Just ten years ago, remote work was practically science fiction. (Actually, when I first brought up the idea to my team, they thought it was the “joke of the week.”)
Today, it’s a part of the business landscape.
There are lots of reasons why companies, employees and clients love remote work: flexibility, an expanded workforce, and a larger client-base, to name a few. But as with every massive cultural shift, there are lots of potential pitfalls if you aren’t intentional about how you set things up. Messy work-life boundaries can lead to burnout; distance can lead to disconnection; a failure to invest in your people can create problems with retention.
I sat down with Jamie Van Cuyk, CEO and lead strategist of Growing Your Team, to share what we learned about creating a successful remote work culture at Summit – one of the first companies in the world to go fully remote.
1. Have a door
Humans are distractible creatures. If you’re working in the middle of your living room, you’re more likely to be tempted to fold a pile of laundry, keep an eye on your favorite sports team or drift into the kitchen for a snack.
But it goes both ways: You’re also more likely to be pulled back into work-related tasks after you sign off for the day.
That’s why we ask our team members to have an office with a door: something they can close to mark the time between work and home even though they’re under the same roof.
Think of the “door” as a boundary that extends to your devices as well. If your employees don’t have a dedicated work computer (and I would recommend that they do) at least make sure they aren’t getting pop-up notifications at all hours of the day. You don’t want them to even be tempted to give up their free time which is the first step down the slippery slope to burnout.
2. Choose tools
There’s a strange thing that happens in the switch from office to remote work. Suddenly, the computer becomes the single point of connection between your team and work. If they’re not available instantaneously for the entire length of the workday, it might seem like maybe they aren’t pulling their weight.
But even in a physical office, people aren’t available 9-5. They could be talking to a colleague, on the call with a client, or taking a lunch break.
In order to replicate that sense of togetherness that comes from being in a shared physical location, we use a virtual-office tool Sococo (although there are many) that simulates where everyone is in the virtual office: chatting with a coworker, talking to a client, working solo, or taking a break. That virtual map makes it possible to “knock” on someone’s door and bring them into a video call to catch up.
It also allows you to see when people are on the clock which is incredibly important for distributed teams in different time zones. You don’t need to micromanage your team or wonder if you’re disturbing someone’s dinner every time you fire off a message. An office simulation tool is one more way to maintain work-life boundaries that could become a little fuzzy when you go remote.
Along with a virtual office tool, I recommend having multiple ways of communicating: We insist on video whenever possible, so that you can see people’s facial expressions, body language, everything (except, of course, how tall they are!). In addition, we pair that with a texting platform, such as Teams or Slack for those quick interactions that don’t require a full discussion.
3. Be intentional
When you’re running a successful remote workforce, if there’s one area you need to invest in, it’s team bonding. This means being intentional about everything from the little things to the big-ticket items – and spending time and money accordingly.
Every Monday we have required team meetings. While we definitely make use of the time for practical things like announcements, that’s not the main purpose. With icebreaker activities like a fun fact and a joke of the week (usually something funnier than “hey! We’re going remote!”), we dedicate 30 whole minutes to this kind of “small talk.”
They’re 30 minutes well spent: group bonding increases cooperation, decreases friction, and avoids problems down the road.
In addition to weekly meetings, we also do two team retreats, twice a year, Wednesday through Friday. The schedule (no early morning meetings!) is designed to facilitate group bonding; we want to strengthen existing teams but also make sure everyone meets someone they rarely work with and expands their sense of the company. That way, the next time they have a question, challenge, or opportunity, they’ve got a larger pool of people to turn to. (And get to find out how tall everyone is!)
Our retreats also include soft-skill workshops, and then we end the retreat with something fun (spouses included). We want people to look forward to these events – and to leave feeling energized about going back to work.
These events aren’t “cheap,” but they make a huge difference in terms of team-building and employee retention. (We saw this reflected in the retention numbers with the employees we hired during COVID when we had to stop holding the retreats.)
We also invest in our teams’ education with a $150 monthly contribution to a spend-management card (i.e., Divvy or Expensify). They can accumulate funds and have the autonomy to choose how to spend them. They can meet up together to attend a conference, share a rental house, and hang out in an informal way.
4. Level the playing field
When it comes to being mindful of your remote workforce, sometimes, what you don’t do is as important as what you do. For example, when Summit was transitioning to a fully remote workforce and we were still in a hybrid set-up, we had all team members meet through video conferencing regardless of whether they were in the physical office or at home. We didn’t want to set up a division with some people able to pop into one another’s office and others not.
Another example is the holiday party. It might feel like a must have but think about how it might feel for the people halfway across the country (or the world) who can’t make it. Summit was founded in the Fort Wayne area, and we had a holiday party for years. But once we went fully remote, we stopped holding the party: we didn’t want some people to be excluded.
Jamie is right on, when she says, “When you tell employees they don’t matter, you can’t expect them to stick around.”
We’ve gone from brick-and-mortar, to hybrid, to remote, and now back to hybrid after our merger with St. Louis-based firm Anders CPAs + Advisors. Now, we’re a larger team, both remotely and geographically in St. Louis. There’s a learning curve for sure, but the leadership team always has the best interests of our employees and culture at the forefront of our decision making.
There will always be ways to improve your culture. That’s what it means to have a strong culture. But if you start with these principles (and a door), you’ll be in a good position to keep on building.