Creating Team Unity Through Your Remote Culture

Andy Cook
August 30, 2017
Interview with Sarah Park

The most difficult thing for remote teams is creating unity and an environment where team members truly feel connected to one another. Regardless of how many thousands of miles stretch between them, the ultimate goal is to work together towards a common goal—rather than checking individual tasks off a virtual list.

But difficult is not impossible. MeetEdgar built its way up to over $4M in revenue a year with no office and no outside funding. Despite their fully remote setup, the Operations Department at MeetEdgar, a SaaS company offering a social-media management tool, has managed to build precisely that kind of mythical unity that drives results.

One remark that Sarah Park, the Operations Advocate at MeetEdgar and their first employee, hears all the time from new hires who are in their first fully remote role is: “I thought this was gonna be more of a lonely experience.”

“The reality around it,” Sarah says, is that the MeetEdgar “team is a lot more connected than even some more traditional, co-located work environments.”

The key behind the team’s unity? Mindfulness.

When you’re building a remote team, you don’t have the luxury of letting culture simply happen. “We have to be very mindful about it,” Sarah advises. And it’s precisely that mindfulness that’s led the MeetEdgar team to build a successful remote culture.

What does this mindfulness mean exactly?

It means constantly and actively thinking, adapting, and revising how your team operates around the three main pillars of successful workplaces: context, trust, and culture.

1. Creating Context

In a traditional company, the physical space of the office and the conversations that happen in it provide context for the company culture. Everything from how the office is laid out to the amenities it includes like lunch areas and game tables to even more outlandish perks like a nap room have a direct impact on how team members work, communicate, and build relationships within that space.

After all, that’s why the likes of Google and Apple drop billions of dollars on creating cool, innovative, and envy-provoking workspaces around the world. These buildings stand as symbols to the culture operating within their walls.

But what about remote teams who don’t have a physical space to manifest the cultural norms of the team?

Our office is Slack,” Sarah says. And she doesn’t mean that metaphorically. Rather than using Slack simply as a convenient chatroom, the MeetEdgar team treats the app as their actual office. “There are many elements that go into making you feel part of a team or making you feel like you’re adding to the work experience,” Sarah notes.

From having a sense of what other departments are creating, even if you don’t actively participate in their processes, to running into someone from a different team in the lunch room or striking up a random conversation with a coworker in the lobby about your favorite apps or movies—all of these things contribute to creating an office culture. But how do you that in Slack?

“We try to replicate the random little things as much as we can.”

Those “little things” are the ones that make the biggest impact in creating a truly unified team. Team members are much more likely to stay engaged with the team and get invested in their work when they feel they have a personal connection with their team members.

And virtual chatrooms can provide those opportunities for connection and foster those personal relationships when they are set up the right way. Here are some steps you can take to help create unity in your remote team in the context of your virtual chatroom.

  • Default to transparency
  • Create opportunities for casual conversations
  • Provide private spaces

Default to Transparency

It’s easy with Slack to create private channels only for people pertinent to a topic so you don’t distract people or to quickly ping a few teammates for an answer in a direct message. But that’s the opposite approach to take with a remote team.

Instead, make all your work-related channels and conversations entirely public and open to the team. Get the team to have conversations that might typically be private in those public channels too.

This is the number-one rule for team communications at MeetEdgar, Sarah says, and it works wonders for keeping team members informed about all aspects of the company.

“Any time you want, you can just pop into the marketing channel or the customer service channel or the developer’s channel, just to see what’s going on, like a fly on the wall. That kind of replicates walking through an office in a lot of ways and allows people to be aware of what’s going on around the company without having to actively process all of that information and have it become a distraction.”

Think of this open communication model as the open-plan structure of a traditional office space. The fewer walls you build between team members and departments, the more you will facilitate engagement and communications.

As a company grows, this setup actually becomes a benefit for remote teams because it’s much more scalable than trying to cram hundreds of people into one room. The size limitations and noise issues of a physical space just wouldn’t work. But in Slack, you can add as many people as you want.

Likewise, the fewer barriers you create between remote team members and departments in your chatroom, the more opportunities you provide for team member engagement and collaboration.

Create opportunities for casual conversations

Physical offices create a lot of opportunities for serendipitous run-ins between co-workers like in the lunchroom or while making a coffee. Those chance run-ins are times to strike up a casual conversation before heading back to your desk to do more work.

When there is no lunch room or coffee machine at your office though because everyone works remotely, what do you do?

Sarah’s advice is pretty simple, but it makes a lot of sense: create channels whose sole function is to provide opportunities for casual engagement, much like a physical office.

Open channels are great for giving team members the bigger picture of the company. But they won’t necessarily help with the communication on a smaller, more personal scale. For that, you need to create spaces where team members can not only watch what happens in other departments but also actively participate.

“We do something called ‘Thank you Thursday,’” Sarah explains. “We have a channel in our Slack that’s called ‘Props,’ and on Thursday, you just go in and recognize people for work that they’re doing across the company. That way you can see the things that people are being appreciated for in different departments, and it helps give you a good sense of the different ways people are providing value to the company, which is inspiring and helps remind us that we’re working towards the same goals.”

If you want to take it a step further, consider creating completely non-work-related channels where people can “hang out” during a break and casually strike up conversations. These can add great value to the daily lives of team members.

The MeetEdgar teams facilitate these casual conversations through a channel dedicated to questions. “We do a question of the day every day,” Sarah explains. “And it’s usually just some unrelated topic, but you kinda get to know people that way. You feel a little more comfortable to just ask them a question about something else or to approach them about something that might come up even if you don’t work directly with them every day.”

Some past questions of the day include:

  • What’s the last thing you impulse bought?
  • Share a screenshot of your phone’s lock screen!
  • Go take a lap around your room/apartment/house and share a pic of something fun we might like to see What’s the last book that you couldn’t put down? Are there any household chores you secretly enjoy? Which ones — and why?
  • What was on your playlist 10 years ago?

These casual conversations help spread the sense that other team members are real people and not just Slack avatars, which helps create bonds throughout the team based on interests, likes, lifestyles, etc., straddling departments and team lines.

Provide Private Spaces

Discussing a sensitive subject out loud in an open office probably wouldn’t be such a great idea. Having one of those discussions in a public channel is no different. Not every conversation that happens on your team must happen in public. Sensitive information and issues need discreet handling in a private space.

The third step to making Slack your virtual office is to create spaces for discussing private matters and sensitive information as appropriate.

“We do have private, locked channels as well for HR matters,” Sarah says about MeetEdgar, “and we hop on calls all the time. The no-private chat thing is work-related. So, anything that needs to be done privately, we obviously will do that.”

These discussions may be about helping team members who are struggling with something at work. Or maybe it’s reaching out to a fellow team member who’s struggling with something at home. Just like you wouldn’t announce sensitive issues publicly in a traditional office, you should make sure to give team members the space to discuss personal matters in a way that doesn’t violate their sense of privacy.

Once your team context is set up and in place, it’s time to consider what kind of people you want to bring onto your team—and what kind of people would succeed on your team. And the first thing to look for is remotely-minded people.

2. Building Trust

Hiring for remote is really difficult,” as Sarah puts it. That’s because when you bring in someone to work with you remotely, you’re “essentially handing them the keys to the kingdom.”

There’s no trial period on remote teams where you test candidates to see if it’ll work out. You need to know that it will work out before you give them access to all your passwords and software to store on their devices at the other side of the country. The key word in hiring for remote is trust.

If you’re building a remote team, rather than a group of loosely connected freelancers, trust is of the utmost importance.

“The one thing we know when we extend a job offer to somebody is that we’re trusting them 100% at that point.”

Not only trust in the work new hires will do, but also trust in who they are and the value they add to your team. And the only way to gain that complete and absolute trust before hiring someone is through a well-structured and well-thought-out interview process. An interview that checks specifically for trust on every level: trust with other team members, trust in completing work, and trust that the relationship will work in the long run.

Check for trust with other team members by getting them involved in the interview process

Interviews aren’t just for managers. Team members at all levels will be working and interacting with new hires and it’s important that they feel they can trust incoming team members.

The MeetEdgar team checks overall trust by pulling various team members into interviews. “Our interview process,” Sarah explains, “involves conversations with lots of different people on the team: people at different leadership levels, people in your department, people outside of your department.”

This helps give them a more rounded view on candidates and how they may interact with different processes, structures, and personalities already on the team.

Sarah’s team is very also very conscious that the people they pull in should have proper training on how to interview. To do this, MeetEdgar provides internal documentation that runs people through how to evaluate not on the candidate, but their own reactions too. “A lot of the time, it’s not only about the question we ask – sometimes it’s about pushing interviewers to examine their feelings and gut reactions to things.”

Here’s an actual example slide from interviewer training deck they use internally:

If everyone involved in the interview feels they can trust their own instincts and the new person, then that’s a good start. It gives a new hire more allies and more familiar faces when they start and a solid foundation to contribute to the team.

Gauge the candidate’s motivation for independent work

The tricky thing with remote is that you have to work on your own. There’s no manager who can tell my the look on your face that you’re struggling and no administrator checking if you came in on time. There’s no one even telling you how long your lunch break should be.

Though they may be completing the same kind of work as employees in a traditional office, remote workers complete that work with minimal guidance and supervision. For some people, that translates into freedom to work more productively on their own terms; and for other people, it means chaos as the lack of external structure pulls them into a vortex of procrastination and delay.

That’s why ownership and self-motivation are crucial traits to look for in your future remote team members.

How do you check for ownership? One way is to ask questions that help you understand what motivates a candidate in the work they do: external guidance and instructions, or a personal desire to add value to a team and complete a goal?

“If their motivation is coming from a strong desire to provide value to the company, it’s usually a good indicator of somebody who’s gonna be more successful remote than somebody who prefers having people around them to get things done.”

Another way is to ask questions that help you understand how the candidate’s past experiences at the workplace came about. Here are some of the types of interview questions Sarah and her team like to ask as their diving into work style, intrinsic motivation, and remote work:

  • What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made at your job? What happened afterwards?
  • How often do you work with people outside of your department? What challenges come up for you when you do?
  • What’s something you’ve changed about the way you do your job that came up as a result of feedback you received?
  • (For folks who mention working in a co-located office and working remotely some of the time) What kind of work do you think you do better at home and what do you go into the office for specifically?

“We like to ask people questions about successes they’ve had in business in the past and what were the things that they found challenging. And then we also like to ask people what their role in those things was. Questions like ‘Did you try to change things? Did you feel like you were dealt a bad hand?’ That kind of stuff.”

The more ownership candidates take of both the successes and challenges they’ve had in the past, the more you can trust them with owning the work they’ll be doing on your team. Candidates, on the other hand, who try to blame their failures on circumstances and the mistakes of others might be signaling that they’re extrinsically motivated and may find it hard to keep up with a high-performing team that sees challenges as lessons and opportunities for growth.

It’s also important to determine if a candidate has the technical experience to navigate remote work. Though it may be tempting to assume that people know how to use tools like Slack or Google Drive, this isn’t necessarily a given, especially among those coming from larger or stodgier companies. As the remote work experts at Time Doctor point out, you should assess which remote tools you rely on most, and gauge people’s comfort level using them (or at least their comfort in learning!)

Allow both your team and the candidates to experience what working together will be like

“You could have your best employee in a normal office setting,” Sarah advises, “and they might not be super successful working remotely. Some people really enjoy this and some people really don’t.”

Discovering what works best for each candidate will benefit not only the candidate but also your team. The tricky part, however, is creating the actual experience of working together rather than simply describing it to one another in a conversation.

And the only way to do that is through actual work.

“Our hiring process always ends with a test project,” Sarah says of MeetEdgar’s interviews. “Our perspective on it is that we spend a lot of time upfront talking about the role and gauging your enthusiasm and figuring out what your philosophy around projects is. But we also want to see the work and want to experience the work.”

What’s more, a simulated work experience is just as important for the candidate as it is for your team. Remote work is a new trend that’s been enabled by technology like chat and video calls only recently. Not many people have actually tried it as a full-time employee. Imagine hiring a candidate who has all the right qualifications for the work but who comes to you at the end of the first month to say that remote work or that your team processes don’t actually agree with the way they do their best work. That’s a lot of time, effort, resources, and energy wasted on both your part and theirs.

All of that, however, can be avoided by setting up a test paid project for the candidate with your team.

“There have been people in the past,” Sarah confirms, “who have told us, ‘I don’t think working remotely is quite my thing.’ And that’s fine. Different things for different people.”

The important thing is discovering whether your team is the right one for a specific candidate before the hire. And by the end of the test project, you should feel complete trust that the relationship between the candidate and your team will work out for the long run.

Once you find the right candidate for your remote team, the final step is onboarding them into your team’s culture.

3. Establishing Culture

Working remotely means having a free schedule and making your own hours, right?

Perhaps for some organizations. But for the MeetEdgar team, it doesn’t mean that at all and they make that very clear in their hiring process:

“One of the things that we keep a watchful eye out for,” Sarah says, “are people who are working remotely because they want to be able to work any hours that they want. Like, that doesn’t actually work very well for our setup.”

And this specification ties back not just to their hiring process, but also to the context they’ve created for their remote work. The indispensable part is the “setup.”

“This is a controversial topic, and one that we revisit pretty frequently within our company. But, right now, we are only hiring people who work North American time zones.”

That’s the setup that MeetEdgar has chosen for their remote team’s work and have stuck to so far.

One of the crucial points in developing a successful remote culture is getting clear and honest with yourself and your team about the kind of culture you want to create and work in. Saying you want to create a “remote culture” doesn’t say much. It’s like saying you want to have a personality. That’s great. But what sort of personality?

Examine and (re)define your team’s values around work

Why does the MeetEdgar team insist so much on only hiring people located within North American time zones? Because they value keeping a regular schedule and respect each other’s work hours and personal hours.

“We call it synchronist remote work,” Sarah explains. “So, while it’s not fully synchronist because we have some different time zones, we have overlap within those time zones in the middle of the day for everybody. So, everybody’s keeping fairly normal business hours for their time zone.”

Does that mean your remote team has to implement the same value? Of course, not. In fact, most remote teams work on asynchronous schedules so they can hire talent from around the globe. And some teams keep regular business hours within that asynchronous structure, while other teams let people work any time they want, provided that the work gets done.

The right setup for your team depends on your team values. And there are no right or wrong values in absolute terms. Each team must decide for itself the values that will define its particular remote setup and mindset.

Consider the impact your work values have on your team’s lifestyle

Work is only half the matter. The other half concerns your team members’ personal lives and lifestyle choices.

For example, just like any other organizational culture, if your team values personal growth, people who aren’t interested in working on their personal habits and attitudes aren’t likely to be happy in that environment. Conversely, a team that values efficiency and performance above all else isn’t likely to be a great fit for a person who values experimentation.

The MeetEdgar team is very clear on how their work values affect the team’s personal lifestyles:

“Another thing that we really value is giving our team members a normal life.”

And that comes prominently into play when they review potential candidates and consider bringing them into their remote “office space.”

“A lot of times when you’re remote, people just think that they can ping you whenever they want. But that feels like you’re always 50% on. So, we wanted to make the lines really clear of like, ‘This is your work time, you’re working during this time.’”

And the way they make and keep making those lines clear is by insisting on the work hours for their team and working and hiring with that mindset in place.

Your team values, for example, may be that you want to give both early birds—who like to work at 6 am—and night owls—who can only get going after 6 pm—the opportunity to do their best work.

As long as your team works with that particular remote mindset, hires with that mindset, and sets up your team’s context to accommodate that mindset, then you can create a successful remote culture around your values and needs.

Understand that your culture is your greatest competitive advantage

Once you discover your team’s particular values, you need to make sure your actions and decisions reflect them fully, no matter how controversial they may seem to others.

Take MeetEdgar’s culture, for example, of remote synchronous work that falls within North American time zones.

“If we try to hire somebody in Asia,” Sarah explains, “who was willing to work North American business hours, it doesn’t really line up with our values of just being able to maintain that really great life-work balance. It doesn’t align with being able to provide a lot of value for the company while we can provide a lot of value for their life.”

While that may seem like a disadvantage to have in a remote landscape that usually spans time zone and geography, it can also be a great advantage for the right team members.

“It’s a good competitive advantage for us to have team members who want to stay with us long-term or who know the business really well. That’s something that has been really valuable for us. It’s kind of like a good… The word I’m reaching for here is shortcut to success. But I don’t really think that’s it. I think it’s the longcut.”

Speed isn’t always an ally when you’re trying to build a lasting culture for your team. Having these kinds of “longcuts” that will make your team’s culture appeal to the right people pays in the long run.

No matter how idiosyncratic it may seem to others, the truth is that your culture is ultimately your greatest advantage in hiring and retaining team members that are the right fit for your team. So getting clear on the setup, values, and workings of your culture can be one the best things you ever do for your remote team.

Unity Transcends Place and Time

Building a remote team doesn’t mean you and your team members are exchanging a daily commute for isolation and loneliness. Remote work can be just as collaborative, social, and edifying as work done in a co-located office.

The key to achieving unity on a remote team rests in taking your remote environment just as seriously as you’d take your brick-and-mortar office for a traditional workspace and creating it with just the same mindfulness, if not more.

If you create the right context for remote interactions, find people you can trust for your remote environment, and define a clear mindset for your team’s expectations, you’ll never notice that the walls around your home office aren’t the same walls surrounding the rest of your team members.