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We talked to managers from 550+ fully-remote companies about company culture. These are what the most successful companies had in common.
Over the past two months, our team interviewed dozens of managers from around the world to learn what drives successful remote work. Their backgrounds varied, but managers always agreed on one thing: remote work is intentional. Interacting with coworkers involves a direct message, email, or Zoom call. Assigning tickets takes careful planning and detailed descriptions. Even doing work demands set-aside hours and self-discipline. At scale, working remotely requires a conscious team effort.
We found the most successful companies were extremely intentional with company culture. GitLab, with over a thousand fully-remote workers, has a 3,000-page team handbook and everyday practices to promote workplace transparency. Toggl prioritizes a small-company feel with weekly, team-wide campfire meetings and qualitative engagement surveys. Buffer and Zapier openly blog about their remote work findings and communication strategies. For fully distributed companies, culture goes beyond quarterly goal-setting, fun lunch activities, or unlimited PTO. The best remote companies convey their values in every Slack message, scheduled call, and assigned ticket. Without a physical office, it’s up to company culture to create structure and community for remote workers.
The patterns in our interviews surprised us. The most successful remote teams, regardless of size or industry, shared a few core values. These values were remote-specific, going beyond “Teamwork” or “Accountability.” They addressed the emotional gap lost in virtual workspaces and encouraged better remote relationships.
These were the three most common values we found:
Though most of us assume good intent every day without thinking twice, this value becomes exponentially important for virtual interactions. Misread messages and skewed intent are part of online communication. (Twitter or blog comment sections provide too many examples.) Add daily remote work hurdles––information transfer, ticket assignments, and cultural differences––and important messages easily get lost in translation.
At best, misunderstanding creates a minor delay as coworkers respond and clarify. All too often, however, teams reported productivity bottlenecks of up to 10 hours as timezones delayed these conversations. At its extreme, some companies saw communication-based conflicts and resentment that took months to resolve.
That’s why assuming good intent is a core value at Doist. Doist, best known for ToDoist and Twist, is a fully-remote company with over 60 people in over twenty countries. According to our conversation with an HR Generalist, assuming good intent calms the fight-or-flight response from unclear messaging. Managers at How-To Geek and TaxJar echoed this sentiment. When a Slack message was unclear, they encouraged coworkers to assume good intent and hop on a Zoom call to clear matters up. This face-to-face interaction, along with a baseline benefit of the doubt, helped their remote teams communicate openly.
Asynchronous work creates a fascinating problem for global teams: how do you share information and expectations with limited face-to-face interaction? The stakes are high. Failure to keep a team in the loop can mean poorly done tickets, task bottlenecks, and lost clients.
The answer was almost always “transparency.”
For some, this translated how companies treated their Slack and Google Calendar. At Auth0, everyone has access to public Slack channels making it easy for coworkers to stay up to date on questions, progress, and setbacks in real-time. At Buffer, managers shared and checked their teammates’ public Google Calendars before meetings to stay sensitive to busy schedules.
Other companies like Automattic use an internal Wordpress blog and global search tool to share daily progress reports and feature changes company-wide. Everything is accessible regardless of role and coworkers read updates daily to stay up-to-date.
At GitLab, transparency is king. All handbooks and employee ReadMe’s are available online. Certain company meetings are recorded and available to the public for their GitLab Unfiltered Series. Guidelines help teammates at GitLab openly communicate, at scale.
A Product Manager at Kaggle (a Google Company) mentioned using this philosophy with all her direct reports. A baseline of trust provides the foundation for collaboration and feedback. However, they don’t take this trust for granted. Instead, her team views trust as a rapidly deteriorating resource. Trust must be maintained through frequent check-ins and non-work discussions.
This value is essential for combatting isolation, a common issue among remote teams. As with anything else remote, socializing is deliberate. Unfortunately, this means non-work related conversations often disappear in favor of on-topic meetings or independent work. For some, this loneliness damages mental health, team engagement, and retention. The solution is to make a constant effort to interact, get to know teammates, and build team relationships.
Beyond check-ins, numerous other companies have fun ways of building and maintaining office relationships without an office. Snapfish and Buffer dedicate Slack channels to fun topics like favorite sports teams or pets. Auth0 created a virtual office retreat that involved a day-long Zoom call and planned activities. Other companies, use Slack bots like HeyTaco!, Kona, and Donut to encourage coworker trust, understanding, and check-ins. Maintaining remote relationships and trust is intentional, like everything else related to remote work.
Corine is Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.