When it comes to remote teams, culture is a huge topic. Common knowledge suggests that co-located teams have an easier time building culture compared to remote teams.
In fact, I've even had co-located teams tell me their culture problems were solved by simply buying a foosball table. Though I challenge the truthiness of that statement, I don't think there's a quick path to building company culture, and remote teams certainly aren't an exception.
With co-located teams, it's easy to ignore culture building with the expectation that it will naturally happen. In 99% of situations (made up number), this is simply not true, but by the time a co-located team realizes it, it might be too late to repair their culture.
With a distributed team you know going in that culture will be hard to build. When you are team building online, you don't delude yourself thinking that culture will magically happen. You go in eyes wide open. If a strong culture doesn't develop it's not because you didn't try, it's usually due to another reason.
With that in mind, how can you go about building culture when there are thousands of miles between teammates? Here are seven online team building principles that work for us at Zapier.
1. Culture is about more than ping pong tables
The first thing to realize is that your culture has to be built around more than ping pong tables. Games and other group activities that lend themselves to being in person are simply not a possibility on a day-to-day basis for remote teams. Therefore, your culture has to be built around something more than playing table tennis to unite the team.
2. Culture is about how you work
Everyone that works on Zapier has bought into the belief that you come to work for the work, not for the ping pong. Most of your time at work is going to be work, so the work has to be rewarding by itself. Here are examples:
How we talk to customers (is speed more important than quality?)
How we communicate with each other (is this a phone call conversation or an email conversation or a chat conversation?)
How much work do you do (do we work 40 hours or 80 hours?)
Those decisions and values create culture in remote companies more than a ping pong table would because our work is our lifeblood.
3. Tools allow for collaboration and fun
A co-located office develops its own personality through inside jokes, shared experiences, and a collaborative environment, such as a meeting room with whiteboards. A remote team needs to develop something similar. The easiest way to do this is with your day-to-day toolset. Here are some tools we love that have helped build our culture.
Slack is our virtual office. It's the online version of the water cooler—where random work discussions happen, but also where we banter back and forth about the news, jokes, and pop culture. The best part of Slack is that our water cooler discussions are always accessible. Nothing gets lost. And there's no "behind-your-back politics" that happens in many co-located offices.
We make heavy use of emoji in Slack as well.
GIFs and Memes
Most online communities have a go-to set of GIFs and memes they love. Zapier is no different. Being able to drop a relevant GIF or meme seconds after a timely Slack comment is one of the more spectacularly amusing things that happen in our little digital office place. Slack, in particular, has a great Giphy integration where you start a message with
/giphy followed by your search term and you can insert a relevant (or often times a not so relevant) GIF.
And if you're so inclined, you can also automate your GIF game with the Giphy integrations on Zapier.
Our internal blog tool, called Async, was inspired by P2, a WordPress theme Automattic uses. Async makes it really easy to post updates. We use it to replace all our team emails. The asynchronous nature and threaded comments make it a lot easier to share things—from posts welcoming new teammates to discussing architectural scaling issues—Async helps keep everyone on the same page. It's almost like our own mini version of Reddit.
Hangouts, Pair Buddies and Zoom
Chat is awesome, but being able to talk in real time and visually see someone is still pretty important for some issues. Slack calls for quick, ad-hoc one-on-one meetings or Zoom for bigger team meetings make it easy to work in real time. During these chats, it's always fun to have a five-minute personal checkup just to see what the other person/people are up to.
Pair Buddies are a weekly random pairing with 2-3 people on the team that allows you to catch up on work, life, or anything else. We use Donut, a Slack app, for the random pairings. Pair buddy chats help keep some semblance of the office social life as part of work and encourage people who work in different departments to get to know each other better.
Music and Books Perks with Tango Card
One of our favorite services is Tango Card (also called Rewards Genius). The service makes it really easy to give perks to your employees. We've given everyone premium Spotify, iTunes, or Google Play credits, which is great since many remote employees love to listen to music during the day. Having music handy also makes it fun to share what everyone is listening to and hear what sort of eclectic tastes everyone has.
And because just about everyone on the team is an avid reader, staff can also choose to use their credits at Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play which they can use for eBooks. Well-read teams are happy and productive teams.
4. In-person meetups are still important
We get the whole gang together twice a year for a company retreat. During the retreat, we do things that help foster our culture. Things like playing board games together and hiking as a group have helped us learn more about each other and our families—it’s knowledge we wouldn't have gained in a normal week.
5. Local community sponsorship shows presence
We haven't done this a ton, but when we have it's worked. We've sponsored dev/como, which James Carr runs, a handful of times and we’ve also made sure to go back and sponsor Startup Weekend Columbia every year. We've also donated an afternoon of our time to a non-profit during our retreats to give back.
Any time someone on the team wants to do something like this in their city, we're happy to sponsor. I imagine as the team grows even more we'll be fortunate to help foster many local communities around the globe.
By doing this, team members feel more like there is a local presence in their hometown.
6. Trust is the foundation
Remote teams have to trust their teammates. There is simply no way around it. The beauty of trusting your teammates is that oftentimes your teammates reward you. Most people genuinely want to do a good job. 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.
Related: How to build trust on a remote team
7. Get things done
Getting things done tends to be a by-product of trust. Because there is an implicit trust in your teammates and because there is no other way to measure results in a remote team, the team inherently evaluates each other on what was completed that week. We do this by sharing weekly updates on our internal blog (Async) every Friday—I bet you can imagine how it would feel to be the only one with nothing to show. That feeling creates a desire to finish something important each week.
As remote teams get more popular, I expect we'll hear more about the cultures in remote teams and how they develop differently from co-located teams.