The Importance of Company Culture and Managing Remote Development Teams

Year after year, employees across a wide spectrum of professional fields are finding themselves working more remotely; and as communication technologies advance, this number will surely increase. There are even companies now that build almost their entire workforce remotely — and some are able to yield just as good, if not better results than their on-site counterparts.

It’s important to note that this isn’t necessarily a problematic shift. Even in on-site settings, employees that have the option to work remotely three-to-four days report being more actively engaged in their work than being in office the entire week1.

There are, however, misconceptions that even though remote teams report being more productive, the company culture of a remote team can never replicate that of an on-site team. With disconnected overhead, this may be the case — and employee “burnout” can set in quickly if gone unnoticed.

Keep in mind, maintaining company culture and keeping employee morale high can be a challenge for any management team regardless of remoteness. In remote settings, these difficulties can be magnified. But with the upward trend in thriving remote teams throughout the world, it’s evident that managers are adapting their styles to better suit their employees.

Below we’ve provided a breakdown of this trending workforce, and how Sphere Software has been able to utilize remoteness to its highest potential. If you’re planning on building a remote team, or seek help instilling company culture in your remote team, look no further.

How Remote Culture Stacks Up Against On-site Culture

Working in an office provides employees with its own unique culture. The atmosphere is alive and dynamic. As an employee, you’ll feed off of unvoiced cues that are prominent as early as day one. You attribute certain attire to certain levels of professionalism, i.e. suit and tie versus dress shirt and khakis. Even the way an office is laid out can affect the feel of a company. Are you confined to a small cubicle, or are employees encouraged to roam the space with an open floor plan?

For remote teams, you can throw most of these assumptions out the window. Remote teams don’t have the luxury of in-office unvoiced cues. Daily attire, office spaces, and “watercooler gossip” won’t play a significant role in your company’s culture.

Personal connections between employees will be initially harder to spark because, as human beings, we naturally find comfort in face-to-face settings. Does this mean remote teams are inherently at a disadvantage when it comes to building company culture? Absolutely not. Yes, the required effort to build these connections will be greater, but this all starts with the managing team member.

Establishing a Company Culture

The core difference between an on-site manager and a remote manager lies in the difference between voiced and unvoiced underlying assumptions of company core values. One of the biggest mistakes a remote manager can make is inferring that their employees, especially onboarding ones, already have a firm grasp of your company’s foundation. By doing this, you’ve already established a disconnected base for your employees — one that doesn’t prioritize close communication.

What are the important values that your company holds? What level of professionalism is your company trying to establish? What are the main objectives, as a company, that you’re trying to achieve? These are the types of questions you should not only be able to answer firmly, but instill in your team members. It’s imperative to routinely vocalize these values to shape your team’s perception of the company. The end result will not only be a more productive team, but one that will respect your company and the work they’re doing. This is the basis of a remote company’s culture.

Find Employees Who Can Thrive in a Remote Setting

Everyone may claim they’re a self-starter, but you may (or may not) be surprised by how few employees can maintain a high level of concentration throughout an eight-hour day without being in an office. Competent remote employees are expected to have a firm understanding of their projects with minimal oversight and micromanaging.

Detecting prospective remote employees that embody your company’s values can be challenging, and you don’t want to get burned by hiring someone who can’t thrive in your remote setting. When looking for remote team members, make sure you’re asking the right questions.

“How do you schedule your day, and how do you prioritize your tasks?” — What you should be looking for is someone that is able to breakdown their organizational strategies. A true self-starter won’t remain stagnant, and is constantly looking for new angles on a project.

“How do you utilize communication tools when linking with team members?” — We’ll dive more into this later, but if your prospective candidate hasn’t caught on to the many communication technologies that are readily available to remote employees, take that as a warning sign.

“When a project is taking longer than expected, how do you face that issue?” — Problem resolution should be one of your prospective candidate’s top qualities. You want a self-starter, but you also want someone who isn’t hesitant to ask questions and take in as much information on a project as possible. This cues to a quick-learner, another great quality to have.

Communication Builds Spirit, and Should Be the Top Priority

When overseeing a remote team, enforcing close communication should absolutely be your top priority. Unvoiced cues and assumptions make up a large portion of a company’s deep-rooted in-office culture — not necessarily the case for remote teams. Communication technologies have advanced the way we connect with each other in every possible way. Here are some you can utilize in your remote team:

  • Chat rooms: HipChat, Twist, Flock, and Discord are only a few of the many chat-based apps that are compatible across iOS, Android, Windows, and web-based platforms. These apps allow remote teams to stay connected quickly and efficiently without ever missing a step.
  • Video chat: For video calls and screen-sharing that can be used during brainstorming sessions or business meetings, apps like Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facetime are some of the best readily available to remote teams. These apps are free and extremely user-friendly.

In software development, you’re almost at a disadvantage if you’re not using Atlassian’s JIRA and/or Confluence. These tools eliminate lengthy email chains, and streamline communication efforts for fast build-outs. Since time is almost always of the essence in software development, consider these apps for IT remote teams.

Recognition and Avoiding Burnout

You can have the most motivated, highly competent remote employee on your team; but if the workflow is monotonous, and overhead is disconnected, you run the risk of employee burnout. Burnout is one of the quickest ways to extinguish a team’s motivation, and can eventually lead to a massive drop in productivity, or worse, resignation.

Running a professional business with remote employees that understand and maintain your company values will always take precedent, however, you can’t neglect your employee’s own drives. Daily updates, conferences, and check-ins are great ways to stay by your employee’s side virtually. Use these check-ins to uplift your team, and commend employees who took risks on a project and succeeded. Top-down recognition is one of many simple gestures that can boost team morale.

Other Tips to Consider

Just because you’ve built a remote workforce, doesn’t mean there’s no opportunities to establish face-to-face comradery. As a matter of fact, even the most remote of teams should have at least one company-wide event per year to celebrate overall success.

For remote teams in regional settings, consider the occasional happy hour or sit-down dinner. Volunteering events or company raffles are also unique ways to connect team members. Whatever the activity may be, it’s never a bad idea to invest in team-building opportunities.

Lastly, when analyzing the most successful remote teams, look to that company’s executive board and managing partners. You’ll find that the practices they’re using probably align closely with what we’ve laid out here. Times are changing, and having the option to build successful remote enterprises is more achievable now than ever. Embrace the technological advances in communication, construct an adequate team, and with enough time and close cooperation, you can be on your way to building one too.

End Notes

1 2017 Gallup poll showing the gradual shift in remote workforces.


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