How to Build and Maintain an Intentional Organizational Culture in a Remote Staff Environment

Whether we’re co-located or remote, every company wants their teams to be aligned towards achieving their vision, mission, and goals. And just like in the office, remote workers have to be deliberate about creating an inspiring culture. We just use different techniques.

So how do we create closeness even though we’re far apart? One way to start is by creating a team agreement. This is a living document that sets expectations and outlines acceptable behaviors about how a remote team wants to work together. How will we communicate with each other? What are the expected response times? How will we know what’s being worked on?

Each team has its own personality and its own style of communicating. When we establish a basic set of guidelines for working together, we can remove costly misunderstandings. And remember, it’s a living document. It’s important to re-evaluate the team agreement on a regular basis, especially when new members join or leave the team.

To enhance our virtual collaborations, there are various tools and techniques we can use to simulate the office. And what we actually want to do, is simulate the human-ness that we have when we’re together in an office. Here are some best practices from successful remote teams.

Use video when communicating

Adding video to the conversation significantly enhances engagement. We’ve all been on conference calls where we (or others) haven’t been paying attention (I’m as guilty as everyone). That’s because we’re programmed to respond to each other visually. So when we can’t see each other, we are easily disengaged. This can be ok for occasional calls, but when we work remotely, the ability to see body language, sighs, and smiles can greatly enhance communication.

Many teams use programs such as Google Hangouts or Skype to have work sessions with each other (“pair collaboration”). If you’re an organization with offices in several locations, try placing a web cam in each office so that teams can see each other. If you really want to go futuristic, try telepresence. There are some great, low-cost, teleportation devices like the KUBI that can help make it feel like you’re in the same room together.

Set up a group instant messaging system

In an office, we often pick up on what’s happening by overhearing conversations or running into people at the coffee machine. Virtual teams can get this same kind of random interaction with group instant messaging systems like Slack or HipChat. These tools give a way to convey information to a group quickly. They also allow for more frequent opportunities for casual conversation, without the heavy burden of email.

Find ways to work out loud

Working out loud means narrating your work and making it observable to others. This is a technique for keeping everyone on the same page when we’re out of sight. It can be something as simple as sending a daily message to your team about what you got done that day. It could also mean keeping your Skype or instant message status accurate so everyone knows when you’re available.

There are many ways to enhance the bandwidth of our communication: low tech and high tech ways. The important thing is to try things out to see what works for your team.

In order to feel more connected, it’s important to acknowledge contributions and accomplishments. Showing appreciation and saying thank you can boost morale. But more importantly, not showing appreciation can decrease morale. An easy way to share your thanks on remote teams is by sending an online kudo card.

Feedback is equally as important as praise. Many teams are setting up 360 degree feedback systems so that colleagues and managers can more frequently measure each others performance. The Happy Melly team uses Jurgen Appelo’s Merit Money system. Each month, the team is given a certain number of merit points that must be distributed to other team members with an explanation for why. All the information is transparent to everyone.

In addition to personal feedback, it’s good to get the team together regularly (virtually, of course) to reflect on how things are going. Some sample questions include:

  • What do you like about they way we work together?
  • What should we stop doing?
  • What are we doing well?
  • How do you feel about the tools we are using?

Retrospectives help identify what’s going well and what can be improved. Ultimately, retrospective are there to inspire continuous improvement.

Trust on remote teams is based on reliability, consistency, and responsiveness. When we build these things into our everyday interactions, we can create and maintain thriving organizational cultures in a remote staff environment.

You can hear more from Lisette and fellow co-presenter Adriana Vela later this month in the Ask The Expert webinar, “Working Effectively with Remote Teams.” The Ask the Expert series is free to and exclusively for Members.


Lisette Sutherland
Lisette Sutherland is a specialist in creating online collaborative communities with over 10 years experience with web-based collaboration tools and online community management. Her goal is to get the best people working together, regardless of location. Lisette recently co-authored “Engagement Management: A step-by-step guide to building a thriving social network," and helped over 40 organizations and businesses setup and run online communities. She is currently working on a new book about remote collaboration. You can follow Lisette @lightling.