Why Remote Company Culture Matters

March 21st, 2022Remote Work

What is remote and hybrid company culture?

Despite being fun, ping-pong tables and dogs, funny hats and wine boxes do not define company culture. These are all nice things to have (I love dogs!), but they do not shape how people interact with each other - and the interaction among people is your culture.

Culture is how we treat each other - how we treat each other in direct interaction and how we hold ourselves when no one is looking.

That definition is true in physical offices and remote-first companies.

What makes remote company culture different is what rituals we take part in to connect with each other.

What worked in physical space certainly does not work in remote space - and most companies are suffering because of this (resignations, low collaboration). However, a great remote-first culture is possible. Some of the world’s leading companies are remote-first and have renowned cultures.

Culture is how we treat each other, both in-office and remotely

The difference between bad and good culture can drive over a 20% difference in productivity. At scale, this means good remote culture is worth 10 more weeks in a year, and $20M+ annually to top distributed organizations.

How has company culture evolved over time?

When companies rapidly moved remote, the foundation that enabled office culture crumbled. Culture is how we act and, in knowledge companies, what principally motivates our actions are the relationships we have with others and the mission we are working on.

In physical offices, relationships were established during ‘down time’ (before meeting chat, hall conversations, water cooler, lunch break), and at intentional convening (golf tournaments, poker night, happy hour, new hires, web3 meet-up etc.).

However, in remote-first teams, both downtime and intentional convening social moments were stripped away.  Honest attempts were made to revive these moments, but the right technology didn’t yet exist and teams could not afford to have staff travel 200 days a year like at McKinsey or in the Marines. For example, leaders tried to allow for 5 mins of chit-chat ahead of starting meetings, but in large groups, this was overly formal. Companies tried to continue their socials, but games that worked with groups in person wouldn’t work online, and many spent late nights trying to figure out which 3 applications to connect to make games fun.

The danger of a default remote culture

Culture is defined by how we act, but companies that moved from physical space to a distributed model did not have new norms for distributed work. Some norms quickly evolved, but the norms that enabled remote meetings also limited social relationships.

New Norms Helped Meetings, But Limited Social Interaction

  1. Mic on mute when not talking
  2. Camera off, unless explicitly asked to turn it on
  3. 50 min back-to-back meetings

This lack of social connection in culture led to several challenges reported by Forbes:

  1. Loneliness was reported as top two challenges (source)
  2. Contributes to mental health challenges
  3. Contributes to lack of alignment with company mission
  4. While being lonely (perhaps as a result), employees are also disengaged
  5. Employees starting second, or third, jobs (remote)
  6. High resignation rate
  7. Lower collaboration
  8. Falling attendance at socials (since they were not actually social)

Most pernicious of all though is the default solution for disengaged employees and loneliness substitute authentic social connection for entertainment. Companies have started to do a highly produced town hall, where executives or team members present entertaining slides and updates. Individuals will laugh and the chat might be active, but over half the company will still not be engaged.

Detriments of poor remote company culture

Historically, many executives have associated company culture with face-to-face, in-person interaction, in physical spaces. When confronted with eroding culture in the wake of remote work - many’s responses were to aim to increase face-time and in-person events. While there is value in in-person interactions as part of a complete workplace experience (and we’ll talk more about that later) - treating going back to the office as a solution for remote culture is not an option, with 50-70% of job candidates insisting on remote flexibility.

So where does remote culture “go wrong” - and what does that mean for impacted companies?

There are two main ways to get culture “wrong” - either via the absence of culture or via “toxic” or “bad” culture.

When culture is absent - employees lack a sense of affiliation and belonging. This typically stems from a lack of core values, and/or a lack of social relationships.

We’ll start with absence of core values  …

70% of employees say their sense of purpose is defined by their work. When a culture is not grounded in mission/vision and purpose - employees are less satisfied with their work and life. Lower engagement, satisfaction, and excitement - inevitably translate to negative outcomes for the business.

Then there’s the absence of social relationships

Social ties gave workers a sense of attachment to their jobs. Feeling like “names on a spreadsheet” has led workers to develop an “easy come easy go” attitude towards their jobs. For many, quitting without even feeling like there is a culture that they have to quit, merely sitting in the same chair, trading one laptop for another.

Social relationships also contribute to workplace trust. The lack of genuine interaction between colleagues, leaves workers in a “trust recession” - the longer employees have been apart, the more trust has eroded. Without social context - employees can’t tell if their boss’s closing remark over slack was intended to be ironic or hostile.

The circle of people you trust at work is comprised of your close relationships and your “weak ties”.

Weak ties (relationships with acquaintances, more than strangers, less than friends) - help expand the radius of your circle. With a lack of social relationships, weak ties suffer, trust suffers, culture suffers - and then productivity suffers. Lack of trust slows down the ability to make decisions, and ultimately growth.

When culture is “toxic” or “bad”

Workload is too intense, there is a bad working atmosphere, there is a lack of collegiality, poor leadership, or unrealistic expectations. Of course, in addition to how unpleasant it is to be part of an unhappy team, unhappy employees hurt business productivity (or ultimately, the employees leave).

We would be remiss not to mention, the detrimental impact of poor workplace culture on mental health. 75% of employees who have experienced a workplace issue have called in sick due to not wanting to see somebody they have a negative relationship with. People spend 50%+ of their lives at work, so while relationships significantly impact business outcomes - they also influence overall wellbeing.

Whether remote culture is absent or toxic - the outcomes for businesses are similar: employees are less productive,  they are more likely to quit, and financial outcomes are worse (we’re mostly focused on business outcomes today, and we’ll talk more about the personal impacts of poor culture another time).

So what's this I keep hearing about everyone quitting?

For at least the last year, you’ve probably seen “the Great Resignation” in headlines. We won’t get into it too much here,  because lots of other people are talking about it - but people are leaving their jobs - at record rates.

It wouldn’t be fair to blame this on culture alone (though culture is a key lever to keep people happy and affiliated, more on that later). Employees had a lot of time for reflection during the pandemic, reprioritization - and many are burnt out and looking for post-pandemic adventure (some were calling it the “YOLO economy”).

Now, on the macro level - economists observe labour shortages, and on the micro-level (for companies who can find the labour) the cost of replacing a lost employee can be up to 2x their salary.

So most employers recognize the risk of poor remote culture (the cost, productivity impacts, impact to turnover) - and recognize the importance of creating remote social ties - and so they “copy-pasted” their in-person events to go online.

Not another Zoom happy hour...

Many of us found ourselves in grids of 40 people on Zoom - off video, on mute, participating in our Friday Happy Hour. Or what used to be a walking coffee chat break with a senior mentor, became 30 minutes where a junior colleague felt pressure to come with an agenda of conversation topics prepared.

The activities themselves didn’t translate, but there was also the sheer number of hours spent on Zoom. Spending all day on one platform is like spending time in one identical room all day in a physical space (which many of us were also doing). A change of environment stimulates creativity, and actually increases the brain’s ability to learn.

People got tired of trying to socialize online - and so many called it quits. Either employers stopped allocating time and priority to social, or employees simply stopped attending. The focus allocated to social relationships diminished, but its importance did not.

The argument to invest in remote company culture isn’t solely on the basis that poor remote culture is detrimental (though perhaps it could be), but rather - because of the compelling business (and social) case for strong company culture.

Benefits of strong remote company culture

While the detriments of poor company culture are perhaps in and of themselves enough of a cautionary tale to inspire better culture, it is really the benefits of strong remote culture that ought to convince leaders and employees to commit to culture.

20% more productive

Companies with stronger cultures are found to have ~20% more productive employees. You could basically think about that as the equivalent to 1 additional day being added to the 5 day work week - so while most companies work 5 days a week, a company with better culture produces results as if they worked 6 (to be clear, without actually spending additional time).

24% less turnover

In addition to being more productive, engaged workers are more likely to stay with their companies - highly engaged organizations have 24% less turnover. You can imagine that this becomes a reinforcing loop for culture - having more engaged employees who stay for longer tenure, continue to strengthen the company culture - and reinforce the better productivity, and lower turnover.

10% increase in customer ratings, 20% increase in sales

The impacts of better company culture, unsurprisingly, also reach the customers. Employees who are engaged have a higher commitment to quality and business outcomes, help improve customer relationships and increase growth. Highly engaged business units are seen to achieve a 10% increase in customer ratings and a 20% increase in sales.

21% greater profitability

Better productivity, stronger engagement, lower turnover and better customer relationships - of course also yield greater profits. Engaged employees are more attuned to customer needs and more observant of company standards and processes - as a result, they are seen to achieve 21% greater profitability.

Creativity, psychological safety, experience...

Company culture is able to influence employee creativity, psychological safety, and overall well-being (three very powerful words, to be putting in one sentence). Employees working in companies where they believe creativity is important, tend to exhibit more creative behavior. Overall it’s intuitive - if you believe your manager values creative output, then you approach tasks with a more creative lens.

The same applies to willingness to take risks, make mistakes, and “be wrong” - overall contributing to an atmosphere of psychological safety. Culture plays a critical role here too - because when employees feel a sense of belonging, they are able to learn, contribute, and ultimately challenge others. When leaders and employees establish that their workplace has a culture where it is okay to make mistakes - through behaviors and incentives - they enable a higher degree of risk taking, thereby better business outcomes.

Better productivity, less turnover, stronger customer relationships, the ability to be creative, and experience psychological safety - naturally culminate in better employee experiences. Employee experience looks at how an employee experiences their workplace and its culture. This April, 92% of HR leaders set Employee Experience as a top priority in 2021 - reinforcing that building better company culture to improve employees’ day-to-day is top of mind.

It starts with values and then must be supported by behaviors, and the right technology. We’ll get into more of how it’s done later, but what’s important at the outset - is recognizing how important, and beneficial, strong culture is.

Tactical steps for establishing a strong remote culture

At a high level establishing a remote culture is simple - the key is to be intentional. In physical space, everyone knew what to do. In distributed teams, people adapt quickly but need guidance from you.

Basics are well known from Forbes, around consistency and emphasis on new employees, and opt-in tribes, however, challenge has been pulling it off. Several tools exist for measuring culture and the most requested element is more social interactions. However, social events have been very poorly received when done in an anti-social way.

Building & sustaining culture

  1. Remote-first activities
  2. Consistency
  3. Multi-channel
  4. Role Model

And once a culture is underway be active at calling out affronts to culture (MIT Prof says this is the most important part)

Creating or building on a remote culture

For a problem that is quite complex and can bring a boatload of issues if not addressed, people are often surprised to learn that the solution can be simple. Creating or building on an existing remote culture is actually quite easy if done correctly. At the heart of it, remote culture is created through the many human interactions at social events outside of work-related matters.

There are three main things to think of when establishing a fun remote company culture through connection

(1) Foster special moments by making coming together truly fun and truly social

(2) Enable these social moments by making social events actually easy to put on

(3) Make sure you bring the right people together

Foster special moments by making coming together truly fun and truly social a

"So... how's the weather where you are?". This is typically where the conversation goes when there is no activity to come together over and when you are speaking to a group of 60 people on mute. Let's be real — this isn't fun, social or beneficial for anyone.

Let's start with social events being truly fun. For a virtual social event to be truly fun, there needs to be a game or activity to come together over. There is a plethora of research on why coming together over a game or activity promotes optimal relationship building. This research explains that people are able to get to form social connections most effectively when bonding over a shared experience (and most effectively when this shared experience is fun).

Next, let's chat about social events being truly social**.** Incorporating games into virtual social events is key, but only if it's a game that promotes social, face-to-face interaction. For example, screen sharing a game to a grid of 60 people who have their cameras and mics on might be fun, but completely neglects the social part. In this case, as a guest, I've learned nothing about the people I am playing with and was unable to form any sort of social tie to build on. It is vital that guests are able to form connections at events and be social in order to establish culture.

A platform that many companies turn to for the combination of truly fun games and a truly social experience is TriplePlay. This combination of fun and social leaves guests with new relationship foundations that they can build on and pick up either at future events or independently on the side.

Enable these social moments by making social events actually easy to put on

Who should be responsible for remote culture-building activities? How much time should I be spending on remote culture building? These are questions on the minds of many organization leaders that are embarking on their permanent remote or hybrid adventures.

For many organizations, a daunting part of tackling this issue is thinking about who will be responsible for making it all happen. Realistically, most organizations do not have a single person dedicated to running social events for the company. Social events typically fall on the peripherals of an employee's job description or even more, exist as a voluntary activity that they have chosen to help with. With this being the case, it is vital that social events are truly easy for these MVPs to set up, host and recreate — MVPs or social committees should never be asking themselves 'how are we going to pull this off?'.

Two elements of ease are important here:

  1. Ease of planning and setting up entertainment
  2. Ease of hosting

Technology dedicated to virtual social events, such as TriplePlay, offers built-in programming so that hosts have zero prep to do in order to put on successful events. All in all, with the right technology and built-in programming, hosts should be spending 5 minutes a month on social event planning.

Make sure you bring the right people together

Bringing the right people together at social events means including those who normally don't get the chance to connect. A newer phenomenon in remote team environments is having absolutely no social touchpoints with anyone beyond your immediate team. On top of this (no pun intended), upper management has close to zero interactions with their lower-level employees.

Inter-department social connections foster a strong broader remote culture. This type of interaction not only feeds into an employee's overall feeling of connectedness, but it allows employees to more effectively carry out work with those from other departments as they are now doing so with individuals that they have a relationship with.

For upper management, it is a certified best practice to spend time with employees to signify a level of appreciation and connectedness to them. In-person, this was done by dropping into a happy hour and mingling around. In the virtual world, it has not had the same effect to jump on a 100 person call. This is where it becomes highly important to loop these leaders into social game experiences so that they can too, form social connections with employees at all levels.

Assessing your company's remote culture / Getting a pulse on remote culture

“Walking the Halls” is the traditional way to get a sense of culture in a physical office. Are salespeople on the phones, are designers collaborating well, is there a buzz, how late did people stay and when did they get in, what is the tone of conversation you overhear, are eyes on Netflix on the phone or the screen.

In a remote setting, none of these indications are present.

To assess culture in a remote setting you have the opportunity to rely more on outcomes-based measures and data-based measures of culture.

Remote first techniques to assess culture

Culture is most accurately measured in work, behaviors, and decisions

  1. Quality of work products
  2. Nature of collaboration
  3. Decisions made that impacted clients

This is the highest fidelity measure of culture and can help avoid unconscious bias in assessment when walking the halls. However, assessing culture based on work products and business decisions can sometimes be too little too late - you see a problem when it's too late to solve.

To get ahead of cultural problems, and address them before they impact work quality, leaders can use digital tools.

Culture can be measured with tools & surveys

  1. Surveys (cloverleaf, reportR, walking the talk )
  2. 360 feedback
  3. Activity Measurement (Slack activity, LinkedIn Activity)

The hardest thing to measure remotely that was visible in the office is the strength of social ties in the workplace. To measure the strength of social ties you could walk around social events and start to understand the nature of your business, make introductions among people, and facilitate new connections. [In a remote setting a new tool like TriplePlay is needed.]

Keep your remote culture alive

At this point, you've got a strong recipe for a remote company culture under your belt. Now, how do you make sure that it can be sustained? Luckily, the four steps to maintaining a strong remote company culture are easy.

Continue to incorporate new shared experiences into social events: Introducing new games and activities to your team at social events will support the longevity of your culture. Bonding with others over new shared experiences immensely heightens connection. Popular platforms like TriplePlay operate on a monthly game release schedule, making the introduction of new games and activities easy to incorporate into your social schedule.

Capitalize on company social event rituals: Just like individual people, companies develop activity preferences that fit into a broader 'company personality.' For example, some companies are CodeNames obsessed, while others look forward to playing Trivia on a weekly basis. Setting up a social schedule that incorporates both new experiences and a higher frequency of people's favourite games and activities is a great balance to strike.

Set things on autopilot: With the help of sophisticated and dedicated tech, turning social events on autopilot should be easy. Platforms like TriplePlay allow you to spin up events in under 60 seconds that can be reused for as many socials as you'd like, making autopilot socials a reality for hosts.

Continue to expand your social committee and appoint more MVPs: As more employees are exposed to truly fun and social events, you'll notice an uptick in interest to help fun and host these events. In this case, the more, the merrier. With additional support, employees can spin up even more socials within subgroups and committees of the company and help out at company-wide events.

Have any questions on what you read or want to chat with a culture expert? Schedule a chat with the TriplePlay team here.