1. Trust is crucial, and the focus must be on performance outcomes
The most important key to success for a remote work culture depends on the company leadership trusting every employee and contractor. There needs to be transparency and open communication between all levels of the company, and if any single person doubts whether their boss or coworkers trust them, then the culture instantly begins to unravel. It is incredibly frustrating and de-motivating for a team member to feel like they are being treated as guilty until proven innocent.
A healthy remote culture starts at the top, with the understanding that each employee or contractor must be highly self-motivated to achieve results (i.e. measurable performance outcomes).
Remote teams focus on performance outcomes. For employees to feel empowered while working remotely, they need to know that their company’s leadership values their performance outcomes more than the specific hours they work or the location where they complete the work. Performance outcomes must be collaboratively determined with leadership in order to further the company’s mission, as well as the goals of the department and the individual.
Zapier is a company that provides integration tools to enable smart and automated workflows. Built on a remote work culture, Zapier is a team of 250+ people living and working remotely in 24+ countries. Co-founder and CEO of Zapier, Wade Foster, explained why it is crucial to their business operations to build trust and focus on performance outcomes:
“Remote teams have to trust their teammates. There is simply no way around it. In a remote team, there aren't any silly rules about having your butts in a seat during certain hours of the day. This means at the end of the week you either have something to show for your week or not. This means you trust that your teammates are getting something done. But also your teammates trust you. To earn that trust you want to make sure you have something to show for your work each week. Along with that: Being public and transparent about your company's values and culture goes a long way towards establishing trust in a distributed team and also for hiring people who will thrive at your company.”
2. Communicate with video calls and chat (not email)
The main problem with email is that it prevents conversations. Writing an email takes more time and demands more formality than simply being able to ask a single sentence question to the person or group that can provide an answer.
What is the cure? Conversational communication channels. Remote teams rely on video calls rather than audio calls, which people often walk away from if there are more than two participants. Remote teams also rely on company-wide instant messaging platforms: where different teams and subject matters are given dedicated communication channels that include any workers that should be involved in those topic-based discussions. The video call platform that’s most widely used by remote companies is Zoom, and the most widely used messaging platform is Slack. These conversational platforms will likely need to be augmented with email, depending on the company’s needs – mostly using email to receive and send external communications.
GitLab, an open sourced software development tool, has an all-remote workforce of 160 employees in 160 locations across 37 countries (and many additional remote contributors). GitLab’s co-founder and CEO, Sid Sijbrandij, explained in an interview how they communicate effectively across many time zones:
“In GitLab we try to have fewer meetings and more asynchronous communication, so we try to use issue trackers, Google Docs, and chat so that you don’t deal with time zones – but more importantly, if it’s a meeting then everyone is forced to spend time, if you make it asynchronous only the people that care about that subject have to invest time there. We also have a big get-together every nine months to bring the whole company together in one location for a week.”
Sijbrandij also emphasizes that this communication style does not equate to informal channels. Primary communication channels need to be formally established and standardized, they just need to allow for both real-time and asynchronous conversations (remember: email is not a conversation platform). He explains how GitLab enables separate communication channels for conversations that are unrelated to work:
“Making social connections with coworkers is important to building trust within your organization. In colocated environments, informal communication is naturally occurring. In an all-remote environment, informal communication should be formally addressed. Leaders should organize informal communication, and to whatever degree possible, design an atmosphere where team members all over the globe feel comfortable reaching out to anyone to converse about topics unrelated to work.”
3. Host documents and shared assets in cloud-based locations
In companies that are geographically centralized, including those with a headquarters office and satellite offices, the typical style of document organization has been to store files on local servers. Hosting files on local servers ensures several inefficiencies for workers: access and security issues (especially between office locations, and for temporary contractors or interns), a lack of transparency regarding file edit history and backups, and a high risk of data duplication which in turn causes an absence of a ‘single source of truth’. All of these issues cause inefficiencies that waste the time of individual workers company-wide, not just tech support staff.
Having worked within several collaborative international marketing and business development teams, I have firsthand experience at evaluating and implementing team collaboration tools to streamline workflows across disparate locations and time zones. At an international construction management company based in NYC, I implemented a cloud-based hub for collaboration and shared assets. Doing this prevented confusion by creating a ‘single source of truth’ for project data and images, and it also empowered both marketing and business development employees to find what they needed at the time they needed it – without needing to wait for an email response the following day when I started work in a different global time zone.
For remote teams, it’s also important to provide transparency on shared tasks and team goals by using a cloud-based task management system (such as Asana, Trello, Microsoft Teams, Monday.com, Basecamp, Notion, FunctionFox, Zoho Sprints, etc.). Companies of all sizes can also benefit from implementing a CMS – a Content Management System – to create a single source of truth for all texts written by all teams: marketing, sales, customer service, tech support, and project teams.
When Microsoft’s current CEO, Satya Nadella, took the reins from Steve Ballmer in 2014, he realized that there were serious problems with their company processes that were fostering an internal culture of mistrust and infighting. Five and a half months later, Nadella announced that Microsoft existed to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more” – a change in ethos that kicked off a successful competitive repositioning as Microsoft transitioned from a “devices and services” company to a “mobile and cloud” company.
This growing trend of cloud-based applications will continue as more technology providers begin to harness the powers of cloud computing and machine learning in order to provide the services that businesses use for their daily operations.
4. Codify your workflows and processes
Another key step to building a successful remote work culture is to establish clarity and efficiency by documenting internal workflows and processes: both company-wide processes and the workflows of each department. As a marketing employee, one of the best examples I have seen of process documentation was a set of visual guides that showed exactly how to organize and name shared folders of work, so that any new employee could easily locate any existing file that they needed to reference.
GitLab’s co-founder and CEO, Sid Sijbrandij, explained how they apply their open source ethos to documenting and streamlining their internal processes as the world’s largest all-remote company:
“The handbook is a public thing, it’s at: about.gitlab.com/handbook – so it’s over 500 pages of all the processes that we have. Rather than telling a person one time, I take an extra minute to write it down, communicate that, and the next person can just read up on it. There is an onboarding [chapter] that has 80 things that you have to do and that others have to do for you; we give people all the tools they need. Even little things like how to start a video call in chat.”
“[The handbook] describes what every part of the company is working on, how they work on it, and how they think about it. Every time someone asks me a question, we try to edit the handbook and add the answer, so that the next person doesn’t have to ask. If it’s about a certain department, that department is responsible for it – but it’s also open source; we get contributions even from outside the company.”
Check out these fantastic comprehensive resources published by GitLab:
GitLab’s complete guide for all-remote companies
GitLab’s handbook of internal processes
5. Future-proof your company by attracting the best workers
Benefits of establishing a remote work culture go far beyond your company's ability to remain productive during health scares. Common benefits are reduced operational costs (such as renting office space or reimbursing public transit and parking costs) as well as increased flexibility for workers’ changing life circumstances (such as parenthood and temporary disability).
The latter focus on flexibility for workers’ life circumstances is an important step to enabling equal opportunity employment, as well as encouraging a healthy diversity of perspectives and understanding within your company.
As the co-founder and co-CEO of the photo gift retailer Collage.com, Joe Golden summarized the benefits of managing a fully remote company since 2007 in an interview with Glassdoor:
“Being totally remote lets us recruit the best employees from anywhere, instead of limiting ourselves to one limited geographic area. It provides our employees with complete control of their working environment: most of our team loves working from a home office; some folks love to work at a favorite coffee shop; some like going to coworking spaces. Additionally, by reducing our overhead costs, we’re able to invest even more in our team through great salaries and benefits.”
Even corporate giant American Express has recognized the benefits of offering remote work positions in their customer service team. Victor Ingalls, the Vice President, World Service for Home-Based population explained in an interview with Remote.co:
“Our mission is to become the world’s most respected service brand. To do that, we must be able to attract and select the very best talent, people with a passion for service. Having a remote workforce allows us to cast a wider net; we also can attract people who have the right profile but who have specific needs that make virtual work a good fit, such as parents, students, veterans and their spouses, and people with limited mobility. We’ve been able to offer more part-time and even split-shift options. Having employees across time zones and with a more flexible working model also helps us respond to volumes and be there for our customers when they need us.”
On a personal note: since I moved away from living in NYC, I am absolutely much happier and more productive overall – having escaped the metropolis stresses such as the frequent overnight emergency sirens, and the 2.5 hours of daily commuting with frequent subway delays (and the forced close proximity to commuters’ stinky armpits!). My honest opinion is that you will be more likely to find joyful and self-motivated workers if you look beyond the boundaries of your city, and allowing for remote workers means that there is no added cost or commitment of relocation in order to hire these gems!
If you would like to chat with this happy remote worker about your company’s marketing or branding needs, please reach out to me at email@example.com
For more advice from the trail blazing CEOs quoted in this article, you can dive into each ethos exploration below (listed in the order they were quoted):
Wade Foster; co-founder and CEO of Zapier
“How to Build Culture in a Remote Team”
Sid Sijbrandij; co-founder and CEO of GitLab
“GitLab’s Secret to Managing 160 Employees in 160 Locations” (video)
GitLab’s complete guide for all-remote companies
Satya Nadella; CEO of Microsoft
“How do you turn around the culture of a 130,000-person company? Ask Satya Nadella”
Joe Golden; co-founder and co-CEO of Collage.com
“How One CEO Successfully Built A 100% Remote Workforce”
Victor Ingalls; Vice President, World Service for American Express
“Remote Work at American Express, World Service”