How to Build and Sustain a Remote Culture
Jordan Davidson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and Vice.
With over 4,000 people spread across more than 100 countries, Toptal has mastered the art of attracting and retaining premier talent in a remote environment. Leaders at the company attribute its success to its corporate culture, which serves as the foundation for everything they do.
“If you don’t have the right culture, the whole thing is going to collapse,” says Kleanthis Georgaris, vice president of product at Toptal. “When you go from on-site to remote, you learn the importance of having the right frameworks.”
The company recently detailed its approach to culture in The Suddenly Remote Playbook, a user manual for business leaders looking to adapt to the remote business model. In it, Toptal highlights four key habits that helped it build a vibrant company culture.
Find Your Values and Stick to Them
Identifying the values that are most important to the company will help leaders craft a story that attracts talent and appeals to potential clients.
“Values are the foundation for determining your culture,” says Taso Du Val, CEO of Toptal. “Once your values are determined, getting alignment on them is no different within an in-office environment vs. a remote environment.”
When leaders articulate and model their values, it permeates throughout the company. These values will determine how your teams communicate with each other, how often they are online, and what their work-life balance looks like.
To create a framework for its values, Toptal’s leaders asked themselves three questions:
- What values will ensure our success as a company?
- What values will help us achieve our mission to be the greatest talent company in the world?
- How do we create and maintain culture in a fully remote environment?
Answering those questions allowed Toptal to classify 10 core values at the heart of its culture. These principles steer its goals and daily operations.
“We’re all rowing the boat in the same direction,” says Michelle Labbe, vice president of people at Toptal. “We’re all here for the same mission, and we all have the same cultural attributes to make us successful.”
Trust Your People
When a company prioritizes its values, it attracts talent aligned to its mission. Since Toptal can articulate its core values, it attracts elite talent looking for a challenge. It is also well-positioned to screen for candidates who, as employees, meet their objectives and are comfortable with asynchronous communication protocols.
“Everyone I’ve met at Toptal is driven, ambitious, and helpful,” says Christy Schumann, vice president of talent operations at Toptal. “That comes from a very strong recruiting process, which includes a culture interview that focuses specifically on the tenets that we have on Toptal’s culture page.”
To establish trust, managers and employees make their availability transparent, respond to messages in a timely and professional manner, and look for opportunities to help others with challenges they’re facing.
Managers new to remote work often question whether employees are working if they’re not in an office. Time tracking software Teramind reported a triple-digit percentage increase in new leads since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and Hubstaff has added hundreds of trial customers and subscribers.
Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School, urges managers to let go of commanding by fear and to trust that they’ve hired competent people who aren’t slacking off. Asking employees to keep their webcams on all day or sending urgent Slack messages at 4:45 pm communicates that managers don’t trust their workers. “It’s terribly intrusive and tone-deaf,” says Neeley.
Toptal does not track or monitor its workers. “If you’re time tracking employees or you’re taking screenshots of what they’re doing—unless it’s for security purposes or regulatory compliance—it simply means that you don’t trust them,” says Du Val.
While transparency and professionalism are essential to the culture, what matters most is that leaders and employees honor their commitments.
Punch Goals, Not a Clock
To sustain a productive remote environment, the culture needs to be goal-oriented.
Professor Neeley says newly remote companies should focus on outcomes rather than monitoring activities.
Toptal analyzes metrics to develop key performance indicators (KPIs) and construct dashboards that provide leaders and individual contributors insights into daily, weekly, monthly, and ongoing performance.
Empowering team members to create their own challenges and to hit their measurable outcomes boosts engagement. This process requires a culture of inclusivity. Teams work together in developing objectives and key results (OKRs) so there is alignment on initiatives that drive measurable outcomes. Doing this strengthens collaboration, grows trust, and drives the highest return on effort.
Get Feedback to Keep Your Finger on the Pulse
Once values have been identified and cultural norms established, they need to be nourished, protected, and sustained.
Toptal sustains its culture through constant feedback loops. This system allows it to optimize operations for clarity and productivity. It also gives employees the opportunity to offer constructive criticism, challenge leadership, and suggest improvements.
Feedback is collected through Pulse Surveys sent by Polly, a Slack tool. These surveys are not optional or anonymous. Keeping names attached to comments is another way to ensure transparency and allows team leaders to follow up if necessary. For the company-wide survey, Toptal only asks two questions: “How do you rate your happiness at work?” and “Would you recommend this organization to others to work?”
The feedback helps create programs that encourage team-building and social interaction. In addition to work-based engagement, Toptal sustains a vibrant culture through company-wide initiatives such as an all-hands meeting, a culture committee, interest-based Slack channels, and remote volunteering opportunities.
The Suddenly Remote Playbook walks leaders through how to build a foundation of trust, accountability, and open communication. To do that, companies need to clearly articulate their values, hire people who are a cultural fit, and constantly self-assess to build a culture of motivated employees who will hit their targets and increase productivity.
Toptal is passionate about remote work and has been fully distributed since its inception 10 years ago. Its well-defined, meticulously cultivated culture has not only supported its rapid growth but prepared the company for the future.