With the number of permanent remote workers expected to double in 2021, many businesses are scrambling to make sure their workforces will stay productive. Productivity matters, of course, but Ryan Malone, founder and CEO of SmartBug Media, says that's not the most important issue. "It's the engagement piece that matters most," he says. "It's making sure that all those remote workers feel like they're an important part of a bigger entity and that what they are doing matters. Culture is the key to making that happen."

Fully remote since its launch in 2007, SmartBug Media is a digital marketing agency with more than 100 employees across more than 40 U.S. states and Canada. While technology provides the foundation for its business model, culture drives the heightened employee engagement levels that are key to the company's success.

Tribes, not org charts

SmartBug Media's culture replaces the function-based organizational structure of a traditional workplace (marketers with marketers, accountants with accountants, etc.) with a more human-oriented scheme. The first thing new employees do is spend 20 minutes on a get-to-know-you call with the executive team, but work is not discussed at all. "The goal really is just to get to know them as a person and create some connections," Malone explains.

The first call is done with the leadership team to make sure new employees understand that every person who works there is incredibly important to SmartBug Media. Similar calls follow with members of the new employee's direct team and other teams throughout the company.

"Our cultural model creates interpersonal connections with people, not by function, but by interests. These might be sports, music, parenting--any number of things," Malone says. "These small groups become your tribes--people you can lean on as you go through the onboarding process and as you continue your work."

Training via the buddy system

Technology training reflects the same kind of humanizing culture. Every new hire gets paired up with a "buddy" during training for the most important technology tools SmartBug Media uses. "Most of the people who come to work here are already comfortable with technology, so there's not much basic training required," Malone says. "It's more about finding ways to get the most out of the technology. A combination of case-based training, the buddy system, and the tribal support system has been a very successful formula."

When it comes to people-first culture, many businesses talk the talk, but SmartBug Media walks the walk. Employees are encouraged to shed the constraints of the traditional corporate environment and to embrace the human aspects (chatty children, barking dogs, whatever) of working from home with flexible scheduling. In fact, all employees are encouraged to schedule time in the middle of a workday every week for a non-work-related activity they love to do.

"From a recruiting perspective, just offering remote work is no longer enough," Malone says. "It's how you do remote, and how you diffuse a culture of fairness, diversity, and humanity throughout your organization."