How to Build Team Culture When Your Employees Work From Home
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How to Build Team Culture When Your Employees Work From Home

Kayla Voigt Kayla Voigt Last Updated:

Illustration: Maya Ish Shalom

Modern technology broke the chain between worker and desk. With a remote team culture, computers, cell phones, and tablets let teams work and collaborate from anywhere. And it comes with plenty of benefits. “People spend less time sitting in traffic, they have more time with their families, and in many cases they’re actually more productive than when they were in the office,” according to career specialist Brie Reynolds. 

But managers often fear that remote work will put team culture at risk. While it will certainly change team culture, you can manage your team through that change. Not offering remote work means you’re missing out on happier employees, cost savings, and increased productivity.

If you’re considering incorporating remote work days or remote employees into the mix, think through how these five aspects of your team culture will be affected and how you can build a culture that will benefit everyone in your organization:

Communication: the heart of team culture

“Figure out a communication plan,” says Reynolds. “Remote workers tend to work independently, so figure out how and when and by what means you’ll communicate with them. It might be a weekly check-in call to get their progress, or maybe just regular emails.”

With more remote workers, you’ll need to spend more time documenting processes, results, and meeting notes and conversations to make sure everyone is on the same page. That can be as simple as a quick ping on Slack or sending around a Google Doc of what everyone accomplished last week after the team meeting. Set clear expectations of how you’ll communicate with everyone, whether they’re remote or not. If you’re not sure what that looks like, ask your employees what they prefer. Everyone is different, so set aside time to come up with a communication plan as a team so no one feels left out of the conversation. 

You’ll need to make sure everyone can communicate in different channels. “Use multiple forms of communication–emails, Slack, phone calls, video chats–to make sure everyone has a chance to communicate in a way that works best for them,” suggests Reynolds.

Think through the tools that work best for you. With remote work, you’ll need:

  • Communication tools like email, chat, phone lines, and video conferencing
  • Cloud-based project management tools like JIRA, Trello, or Google Docs
  • Documentation tools like Confluence or Basecamp
  • Time-tracking or productivity tools like Toggl Track
  • Reporting and dashboard tools like Tableau

Remote work requires a level of transparency you may be uncomfortable with at first. “[Our remote-friendly culture] is reflected in the decisions that get made, like sharing so much of Buffer’s processes and revenue transparently,” says Hailley Griffis, Head of PR at Buffer. It’s important to establish a sense of accountability on your team, and that means sharing the numbers and metrics you’re working toward and how you plan to get there.

With remote work, there’s no such thing as keeping employees on a “need-to-know” basis. The whole team should be aware of your goals, progress, and strategy so you can maintain a sense of working together as a team.

Meetings: schedule with a remote-first mindset

The first question to ask yourself about your team culture around meetings is, “Do we really need this meeting?” Can you come to a consensus with a Slack poll or answer your question via email? Team culture in a remote setting doesn’t have to mean lots of video meetings. 

And when meetings are necessary, they need to be efficient. For a meeting to be productive:

  • Have a clear agenda and goal ahead of time, and make sure everyone knows that goal
  • Cancel regular meetings if there isn’t an agenda
  • Use meetings to collaborate, not just educate
  • Set expectations that team members should be present and not multitasking

If you do have a meeting, make sure you’ve tested out your technology so that it can work for everyone. Have team members practice muting and unmuting, for example, and make the effort to use video so that everyone can see each other, even if they’re not in the same place. You’ll be able to maintain that sense of connection without needing to gather in a windowless conference room.

The most important thing? Make sure you give opportunities the folks on the phone or on video to speak, especially if the majority of the team is in a conference room. If you’re the meeting facilitator, specifically address them (and not just at the end) and ask them for their thoughts. If you find that your remote employees are consistently silent, consider experimenting with meeting formats, like by having everyone dial in, until you find one that works for your team. 

Onboarding: build remote culture from the beginning

When someone new joins your team, how do you introduce them? Do you bring them to a team meeting and have them stand up and give a little speech about themselves? You may need to be a bit more thoughtful to introduce your new remote employees and integrate them fully into the team.

Send an email or Slack introducing the new hire–not just what they’re doing, but where they’re located, some fun facts about them, and why they wanted to work for your company in the first place. Encourage an atmosphere and culture of welcome with GIFs, waves, or personal emails from team members. 

If they’re not in the office, send them a care package of swag, their new equipment, and a letter to welcome them to the organization. You want to make sure they feel welcomed from the beginning. 

New hire onboarding should include meeting with lots of people from around the organization, virtually or in person, even if your new hire won’t likely work closely with them. For your employees to feel connected and accountable, they’ll need to understand how everything works, from engineering to HR. Pair them with an onboarding mentor from another team so they can get to know more people right away.

Most of all, make sure everything they’ll need to know is documented and easy to find before they come on board. This won’t just help new employees; everyone will benefit from knowing how to log vacation time, what your benefits are, or how to use a specific tool.

Team-building: make time for connection

“I think that for remote teams, the risk is much higher to have a disconnected, disengaged team if someone is not constantly paying attention to it,” says Becca Van Nederynen, Head of People Operations at Help Scout. 

About 70% of employees feel left out when they work remotely, according to Igloo’s State of the Digital Workplace. Whether that’s not being a part of water cooler talk, missing out on casual outings, or generally not being “there,” remote workers can feel lonely. It’s up to you to build a team culture that makes them feel part of something bigger, even if they’re not commuting to your office each day. 

Consider creating rituals and traditions that help keep people connected, like scheduling “Remote Happy Hours,” encouraging fun or non-work Slack channels, sending out weekly “get-to-know-you” polls, or using tools like Coworker Coffee, which randomly pairs up two employees to get virtual coffee each week.

Finally, make the investment in company retreats or in-person conferences at least a few times each year. They aren’t opportunities to goof off–though you should certainly build in that time–but a chance to come together and get to know each other better. Schedule a hackathon, brainstorming sessions, strategic planning meetings, or anything else that will help you achieve your work goals and your team-building goals during the retreat. 

While remote work is great, it can’t replace true in-person interaction. A retreat, even if it’s just to your HQ, gives your employees the chance to really get to know one another in a relaxed setting and you the chance to motivate the team, set goals and objectives for the future, and have a little fun.

Trust, and team culture will follow

Above all else: Trust your team. If you hired smart, dependable workers, they’ll be smart and dependable even if you’re not sitting near them in an office. This is key to how work gets done at Toggl Track.

Toggl Track’s time tracker for teams, for example, is useful not because it helps managers keep an eye on their team members, but because it helps the entire team optimize their processes, predict budgets and plan–together.

“[We] put a lot of trust into each other,” says CEO Alari Aho. “Freedom of action combined with a lot of trust keeps away the ‘Kindergarten Syndrome,’ which would force managers to control and monitor many aspects of the team members’ lives.”

The data shows that managers’ fears of slacking off remain unfounded. Remote work actually gives a productivity boost equivalent to a full day’s work, according to a two-year study from Stanford University. Employees that worked at home worked a true full shift extra, due to time saved that they would’ve otherwise spent succumbing to office distractions, leaving early for childcare pickups, or arriving late from traffic jams.

As Jason Fried says in his book Remote: Office Not Required, “If you can’t let your employees work from home out of fear they’ll slack off without your supervision, you’re a babysitter, not a manager.”

Ultimately, remote work is here to stay. 99% of respondents to a recent Buffer survey said they wanted to work from home, at least some of the time, for the rest of their career. For your company to attract top talent, you’ll need to build remote-friendly policies into your team culture, and the five areas above are good places to start. 

Chances are, there are people on your team interested in remote work. What can you do to facilitate a happier, more productive team? 

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