Remote work culture: Lessons from top companies


Are you looking to understand — and improve — your remote work culture? 

While useful, digital tools are not stand-ins for remote work culture. Many remote work employers start with tools and leave culture for last, mistaking Slack, Zoom, and Calendly as their company "culture." 


Factors such as different employee cultural backgrounds, nationalities, life experiences, and more can make constructing and supporting a digital-first team difficult. This is where the importance of your remote culture comes in: a thriving company culture is what allows remote work companies to develop a well-oiled team that runs on its own.  


Top Culture Tips from Leading Remote Work Companies 


These five remote companies offer different products and services, but each maintains a resilient workplace culture through shared tools and values. 


These include using digital tools that foster strong communication between coworkers, a robust foundation in remote cultural education, and a sense that putting employees first is the key to organizational success. 


Maintaining these values takes time and effort, but ultimately, it falls to employers to enforce cultural practices. Many of the following companies are led by CEOs or project leads who constantly think about improving the cultural foundation of their remote workplace. 


This is something all remote work employers should be doing — and it is the first step toward building a corporate culture that lasts. 


  1. Basecamp


For some companies, the product is in the name: Basecamp is a remote work leader that provides — you guessed it — a digital "basecamp" for digital company files, memos, project boards, and more. It also owns a premium inbox service provider called Hey.


Basecamp and its founder recently received backlash around its new policies for remote work notably against political discussions, resulting in a third of its employees quitting the company. But it’s difficult to understate the influence of its company culture when it comes to shaping how companies design their remote working structure. 


Its CEO, Jason Fried, authored a how-to guide with key tips and tools for employers who want to excel at it. Some of those guidelines include:


  • Consider the concept of "disagreeing and committing." This is a concept Basecamp borrowed from the delivery giant Amazon: instead of forcing workers to come to a consensus on every project, allow them to respectfully decline to come to a consensus on projects and work to provide the best results possible for the company. 


The goal here is to short-circuit endless video call meetings that devolve into wasted time with no actionable items to show for it. This also opens the door for lower-ladder employees to confidently disagree with supervisors without being steamrolled or ignored.  


Of course, with the aftermath of the Basecamp controversy, this tip should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, employees may feel as if their opinions are being continually brushed aside, in favor of others. Sometimes, it pays to listen and understand the root cause of these disagreements. 


  • Protect the time of others. As an employer, you are the steward of time within your own organization. Your job is to allow employees to work a standard eight-hour day and clock out when the day is done. This means making sacrifices, including removing mandatory meetings, encouraging employee vacations, and conducting check-ins on workers who are staying online late. 


While you might think this will hinder your organizational productivity, the opposite is true. Employees who feel their time is respected are more motivated to work hard during their work hours. 


  • Set your own "library rules." Library rules may sound old school: keep your voice to a minimum, give others space in which to work and study, and do not cause unnecessary disturbances. While the concept may seem trite, creating your own list of "library rules" as a company can remove distractions and provide a work environment that is far more productive. 


Here are some sample library rules: ban work calls over lunch hours and create "messaging windows" for constant Slack abusers who interrupt their colleagues too frequently. 

  • Show employee salaries. This tactic might scare remote work employers, but it shouldn't. Research shows employees value open, honest communication about employee salaries and benefits, and they value employers who provide it.


You could take things a step further: some remote work employers provide a base salary by job title and reward the top-performing members of each title with raises. This way, salaries are earned through peak performance, instead of negotiated and taken by the best office-talkers. Employees will respect a fair system: just be sure to give it ample thought before implementing a new pay policy


  • Let go of resumes. Remote work companies do not need to hire the same as brick-and-mortar employers. Instead of asking for resumes, consider paying potential workers to conduct a project. This is the only way employers will know if an employee is the right fit for them, so it is worth their time to go through this process instead of lengthy interviews. 


More on this in a moment. For now — plant the "resume-torching" seed in your mind and get comfortable with it. 


  • Be more deliberate about your benefits program. Specifically, do not center your benefits around activities that keep people working or encourage them to work late. 


You might think an after-hours e-pizza party is a great way to show you care about a high-achieving employee. Or maybe you want to send an extra stipend to a worker who clocked in additional hours this week. 


These may sound like harmless benefits, but they promote behaviors that keep people in the office. In the long-term, employees will view your efforts to keep them working as suspicious and unfair. Do not do it!


  1. Miro 


Anna Boyarkina, Head of Product at Miro — a remote work leader specializing in online collaborative whiteboard software — thinks a lot about what makes a digital organization thrive culturally. Here are five actionable guidelines she wants all remote work employers to follow:  


  • Start with people, then move to the process, and finally, consider your tools. This might sound strange from the Head of Product at a tools-and-service company. But there is merit to putting people first on your cultural totem pole: having great tools or a great process means nothing if the people in your remote work company do not know how to work together.


Instead of penning a new employee handbook or updated process guide, consider how your individual employees work best and who they work best with to develop teams that provide results. 


  • Use culture as a means of control. The guiding principle here is important: as employees come and go, culture is the tool that keeps a company moving toward its "North Star." 


When critical players on a team leave, it is a strong culture, not tools, digital assets, or supervisors, which holds things together. Investing in your culture is a direct way to ensure processes do not flounder when key employees move onto new careers.


  • Develop a method for remotely building teams. Having a well thought out method for creating and building teams will help your company stay on track even if its members are in disparate locations. Initiate this process each time a new team is built and guide them through the workflow until they have reached the end of a project. 


  • Engage and use stories. Culture is nothing if not a collection of shared stories. When onboarding new members to your team, allow those employees to tell stories about themselves — that way, they will be integrated more quickly into the team and will not be seen by others as major competitors or threats.


  • Consider implementing personality tools that help employees understand each other. The MBTI, Enneagram, and other personality tests are great tools for decoding employee personalities. By having workers complete these and sharing them on an open-source platform for everyone to see, you can provide coworkers with valuable in-roads that help them work with one another. 


  1. Automattic (WordPress Founders)


Automattic has been using a distributed workforce for over fifteen years, so they know a thing or two about positive remote work culture. Specifically, their expertise in remote hiring comes from a detail-oriented process you may want to model. 


The Automattic Hiring Process (Condensed)


Step 1: CEO Matt Mullenweg reviews every resume. Having a CEO or top member of the company review each candidate ensures a level playing field and connects company heads to their workforce. 


Step 2: "Interviews" begin with written exchanges through Zoom or other mediums. Instead of video conferences or phone calls, Automattic prefers written communication as a means for choosing great candidates. Why? Remote work lives and dies on excellent written communication — without it, a remote work company cannot thrive. 


Step 3: A paid test project is requested, and the employee performs it. Mullenweg believes this is the only true way to know if an employee is worth hiring — resumes are not nearly as important as a test of skills. Paying the potential hire is just good practice. You do not want non-hires talking badly in the marketplace about how your company asked them for free work. 


Step 4: The CEO steps in for a final review and conversation. Again, having the company head connected to their employees in a remote-work organization is vital. 


Taken together, these hiring practices present a new way to seek out, test, and hire new workers. Automattic certainly likes it — after all, their employee retention rates are frequently as high as 86 percent. 


  1. GitLab


Collaborative project platform GitLab has experimented with both remote work and a hybrid office-remote workstyle — and has decided remote work is the best way to go. Their attention to detail when it comes to documentation is their key contribution to remote work culture.


How does it work? By documenting every process and project through an expansive, open-source handbook, GitLab allows employees to learn about any aspect of its culture — how things get "done" — freely and openly. 


This means everything gets captured. Gone are the days of employees asking each other about how the work gets done. Gone, too, are the time-consuming conversations about vacation policies, scheduling concerns, benefits programs, and more. Everything is in the handbook, which opens other communication channels to more productive conversations that fuel positive cultural exchanges. 


  1. Buffer


What is a remote work organization without its tools? Analytics, engagement, and publishing program Buffer masterfully uses a suite of digital tools to ensure their remote work culture remains vibrant. These tools include:


  • Zoom: A must-have tool for synchronous virtual communication.
  • Slack: A messaging platform users can use to avoid email and focus on instant communication and quick results. 
  • Trello: A board-style program that lets users manage tasks and organize projects while holding each other transparently accountable. 
  • Calendly: An intuitive tool that lets users schedule meetings without unnecessary email chains. 
  • Dropbox: A data-storage device workers use to share large files quickly and easily across platforms and servers. 

Remote Work Companies Can't Afford to Skip Out on Culture 

If you find yourself second-guessing what your company culture is and what it is not, ask yourself: is this aspect of "culture" attached to the set of tools you use? 


If so — it can't be your culture. Instead, these tools are meant to facilitate the types of exchanges that remote work culture lives, thrives, soars, and dies on. Buffer understands that, and that is why their remote work culture is a paragon example for other companies. 


If these top remote work players are an example of anything, it is that remote companies can and must lead the way when it comes to modern work culture. As a remote employer or head of remote, it is important that you lead the way in your own organization when it comes to developing a vibrant, thriving culture that employees love and cherish. 


The benefits of doing so are numerous. Conversely, the consequences can be enormous. By failing to engage with cultural initiatives, remote employers are leaving valuable money on the table in the form of lower employee retention, a less motivated workforce, sagging profits, and unhappy employees.


Take it from these rock-star remote companies: developing a vibrant remote work culture will put your business ahead of the pack now and in the many years to come.  

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