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Most traditional perks and team building activities don't work the same with remote teams. You can still give your employees perks like a free lunch with delivery services, but they probably won't interact with their co-workers during mealtime, eliminating any culture building.
As a serial software entrepreneur, I've managed remote teams for a decade, and have learned a few things about creating a distinct and cohesive company culture along the way. Whether you're only collaborating remotely because of Covid-19, or your company was always distributed, these tips can bring any remote team closer together.
Have a shared mission
The former DocuSign CEO Keith Krach once told me that every great leader should "have a noble mission," uniting employees under a common shared cause. Remote employees cannot be managed as closely as those in a physical office. Beyond having clear objectives and metrics to evaluate performance, a compelling mission can inspire remote employees to stay motivated even when no one is watching.
Hire for specific values and character traits
When hiring remote employees or contractors, self-discipline, work ethic, and self-motivation are especially critical. You can also create a distinct company culture by hiring for specific traits that fit your business's values and operating style. For example, at my company Endpass, we look for people who are relentlessly resourceful, creative problem-solvers with a "hacker mindset" and compassionate team players who will go the extra mile to help out their colleagues.
Facilitate ongoing learning and knowledge exchange
I personally make it a point to share interesting resources with my team via Slack, and I encourage everyone to do the same. We also have employee-led "learning sessions" where they present on topics they're passionate about, such as machine learning, neural networks, design best practices, and persuasion. This is a great way to expand your team's knowledge, but it also brings everyone closer.
Give regular opportunities for feedback and self-reflection
You can encourage your team to reflect on a weekly basis in a Google document or form. Right now, my team just keeps a running journal of their weekly wins, bottlenecks, questions, and ideas in individual Google documents.
Feedback and self-reflection are especially important for remote teams, since not everyone is proactive or confident enough to send a direct message or schedule a one-on-one meeting with a manager to get the help they need. A weekly journal is also a great tool for quarterly performance reviews, since both the employees and their managers can scroll through the document to see accomplishments and challenges from the quarter.
Weekly feedback also lets more introverted employees who often don't speak up in meetings share their thoughts and ask questions with managers. Some of our quietest developers are the most vocal in their weekly feedback. Their insights have greatly improved our software and how our product team works together.
Publicly acknowledge wins
You should encourage everyone to share wins on Slack or whatever messaging platform your company uses. These can be personal wins, but especially team wins. This is something managers should be doing, but hopefully also individual contributors.
We collect the best wins every month and share them in our general company meeting, and upload the slides to our private intranet to immortalize them like a company "Hall of Fame." This is a great way to recognize people's contributions, as well as the company's growth over time.
Similarly, our employees nominate an "Employee of the Month," on the basis of their personal wins and contributions to their colleagues. Anyone other than the founders can be nominated. The winner is publicly recognized at our monthly meeting and receives a special prize.
Create a a "virtual water cooler"
My team is somewhat addicted to Slack, and I am too. Beyond having different channels for various departments, we have ones like #random and #ideas where people can brainstorm and share fun photos. For us, #random is like a digital water cooler where people share jokes, interesting apps, and photos of their pets, family, workspaces, and personal projects.
We also have some custom emoji, as well as emoji that are associated with certain circumstances or people. For example, one developer who's known for catching and fixing bugs has a special crab emoji that he regularly uses as his status, as well as a reaction to certain posts in our product channel. I use specific emoji to demonstrate my excitement, encouragement, interest, or even disappointment, as do other managers.
Custom emoji can be a cool way for employees to express themselves, but just make sure they're not spending more time on it than working. Likewise, have a policy in place to make sure that all custom emoji are workplace appropriate.