The Role of Culture in a Remote Company

Posted by Joseph Genest on Jan 17, 2020 1:01:13 PM

We often think about remote work as a culture in itself. After all, who doesn’t want the flexibility and freedom to work when and where they want?

The dream of anyone who has to sit behind a computer for a living (which we touch on in a previous post), remote work has exploded in popularity in recent years, with no signs of slowing down.

According to a 2017 Gallup poll published in the New York Times, 43 percent of the workforce has spent some time working remotely. While a large chunk of that is a product of businesses with flexible work environments (I.E.: they have an office but encourage ‘work from home’ days), there’s a growing trend of companies with no physical office. While the core desire behind remote work is this concept of being autonomous and free, early feedback has shown that autonomy and freedom alone is not a culture.

A 2018 survey by Buffer presented some interesting findings in regards to how remote workers viewed their status and how it can be improved.

Here are some highlights:

  • A staggering 90 percent of respondents plan on working remotely for the rest of their careers
  • 70 percent are full-time workers
  • 94 percent encourage others to start working remotely as well
  • 43 percent love remote work since it enables them to have a flexible schedule

However, the survey brought up some pitfalls of remote work as well:

  • 21 percent of remote workers experience loneliness
  • 21 percent also felt a lack of collaboration and communications
  • 16 percent found distractions at home to be a problem with staying productive remotely

While it’s true that employees love the flexibility and freedom of remote work, this is still a new environment. As such, we haven’t quite figured out how to develop a culture within it. Having a positive work culture means more than just giving great perks - it means fostering an environment where people feel appreciated and connected by a greater goal. If remote culture is something that your business has been lagging on, however, don’t stress. We’ve studied a few of the best in the business to see what they’re doing to improve remote culture, and we’ll break that down for you in another blog (spoiler alert: coworking is a big part of that).

Download the Guide to Working Remotely by Gather Coworking

For now, let’s go over a few of the basics:

Defining Workplace Culture

Workplace culture is understood to be anything surrounding the values, traditions, beliefs, and employee satisfaction of a business.

Past having free snacks or a ping-pong table, culture is about having a sense of community that your employees know they’re a part of. It’s a major factor in whether or not a potential employee decides they want to work with you or not, meaning an undesirable work culture can be a major deterrent. That’s why working remotely has become such an attractive position to be in.

Understanding Remote Culture

Having a strong remote culture means fostering an environment where your employees feel as though they’re valued members of your team. While employers that are averse to remote work will claim that it encourages employees to play hooky or slack off, the opposite is generally true. According to a two-year study by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, employees who work from home or cowork completed a ‘full-days’ worth of work much faster than employees from the same company who worked from HQ (where employees were more likely to arrive late or leave early). However, while research supports the productivity potential of remote work, that’s not a guarantee for success.

Running a successful workplace for remote employees means developing a strong culture, which involves both understanding the intrinsic values of your business and managing the logistics to keep up with productivity. For some businesses, this may mean having everyone on a Skype call no later than 8 am EST. For others, it may mean having all of their work in by 6 pm EST. In order for remote work to be successful, employees must have the infrastructure and tools they need to cultivate a workplace that is productive as well as fun, which can be a hard balance to define in uncharted waters.

Red Flags To Look Out For In A Remote Culture

Remote culture can be great, but the potential shortfalls can be toxic to your productivity and morale. While sometimes these red flags come from poor design, most come from employers trying to take advantage of flexible work environments to push the boundaries on ethical business practices. No matter the cause, the following red flags can lead to burnout and fatigue, which will cost your company in the long run.

The ‘Always On’ Work Environment

‘Always on’ means that because you’re working remotely, you’re technically always on the clock.

Whether it’s 11pm or 6am, the expectation is that because an employee is given so much ‘flexibility and freedom’, they’ll always be available to work or answer messages in return. This attitude can put unfair pressure on employees, which ultimately increases turnover.

The best way to avoid having your employees feel as though they’re always at work is by establishing boundaries. One way to do this is to have clear communication guidelines; for example, you can ask that everyone is required to respond to emails sent to them by 6pm (their timezone) on the same day, while anything sent after 6pm needs to be responded to by 11am the following work day. Another way to do this is to have your employees work out of a coworking space like Gather, so they have a work environment that's separate from their home environment. As every team has a different structure and communication standards (and remote work may mean having an unconventional schedule), the primary goal for rules should be establishing a work-life balance - allowing your employees to feel like they’re ‘off’ when they’re not working.

Overquantifying Productivity

Many employers fear that remote work can diminish productivity, so they aim to quantify as much as possible. Although there’s an advantage to evaluating your company’s performance by the numbers, it can be overbearing for employees to try and push the limits on metrics simply because they are working remotely. Instead, establish standards for productivity that fall within a smart daily pace, giving your team enough room to learn, think, and explore the bounds of their position, ensuring that you’re embracing their long-term potential.

Forgetting That There’s a Person On The Other Side of the Screen

Here’s the golden rule for running a positive remote work environment: remember that there’s always a real person on the other side of your screen.

Employers may try to take advantage of the fact that they don’t have to look their employees in the eye. It gives them license to ignore them, harass them, be rude, or even threaten their job. It goes without saying that this kind of behavior is unacceptable, but it’ll also give your company a bad reputation, and result in high turnover. As such, it’s important to have disciplinary procedures and transparent channels of communication to avoid toxic behavior. In a remote company, like any company, the health of your working environment is integral to the health of your business. Your employees should be able to turn to your values and recognize them as a core pillar of your business.

Final Thoughts

Promoting strong culture in a remote business is a marathon.

Among the early examples of companies that have done a great job of fostering a positive remote work environment, the biggest commonality is that they invest in a foundation that can meet the needs of the most people - which often boils down to understanding why people want to work remotely in the first place.

Remote work is about freedom. It’s a statement by employers that they trust their team to get the job done without needing to keep a watchful eye over them. In many ways, remote work is ushering in a new era of company culture, one where employees feel a sense of ownership over the work they do more than ever before. Ultimately, creating and fostering a remote culture starts with figuring out what you want your employees to take away from working with you, and finding ways to grow those values in your community. Embracing remote work gives you an opportunity to help develop a new era of our workforce - one where people can foster productivity in the healthiest, happiest environment yet.

Topics: Business Corner, Remote Work, Company Culture