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How to maintain culture in a remote working environment

By Job van der Voort, CEO and co-founder of Remote  

With the UK government lifting the final Covid-19 restrictions in July, the requirement for everyone to work from home, if they can, has expired. However, it is unlikely that there will be mass exodus back into the office — and with it the drudgery of the dreaded daily commute — this summer, as remote work looks set to continue for millions of workers not just in the UK, but worldwide. 

Job van der Voort CEO and co founder of Remote - Business Express
Job van der Voort, CEO and co-founder, Remote

Over the past year, people have become used to working from home, while businesses have started to recognise its benefits. As a result, many businesses are now building flexible working arrangements into their strategies by going fully remote or adopting a hybrid model, where staff are only expected in the office occasionally. In March, the building society Nationwide told its 13,000 office workers that they will be able to choose where they work under a new flexibility scheme, while this month the Bank of England announced it will ask staff to come back into the office at least once a week from September.  

This switch to remote or hybrid working is overall positive. For workers, it gives them the flexibility to live and work from wherever they choose. They get more of their time back as they do not need to commute, improving their work-life balance. For employers, remote work vastly expands their recruitment pool. They can hire the most talented people anywhere in the world and are not limited to whomever can travel into their office.   

However, businesses looking to make a permanent switch to remote working will need to address a major challenge in the months to come: namely, how to develop and maintain a company culture better suited to the needs of remote and hybrid employees.    

Culture is an essential aspect of any business. Happy, engaged workers are more productive and less likely to leave for other companies. Today’s remote companies need to reinvent themselves and introduce new procedures, benefits, and policies to retain existing employees, attract new talent across the globe, and grow and be successful in the long term.   

So what should remote businesses do to develop their company culture? This is a challenge I’ve been solving for several years, having built and grown large global teams at two fully remote companies. I joined the web-based DevOps platform GitLab in 2014, helping to grow its workforce from five to 450 employees across 67 countries with no offices as VP of product. And, since co-founding the HR technology platform Remote in 2019, we have grown the team to more than 300 employees in 47 countries. 

Here is my advice for building and maintaining culture with remote teams:  

Employee benefits for remote workers 

When choosing a company to work for, employees generally expect perks and benefits in addition to their salary. The same applies to remote teams — even though they may not be able to visit an on-site gym or take advantage of free office food and drinks, benefits are a great way of motivating staff, boosting their wellbeing and making them feel valued by the company.  

To create an appealing work culture, as well as to attract and retain the best talent, businesses must tailor their benefits for their remote workers, as office-based perks alone will no longer be fit for purpose. HR managers also need to consider staff who work in other countries with different cultures and expectations when it comes to benefits. For instance, healthcare benefits may not be as appealing to workers in countries with universal healthcare.   

Companies will also have to invest in their remote workers beyond providing a simple work laptop. A home office allowance is appealing, as it helps staff to set up a suitable home workspace and pay for a faster, more reliable internet service to ensure their productivity.  

Another sought-after perk for remote workers is a personal development plan or learning development allowance. This enables staff to invest in their own skills and knowledge, which is vital for their personal career progression and will help them be more productive.  

Other potential benefits could include more generous pension schemes, fitness membership, food and grocery assistance, unlimited paid annual leave, and stock options and profit-sharing, to name a few. We recently implemented quarterly self-care days across the entire business, meaning that everybody from senior management to developers and marketing all take some downtime to spend with their family, read a book, exercise, and so on. 

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One obstacle that may come up for businesses with remote or hybrid workforces is how they will maintain consistent and fair perks, benefits ,and salaries across their whole workforce, which may now include employees working in another part of the world. Hybrid work models can encounter friction between staff who are office-based and receive different pay or benefits compared to their remote colleagues. Last year, some businesses such as VMware and Stripe implemented pay cut policies for employees choosing to work from locations with a lower cost of living.   

In the months ahead, businesses must address how they calculate salaries for remote workers, whether that means implementing flat-rate salaries across the world or choosing to offer wages according to location.   

Socialising in virtual reality 

One of the major criticisms of remote work is the perceived lack of socialising with colleagues. There are no lunch meetings, no chatting while making coffee, no overhearing conversations by the water cooler.  

However, as long as your company makes a conscious effort to employ alternative methods of social connection and wellbeing, then there are plenty of opportunities for socialising remotely and keeping your team happy and connected.   

Virtual reality technology can help here. At Remote, we launched an initiative to provide all employees with an Oculus Quest VR headset and conduct some of our team meetings in VR. The aim of this is to inspire the team to feel closer and personally connected, even though they are physically apart. The team has set up various apps to play games, collaborate in meetings, and host brainstorming sessions. This has helped to recreate those water-cooler conversations.  

The important thing to remember is that transitioning to a remote model requires proactive action from everyone. Business leaders need to consider the basic human need for connection, clarity, and creativity, and how they will address these in a remote culture.  

Productivity tools and new technology 

Remote companies need to take a more creative approach to the usual work tools, as it is incredibly important to provide their remote employees with all the necessary tools and equipment to do their job efficiently from wherever they want to work. 

We use Zoom to help us to connect with clients, Asana for project management, Slack to keep in communication with team members, and platforms such as GitLab to assist with development. Services like Notion and Loom allow us to create accessible documentation and video content, respectively, so our team can work asynchronously from all over the world. Loom has been an especially great addition. 

Whatever products or services you use, the key benefit of today’s technology is that it enables asynchronous working, which is an integral part of a remote company culture. Asynchronous work removes the requirement for everyone to be working in the same room or even in the same time zone. It allows employees to work independently and collaborate on projects at the times that best suit them. Even in different time zones, team members can log on and review work via images, video recordings and comment threads, then focus on their own tasks. The most important part of asynchronous working is not the exact tool you use: it’s the ability to work with multiple people without having to wait on someone else to keep progress moving. 

Transitioning to working asynchronously is a cultural shift that should be led from the top down. It requires reprogramming the mindset that you have to have a meeting to share information, but if leadership doesn’t follow suit, then it’s not going to work.   

Business leaders have their work cut out for them in the months ahead. At the start of the pandemic, remote working was adopted by some companies as a temporary solution, but we have moved beyond the experimental stage. Companies now need to properly embrace remote work. By supporting workers, giving them the tools to succeed, and offering the appropriate benefits, company culture can thrive in this new era. 

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