“I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of support…and the resources available,” said Cummings, who was nervous six years ago to join a company so far away. “It’s one of the most powerful cultures I’ve seen, and we’re not in an office.”
Cummings is one of many workers employed by companies that have been quite apart since their inception. While many companies have moved to hybrid work, About 36.5 million people in the United States worked remotely at least five days a week as of early August, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. As leaders develop post-pandemic policies, one concern about remote work is emerging in common: Can a company build and maintain a culture if workers are remote?
Pre-pandemic companies say this is not only possible, but also provides additional flexibility, increased productivity and a competitive advantage in hiring. But remote companies say creating a remote culture takes a shift in mindset, creativity, and determination.
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For social interaction, Buffer – which employs 84 people in 27 countries – provides a monthly stipend to work from co-working spaces or coffee shops. Provides a guide to the language to ensure that the text is not misinterpreted. It brings together cross-functional workers for 30-minute weekly conversations via the Donut bot on Slack.
“It is possible in a remote environment to build the same thing [office] “Energy, but you have to work harder,” said Jenny Terry, Buffer’s director of commercial operations. “It’s not easy bumping into each other in the hallway – our corridors are Slack.”
The definition of culture varies. Some workers suggest that it is a sense of organizational belonging and a strong connection to colleagues. Others say it is a set of shared values and beliefs that guide decisions. Some define it as an intangible asset that is described as the soul of the company. What is clear, however, is that culture plays a major role in a company’s success, workers say.
Cultural influence is one reason why some companies refuse to work remotely. Leaders worry that the culture will immediately fade, employees will disconnect, and the business will suffer. They believe that there is magic and creativity that only comes from working in person. And to be sure, not all companies can work remotely due to the nature of their jobs.
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But since the pandemic, more companies have introduced remote options. Twitter, Salesforce, and Slack, the messaging app owned by Salesforce, make it possible to permanently work remotely. Airbnb employees can work remotely from anywhere in the world.
GitLab, a software development platform with more than 1,700 employees in 65 countries, said remote work is here to stay until companies embrace flexibility. To encourage personal camaraderie, at the beginning of each quarter, GitLab offers employees a “get together grant,” which provides up to $50 for meals, transportation, or activities with co-workers. It also offers a visitation grant of up to $1,000 to travel to events with four or more teammates. JetLab’s first female employee, Maren Jankowski, once used a grant to attend a colleague’s wedding.
“It has created a special relationship with GitLab for me,” he said. “It was an intentional move…to encourage relationships outside of work.”
To enhance transparency, GitLab provides a sophisticated 2,000-page handbook, intended to serve as a searchable document for workers’ questions. They include resources for how workers communicate—both in terms of mediator and etiquette—on departmental topics, and even what a worker might want to know about CEO Syed Sebrandig, including his communication style, flaws, and how to meet him. GitLab said it also documents everything from decisions to project updates and meeting discussions as a general employee reference.
“There has to be a single source of truth,” said Wendy Barnes, GitLab Chief Officer. “So there is no fear of missing out.”
But Jankowski, an Amsterdam resident, admits that transparency does not come easy. In the days before GitLab, Jankovski and his co-founders remotely collaborated on a project and together they documented the next steps.
“We had this moment of clarity in writing things down [to see] understanding the person and [those of] others,” he said.
At Zapier, which employs more than 700 people in 41 countries, workers regularly talk about hobbies in various “fun” Slack channels, and the company moves employees to retreat twice a year. Danny Schreiber, Senior Director of Commercial Operations, He said that deliberately getting to know colleagues in a remote environment helps with work.
“If I can learn someone’s tone, the way they talk, their sense of humor, that increases productivity,” he said of meeting face to face.
Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, known for its WordPress content management system, has a remote workforce for more than a decade. It automatically pairs people to make video calls based on shared interests. Team meetings often begin with a non-work related question.
“Ultimately, we believe in giving teams the autonomy to create a culture that works for them,” Mullenweg said.
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For remote work to be successful, the company must develop systems to support employees, said Brandon Sammut, chief personnel officer at Zapier.
“What got you here won’t get you where you’re going,” he said.
For managers like Steve Donnelly, head of corporate marketing at Zapier, it has meant switching to a focus on results, regardless of whether someone needs to run groceries in the middle of the day. She said she constantly exaggerates expectations, reactions and context.
“instead of [basing someone’s] I value them sitting in their seats or saying the smart thing in the meeting, you have to manage differently,” she said. “I have to make sure the team delivers what it says it delivers.”
Some companies have become distant after seeing the benefits to workers and their business. It took some tweaking, said Christa Quarles, CEO of Canadian graphics software company Corel.
“I had to change a lot of the way I approached my driving style,” Quarles said, “like being intentional about checking in with people and creating opportunities.
That’s why Corel trains middle managers to understand the results-based leadership model. She also said that working remotely has made her realize the importance of clearly clarifying operations and that meetings can be made more fair with tech features such as Zoom’s chat and hand-raising functions.
While scaling up the culture remotely may present challenges, companies say it’s worth it. Employees have more freedom, and employers have access to a larger pool of talent, including workers who want or need flexible work.
For some workers, office delegations aren’t just a pain. It is harmful.
“Once you move to … remote work, you have to reimagine how we build the culture,” said Prithwiraj Chowdhury, a Harvard Business School professor who studies the future of work.
Cummings of Buffer said she’s now working remotely, and will never go back to a traditional office.
“Just because you are in person, doesn’t mean it’s a positive culture,” she said. “What really matters is how the company makes you feel — whether it honors its employees as human beings and trusts them to get things done.”
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