From Laurel Farrer

In co-located companies, team culture is often organic and subconscious. It develops naturally as your team spends days and weeks together and finds common habits, traits, and opinions that they share. In turn, these turn into a unified vibe and mission… or in other words, your company culture. Since co-located time is not an abundant resource in distributed companies, the establishment and development of company culture must be more intentional and disciplined.

But first, what is culture? It is a failure of modern jargon to associate on-site foosball tables and kegs with culture. Let’s be clear: those are perks, not culture. Culture is about the continual interactions and expectations of a company, while perks are incentives or rewards that help communicate what a culture is. For example, that in-office gourmet coffee bar might represent a culture that expects their employees to work long hours, but maintain high levels of energy and focus. Or, that foosball table could be a symbol of the company’s playful yet competitive nature.

So, when your business doesn’t have a break room for a foosball table, virtual managers are sure to have several questions about developing a strong culture within their team. Sounds like it’s time for a culture Q&A….

How is culture formed?

Leadership habits. Culture often evolves from similarities that are discovered as a group spends time together. It’s doubtful that any group in your company will spend more time together than the executives. The products of their meetings become the lifeblood of the workflows for the entire company, and the culture that is developed within leadership trickles down through the ranks of your entire workforce. So, whether the co-founders are eccentrically creative, independently efficient, or aggressively competitive, the team’s culture will reflect their collective work style.

Company mission and values. These comprise the company’s “why.” Why was your company formed? What are you trying to accomplish? Because like attracts like, your mission will naturally draw the attention and support of like-minded individuals, and that becomes your culture-building similarity.

Articulation. Define what your culture is by recording it in your company handbook. Seeing your company culture articulated is sure to help you understand what you have to offer and identify any weaknesses. It will also help new employees understand how things work on their team.

How is culture strengthened?

Workflows. Without proper attention, culture-building activities can easily become one of those tasks that falls through the cracks. The easiest way to maintain the habit is to integrate it directly into your daily processes. Perhaps your culture revolves around an active lifestyle… start your weekly standup call with a jumping jack challenge. Or maybe you’re a small publishing company that has the mission of reviving classic literature? Assign titles of new projects to be names of famous authors. Get creative to showcase what your company values.

Co-located time. Give team members time to unite over similarities by providing bonding time. Obviously, annual retreats are a great place to start. In between on-site get togethers, you can also provide supplemental Slack channels to host spontaneous conversation or schedule one-on-one virtual coffee breaks during which members of your team are randomly paired to take a casual getting-to-know-you break. The more time your team has to hang out, the more they’ll find in common.

Reinforcement. If you want a certain culture, but don’t feel like you’re there yet, fake it until you make it. Follow the tips above to form your culture, then start implementing the practices you would do if you did have your ideal culture. Send memorable gifts to your team that embody your message or implement a ritual to get people thinking and talking about relevant topics. After intentional effort to implement the culture, soon enough it will happen naturally.

How do you know if your culture is weak?

Isolation. When you ask for feedback and concerns from your team, is anyone complaining about feeling alone or acting aloof? If so, take it as a sign that they’re either not matching well with the culture, or the culture isn’t defined well enough to connect with all of your team members.

Inconsistency. Survey your employees to collect the description of your company’s culture, then compare all the descriptions. If you’re hearing consistent answers, you’ve done a great job articulating and implementing your culture. If the answers vary, your culture could probably use some improvement.

Invisibility. Without any prompting, can you see your culture in action? Is the activity in your teams’ Slack channels what you would expect? Do the activities at retreats consistently support a common theme? Are your employees sharing personal stories or affirmations of how they represented the company? If not, your culture might be a little too hard to find.

Without walls and ceilings, culture becomes the environment of your company that delineates your employee’s work time from their personal time. Active participation provides a feeling of “being at work” and encourages loyalty, unity, and pride in your staff. Consequently, strengthening your culture is the direct path to resolving the common concerns of remote work, such as self-motivation, isolation, and distrust.

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