.
Remote Company Culture Best Practices
Hire the Right Employees
Logically, founders should employ individuals with excellent skill sets and desirable experience, but this is only half of the equation.
To create a thriving company culture, you need to figure out what you’d like your organization’s atmosphere and energy to be. Then — and this is easier said than done — make sure you hire employees who possess the skills and traits that are desirable in a distributed environment. For remote company culture to work, employees need to be autonomous and disciplined enough to manage their remote-working schedule (you won’t be able to watch over their shoulders 👀). And while it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker, it’s a major bonus if they’ve some experience working from home; shifting from a cubicle to a home office/kitchen counter (😉) overnight could be a shock to the system.
Speaking of which…
The second factor to consider is the environment your remote employees are going to work from. Granted: a big part of remote work’s allure is not being confined to a single location. This freedom in itself contributes to the self-fulfillment that breeds a thriving remote company culture. However, the privilege of working from anywhere shouldn’t equate to being allowed to work from everywhere. It’s reasonable to expect that employees work from a ‘productive zone’: typically, a quiet, distraction-free environment where they’re able to focus.
While you shouldn’t be keeping tabs every day, business owners need to trust (and ensure) that their employees are functioning and productive in their remote environments. Not taking care to do so will be to the detriment of company culture.
According to James, you have a choice: either you create the culture or you let the culture happen to you:
Combing through candidates can be tedious and may take up time better spent on building your business and improving your product or service. One option to reduce the hiring admin is to find a good recruitment agent and communicate your company culture objectives and remote requirements to them, as well as how they translate into desirable employee traits.
Case in point: I was head-hunted (it’s true 😌) by a recruiter who was engaged by Freemius. During my interviews with our founder and CEO Vova Feldman and Head of Content Scott Murcott, I immediately knew these were the kind of colleagues I wanted to work with: excellent at their jobs and passionate about creating a dynamic online office environment where everyone’s voice is heard and employees are made to feel their contributions have a genuine impact on the direction of the business.
Promote Clear and Communicative Leadership
To foster a strong culture, founders, senior executives, and managers must all be aligned on strategies for effective and transparent leadership communication.
I’m not saying managers need to have daily check-in calls or that you should schedule a stand-up every morning. You just need to make sure everyone’s communicating and on the same page. On that note: what are the signs that miscommunication is causing a misalignment, and how can it be remedied? This is what James has to say:
“ If a person isn’t acting the way you think they’re supposed to, it’s easy to assume that the problem lies with them. But in most cases, what you should do is take a step back and figure out if there’s something in your culture you’ve enforced that has led to them to feeling this way; a lack of clarity, trust, or communication.”
In most cases, people just want to do their best work and be recognized for it. Often, alignment issues stem from the person not being in the right role in the organization. And if I can’t move them into a role that is better suited to them, I prefer to view it as a culture problem, not a person problem.
And on the subject of alignment… what are you to do if you want to build a strong company culture but social interaction isn’t your strong suit?
How Introverted Entrepreneurs Can Navigate the Challenges of Remote Work
Company culture thrives on regular interaction, and this may be an area of difficulty for some founders.
The truth is that not all entrepreneurs are as extroverted as — say — Richard Branson. Some founders — especially those in the tech space — may find it harder to focus on building a strong remote company culture when their main priority is creating an awesome product or service.
But failing to nurture a healthy, thriving company culture means your employees won’t perform to their full potential. It can also lead to high employee turnover which is bad for morale and productivity (and it doesn’t look good to potential candidates, either).
James has the following advice to offer introverted visionaries: “ Most people don’t know this about me, but I’m an introvert.”
I can get in the middle of a crowd and have a great conversation with a group of people, but it saps my energy. It’s both a superpower and a challenge, and it should be approached both ways. I had to learn about public speaking and communicating ideas to my team. Doing that helped me refine those skills and strengthen my weaknesses.
James recognizes that not all founders are interested in learning these things and would prefer to stay behind the screens. “ If casting visions and communicating ideas to your team isn’t your thing, make sure you’ve got communicators or marketers on board who can do it for you. Alternatively, try recording a video and just distribute it. The beauty of remote work is that there are ways around public speaking for people who are truly terrified of it. “
Build Trust and Connections
Fostering trust among team members isn’t as tricky as it sounds — people are social creatures by nature, and you’ll be surprised by how eager employees are to share their personal lives, interests, and experiences.
Freemius has a dedicated Slack channel called #watercooler where we post everything from holiday pics and music concert footage to newly discovered recipes and DIY projects. We also make a point of scheduling bonding sessions where individual team members have a chance to do a presentation about something. Vova discussed his advice and strategy on investing, and I’m sure my talk on mushroom foraging will go down a treat.
Set Clear Expectations and Goals
Everyone should know what’s required from them and how to achieve it. It may sound obvious, but neglecting to establish performance expectations will either lead to employees underperforming or overcompensating and burning out. Needless to say, this will negatively impact company culture.
Keeping remote teams motivated and aligned need not be complicated. At Freemius, we have Sprint meetings to plan projects and set tasks and goals, which get sorted, prioritized, and monitored on our project management platform, Asana.
Implement Security Measures
To ensure your business is safe, it’s important to implement tight security measures. Most employees will be working from their own laptops and PCs, meaning you’ve less direct control over protecting sensitive information.
What does this have to do with culture? you may be wondering. As the saying goes: prevention is better than cure. Make the effort to put systems in place for strong passwords, proper shared files policies, and — most importantly — educate your team members about threats, risks, and the importance of security best practices.
Prioritize Work-Life Balance
Just because employees work from home doesn’t mean they don’t get tired. In fact, this highlights another challenge of remote work: the line between a place of residence and a place of work can easily get blurred and lead to burnout.
The solution is simple:
- Offer employees a generous leave package.
- Agree on set working hours, and insist that everyone sticks to them. Unless it’s an emergency, you shouldn’t contact employees on their mobiles before or after working hours or over weekends.
Embrace Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity and inclusion are sensitive subjects, but they’re an essential part of the modern workplace. It’s important to ensure you achieve a balanced workforce so all employees — existing and prospective — feel included and represented in your company culture.
Alright — we’ve unpacked company culture ingredients, now let’s move on to:
Structured Training and Strategies for a Thriving Remote Company Culture
Taking the time to craft a solid onboarding program for new employees will make integration so much easier. Freemius’s took two weeks to complete, which was a huge relief for me: I didn’t know all that much about selling software when I joined, but after induction, I felt confident about starting my journey as a content writer in the space.
Adding to our seamless onboarding experience: the first thing every Freemius team member goes through in their first two hours at the company is a ‘Welcome to Freemius’ presentation, which lays down the fundamentals of how we operate, our culture, and attitude. It also covers:
- Security practices
- Daily communications and routines
- Why/how we do time-tracking, documentation, and knowledge preservation
- The ground rules for our working environment
You can check out the presentation by clicking on the below image:
Initially, our founder Vova gave the presentation to every new team member, but it’s now our team leads’ responsibility.
Training and Development
There are few things as tedious as having to complete training that adds no actual value to personal development or company culture.
Recognizing this saves a ton of hassle for both founders and workers:
- For sure: you absolutely need to have training sessions when deploying new tools and programs.
- Figure out how you can provide training opportunities for individual employees that will improve the working environment. For example, Freemius has paid for courses to allow non-native English-speaking employees a chance to improve their skills.
This is obvious, but you need to take time to set up an effective online communication environment as a lack of structure can be to the detriment of company culture.
The Freemius Team Slack is a good example of doing this effectively:
- We have direct (i.e.) private as well as predetermined group chats. For example, to produce the awesome video snippets like the ones in this article 📽️ Scott, myself, and our Video Content Editor Emiliano Pioli have our own chat to coordinate tasks and comms.
- We have separate channels for different projects that are visible to the entire team: videos, marketing, plugin.fm, and design, to name a few.
Recognizing and Rewarding Remote Employees
You’ll be surprised at how far small gestures can go. Setting up practices that recognize and mark milestones is an effective way to make employees feel valued, providing an instant boost to remote company culture when these occasions and other achievements are shared with the team.
For example, you can send employees a food/online shopping voucher to celebrate their first three months with the company, a headset after six months, etc.
At Freemius, I’ve always received a gift and a thoughtful card for events like my first year with the company and my birthday. It’s shown me a human side to our operation, and that has made all the difference to my loyalty and fulfillment.
Create Opportunities for Growth
One of the best ways to promote company culture is to motivate employees to push and better themselves. Opportunities for growth within a company are one of the best incentives for this.
In the early days of building your empire, it’s unlikely that many senior-level positions will be available, but as your business grows, more opportunities will arise. For this reason, it’s good to have check-ins (on at least a quarterly basis) with team members to help them figure out how they want (and are able) to grow, and how their growth will add value to the company.
Whoa! you’re thinking. Team retreats? Isn’t the whole point of remote company culture about working from different locations?
Remember when I mentioned isolation and loneliness + a lack of spontaneity and informal interactions? The fact is, when the people you work with almost every day become faces on the other side of a screen, a sense of dissociation sets in.
In February, members of the Freemius team met up in Bangkok to attend WordCamp Asia and spend some quality bonding time. You can read all about our adventure in WordCamp Asia: East 🤝 West + Freemius Unites for an Unforgettable Celebration!
The effect the trip has had on dynamics and company culture is incredible. We built some awesome memories together and got to know each other on a more personal level, which has brought us so much closer as a team. Also, after spending time in each other’s company, I can actually hear what the other person’s voice sounds like when they send me a message.
An all-expenses-paid business trip is not within every entrepreneur’s or SMB’s means, but it’s advisable to put some kind of plan in place to make it happen down the line. And if you can’t afford to bring your whole team together in a foreign city, consider visiting individual team members in their countries for a week or two and working together. The rewards will be so worth it.
Here’s what James has to say on the topic:
Much of the WordCamp Asia article was co-written by Scott and myself in Thailand, in between conference centers, hotel rooms, airports, ferries, and bars. It’s amazing how much a little bit of face-to-face collaboration can enhance the creative process, and I’m sure the same can be said of other tasks like development, etc.
If team members are located in the same city, give them the option to meet up in coworking spaces when they’re working together on projects — working together in real time promotes company culture because of human interaction.
Consider Employing an HR Person
A human resources officer can help steer company culture in the desired direction and take care of tons of other admin for you as a founder, such as:
- Scheduling regular 1:1s
- Handling virtual onboarding tasks
- Dealing with employee paperwork (need I say more 🤓)
- Celebrating milestones by sending gifts and greeting cards for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, newborns, etc.
In small teams, founders can usually manage most of the HR admin themselves which is why many remote companies only consider employing an HR person once they reach a certain level of growth. When you reach this level, be sure to delegate these duties to a professional ASAP — neglecting any of the above tasks can damage company culture if employees feel neglected or they perceive that balls are being dropped in the admin department. You don’t necessarily have to employ a full-time HR person right away — you can hire a professional on a part-time basis at an hourly rate.
Understand Your Vision and Empower Your Employees
Ultimately, it’s up to you as a founder to decide what kind of culture you’d like for your workplace. But if you’re determined to create a healthy, thriving remote company culture for your employees, you’re already halfway there 🙌
So, before stacking your nightstand full of self-help books or seeking the services of a business development coach, figure out the challenges and strong points of your company in its current form, map out where it’s headed, and work out a strategy to help your employees flourish. A healthy company culture will naturally follow.