How to Establish a Work Culture With a Distributed Workforce

We’re in strange times right now.
Our work environments have changed from open floor plans in the office…to couches covered in blankets and toys. Before the coronavirus outbreak, 33% of American employees worked from home at least one day a week. While we don’t have updated numbers now, we can assume that it’s spiked sharply, given the nationwide stay-at-home mandates.

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My suspicion (and hope) is that many of the companies who have scrambled to create distributed workforce programs are now more open to this setup once we are able to return to the office. After all, with a WFH-savvy leadership team, having remote employees saves time and increases productivity.

Being successful in managing a distributed workforce is about more than the logistics of giving employees Zoom lines and laptops. It requires calculated effort to establish and maintain a strong work culture for these employees.

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Show Remote Staff You Value Them

Where many businesses fail is treating remote employees like second-class citizens. Out of sight is out of mind. Not being in the office every day, they may miss key conversations if you are not intentional to include them.

When I started at the company I work for, Nav, we had a vision to be a company without a formal HQ, and one that was successful at being 100% distributed. Physically, we worked to make sure we had conference rooms and team meet-ups that were equipped, with access to Zoom. Culturally, we established expectations around participation during conference calls that includes everyone having their camera on, and giving everyone in the meeting time to talk. We may sit apart but our conversations, whether formally in a 1:1 or as a drive by question, are face-to-face dialogues.

Interactions that are normally organic in an established office space have to be manufactured to mimic the organic for the cultural seed to take root (and take off).  Intentional meetups were created to encourage all Nav employees to forge deeper connections with their remote counterparts. They say good morning. They check to make sure they’re doing okay, or even send a funny video to break up a stressful day. My favorite meetup is one called stitch_n_bitch, this channel meets every week for lunch across a zoom and they knit and catch up with each other. In normal times, we’d invite our remote employees to come onsite and spend half of their time integrating within the office community and creating connections. We are consciously aware that remote folks don’t get all the water cooler conversation so we have created a culture that creates the naturalness of the water cooler interaction.

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There is nothing worse than feeling like you are missing out. Which is why if we have an event at one of our locations we make sure that our remote employees are a part of it. When we do massages we send our remote people a gift card so that they can get a massage. If we have a celebration we send them the same food that we are using for our celebration and video conference them in. We make sure that we are constantly doing surprise and delight moments for them so that they know we are thinking about them.

Thanks to coronavirus, Nav is 100% remote right now. We’ve hosted several Fireside Chats (now renamed Zoomside Chats) with the CEO to ensure that we stay connected and supportive of one another. We encourage people to use personalized Zoom backdrops, show off their kids and fur babies. We have done Nav Cribs meetings, where employees show off their office and they talk about the high’s and low’s from working from home. Our CEO, Greg Ott, is constantly sharing goofy dad jokes or the latest dance craze on social media.

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We are leading in an unprecedented time. During a pandemic, in social isolation, with newly all work from home teams who are sharing the kitchen table with spouses and kids, in an uncertain economic situation. There isn’t an article or university study that covers the topic. That’s why, as a company, we have double downed on our workplace cultural norms and tying our team to the mission and vision of the company.

Break Barriers of How Things Have Been

I know there are a lot of leaders like me that grew up in very traditional work environments.  The one where your success was built around the amount of time you were at work.  People knew you were “working hard” because you never left your desk, you were there before the boss and stayed later than the boss. The people that took breaks, or left before 5 had their work ethics questioned. In this paradigm, time equaled productivity and value to the organization.

People assume that Human Resources know everything when it comes to managing culture and change. However, the biggest lesson I have learned at Nav is that the best answers come from our people and all we have to do is ask questions and listen. I have been fortunate enough to work with several amazing engineering leaders here who have taught me a lot about a distributed workforce. They are the ones that are pushing boundaries and bringing me along.

The equation for success is deceptively simple. Empowerment and transparency are the two critical ingredients in making remote work successful. It connects the team to their body of work.   Lean in and have difficult conversations when one person feels uneasy about something. Set up boundaries and rules on both sides so that clear expectations are set.

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I hope we come out of all this shifting our perspectives just a bit. After all, the future of work is rapidly changing. No one knows what it will look like in 6 months, we can expect that “old school” business norms will become increasingly irrelevant. Chances of us returning to business as usual are slim. We have no choice but to be proactive about addressing that fact. If you’re solving for how it’s changed right now, you’re already behind. Consider how you can be creative and innovative moving forward as we slide toward a more distributed work culture.

I think the situation we’re in right now will go a long way toward helping us learn to maximize our distributed workforce in a way that makes sense for both employer and employee. After all, at the end of the day, it’s about getting the work done!