Remote Team Leaders Can Still Shape A Strong Company Culture

By Adii Pienaar

In recent years the idea of hiring “people instead of (only) skills” has been become more of a consideration within companies where the cultural fit of everyone has been the ultimate pursuit.

The greater focus on building an internal culture that supports the company’s goals is best summed up by the generally-held belief that, all companies or teams have a culture, whether you are proactively building that culture or not.

These ideas resonate across the business world, but they often lack the context and clarity to be simply applicable to any company or team. This challenge is exacerbated when leaders attempt to create and nurture an internal company culture on a remote team like the one I lead.

Compared to when you have a single team in a single office, it’s not always easy to rally everyone around the same ideas, values and mantras, because you simply don’t have the benefit of vocal tone and body language. Imagine Winston Churchill having to fire up the troops by only having Slack. Slack might have made communication for remote teams easier, but words alone can’t build a great team culture.

In my previous startup, WooThemes, culture was more something that happened to us. My co-founders and I were young and this was indeed our first rodeo. In many respects our cultural deficits were probably obvious for anyone looking in from the outside.

When I founded Conversio (formerly Receiptful), I wanted things to be different. Not because what we had with WooThemes was ever bad (in fact, it was great), but I had learned more about myself and the kind of team that I wanted to build. Here are some of those key takeaways for building a great culture on a remote team:

Cultures Evolve

Before I hired the first members of the Conversio team, I wrote the first version of our culture code (which had become a very popular behavior after companies like Hubspot and Buffer had published theirs). And prospective team members had to agree to that code before joining, which was also part of my formal job offer email:

What’s interesting looking back on this today is that these ideas were very much a representation of my own perspective at that time. While I had set the stage and set us off in a more specific direction, after two and a half years our culture has evolved.

That original culture code was eventually replaced by the 5 core values that we identified on our second-ever team retreat in January, 2016: honesty, independence, curiosity, passion and rebellion.

These values became the catalyst for a much bigger internal discussion, where we started questioning how we felt about the startup ecosystem and the world as a whole, and what that meant for the way we wanted to work together and build our Ecommerce marketing platform.

Be Aware of Modern Workforce Needs

We ultimately stumbled onto a simple definition for our culture: we’re going to be a life-first and family-first company. This was based on two ideas:

1) Everyone keeps pursuing work-life balance, but that just suggests that work and life are always at odds with each other. Our work is however just one part of our lives.

2) We want to do great work and build a great company. Our ultimate goal though is to do that in a way that enables us to live the life that we most want. For many of us that means spending time doing meaningful things with the people that are most significant to us.

To cement this culture and make it a purposeful, proactive part of everything that we do at Conversio, we’ve done a couple of things:

1. We pursue extreme transparency and accept that sometimes there’s no quick decisions.

The only thing that is not shared among the whole team is individual salaries (because being 100% transparent and being foolish are not the same). Everything else is out in the open. For any discussion or decision, everyone on the team has equal footing and nobody has an artificial, unfair advantage because they had exclusive access to information.

This also creates universal responsibility for everyone to be a custodian of our values, ideals and culture. When someone wants to move fast on what seems to be a simple decision, others on the team have the requisite knowledge to question the motivation and efficacy of that decision.

This isn’t the most efficient process if you’re optimizing for time. But since we optimize for honesty, having our decisions and ideas challenged has resulted in us being significantly clearer about who we are as an organization and why we do the things we do.

2. Find the real, feel-good stuff and float it to the top.

We have been using 15Five for about a year now. We originally started using this internal communication tool after the team expressed concerns that they’re not always clear about what other team-members were doing.

Initially these weekly check-ins were very operational in its focus, because we wanted to tell  each other what we were working on, what’s been challenging, and what’s happening next. In recent months we have also focused on the life-first experiences of the team, and we include questions like these:

– What are your plans for the weekend?

– What gave you the most joy this week?

– What are you reading now & what is it about?

– What’s your spirit animal? (By the way, mine is a Grizzly Bear.)

What these questions have done is to remind us of what’s most important to us, the people and activities beyond our work. Since everyone submits their 15Five on a Friday, these Q&As have become catalysts for purposefully pursuing meaningful experiences on weekends. Because at the end of a challenging work week, all I want is to spend time with my family.

Tip: Encourage your team to share exciting (or challenging) things from their personal lives, to just be themselves and then celebrate their realness. We do that in a #feelgood channel in Slack to which we also post the answers from some of our 15Five questions.

3. Be clear what you’re optimizing for.

We have a couple of members on the team who have welcomed new babies into the world in the last year. They have learned that lesson that new parents have a very real challenge with sleep.

The rest of the team always responds with empathy. And this doesn’t just apply to new parents with a sleep challenge; it applies to anyone where something unexpected in life happens. The team creates the space for that individual to figure out what they need to do to resolve that challenge. Because that is what’s most important at that moment.

If we optimized for speed (which so many startups do), then we’d probably tell the employee to suck it up and that we expect him to be productive 9 to 5 regardless of his perpetual insomnia.  

Instead we’ve optimized for empathy and life in general, which has created a much stronger bond within the team.

Tip: If you’re not clear what you are optimizing for in any specific action or decision, ask your teammates what they think. Just asking the question and having that conversation will create the clarity you seek.

Cultures Vary

Know which aspects of your business you choose to address, emphasize, and celebrate. These will become the bedrock of your culture. I have shared some of what has worked for Conversio above, but I realize that those things might not work for every organization. Heck, some companies might not want their culture to be life-first or family-first in any way.

And that’s naturally okay.

But remember that culture will happen regardless of your decisions and actions. Your team will still be talking to each other. There will still be differences of opinion that need to be resolved and challenges that need to be overcome. Without articulated values and direction from leadership, you are leaving those challenges and conflicts in the often capricious hands of your employees.   

 Adii Pienaar is the founder of Conversio, where he is known as “High King of Ecommerce.” Prior to Conversio, Adii was co-founder of WooThemes / WooCommerce, where he made his early entrepreneurial mistakes while learning about building software for Ecommerce stores. He also enjoys good wine and writing.

Image CreditChascar

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