Maintaining company culture and morale throughout the remote work experience of the pandemic has been a challenge for Fortune 500 and mom-and-pop businesses alike. But what do you do if your employees never had a physical office space to develop that company culture in the first place? For startup founders and entrepreneurs who started their companies during the pandemic, fostering company culture with remote teams has been one of the larger challenges of the health crisis. Most of these managers’ employees have never met in person and for some, there are no plans to return to in-person work in the future. So, how do managers build and maintain company culture under these new and unique conditions?
Startup culture is often key to the success of fledgling companies. Employee buy-ins to goals and culture are key to success when resources and personnel are stretched thin. But much of that comes from the interactions employees have that aren’t related to work. In a remote work environment, unless certain policies are implemented, most interactions will be limited to strictly professional conversations that don’t foster the same kind of bond. The good news is that the changes and practices needed to foster this culture in a remote work environment are simple to implement.
Establish rules for meetings to increase socialization
There’s a reason successful managers often organize team happy hours, retreats, and other fun activities for their employees: company culture can’t be created in the conference room. But when workers are too far away to easily meet up after work or even too far to travel to a company retreat some more creativity is required.
Managers should establish rules and protocols about meetings and scheduling to make sure that not every conversation their employees have is about work. If everyone meets independently and only schedules meetings as needed, then staff members will only interact when there is a business need. Coworkers need to see each other as being able to have and hold a conversation, people who they can ask about their weekend and tell them about their own.
By scheduling virtual meetings throughout the week that have no set agenda, founders can invite employees to drop in at their leisure if they need help or just want to chat. This helps to establish a more organic form of collaboration, and colleagues can join the meeting while working on other things or to discuss current events in much the same way as they would at the coffee machine or in an open office setting. This not only allows for less forced team bonding but also enables different employees to learn from what their coworkers are working on and solicit fresh suggestions for projects from people outside of their direct team. Managers can also schedule meetings and create communication channels where work conversations are specifically discouraged or prohibited, where the team is able to share funny or interesting content or news and events that are important to them.
Celebrate one another
Even though asking a coworker how their weekend was on a Monday back in the office would seem entirely normal in an office environment, in the remote working world this link to the outside lives of our coworkers can break down. If your company starts or ends each week with an all-hands staff meeting, managers should set aside some time at the beginning or end of that meeting to open up the floor for people to talk about anything interesting they’ve done over the weekend or plan on doing for the upcoming one.
Managers need to pay extra attention to their employees' out-of-work accomplishments and activities so they can inform the staff and celebrate their coworkers. If someone is running a marathon over the weekend or recently received a degree or certificate, that information should be highlighted and celebrated during company time to encourage more employees to share their stories. Over time, this will create a culture where employees naturally share and ask about each other’s lives and will feel less of a divide between work and life.
Major milestones such as birthdays, marriages, and births should also be celebrated. When your employees have only ever met digitally, extra effort must be made to humanize the face on the other side of the screen. Hearing about major life events and celebrating them together can remind us that our coworkers are real people with real lives. Employees spend so much of their time working with their coworkers, it is only natural that they should endeavor to know them as more than just their professional assets.
Along with celebrating accomplishments and milestones, efforts should be made to encourage each other to accomplish new things and achieve more. Running clubs, steps-per-day challenges, office book clubs, and more all existed before the remote work revolution. There is no reason why they cannot continue to have value.
Coworkers with similar interests outside of work can encourage each other by sharing progress and improving their lives together. Even if they are on opposite sides of the world, two coworkers who cycle can easily share their rides with one another and compete to see who can go the farthest. Sporting brackets and fantasy leagues can easily take place remotely, as can movie discussion groups, run clubs, and book clubs. None of these activities need to be mandatory. However, in a normal office environment, these things would happen organically. In a remote work environment, managers need to create the space for these relationships to develop and will likely need to do more to facilitate this kind of socializing between coworkers.
Establishing and maintaining company culture could not be more important given the overwhelming shift to remote work. The most successful managers will actively work to keep this culture going in the new world. We naturally want to connect with those around us. It can feel impossible to develop the same kind of relationships when we have never met our coworkers in person. But, with some creativity and a concerted effort to replace the missing aspects of in-person work, the coveted startup culture can be cultivated in a remote work environment, and the results will speak for themselves.