How to Maintain Culture (and Even Improve It!) With Remote Teams

“Company culture” is a funny thing.

Sometimes it’s developed organically. Sometimes it’s developed intentionally, with multi-day workshops and highly-paid consultants. Sometimes it’s developed by accident.

However it emerges, in our experience, once it’s there, for better or worse, clients want to see it maintained - and fair enough.

At best, it’s key to the business’ success; at worst, it’s familiar and comfortable.

Whilst a new, remote-first corporate class is emerging, most companies are traditional, co-located entities, working to figure out this emerging “new normal” aka. remote work (what organizational development folks have been calling “the future of work” for the past 10 years or so). That typically means blending co-located teams and remote workers or teams.

For some, it’s a painless transition. For most, there’s a real concern that company culture may suffer with the addition of remote workers.

I’m here to tell you the fears are (mostly) overblown. Here’s why.

Most of what people think is “company culture” actually isn’t

There are fundamental elements of company culture and identity which are mission critical. The mission, vision and values of your company inform the way you approach customers, suppliers, competitors and employees. These are the metaphorical cornerstones of company success.

Having said that, a significant portion of what executives and managers describe as culture is often better described as, “how we do things around here”. Co-located employee arrangements, combined with the traditional “bums in seats = measurable output” management mentality and talk of “accidental watercooler magic” fall under this category. None of it is core to corporate identity or mission; it’s just legacy thinking.

Once embraced as the panacea for all things innovation and culture-related, a slew of new research shows that open offices - co-located, designed-“accidental meet-ups” taken to their logical design extreme - are actually grossly ineffective, leading to a 70% reduction in face-time meetups and (ironically) a 50% increase in emails and messenger messages.

The elements of company culture that are intentional don’t have to change

The good news is: the parts of company culture that are intentional - that make your company unique and, when stacked one atop the other, create competitive advantage - don’t have to change, no matter the office environment.

Do you encourage experimentation? Leave room for failure and learning? Have a culture of learning, support and mentorship? Are you customer-centric? Do you encourage team members to work with suppliers to find win-win outcomes?

Great!

These values - and any others you intentionally recruit for and build your company around - can be screened-for with remote teammates, just as you would with any traditional office-bound position.

The result is a best-of-both scenario: all the elements of your existing company culture and values, but now with a (virtually) boundless supply of great talent, delivering output more efficiently than ever before possible.

Remote teams can elevate the intentional elements of company culture

Now for the really good news: adding remote teammates to your co-located operations can actually elevate and strengthen your company culture.

How?

Including remote teammates successfully means incorporating intentionality into the way you and your team interact with them. It’s a fantastic opportunity to re-examine what makes your company tick, what you value, and how you communicate those values to the team.

Once you’re clear, the communication cadence of remote teammates gives you a unique opportunity to practice and reinforce those values. Yes, you lose the random watercooler chats (for what those are worth), but what you get back in return is scenario where teammates reach out to one another with the intention to communicate, not just the random “oh I bumped into you” - or worse, “sorry, I see you’re in the middle of something but this is on my mind”.

Every interaction is an opportunity to practice and reinforce those company values, and the communication is intentional, collaborative and effective (more on that in an upcoming piece).

Conclusion

Do remote team members pose a threat to company culture? Absolutely not. Does their inclusion require some additional thinking, strategy and intentionality? Absolutely.

Normally I’d say “the juice is worth the squeeze”, but in this case “the squeeze” is work you should be doing anyway.

As always, if you’d like to explore any of the ideas in this piece, your comments are welcome, and we’d love to hear from you.

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