The Ultimate Guide to Creating Great Culture in a Remote Work Environment

At The Admin Center, we’ve touted the benefits of a virtual work environment from the very beginning. It’s a workplace structure that’s ideal for our business and all of our team members. From the cost savings benefits for both the company and the employee to the greatly increased candidate pool and diverse set of creative minds, we think remote work is pretty great.

But remote work – though wonderful at most times – does have its disadvantages. Maintaining an awesome company culture and keeping morale and engagement high while reducing feelings of isolation can be a bear. Luckily there are a few extra steps you can take to ensure that your employees are productive, happy, and excited to be a part of the team.
Here’s our Ultimate Guide to Creating Great Culture in a Remote Work Environment.

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Take Advantage of Your Company’s Chat/Messaging Platform

Whether it’s Slack, Google Hangouts, or one of the various other messaging platforms available for office environments, utilizing a company chat feature of some kind is one of the best ways to bring employees together and make sure they feel included and heard.

Having dedicated chats for various teams, projects, or departments can be really helpful for organization and collaboration, but having casual chats keeps things fun and makes people feel more like they’re in-office. In a standard environment people often break up the monotony of a day with water cooler talk or a quick chat with a work pal, so why not recreate that experience over chat? At The Admin Center, our casual chat group is named “small-talk” and we describe it as “Non-work banter and water cooler” talk, a place that we all share pictures, talk about our weekends, and just generally get to know each other.

In a virtual environment, you aren’t sharing a cubicle or office with someone; you don’t pass people in the halls or get those little opportunities to ask a person about their day. In a remote work environment you have to create those moments yourself, which requires people to be willing to put in a little bit of extra work, but in the end, it allows for happy teams and close friendships – no matter how far apart your employees actually are.    

Use Video for Updates and Meetings

Here at The Admin Center, we have a policy that all meeting attendees turn on their cameras during a meeting (and if an employee doesn’t have a webcam we send them one – so no excuses!) for the simple importance of seeing each other’s faces. Without the opportunity to meet face-to-face it can be hard to communicate and empathize at full potential, but using video helps with this a lot. You don’t feel like you’re talking at a void, and you can see expressions, hear varied tones and inflections, and can actually look someone in the eyes when you’re speaking with them – it can be very personal!

Trust and communication are the foundation on which a successful remote work environment are built, and these things are so much easier when you can actually see the person you’re engaged in conversation with. There are plenty of video meeting software options available – Slack, Google Hangouts, Zoom, GoToMeeting, UberConference – and with many of them offering free subscriptions, video meetings are now easier than ever to set up.

Plan/Facilitate Group Projects

In my experience, remote workers can be very “heads-down” when it comes to projects. We all tend to do it; you start in on something, plug into your music, and you’re lost to the world. It’s how a lot of us focus, but it can also contribute to a feeling of isolation. Though not every project will lend itself to this structure, setting up group projects instead of individual ones can help alleviate this problem.

This works especially well in the planning phase of client projects, but if it’s something that isn’t coming naturally you can always create group projects, too. Maybe you’re planning to migrate to a new CRM, or maybe your marketing efforts have fallen flat. Mix-and-match a bit with who you bring together on things like this, and you might be surprised at what people come up with. When people come together to work on something – especially people who wouldn’t normally be working together – it can really foster a sense of togetherness, and quickly tears down the walls that virtual environments often build unintentionally.

Have Casual Team Meetings

Of course, it’s important to touch base in team meetings to discuss goals, projects, or anything business related, but putting aside time for fun meetings such as “Happy Hour” and “Coffee Break” over video is a great way to build a sense of community. You can really make the structure of these casual meetings anything you want, but here are a few ideas I think are kind of fun:

  • Happy Hour: Hold these the same time every month, such as on the last Friday. Create an open video chat and have a theme associated with it (such as dressing up for Halloween, sharing favorite recipes, or the best jokes everyone can think of). Employees are welcome to pop in and out over the course of the hour to share some laughs and continue to build their relationships with their colleagues.
  • Coffee Break: These can be more frequent, maybe one each week. A similar structure where it’s an open meeting that people can pop in and out of when they’re free. People all bring their coffee and have a casual chat, maybe about the coffee or maybe about something that happened to them that day. It’s less structured than Happy Hour but equally as fun.
  • Book Club: Hold these on the same day each month, too. Get together with a group of people and discuss a non-work-related book that you’ve collectively read. It could be fiction or nonfiction, depending on people’s tastes, but keep it more personal and less work-themed so that you’re connecting with people and not their positions.

These are just a few ideas of what could be many. If you’ve got a fun one that you do, let us know about it in the comments!

In-Person Meetups

There is nothing that can bring a team of people close together quite like meeting up outside of work. At my old jobs it’s been things like trivia nights, happy hours, lunches out together, and even going to gymnastics gyms to hop around on some giant trampolines (I highly recommend this activity). Unfortunately, this type of getting together isn’t usually possible if your team is made up of virtual employees, as people don’t generally live in the same area.

If you’re really serious about creating a strong culture in your remote environment, you could set up company retreats once or twice each year, and get everyone together to do things that aren’t directly work-related, but bring people together. Group activities such as hiking, cooking, or learning a new skill can all foster a sense of closeness, and naturally provide an opportunity to discover more about each other.

Full-out retreats might not fit into the scope of every company, though, and that’s okay. If you have people clustered in an area, organize something that gets them together. Or, if your team is all over the place, put together a virtual get together where you all turn on your videos and just get to know each other. Maybe you agree to all do the same activity, or maybe you just talk; either way, the face-to-face time is going to do wonders for your sense of company culture.

Getting Involved in Your Local Community

Though you may not all be working out of the same places, putting a focus on local community improvement no matter where you are is a great way to define your culture. By encouraging community involvement from employees and management, you’re communicating that you care about their lives outside of work, and care about the lives and environment of the world around you. You express a vested interest in your people as a whole, and not just for what they bring to the table nine-to-five. It communicates good ethics, and lets employees know that your company is about more than just the business stuff.

And, if you think it might be hard to get people out and about in their local areas, offer some kind of soft “perk” to those interested in spending time outside of working hours to serve in their community. The experience is guaranteed to leave them feeling positive and confident when they’re done, and offering an incentive in exchange further demonstrates that you’re interested in their world and how you can make it the best it can be for them.

Send the Office Perks to Them

There is no way around it, people love perks. It doesn’t matter if it’s a company branded t-shirt, mug, or if you’ve got a fully stocked kitchen at your office’s disposal, people feel special when they get things. Though you may not be able to send a refrigerator full of goodies to each of your employees across borders, that doesn’t mean you’ve got to opt out of the perks.

Sending small fun-filled packages throughout the year – like candy during Halloween or vouchers for their local community events during winter holidays – can speak volumes to the fact that you’re thinking about your employees, you care about making them smile and ensuring that they’re enjoying their at-home environment. Gifts to commemorate milestones in the company, a job well done, and birthdays are great options, too. Welcome packages to new hires with branded “loot” can really make people feel important and involved, and are one of my favorite ways to get people excited about being a part of the team.

If you aren’t keen on mailing out packages all the time, there are other ways to “give back” to your hard-working crew. At Zapier, for instance, they give premium music streaming accounts to their employees, so that they can listen to music throughout the day. It opens up avenues of conversations between people, and helps everyone gain a better understanding of each other through tastes in music.

Reward Badges/Employee of the Month Programs

Employee of the Month programs work really well for some in-house companies, why shouldn’t that success carry over into the virtual space? Being recognized for excellence makes people want to strive to be recognized again, and can spark a sense of friendly competition among coworkers. And though you may not be able to post the winner’s picture on an actual wall, you can give them a special Slack icon, send them a gift card to a fun store in their area, or simply send out an email that really lets them shine.

If Employee of the Month isn’t a good fit for your company, try having something like a Badge system instead. Badges should be something that anyone can earn at any time – as opposed to a single employee once a month. They can be earned for any number of things, from training to helping others to compliments from a client. Get creative with it, and have some kind of prize for when a person earns a certain number of badges, so that employees have extra incentive to excel.   

This isn’t to say that people need a reason to go above and beyond, many people do this naturally and that very fact is probably why you wanted them on your team. But why not reward them a little for their excellence?

Ask for Feedback

You can have dedicated chat channels for this, but the most valuable feedback may come from anonymous surveys that will allow people to share genuine thoughts without the pressure of reprimand. No matter how “open door” your policies are, there are bound to be shy or wary people who don’t feel comfortable sharing candid thoughts or feedback – and that’s okay, as long as they have another outlet where they can safely express issues, give praise, or whatever may be on their mind about the company.

You can read as many articles as you want about good culture, how to improve your workplace, or how to keep employees happy, but the best advice is bound to come from within, directly from the people it’s intended to help. They can likely provide some sound knowledge on client needs or new ideas for a project, but they’re also a great source for finding out about what’s working, what’s not, and how to make everything come together cohesively. You hired them because you trusted their ideas and opinions, now’s the time to let them really put their talents to work.

Culture is one of the most important aspects of a business, and it’s something more companies should invest in. There are some pretty solid reasons why good company culture is so important, but the bottom line is that it’s about your people, and people should be your number one priority. If you can get together a group of people who genuinely care about your goals and mission; that are willing and excited to work toward accomplishing the same thing you are, wonderful things are bound to happen. You can’t have a great business without great people, and you won’t have (or at least won’t retain) great people if your culture isn’t there to match that greatness.  

Take some time to review your company’s current culture and see if there are areas you can improve. Looking to improve, but stuck on how to change it? Ask your employees, they’re sure to have a few ideas for how you can improve and bring everyone closer together. A little bit of time up-front will gather you so much return in the long run. And hey, you’re likely to have a good time along the way so it’s a win-win – you can’t beat it!