Skip to navigationSkip to content
CULTURE CLUB

Watch: Quartz at Work’s workshop on building company culture remotely

Published Last updated

Though it can be viscerally felt, company culture is a largely intangible thing—all the more so when there’s no office to bring people together and serve as a physical manifestation of an organization’s style or values.

In this Quartz at Work (from home) workshop, held on Oct. 1, we use some 17th-century history, a contemporary case study, and a repository of remote knowhow to share some practical tips on how to build and maintain company culture when everyone is remote.

Watch the complete replay of the one-hour session by clicking the large image above, or browse this recap for highlights from each presenters.

“Culture happens no matter what”

That’s the conclusion of Sara Sutton, the CEO and founder of FlexJobs and Remote.co, who decided early in her career to be proactive about building culture.

Her first startup, an online job site she sold to Korn/Ferry in 2000, had a pingpong table and an average employee age of 23, she says. It was fun, but while she wanted the same relaxed feeling at her next startups, there would be no more pingpong tables; FlexJobs, a job site for flexible work, has been remote since its founding in 2007, along with Remote.co, which Sutton started in 2015 as a resource for companies incorporating remote work into their business models.

A lot of team-building can be accomplished virtually, she says. FlexJobs has Trivia nights and casual conversation on the chat platform Yammer; during onboarding, she says, employers are asked to name their favorite candies, so the company can send customized care packages at Halloween. The main thing is, you have to be deliberate about creating the informal connections that allow culture to flourish. ”There’s magic around the water cooler,” she says. “But as a remote company you can’t just assume you’re going to have that.”

One of her top tips for maintaining culture in remote environments: don’t over-rely on video. ”Having been with a remote company for over 13 years, I’ve actually done more video calls in the last 6 months than I had in the prior 13 years—by far,” she says. “I think there’s this very understandable urge to translate being in person into the closest possible thing, but video can be difficult. It’s not necessarily the best way to connect. Sometimes being on the phone and really listening to the words is less distracting and it’s also less pressure.”

Show the love

One of the stated values of C Space, a branding agency that’s part of the Omnicom Group, is “show the love.” It hasn’t always led to positive outcomes. In a culture audit the firm undertook a few years ago, it found that “show the love,” which was meant to be about kindness, discouraged people from delivering honest, critical feedback.

It was a journey to get “show the love” and other key values to generate the intended behaviors. But as C Space chief people and operating officer Phil Burgess explains, the deep work paid off. And then the pandemic hit, threatening to undo the progress the company had made in developing the culture it wanted.

C Space has been managing its culture through the crisis by falling back on the values its employees are already familiar with. Only now, “show the love” includes the message of looking after yourself and your wellbeing. With so many vacations canceled by the pandemic, “it’s been challenging to get people to take their paid time off,” Burgess said, calling it a major risk for burnout.

“People are exhausted,” he said. “We just try to talk about it a lot [and] we try to catch people doing things right.” Shoutouts offered on the company’s online chat platform might include appreciations for people who took a week off to relax and recharge. And the company introduced half-day Fridays for all staff, closing up shop at noon.

Good culture management never stops

Leaders of well-functioning global, virtual teams “spend almost as much time setting up the team’s structure and creating its culture as they do on the work itself,” said Jackie Bischof, Quartz’s deputy membership editor and the author of Quartz’s new field guide to borderless teams.

“Global virtual teams are strong because of the ways they embrace differences and perspectives,” she said. “But all of this needs to be really managed,” from the trust that needs to be established at the outset to sense of purpose that needs to be revisited again and again.

The norms of an office can help flatten differences, Bischof noted.  In the absence of a physical gathering space, it’s important to understand what each member of the team needs and expects, and also what obstacles they might be handling. “If you don’t talk to your employees about literally where they’re coming from in a remote work environment,” she said, “it can set up a difficult dynamic before you’ve even started working together.”

Bonus tip: Making fun feel less forced

One of the audience questions we fielded was about how to make culture-building activities, if they can’t happen organically in a remote environment, at least not feel so forced.

Quartz at Work senior reporter Lila MacLellan shared some advice based on her experience of organizing a remote team activity we tested out at Quartz a few months ago: a session in a virtual escape room.

“One thing that was helpful was that we discussed upfront how awkward we felt about doing this, and our fear that it would feel cheesy,” MacLellan said. But “the CEO of the [escape room] company told us that this would go away and we would get into it, and he was totally right.”

In other words, she said, it’s easy to get past the feeling of forced fun ” if you’re doing something that either challenges people or gets them engaged, in a real way.”

Further reading from Quartz at Work: What my team learned in a virtual escape room

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.