This chapter of our Remote Team Guide will explain how you can build a strong remote culture, both in-person and online. Much of this will focus on how X-Team has built up its remote culture.
While not all of our initiatives might work for you, we hope that they show you how creative you can be when it comes to building a strong company culture online.
Your goal in building culture remotely is to find creative ways to break the radio silence.
How to Build a Strong Remote Culture
Some people will tell you that it's impossible to build a strong culture in a remote company. They reason that culture is something you can really only build from being together in-person. Happy hours at a bar, coming together in a room for a meeting, playing ping pong in the break room.
To those people, we raise this: if building culture online is impossible, then what about WordPress? What about GitLab? Buffer? Zapier? X-Team? World of Warcraft?
All these are examples of incredibly powerful communities with a strong culture, built primarily online.
Your remote company can create an even more powerful culture than you might find in an office and then amplify and strengthen it with in-person activities as well.
The key to a happy remote team and strong remote culture is constantly pumping motivation into it so that people feel connected to something bigger than themselves. They're not alone in their office all day, they're connected to a community of like-minded individuals.
So break the radio silence each day and replace it with inspiration, motivation, and ways for people to share and engage with the community in new ways.
If you don't do this, your team risks falling into a routine where every remote worker is faced with loneliness, demotivation, and burnout.
Let's go over a few important aspects of building and maintaining an online community that is incredibly good at motivating remote teams.
Create Async Opportunities That Connect People
Culture doesn't appear out of the blue. It comes from people talking, engaging, sharing, and inspiring one another. You have to create the opportunities and the environment to make that happen.
If you don't, all you'll see in your Slack channels are what tickets they're working on. A real snoozefest.
So constantly try and stimulate your team's content output, as their content will motivate and inspire the other people on your team.
Here's an example of what the Slack channels of a remote team with a strong culture could look like. Your Slack could be full of playful messages to encourage your team:
Seeing photos from your colleagues can also inspire you to get out more or try out new things:
And you could add a separate #appreciation channel to share one's appreciation for each other:
Or you could organize game nights to energize your team:
And find ways for your team to get together physically in an epic house in a paradise location to explore while getting some work done. We call it the X-Outpost.
This is just a small taste of what's possible. The key is that none of this happens without first setting a precedent. You need to let your team know that it's okay to share where you are, what you're doing, how you're growing, how you're inspiring others, and how you're having fun.
If you don't set that precedent, people will be afraid to share those things because they assume you want them working 24/7 and everything else is unacceptable.
So create an environment that welcomes the type of content mentioned above and that encourages them to create the lifestyle they want and share it, too.
All of this will gradually build your culture.
If you're not having fun with it, then neither are they.
Create Async Games
There's a great saying that goes like this: “If you’re not having fun with it, then neither are they.” The same goes for running a remote team of developers. As most developers tend to be geeky, there is no better way to keep a remote developer team motivated and engaged than through games.
Although one of the primary reasons for incorporating gaming into your team is to create opportunities for bonding and raising morale, you can also use games as a way to motivate your team to do more of the things that keep them productive.
X-Team took this to the next level and created entire Seasons where X-Teamers are split up into Houses that fight each other over the course of three months. These Seasons are filled with games and rewards for those who participate.
The basic idea is to provide your team with ongoing challenges that encourage and motivate them to get up and get energized more often.
Create opportunities that help your team continue to learn, grow, and stay healthy mentally and physically.
A System of Coins and Bounties
Games are great, but you can go well beyond games too. Remote developers who feel more comfortable taking breaks are more productive, healthier, and have more trust and respect for the team's management.
X-Team created a system where X-Teamers complete challenges - called bounties - in exchange for coins. These bounties are meant to energize and inspire them and cover a wide variety of interests.
The coins collected from those bounties can then be spent on collectibles in the X-Team Vault, which range from cool T-shirts to mugs to charity donations.
Opportunities for Growth
One of the greatest lessons we've learned is that great remote developers decide to work for you because they expect to grow.
StackOverflow confirmed this in one of their big annual surveys. Opportunities for professional development ranks top 3 for why developers stay at a company.
It makes sense, too. If you're talented, why bother joining a team if you won't be growing with them? If the project you have your team working on is not helping your developers grow, you better be creating other opportunities that help them evolve and learn new skills/tech.
This is key to a successful and competitive remote development team culture, especially when they can work for any company in the world.
There are a few ways to go about establishing this:
- Give them an annual budget that allows them to book any course (e.g. Egghead) or conference they think will help them grow. Create a channel for this that allows everyone to share what they are learning, reviews on courses/conferences, etc. We give each of our remote developers $2,500 per year for this purpose. It's called the Unleash+ budget.
- Create Slack channels that serve as learning groups. Make them last one month at a time, each with a skill to learn, a mentor to help answer questions, and a goal to create. For example, one channel can be dedicated to learning Vue.js fundamentals in one month so you can create a calendar widget.
- Ping developers once/month to see how they are progressing. If you discover a developer is too swamped to make any time for learning and growth (and they are not learning anything new on their swamped project), this is a great opportunity to step in and see how you can help them use their budget or join a learning group.
- Create dedicated tech channels (#react #php #go) and start encouraging your team to post in them as they run into challenges or as they discover great articles. These will quickly become some of your most valuable channels that not only help unblock individuals, but also serve as a key source of inspiration to learn new technologies.
Keep it Fresh
Developers who work remotely and have the time to dive into new technologies will expect you to keep them engaged. So you'll need to constantly come up with new opportunities to maintain your culture.
It’s easier said than done, and only the teams that invest in the manpower to do this will get the most motivated developers in the world.
Consider doing the following:
- Hire someone dedicated to creating and managing opportunities that engage and motivate your team. We have a dedicated game designer who comes up with new opportunities to motivate our team.
- When something works, create more opportunities similar to what worked. Much like we learned with quests, you will start to find a model that you can reproduce with other ways to motivate people.
- This being said, try not to overwhelm your team with too many opportunities or changing them up too often. Something new once per quarter is a great first goal to reach, and eventually, you can aim for something new each month.
As extensive as you can get with creating opportunities remotely to motivate and energize your team, there will always be “something missing” if you don't also create in-person opportunities. These are important moments for your team, because they:
- Solidify the relationships they have built online
- Reveal the intricacies of each person’s personality
- Create inside jokes that will carry on for ages online
- Create content that makes your culture more tangible
All the above are reasons why we created the X-Outpost. It's a roaming hackerhouse that changes location every month and allows anyone from the team to live, work, and explore together under one roof.
With an Outpost always available (except if there's a global pandemic going on), everyone has a chance to meet someone from the team and experience that incredibly important feeling of belonging and connection to something real and bigger than yourself.
Video is one of the most powerful tools for building culture in a remote team.
Use Video to Inspire and Motivate
One of the most powerful tools at your disposal for building culture remotely is video. By utilizing sound, visuals, and strong messages, you can make your culture truly come to life. After watching a few of our videos, you can quickly get an idea of what our motivated culture feels like:
Although we recommend investing in a video team to make these videos as polished as possible, even simple videos recorded from a webcam can be enough to help make your culture more tangible.
Here is a list of great opportunities for utilizing video:
- Onboarding new hires
- Announcing new async opportunities
- Showcasing a demo of a newly launched project
- Sending appreciation shoutouts to the team
You can also utilize video for semi-annual Town Halls, which are an opportunity to celebrate recent events and announce upcoming highlights.
You can stream them live and then provide the recording for anyone who missed the livestream to watch in their own time (remember to always prioritize flexibility with remote teams).
We do a long video for each Town Hall and try to make them as special as possible and our #1 opportunity every six months to reinforce our culture.
Generating appreciation and recognition creates infectious positivity and breaks remote radio silence.
Celebrate Together, Celebrate Often
When you do not have the opportunity to raise a glass to achievements in the office, you have to still create the same effect remotely and continue to give your team recognition.
We find remote celebrations oftentimes more enjoyable than the awkward office clap. In a remote team, celebrating means a flurry of GIFs and encouraging messages that live on forever, so you can go back and relive those moments on a rainy day.
It is important to create an #appreciation channel, where you allow anyone to post appreciation of someone else on the team, giving them a stage in front of their peers to be recognized.
Remember: creating culture remotely requires you to constantly battle Slack’s radio silence. Generate as much appreciation and recognition as possible to break the silence. Send a lot of positive vibes into your remote culture!
Make productivity a cornerstone of your culture to truly reap the benefits of a remote team.
Bake Productivity Into Your Culture
Although being remote certainly allows your team to avoid a lot of the usual office distractions, making productivity the cornerstone of your remote culture is what will really supercharge remote productivity.
You'll know your culture has embraced productivity when it becomes common to see discussions in Slack around productivity apps or when people share the results of their productivity experiments.
If you don't have that in your culture yet, but you want to have an insanely productive team, here's where to start:
- Encourage your team to share their current strategy and routine for being productive. Make sure they know that there is not a single “correct” way of being productive, but that their way might inspire someone else on the team to try out a new productivity strategy.
- Encourage your team to share productivity apps. Give them a budget to buy them if necessary. Let your team dive in and explore the options out there and then post a review in the channel on how the app worked out for them. This discovery and experimentation will eventually start to become part of their routine.
- Reward your team for completing productivity challenges. Challenge them to perform six pomodoros in a day, or to try out a new strategy this week that they have never tried before, or to try a specific productivity technique out (like the Eisenhower Matrix). Reward them with swag or cash for finishing the challenge and you'll quickly start to build productivity techniques into their routine.
If this doesn't work, then you haven't hired motivated people (who absolutely love this kind of productivity motivation) and need to return to Chapter 1.
Make an Impact
One of the great aspects of being on a remote team is being connected to people from many different countries. If you make the effort to contribute to causes that are important to your team in these many countries, you will discover so many inspiring charities you never knew existed.
With each of our async opportunities, we try to attach a charitable aspect as well. The higher the participation, the greater the donation that will be made, which not only helps encourage more people to engage but also results in a great ending to each opportunity you create.
For example, coins collected by completing bounties can be spent on a charity of your choice.
That was it! If you've come this way, congratulations. You've read over 10,000 words and learned tons about:
- Hiring the right remote developers
- Communicating with your remote team
- Managing your remote team
- Building remote team culture
We hope that we've given you enough ideas and inspiration to get to work and start creating your remote development team. We believe remote work is good for people and the planet, and we want you to see its many benefits too. Good luck!