Nitesh Agrawal, founder of Indiez, joins us to share the pillars of building a great remote team culture based on his own trials and errors scaling a fully remote team.
Remote is the new normal. Or is it?
Four years into building a remote company, Indiez, has taught me a lot. Four years ago, I was solo backpacking in Vietnam and met digital nomads. At the time, I didn’t believe that one can work without being in the office. Here I am, building a remote company today. In the last four years, we’ve built a community of 10,000+ remote workers with a core team of 20 remote employees.
But, we failed to scale the company… A remote company is awesome, but it’s tough.
We failed to build a good culture
It hit me when I received an email that changed everything for us. The message was from our star employee, Chris from Boulder, Colorado. I loved working with him and spent months training him. One day, he decided to leave the company. The reason? He felt lonely and wanted to go back to his previous office job where he could hang out with his co-workers. It was a big loss for us. We lost a key team member because we were not able to provide a team feeling. We failed to build a strong company culture.
One Google search made me realize that we’re not alone! In fact, the biggest problem plaguing the remote work setup is a lack of company culture. One survey highlights that loneliness and isolation are the biggest struggles for remote workers.
This thought hit me, so I decided to dig deeper. Over the past few months, I devoured hundreds of articles and videos on how to make remote work work for you. To be honest, most of the content was bad. But the winners were illuminating. Today, I’ll be sharing some of my most valuable takeaways.
But first things first—why am I talking about culture?
“To win in the marketplace you should win in the workplace.”
This is rightly said because culture is everything for a company—remote or non-remote. Culture is about how a team works together as a cohesive unit. Hence, the way your company performs has a direct correlation to culture. In fact, driving a positive culture significantly increases the chance of success of the company.
What is culture anyway?
By culture, I don’t mean swanky offices, unlimited holidays, surprise parties, unlimited laundry. It’s also not some ten commandments that are set in stone by upper management.
Culture is the ability to work together as a team. To make decisions even in the absence of key personnel. To work productively when no one is watching. Feeling fulfilled when things are going south or north. And ultimately, serving for the mission.
“Culture is the plinth of the company” — Reid Hoffman
The aim of building good culture is to have happy employees and to win as a company. I’ve created this resource of nine essential ways to help you build a great culture for remote teams. Consider them the 9 commandments of remote culture. Let’s jump in:
1. Hire the best candidates
How effective is a bridge going to be if it was constructed with poor concrete and steel?
In other words, if the people working at your company are not a good fit, how can you build a good culture? Everyone says that hiring the right people is crucial. Everyone. But what the heck does ‘right‘ mean?
Right is a mix of three things: Skills, the right time for the employee, and the right cultural fit.
Skills are easy to judge. There are hundreds of guides to assess skills and they are measurable. The right time means the right mindset for the stage of your company—an early-stage company will need hustlers while a later stage company will need executioners. The vaguest one is culture fit. A litmus test for good culture fit is that the new employee can share a room with other team members if required.
We’ve helped hundreds of companies hire great remote employees. We keep in touch with our clients months after placing a candidate. We’ve seen that a very skilled developer can be a very bad fit for a company.
Hence, don’t settle when hiring new people. Spend as much time as possible on making absolutely sure that you hire only the best people for your team. This way, you’ll enable a natural team culture to form a lot easier.
Once hired, you’ll have to trust this employee and give them a lot of autonomy to do things the way they want. Here’s what Niel Patel has to say about hiring:
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that culture is really important. I used to think that you could just hire smart people and expect them to do wonders for you. But if people don’t fit within your company culture, they will be more likely to butt heads when it doesn’t make sense, quit when things aren’t going well and not care for your company.”
2. Create a set of rules to live by
Culture is different for every company. That’s why having a clear set of “rules to live by” will harness the direction that your culture takes.
Build a set of company values by involving everyone on the team, not just upper management. At companies like 6Q, company values are used (at least) weekly to discuss the performance of both individuals and the entire business.
“When marketers influence habits, they influence peoples’ self-identity. And so when a group or company does something that doesn’t correspond to our core values, it feels like a betrayal. — Charles Duhigg
3. Onboard your new hires in style
Onboarding helps new team members understand what the company is all about. You’ll have to build a process where new hires communicate things like, “Here’s who I am, why I joined, how to work with me, and ways to understand me better.” As a manager, you can introduce this new hire to everyone by starting a Slack conversation.
Set up some rituals for your new hires to help familiarize themselves with the new setup. Just like families or close groups of friends tend to have certain activities, processes, or things that they repeat—traditions, in other words.
Netflix has a ritual where new employees perform a skit in front of the entire company. Everyone knows about the Nooglers program at Google.
Do remember that if it’s not working, you should also be able to let it go.
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Effective and open communication is absolutely crucial within a remote team. Without it, everything falls apart. Everyone should be able to communicate asynchronously (by writing or recording oneself) and synchronously. Effective communication is so important that it should also be an important filter when hiring candidates.
In a podcast interview, Amir from Toggl shared interesting insights on communication. While channeling and improving communication, you are going to have the following levers:
- Communicate the channels you use for sync communication (Slack, Tandem, Zoom, etc);
- Which channels do you use for collaboration? (Notion, Google Docs, virtual whiteboards, design and development programs);
- How should everyone communicate their availability to the team? (available hours, when you’ll be off or unreachable, your average reply times)
- Communicating with respect (offensive language, personal comments etc);
- Communication when it comes to processes (which team members should definitely be included in which discussions and dependency chains—i.e. ensuring that a copywriter doesn’t get left out from the process of preparing a new product for launch).
You’ll have to use these levers to make communication effective. Implementing communication standards with buy-in from all team members is going to significantly improve culture.
“Document more. Use asynchronous collaboration tools whenever possible (e.g. Jira, not Slack). Be respectful of other people’s time. Solve things by yourself but if stuck for more than 15 mins then ask for help.” — Stephen Kasriel
5. Keep teams small
This is one of the most important hacks that a lot of remote companies overlook.
Small teams enable remote companies to be that much more effective. In a big group, it’s difficult to make out who is speaking and who is not. In smaller groups, everyone will have to contribute to work effectively. Managers can give extra focus to all the team members and make sure that they learn and have clarity.
Most importantly, managers can develop a great personal relationship with their team members. This kind of relationship boosts motivation of remote employees.
6. Make time for fun
When it comes to remote companies, there are no foosball tables, happy hours, common lunch places, parties etc. Your remote team members might just be a Slack handle or a face on Zoom for you.
Fun in a remote company is one of the most missed out elements, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some ways you can bring fun into your team culture:
- Schedule Casual Chats: Try scheduling a casual team call once or twice a week. Use this time to chat primarily about things outside of work. This will really help everyone understand what the other person is like in real life. You’ll get insight into how they think and chill. You can top up this time by having a beer or pizza. This will keep everyone engaged.
- Online games: While consulting for a few companies, I realized that games are a great way to build a bond between teammates. We organize a game night every month where people play Poker, Counter-Strike, PubG, and board games online while keeping their videos on. This became one of the most sought after times because it brings everyone together to have some fun.
- Make sure people are taking time off: Managers should ensure that teammates are taking enough time off. This will help in avoiding burnout.
7. Synchronous Communication (AKA Meetings)
Having a good remote meeting can be as simple as turning on your video camera.
Along with this, make sure to follow standard meeting best practices. Create and share meeting agendas before the meeting starts. Also take down notes, action items, and follow-ups, and share them with the team afterward.
Remote team members can’t go out for a drink together after work. So it’s good to keep a healthy balance between spending time on strictly work-related topics and just chatting about lives. What we’ve seen is that having a meeting schedule helps organize meetings better. The meeting schedule completely depends on how your team works. You can have daily sync up calls, weekly planning meetings, and any other necessary recurring meetings.
Whatever you decide when it comes to your meeting schedule, keep it easy. Too many useless meetings can mean a lot of wasted time that could be used for individual work.
Do remember that your synchronous time is very important and you will have to use it wisely.
8. One-on-One time
As a remote team, it’s very possible for someone to go silently unnoticed in the background. This should be avoided at all costs.
It’s the manager’s responsibility to make conscious efforts to check in with team members on both professional and personal fronts. I have personally avoided many issues that could have easily escalated by having frequent one-on-ones.
As a result of these one-on-ones, we’ve discarded tons of useless product features and introduced better ones. I like to cover the following things during one-on-ones:
- How could we/I improve in any way?
- What are we not doing?
- What would you like me to stop doing as your manager?
- What’s not fun about working here?
- How’s everyone at home?
- Are you happy?
- How can I make your life easier?
“For managers, empowering team members in a remote work environment can be challenging. With our current state of remote work sophistication, the best we can do is make sure people are able to identify when things feel off for them. Then listen and be prepared to unblock them. — Hiten Shah
9. Reward, recognize, and relieve
Rewarding people for great work helps tremendously with building a great culture and sets an example for others to follow. That’s why team members who adhere to remote processes, deliver results in a remote setup, and follow the company’s values should be recognized or rewarded.
On the other end of the spectrum, team members who continuously slack off should be let go. This sets another example and tone for the company.
“The culture of a startup is defined by three things: 1. How the founders behave, 2. Who they recruit, reward, and recognize. 3. Who they release (let go). — Dharmesh, CTO Hubspot
Do remember that culture building is an ongoing process. There’s nothing right or wrong and it varies a lot for every company and team. The core of culture is that employees should feel happy in their jobs. The nine commandments above should help you start building a great remote culture.
Nitesh Agrawal is the founder of Indiez. He has helped many tech companies scale to hundreds of employees. He sold Indiez to CrewScale and is now actively scaling CrewScale to become the world’s best remote tech talent community.