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How to improve your remote work culture (+ signs your efforts are paying off)

As a remote leader, you probably know relationship building is important when leading a team. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. 

It’s hard to measure how strong your company culture is–especially when your team is remote. In-person leaders can at least get a read on culture by observing day-to-day office interactions. But when you’re distributed, you don’t get that up-close view of team relationships.

So how can you find out if your culture is on track?

If you sense your culture needs help, there are concrete steps you can take to strengthen it–even as a remote leader.  

Be proactively transparent with your team members

As a remote leader, it might feel like an easier topic to avoid when you sense an issue with your remote work culture. You’re not in the office, so it’s no big deal to push off a conversation with your team until you think of a solution–right?

Tempting as it may be, this route backfires on leaders. When you don’t identify or acknowledge problems with your team members, many interpret that as indifference–and you risk burnout or team members looking for work in places where they feel valued. 

Build trust throughout your remote team by being proactively open and inquisitive—this will help you catch any issues with your team culture and collaboration before they fester and become bigger problems. When you sense something is off (or hear it from a teammate), we recommend you:

  • Ask questions and listen in 1:1s. Get team member's takes in more private conversations on how things are going, so they feel like they are being invited to share rather than being a squeaky wheel. Let your teams know you’re open to feedback, so you can learn what types of changes will serve them best. Team buy-in is crucial when making culture changes, so involve your team whenever possible. 
  • Reflect with leadership. Chat with other leaders on the team to see if they've picked up on similar issues from their reports, and understand how they're thinking about it.
  • Be honest about any problems in a public forum. Talk with your team candidly if you perceive a problem. Acknowledge any negative feelings around the culture and admit that it needs work while also offering opportunities to make changes.

As a remote team leader, you need to acknowledge that you cannot measure how effective your team culture is alone. You should be proactively be trying to understand how your team feels, and sharing with them what you think. Your transparency will help build trust between you and your teams and encourage others to be honest with you, too.

Signs it’s working: You share everything you can with with team members–in good times and bad–and they openly share what’s on their minds. 

Conduct quarterly culture surveys 

Team culture isn’t a concrete science. It’s a squishy concept–and that makes it hard to measure.

We can’t give you a one-size-fits-all formula, but we can give you the next best option: collecting feedback. Send quarterly surveys to team members that help you gauge everyone’s feelings on your remote culture and find ways to improve. Ask a variety of questions that cover management style, employee well-being, and inclusion.

The first step to being able to improve your culture is having a shared understanding your culture as a remote team.

Check out our culture survey questions:

Most of these, we ask teammates to rate on a scale of 1-4, 1 being strongly disagree and 4 being strongly agree.

  • I enjoy working with my teammates.
  • I don’t hesitate to reach out to teammates when I need clarification or help on something.
  • My teammates create room for me to own decisions in my area of responsibility.
  • I have sufficient opportunities to give input or collaborate on things that are important to me.
  • I feel like the pace I am working at is sustainable.
  • I feel aligned with leadership on the pace I should be working.
  • I’m happy with my opportunities to grow professionally at [Company].
  • I feel aligned with leadership on my responsibilities within the company process.
  • I feel recognized for my hard work and accomplishments.
  • I understand and believe in [Company’s] broader strategy.
  • I enjoy working at [Company].
  • I trust my manager.
  • I understand how my work affects [Company].
  • Our culture supports employees’ health and well-being.
  • I have equitable access to the resources my co-workers have.
  • I have the resources and training I need to succeed.
  • What is one thing we could do to improve our remote work culture? 

We also list our current cultural initiatives (everything from our #wins channel in Slack to our bi-weekly team lunches) and ask team members to rank them on a scale of one to four based on their effectiveness in building culture. 

Make your surveys anonymous, so team members feel comfortable leaving honest responses. Try to send the survey during a time when the team workload is normal and most people are available. You'll get skewed results if you ask these questions during an unusually stressful project or right after the holidays when work isn't fresh on their minds.

Signs it’s working: You adjust policies based on survey feedback and see consistent improvement in team satisfaction metrics quarter over quarter. 

Use your survey results to run a quarterly culture retrospective

Company culture should never start and stop with leadership—it’s a shared responsibility. Team-wide retrospective culture meetings give everyone ownership of their workplace culture. These conversations are crucial in terms of generating buy-in for any changes we make to how we collaborate or other cultural rituals.

These retros help us align on the problem and develop shared ownership over the solutions. We typically have a non-founder member of the team run the culture survey, to make sure we're driving a collective-ownership mentality instead of a top-down culture.

How we run our quarterly culture retros to drive collective ownership of our remote culture:

  • Before the retro, synthesize the results of the culture survey in order to share focus areas of improvement and celebrate areas that are going well. Ask the team to briefly review this before you get in the meeting. 
  • In the retro, use the first few minutes of the call to go over what’s working first. Talk about wins and cheer on any team members who have contributed to them. 
A little bit of celebration at the start of our last culture retro (pulled from our survey synthesis)
  • Spend 5-10 minutes of the call on async writing. In other words, have everyone mute, play some music, and give people the opportunity to write down (in a shared doc) any reflections on the results of the survey or ideas for what to improve. We like to do this with async writing to make sure we gather everyone's opinions, so people can build on one another, and to make sure no one set of voices dominates the conversation.
  • Open the floor for people to share about what they wrote live, and then ask everyone to vote and comment in writing on what others have shared. 
Some conversation in writing from our last culture retro, sparked by a note from another teammate.
  • Once everyone has weighed in in writing, chat about things that need work. Brainstorm action steps with your team to implement now and discuss at the next retrospective. 
  • Choose three or four areas of improvement and dedicate owners for each. Instead of asking those people to execute on a chosen action item, we give them the area of responsibility that they should choose solutions for to implement. 

In our most recent culture retro, the areas we chose to improve on were: recognizing achievements, supporting career growth, fostering more social time, and encouraging the team to manage their energy).

Keeping the number of areas we tackle low helps us stay accountable to actually making changes, and giving the area owner autonomy to create the solution helps us come up with ideas our team is more excited to take part in than if just leadership were driving solutions. 

For example, at a recent cultural practice we came up with after our last culture retro: lunch bunches, where we randomly sort teammates into groups of 3 and give them a budget to grab lunch together.

It’s helped us have more casual social hangs with teammates we don’t normally work together with—which became less frequent as our team had grown (an insight surfaced in culture retro!)

A team "lunch bunch," a cultural initiative two of our engineers created as a result of a culture retro.

Signs it's working: You're able to gather opinions from your team that lead to alignment on the most important areas for improvement, and team-wide buy-in on new cultural initiatives.

Set up weekly async check-ins

Quarterly culture surveys go a long way toward helping you learn about your team and make changes. But when you don’t have the quick face-to-face chats of in-office life, you need a way to see if your culture changes are working without waiting three months. 

Weekly team check-ins let you view your remote work culture on a smaller scale and address issues before they become major roadblocks on your next survey. They’re also a great way to check in without having to schedule a meeting.

We use async check-ins to check the pulse of our culture between surveys and without extra team meetings. 

Use a tool like Range (free for up to 12 users!) to send out async weekly check-ins that take your team members less than five minutes to fill out. Range integrates with instant messaging apps like Slack and MS Teams, so notifications are automatically sent when it’s time for an update.

Have your team members share how they're feeling that week with mood emojis. Team members can also share any important tasks they're working on for context, so you’ll always be aligned. 

Signs it’s working: You can pick up on trends on how your team is feeling and make small adjustments, like bringing more team members onto especially challenging projects that are causing team frustration. Over time, your culture surveys will require fewer major changes.

Establish crystal-clear communication norms 

Unclear communication norms are poison to remote teams. People are never quite sure if they’re interacting the “right” way–am I supposed to keep my video on in Zoom meetings? Should I have sent this message in a Slack DM?–so communication leaves them feeling anxious. 

Calm everyone’s nerves by setting clear standards around communication. 

It doesn’t matter what those guidelines are–what matters is that everyone is on the same page about these standards. Make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them, so no one is left wondering if a meeting is totally necessary or if they can switch off their video when they’re having a bad hair day.

Here at Remotion, one of our communication norms is encouraging spontaneous calls and coworking sessions for working through problems together. Remotion rooms help us foster a “I’ll just swing by their desk” kind of mentality remotely, since team members can easily signal to one another that they want to collaborate or work side by side, just by hopping into a room.

Our AV team spontaneously collaborating in a Remotion room.

We also direct our team to default towards public channels in Slack (as opposed to DMs), and try to encourage a culture of writing and documenting project thinking publicly. 

Define your own standards by thinking about how your team naturally communicates. Do they prefer minimal meetings? What kind of team rituals do they go for? Are they avoiding watercooler chats and virtual happy hours but lighting up the show-and-tell Slack channel? 

Notice how they like to connect and work, and build out guidelines that support those habits.  

Once you develop communication standards, announce them at your next all-hands meeting and add them to your onboarding manual and internal knowledge base. 

Signs it’s working: Your team follows communication norms and asks fewer questions about communication expectations. 

Think beyond team-building activities to boost your remote work culture 

Remote leaders often try to solve culture issues by piling on remote team-building activities or happy hours that end up just feeling like another meeting—and we get it. It’s easy to feel like more face time might solve a stagnant remote work culture. 

While remote events like happy hours are a fun way to connect with your team, a strong culture is based on trust. That starts with finding ways to foster a collective-ownership mentality and create culture together–not icebreaker questions and mandatory meetings. 

Lead the way by following the tips in this post. These tactics will help you build a workplace where team members feel valued and have a sense of belonging–regardless of where they work. 

The case for virtual coworking: build a connected remote culture.

Regularly coworking with your hybrid or remote team can help you build the social cohesion that makes work feel less like work.

Here are the biggest reasons we think coworking is an effective way to create a close-knit remote culture:

1. It fosters casual conversations.

Building a connected remote culture is all about fostering 1:1 or small group organic conversations. Virtual coworking makes space for those conversations. When you spend time together outside of agenda-driven meetings, spontaneous chats naturally occur, as they would in an office.

2. It's more inclusive than scheduled social events.

It can be draining for introverts to have to participate in scheduled, purely social conversations. Coworking allows the team to spend time together and occasionally chat without having to constantly be "on," making it more inclusive for introverts and extroverts alike.

3. It's easy to say yes to.

Purely social events are important, but if your team is busy or on a tight deadline, it's tough to find the time for social chats without it feeling like an obligation. Coworking is much easier to get your team onboard with because it doesn't take time away from getting work done.

4. It improves remote collaboration.

Coworking can lead to unblocking and shorter feedback loops. Quick questions get answered easily and in the moment, without a having to schedule a meeting or go back-and-forth in messages.

5. It's scalable.

Coworking works for teams of all sizes and is a great way to scale your remote culture as your team grows. It's helpful to create opportunities for teammates from different functions to get to know one another.

6. It creates shared momentum.

The feeling of togetherness is motivating!

Get started with virtual coworking: choose the type most aligned with your priorities.

It takes intentionality to make virtual coworking feel natural and energizing enough to stick—it's not as simple as leaving a Zoom call open all day.

Here are a few of the ways we've set coworking up for our team. We recommend choosing one to start with. If it works, make it routine and experiment with other types from there.

Best practices for virtual coworking.

Keep group sizes small.

Limit your coworking sessions to 4-6 people to keep things from getting distracting and help make introverted teammates comfortable chatting.

Signal boost coworking.

Set a norm of letting the entire team know when you're hopping into a coworking room or session.

Make it routine.

Once you've figured out what kind of coworking works for your team, make it a regular, opt-in event. Set up a recurring calendar event to do it at the same time each week to maximize the impact.

Set expectations ahead of time.

When you're first introducing coworking to your team, share what you're imagining in your calendar invite and at the top of each session to get everyone on the same page. For example:

Let's try virtual coworking! We'll work independently on our own projects with our cameras off, but we'll share space and listen to music together — like we might work side-by-side at the office.

Listen to music together.

Play music while you work to create a shared environment and add a little bit of personality to your coworking session.

Set up Coworking Rooms in Remotion.

Most of the above is doable with any video chat app, but much easier with Remotion—which we designed with a lightweight, smooth coworking experience in mind. Easily set up Remotion rooms that your teammates can hop into for different styles of coworking.

We'd love to hear how coworking goes for you, or what practices you've found helpful on your team — let us know @remotionco on Twitter.

Want to try coworking in Remotion, our virtual office? Get free access today.

Cowork like
everyone's together.