Countless studies have shown that whether it’s in athletics or business, people who have a strong affinity for their team work harder and more effectively than people who feel isolated. Traditional workplaces were able to lean on the convenience of a shared office to facilitate conversation, create a shared space for collaboration, and make group events easy to plan.
But as more and more teams move to hybrid models, at a time when more and more doubt has been cast on the effectiveness of hybrid work, many business leaders are left to wonder how they can foster a great company culture when their employees are spread out around the country - or even around the world. While the challenge may seem daunting, it’s far from insurmountable.
There are plenty of reasons why a great company culture should be an important part of your business. In a multi-national survey, Glassdoor found that over 77% of workers research a company’s culture before deciding to apply to jobs, and over half of all workers surveyed said that a good work culture was more important than salary when deciding where to work. Good culture also encourages employees to communicate with one another more freely, frequently, and openly, which is vital to creating a collaborative environment when your team is distributed.
The first step in creating a positive culture is to give your employees the space and freedom to establish clear boundaries and expectations for how everyone works best. What are the hours they work best? What is the best way to reach them? How frequently do they need check-ins? These are all questions you should be ready to ask and they should take time to answer. On the other side of the equation, what do you, as a leader, need from them in order to keep business moving? What days should you have a reasonable expectation that they will be online and ready to work?
At Weavy employees are encouraged to block off any time in their calendar where they cannot or do not want to be reached, no questions asked. Despite members of our team operating in wildly different time zones, we’re more than capable of scheduling all of our important meetings between these blocks while still respecting normal business hours. As for scheduling check ins, different members of my team meet with our supervisor based on how we like to work best. I personally like to begin my week talking out goals, whereas one of my coworkers prefers to do more of a midweek progress report.
Once these boundaries and expectations are established by you and your employees, your responsibility as a leader is to respect and enforce them. Taking the time to do this also helps your teams to determine the ideal time and method to sync up with one another each day. Syncs are a great way to make sure everyone is aware of everyone else’s responsibilities, and creates opportunities for collaboration that would never happen if everyone was working in a vacuum.
By building time into each call to catch up and talk about life outside of work, syncs can also become a great way to build a rapport within the company. At Weavy we build in about 10 to 30 minutes at the top of team meetings to catch up on each other's lives. This also has the benefit of creating a space where everyone feels comfortable discussing what challenges or opportunities in our personal lives may impact our professional bandwidth. This helps us to not only manage expectations but balance the work among the team.
For the smaller hour-to-hour communication that has to take place, using the in app chat features of your favorite collaboration software to build several spaces is crucial. In my experience, it’s good to have conversations at every level from general to specific. On the general side you have a company wide on-topic chat, where everyone from leadership to interns can share interesting thoughts and ideas related to the business.
At the specific side of the spectrum are chats for each team to develop their own agenda and culture. In between, look for overlaps where building a clear line of communication is important, for example for sales and marketing, operations and facilities, finance and HR. As an example, my team at Weavy has a chat where our leadership can participate in conversation, as well as one where our team members can communicate and workshop without having to be self-conscious that are interactions are being supervised. This sends a clear message that your organization is built on communication and collaboration, that no department or team member is silo’d off, but also that not every conversation needs to involve every person.
While it may feel counterintuitive, building spaces for your employees to have off-topic discussions is nearly as important as setting up spaces for on-topic conversations. It’s important for everyone you work with to know that you see them as more than just their job title and salary. Research has validated that feeling dehumanized at work makes people think less clearly, less creatively, and less quickly. It also breeds toxic behaviors like condescension, derision, and bullying. Once toxicity takes root, it’s hard to root out, so it’s better to discourage it before it even begins.
Now that you’ve done the legwork to build an exemplary company culture, maintaining it is just that: maintenance. As a leader, your primary job is to support the people who report to you. That means actively encouraging the good culture you want your company to have. Want your company to be built on good work/life balance? Then openly announce when you’re logging off to attend a family function or going to walk your dog, and encourage the people who work for you to do the same. Want your company to be a place that recognizes and values individual contributions? Take some time in your regular all-hands to highlight a few achievements of team members who aren’t part of leadership.
Though it might be scary, one of the easiest ways to maintain a positive company culture is to encourage the creation of spaces where team members can talk freely without the oversight of leadership. Employees need to feel safe to discuss issues and concerns, or work out small disagreements before they take them to management. This happens all the time in offices and is a natural part of any organization. When it comes to these spaces, your only job as a leader is to stay away. Whole company cultures have been turned upside down by executives who couldn’t respect their employees’ privacy. Again, your job is to support your employees, not spy on them.
While there will no doubt be bumps along the road and growing pains as you try to foster company culture, the important thing is to remember that doing a little work here and there will save a lot of headaches down the line. Whenever you’re lost, ask yourself if what you’re doing is fostering communication, encouraging creativity, and respecting the lives of your team members. As long as you’re always striving to do those three things, you’re on the right track. Studies have shown distributed teams with the right tools actually work better than their in office counterparts, and your job is to create a culture that allows them to do that.