How to Build Culture in Remote Teams

How can you build a healthy culture when your employees are far away? Mark Bosma, VP of Sales at Toptal, explores the cultural best practices that helped Toptal grow to hundreds of team members and nine-figure annual revenue—all in a 100% remote organization.
7 min read

Culture is king in successful organizations. But executives who want to embrace the benefits of distributed teams—from higher productivity and happiness to lower stress and turnover in the workforce—often grapple with the following dilemma: isn’t it hard to nurture a healthy culture when your employees are far away?

In our view, the unique challenges of managing a distributed team can incentivize the creation of a stronger culture than those that operate face-to-face.

Our experience demonstrates that this is a misconception. Over the last five years, we’ve grown our core team to hundreds of people and hit a nine-figure annual revenue run rate—all in a 100% remote organization.

In our view, the unique challenges of managing a distributed team can incentivize the creation of a stronger culture than those that operate face-to-face. This may seem counter-intuitive, but while local teams tend to assume culture will take root organically, the stakes are higher for distributed organizations. This motivates successful remote executives to be intentional about building culture, ultimately resulting in stronger teams.

In this article, we’ll walk through our playbook for creating a successful remote culture, from defining assumptions and values to propagating and maintaining culture through best practices in hiring, communication, and management.

Understanding Culture

There are dozens of ways to define culture, but we base our definition on empirical research conducted by Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Schein defines culture as a pattern of basic assumptions and values, discovered or developed by a group, which are proven to lead to success.

Schein visualizes culture as a pyramid with three layers. The top slice consists of “artifacts and practices.” These are tangible things and behaviors you can see and observe within a team, like swag, stories, and the way people interact. In other words, artifacts and practices are what most people think of as culture. The reality is that these tangible elements derive from the middle and bottom layers of the culture pyramid: a team’s “values” and “underlying assumptions.” It is the combination of all three layers which constitutes culture.

Remote-Friendly Assumptions and Values

Given the model above, it’s clear that the process of creating a healthy remote culture begins well before the team is formed. While Schein describes underlying assumptions as tacit or unspoken, we believe remote teams need to be deliberate and intentional in voicing them.

This is because an office environment can provide cues that speak to these assumptions on your behalf. For example, a suit and heels dress code might speak to an assumed level of professionalism. Similarly, an open floor plan might speak to an assumed level of transparency. With fewer cues to rely upon, especially during early days, remote teams should communicate these assumptions explicitly.

These assumptions typically include answers to questions of “Why do we exist?” and “How do we do what we do?” We find it is helpful to ask: “What is our true north?” In other words, what is the key principle that the team can use to calibrate their own decision-making, even if they are stranded on a desert island?

Your values in this context might consist of simple ideas like integrity or quality but they may also include specific principles such as “high standards for communication.” Your team’s purpose and mission are also included in this layer of your cultural pyramid. Keep in mind that there is no definitive list of values for remote teams. The goal, instead, is to put conscious thought toward the foundation of your team and its culture.

Hiring

With assumptions and values in place, managers can start hiring with an eye for candidates who fit the framework of your culture. While many sources discuss the importance of evaluating culture during the hiring process, it is worth stressing that the cultural fit of remote team members requires particular attention. Managers should be confident that prospective hires embody your values upfront: new team members will not be in a face-to-face environment where they absorb and conform to team norms, and the signs of a bad fit may be harder to detect before damage has occurred.

The traits you look for will vary depending on role, team size and more—not to mention the unique underlying assumptions and values of your organization. With that said, we have found a pair of traits that are universal in successful remote teams: hire employees who are self-motivated and problem solvers.

With that said, we have found a pair of traits that are universal in successful remote teams: hire employees who are self-motivated and problem solvers.

The nature of remote work means that each hire will spend a greater portion of her time riddling through problems on her own. If you hire self-starters who thrive in unstructured environments, you can rest assured that their abilities, combined with the values and training you impart during onboarding, will result in decisions aligned with the team and company.

Onboarding

Most companies and teams understand the importance of properly training new members. But in traditional teams, cultural training is often left to chance. As we discussed above, this is because co-located organizations can rely on simple absorption of culture by new hires.

Remote teams do not have this luxury. Fortunately, face time is not required to onboard new employees into your culture, but managers should be deliberate in exposing new team members to the assumptions and values that form the basis for your artifacts and practices.

Our strategy is to emphasize our mission and values throughout training materials for new hires. We also record videos that show our executives discussing and engaging with our values. This approach scales well and provides a reference library for future use, while also feeling more personal, helping the viewer feel like they are an intimate part of the team and its mission.

Communication

Once you set values and ensure that team members understand them, it’s time to turn to the artifacts and practices that actualize culture on your team. As the main venue for remote teams to interact and collaborate, communication is the lifeblood of any remote team. Here are our best practices:

Team Meetings

When it comes to team communication, adapting to a remote paradigm seems intuitive: team meetings are already planned and pre-scheduled, so all you need to do is move from the conference room to a virtual meeting room like Zoom, right?

There’s more to it than that: team meetings need to become part of the very fabric of the team. Meetings create a regular opportunity to inspire and lead, and managers should err on the side of involving all team members so that everyone feels like a critical piece of the whole. With less opportunity to catch your teammates and clarify miscommunications, participants should set an honest and comprehensive tone to ensure the whole team is on the same page. When remote meetings devolve into simple status updates, it’s a clear sign that managers need to dig deeper.

One-on-Ones

One-on-one communication is less intuitive in a remote context, and more prone to neglect. Remote teams don’t have the luxury of building rapport via chance interactions around the water cooler. Individual conversations between team members should be just as structured as team meetings, with a regular cadence and an agenda that extends beyond the professional. Regular one-on-ones between employees of all levels are a crucial venue to deepen relationships, and provide opportunities for the team to express personal praise or concerns that they may not be able to discuss in a team setting.

Chat

When communicating on platforms like Slack, the existence of both formal and informal team chats helps to keep business communication free of off-topic banter, while allowing for side conversations that build trust and center around shared hobbies or interests.

Regardless of the medium, one rule to keep in mind is clarity of communication. Sarcasm, emojis, or vague remarks can easily be misinterpreted when they are not accompanied by the body language and facial cues that our brains rely in person. Consider this example: Team Lead A posts an instruction into a chat that all members must complete. Person B responds with a “thumbs up” emoji.

What does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that person B approves of the instruction? Does it mean that Person B will do it? Does it mean they already have?

While we don’t encourage the use of emojis or gifs as primary forms of communication (giving instructions, describing problems, etc), we do encourage their use as an emotional form of communication (happiness, celebration, sadness, etc). Over time, an established team might develop custom emojis to express memes or shared inside jokes. These bond the team and grow into artifacts that make up your team culture.

Video

Though inexperienced remote teams may believe they can make do with audio and chat alone, the benefits of video calls should not be discounted. Instead, video should be encouraged for both team meetings and one-on-one communication. Seeing the facial reactions of team members can add emphasis and emotion to conversations. It also helps ensure that members of a meeting are all focused, contributing, and active participants in the culture you have built.

Recognition

Most remote teams don’t have an “Employee of the Month” parking spot to pass around, but you should make frequent use of a simple and effective incentive at your disposal: shout outs. Public recognition of a job well done is one of the most effective ways to motivate a remote team.

Voiced during a team meeting, shout outs are public displays that set an example and provide team members with a standard to strive for. When mentioned in a team chat, a shout out gives other team members the opportunity to post their congratulations in the form of replies or emojis. If company executives also happen to be in that chat, it is an even more powerful motivator, ensuring that credit is given where credit is due.

Face-to-face

Digital collaboration is the bread and butter of remote teams, but are face-to-face meetings ever necessary? Our experience is that a remote team with a strong culture can operate in a fast-paced environment for extended periods of time, even years, without face-to-face interaction.

If you do find yourself considering a face-to-face team meeting or on-site, keep the “Rule of 10x” in mind. If you are planning to gather together for business purposes, you should aim to make that meeting 10x more productive than a typical remote meeting. Likewise, if you are getting together for fun, you should aim for 10x more bonding than a video or voice call.

What might this look like in practice? Getting together for a few days of intense, heads-down work to hammer out the details of a new initiative can pay dividends in reducing time to market, or renting a ski house in Colorado to have a blast while discussing a new public speaking initiative.

Nothing is more demoralizing than traveling for a meeting which accomplishes nothing more than what a video call would have handled. Or meeting long-time colleagues for the first time, only to find yourselves mired down in your respective day-to-day duties with no time for enjoyable activities.

When individuals or teams do end up meeting each other for the first time, the gathering is more like a meeting of old friends than a gathering of strangers. You will find that the answers of timing, location, and purpose will reveal themselves over time based upon the culture and needs of your particular team. There’s no need to sweat the details up front.

Avoiding Burnout

A common fear of new remote managers is that employees will lack engagement, following the stereotype of remote workers who get distracted by errands, laundry, and life. The reality is the opposite. If you hire driven individuals and unite them behind a common goal and values, team members who work remotely often find themselves working more, either unable or unwilling to step away. This is a recipe for burnout.

It is incumbent on remote managers to encourage a balanced approach to work within their teams. We have built a “work hard, play hard” culture where team members encourage and inspire each other to take advantage of our geographic flexibility to travel or pursue fun side activities.

How does this look in practice? Some individuals choose to take “mini vacations” or “working vacations” to get relaxation in small doses. Eventually, though, everyone needs a chance to step away for a real break. This is beneficial for the individuals, but it’s also a benefit for the team itself: The absence of a team member provides a stress-test to ensure that your team can remain operational if confronted with unplanned time off due to emergency or illness.

Within remote teams, burnout can be harder to detect than it might otherwise be in a face-to-face team. When you are working together in an office, you can see the effects of stress weighing on the health and well-being of your team. Likewise, you can easily spot unsustainable binges of work that keep people in the office for days on end. When working remotely, communication, one-on-one meetings and KPIs become the indicators you rely upon.

Remote Teams Succeed By Focusing On Culture

Many companies have started to realize the efficiency gains delivered by remote teams. This trend, combined with the global rise of freelancers, means that working remotely will soon become a fixture of many organizations.

Our experience has shown that strong remote culture is possible, and it does not require exotic technology or organizational shake-ups. By adopting the best practices outlined above, remote teams are well positioned to address the unique challenges of building culture — whether their members are spread across town or across the globe.

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Comments

Anil Weereratne
Very thought provoking article. I can think of many of my clients who would benefit through bringing in such thinking into their businesses.
Emiliano Rodríguez-Wyler
The basic assumptions and values shared by remotely distributed teams make up their playbook for success, instead of video-conferences with expensive "Star Wars" like technology. Not so long ago it simply seemed unreasonable to build and scale a successful venture in such manner, so I wonder how was it like 2 years back for you to start leading a sales team remotely?
Mark Bosma
Thanks, donini - I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Mark Bosma
Thanks, donini - I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Mark Bosma
Anton - that is a great point. Many of the points I described in the article are universal (whether remote or in-office). The stakes are simply higher for remote companies to get them right.
Mark Bosma
Anton - that is a great point. Many of the points I described in the article are universal (whether remote or in-office). The stakes are simply higher for remote companies to get them right.
Anton Belonovich
Great, thanks! By the way many of those practices are suitable to office style of work. Especially building a culture.
Anton Belonovich
Great, thanks! By the way many of those practices are suitable to office style of work. Especially building a culture.
donini
Great article Mark! The environment culture, the people culture, right tools and people motivated to do the difference is the perfect shot for companies that want have disrupted teams beyond the HQs. Talking about clients, the internet drop the wall of face-to-face formality and bring the focus in results. Talking about talents, the internet make the possibility to do what people loves to do where want to stay.
Mark Bosma
Doug - Those are good points. Recognition is an important topic that certainly applies to distributed teams. I had a chance to only touch on it, but it is something that (many) entire articles would be required to completely flesh out.
Mark Bosma
Doug - Those are good points. Recognition is an important topic that certainly applies to distributed teams. I had a chance to only touch on it, but it is something that (many) entire articles would be required to completely flesh out.
Mark Bosma
Thanks, Marcos!
Mark Bosma
Thanks, Marcos!
Mark Bosma
Cath - glad you liked the article and I completely agree. The up-front effort makes a real difference.
Doug Kent
Nice article. I think more can be said about "recognition" because I think it is very important in building a community, of which a software team is a type. Recognition relates strongly to the sharing of values and beliefs. Do we feel that our values and beliefs are shared, and by whom? Do we feel safe enough to take risks in communicating our values and beliefs? Are there adequate feedback mechanisms to convey a sense of sharedness? Is there a flat enough hierarchy that we can share and gauge sharedness with the most respected and influential members of the team? Following is a link to an interesting article. Please forgive and ignore that it has a somewhat political tone; this is really not what is important and I don't want to discuss that aspect. The important part is a picture it paints of the power in how "memes" are shared, using a metaphor of "bees". https://medium.com/rally-point-journal/collective-intellignce-and-swarms-in-the-red-church-49f6a6d04825#.a3cebcoy1
Marcos Henrique da Silva
Very good post!
Marcos Henrique da Silva
Very good post!
CJ Nesi
Great post. Really enjoyed how you have modifying the hierarchy of needs for a digital team. Having led teams across locations I know the effort put in up front when recruiting makes a real difference. A good read!
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