4 Ways to Build A Positive Culture with Virtual Teams
The way we work is changing, and virtual teams are more common than ever. Whether you’ve just hired your first remote employee or taken your entire team virtual, it’s a new frontier and there’s plenty to learn.
For businesses focused only on growth, the advantages are clear: remote workers lower overhead and widen your talent pool. But purpose-driven businesses have different priorities, and many leaders worry what will happen to their positive cultures if they go virtual. What happens to the culture if your team members don’t see each other every day? How will you integrate new people when geography gets in the way? And what happens to your leadership when you’re relying on technology to run the show?
The truth is that virtual teams need all the same things to thrive as traditional teams do — and technology only replaces a leader when there’s a lack of leadership. For purpose-driven business leaders, technology is a powerful tool for supporting you, your team members, and your culture as you learn to do business in new ways.
While virtual environments do present new challenges for how we collaborate, communicate, and build relationships, they also offer exciting new opportunities to engage employees and make their lives better. Don’t believe us? Here’s how the top virtual companies make it happen.
What happens to the culture if your team members don’t see each other every day?
One of the biggest challenges facing virtual teams is the feeling of isolation that comes with working remotely. When employees feel isolated, they’re less engaged and productive, and they might be feeling disconnected from your driving purpose. That’s why it’s so important to have processes and systems in place to facilitate virtual collaboration, especially for new hires. You can combat feelings of isolation by replicating the elements of a traditional workplace that get people working together and building relationships.
Bill Gerber, co-founder of AccountingDepartment.com, developed a best practice of creating an equal or better virtual version of everything that employees experience in a traditional office. AccountingDepartment.com is a 100-percent virtual company, and has been since its founding in 2004. Yet its onboarding program is more comprehensive and thorough than many physical offices.
With guidance from a Staff Success Ambassador, every new hire spends four weeks devoted to onboarding: they participate in hourlong, virtual meetings with every department, they learn company policies and processes, and they do mock client meetings to learn the ropes. “Relationship building is the only way to have a successful virtual company,” says Human Resources Manager Lisa Archetti. “We make sure there’s an appropriate amount of support for them to be successful — no one is left alone. After three months, we make it official by sending them a cozy pair of slippers.”
Collaboration is the road to new ideas and innovation — but with employees dispersed around the world, how do you get employees working together? The key is cultivating communication so that employees are dialed into one another’s professional and personal lives. Put systems in place, like regular team meetings and online clubs, to get employees in the habit of talking to each other about their work and their lives.
When you make collaboration and communication your default mode, relationships will start to form throughout the organization. Here are a few favorite tools that virtual organizations use to facilitate better communication:
Slack. One of the most popular collaboration tools around, Slack is an online platform that allows teams to collaborate through dedicated channels for your different projects, teams, and clients. You can send messages, share files, assign tasks and more all in one dedicated hub.
Not only does Slack help to keep communication organized and streamlined, you can also create channels for different interests, clubs, and cultural initiatives. If employees are doing a fitness challenge, create a channel for sharing updates and tips. Slack is a pretty dynamic tool (complete with emojis and gifs!), and it gives your team members plenty of room to get creative with communication.
15Five. A platform for managing employee check-ins and one-on-ones, this tool is a favorite for InterWorks CEO Behfar Jahanshahi, who leads more than 170 virtual employees around the world. You can use this platform to set goals with individual employees, track their progress, send feedback questions, and share insights with company leaders.
“We’re very deliberate about get-togethers and meetings,” says Behfar. “Managers meet weekly with every direct report, and that’s our default. 15Five helps us organize what we need to talk about, take notes, and check things off as they’re accomplished.”
Zoom. Zoom is a video communication tool built for the unique needs of virtual companies. Zoom has your basic online meeting capabilities, but it also has breakout rooms, conference room integration, and can be used for hosting webinars, internally or for the public. Zoom has thought of nearly everything you could want in a video conferencing tool: it even has a handy “Touch Up My Appearance” feature for days when the work from home lifestyle gets the better of you — think of it as an Instagram filter for when you want to skip doing your hair or makeup.
Recurring video calls with managers and colleagues as well as all-hands meetings help you share information and ensure clear communication. You can also use Zoom to replace the casual interactions that take place in physical offices. “Our IT leaders get together on Zoom every week for a virtual lunch, even if there’s nothing on the agenda,” says Behfar of InterWorks. “We have lunch and just catch up.”
Workplace by Facebook. Collaboration tools like Workplace by Facebook build relationships and replace water cooler talk with organized groups, event meetups, and social sharing around the topics that matter most to your employees, like their families, health & fitness, and cat gifs. Why Facebook? Most people already use Facebook and feel confident using the platform, and it has a built-in feeling of socializing and camaraderie.
Who defines your company culture? All of the leaders that we interviewed had the same, emphatic answer: our people. Especially in virtual environments, your culture needs to reflect the values, goals, and working style of your team. That means regularly soliciting opinions and feedback from employees on every aspect of the culture.
At AccountingDepartment.com, they collect feedback at every turn through polls, anonymous suggestion boxes, and weekly surveys on employee engagement. They take employee buy-in seriously, and they’ve implemented several ideas that came from team members. Most recently, they rolled out a bi-annual company trip for employees celebrating their 5th, 10th, or 15th-year anniversary. Then they asked for feedback on that idea, too — now employees who aren’t honorees but still want to attend receive a stipend to join in on the fun.
As you transition to a distributed workforce or scale your virtual team, the obvious plan might be a top-down, cut-and-paste approach to your company culture. However, as Behfar learned at InterWorks, that approach to a virtual culture just doesn’t work; there had to be a more open perspective to the cultural initiatives and team meetings. “Instead of a strict set of rules, we realized we needed champions of culture. Being prescriptive takes the purity away,” says Behfar. “Before, we were just checking a box. A more sincere way to preserve the culture is to trust your teams to know how they should spend their time together.”
Especially in virtual environments, your culture needs to reflect the values, goals, and working style of your team.
Now we bring it all together with that intangible feeling that fuels purpose-driven companies: its culture. There’s no blueprint that you can duplicate to guarantee success, but there are plenty of ideas from top virtual teams that can inspire you and your employees.
Here are some best practices from companies with great virtual cultures:
Culture champions. Your team members are passionate, capable people — that’s why you hired them! As you roll out new culture initiatives, take some pressure off of your executive team and invite employees to champion causes they’re passionate about. The bookworms on your team can head up the book club (Use Slack or Zoom to facilitate conversation!) and your world travelers can lead plans for the next in-person company retreat.
Environment of kudos. A culture of gratitude has many upsides. Especially for virtual teams, recognition matters. It’s a way for team members to feel seen, even when they’re not sharing a physical office. Set aside a dedicated space on your collaboration tools — like a kudos channel on Slack or a weekly appreciation thread on your Facebook page — for people to recognize one another. Managers and leaders can get things going by shouting out their direct reports and colleagues for their accomplishments, professional and otherwise (birthdays count!).
Get (IRL) face time. For virtual teams, it’s important to get IRL (in real life!) face time with the people they work with and for every day. Don’t just take our word for it: every company we interviewed has an annual or bi-annual retreat, and they point to it as key to building a sustainable virtual culture.
Anna Brozek, CEO of Big Cartel, manages a team of 36 remote employees, and she’s committed to a twice a year, face-to-face gathering. Since the company is headquartered in Salt Lake City, they get the entire team together there twice a year — once in the summer, and once in the winter for a holiday party with their families. It’s mandatory that everyone attempt to attend, and they work with employees to make it happen.
Virtual teams are quickly becoming the new norm, and purpose-driven businesses have a competitive advantage. The principles of a positive culture translate to sustainable virtual environments, too — and they offer exciting new ways to engage team members and do great work.