5 Tips for Building Your Startup Culture In A Remote World

January 19, 2021

When you say the word “startup,” you often think of a small team, working in a small space, grinding late into the night, surviving on caffeine and takeout.

As a founder, how do you maintain collaborative processes, ensure productivity, and preserve your organizational culture when a geographically dispersed team is established by choice or when moved to by current conditions?

While work-from-home (WFH), remote-first, and fully distributed teams were not a new concept in the tech sector, researcher and author Stephen Phillips outlined in a Sage Journal publication how the 2020 pandemic accelerated acceptance of remote work across sectors and how that trend is expected to continue in the future. In 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that while over 30% had the opportunity to work remotely in 2019, less than 6% did so on an ongoing basis.

What Culture Isn’t

Before we can understand how to build a remote culture, we must understand what organizational culture entails. We have all heard of the trendy tech companies that offer really cool perks like free food, napping pods, an in-house gym, and bring your pet to work policies. But let’s not confuse perks with real workplace culture. Sure, unlimited organic juices and having puppies around is great, but does it encourage teamwork, provide the satisfaction of achievement, or make you want to go above and beyond in the middle of a sprint?

What Culture Is

Perks are great and can help you recruit talented staff, but culture is really about a shared purpose and commitment to values. Great Place To Work conducted research and shard that great workplaces focused on six areas when building a collaborative culture:

  1. Community

    • Celebrating special events
    • Profit-sharing
    • Treating layoffs as a last resort
    • Connecting as humans beyond work roles
  2. Fairness

    Humans place a high value on fairness. Companies where employees feel like everyone is getting a fair opportunity consistently report more positive employee experiences. Surprisingly, fair pay isn’t the factor that most impacts employees’ overall workplace satisfaction and intent to stay. When employees are proud of their work, they are 20 times more likely to say it’s a great workplace.

  3. Trustworthy Management

    Trustworthy, credible, and personable managers have a significant positive impact on:

    • Employee retention
    • Overall workplace satisfaction
    • Employees’ willingness to recommend their company
    • Motivation to give extra effort at work
  4. Innovation

    Employees at innovative companies are four times more likely to say they’re proud to tell others they work there, nine times more likely to think their company is a great place to work, and four times more likely to give extra to get the job done.

  5. Trust

    We all know this: show people that you consider them trustworthy, and they'll generally prove you right.

  6. Caring

    Show real empathy for your team.

Intentional Corporate Culture

Onboarding

TechCrunch outlines how important it is to build a meaningful onboarding experience for new hires, making sure that processes are consistent and concrete and that new hires are paired with a mentor or “buddy'' to guide them, especially for their first few months with the organization.

Over Communicate

When in-person informal office conversations are unavailable, founders need to foster intentional connection. Digital tools like Slack, Hangouts Chat, or Microsoft Teams encourage regular engagement among team members. Many organizations have increased team bonding by using these tools to help employees communicate socially and create company-wide social events. Additionally, after months of videoconferencing fatigue and thousands of emails, we should not forget how powerful a quick synchronous phone can when trying to resolve an issue.

Use Meetings Effectively

While electronic communication tools are useful, regular meetings are critical to team engagement, help keep everyone focused, and provide them the opportunity to see how their work contributes to the final product. These should include a mix of daily virtual ‘stand up’ meetings and more formal weekly project reviews.

A Forbes YEC Council post suggests that founders should “encourage team members to check-in and share the highs and lows of the week.

Focus on Systems

What worked then in-person needs to be updated for remote environments. Small startup organizations need to focus on increasing project visibility and building systems to formalize the operational structure and workflows. Regular project status updates can ensure that all are up to date and work towards the same strategic goals.

Be Transparent

Founders must be transparent with their team, especially when they are distributed and even if it is not great news. It can be hard to acknowledge challenges, and leaders may believe in the adage of “no news is good news,” but often, people become the most nervous when they feel that they do not know what is going on. Remote working situations can heighten feelings of isolation, and filling information vacuums can build trust, alleviate their imagining worst-case scenarios, and make employees feel safe.

Whether your startup remote-first or moving online, it is critical to be intentional when focusing on the behaviors that align with your organizational culture and what is valued by your team. Fostering your culture in a distributed environment involves: getting off on the right foot and onboarding staff members appropriately, communicating often and clearly, using meetings effectively to share progress, ensuring that you have delineated workflows and systems in place to keep projects moving forward, and above all, being transparent to build safety and trust for your team.