April 1, 2019

4 Ways to Build a Positive Work Culture With Your Virtual Team

Your work culture helps to shape everything about your business.

It dictates the experience of your customers and the attitudes and beliefs of your team members. It can be a huge factor in the overall success or failure of your business.

When your company is remote-based, it can present extra challenges when it comes to building and maintaining the work culture that you’d like. A virtual team doesn’t have the same opportunities for quick chats or informal banter as those who are co-located. You have to be quite intentional about creating the culture you want. So, what can you do to build a positive work culture?

What is work culture?

When you consider work culture, many ideas probably come up. In fact, culture means different things to each different team. For the purposes of this article, let’s look at culture as how your team works together as a cohesive unit, and the image you present to the world.

“Culture” has become a sort of buzzword among workplaces in recent years. You just have to look at popular Silicon Valley companies to see this played out. Team culture has become synonymous with things like catered lunches and break room foosball. On the darker side, it can also lead to homogenous thinking and expectations of having “no life.”

The thing is that culture is much more than break rooms and team outings, those things tend to be nice distractions, or supporting tools in the overall culture. Remote teams can often struggle with this concept because you can’t do most of those things anyway! Culture is about how we work, how we communicate with customers and each other, and how we incorporate company values into what we do.

work culture

Virtual teams potentially have to work harder than those who are co-located to create a cohesive team culture. While you can also avoid some of the more toxic examples of co-located workplace culture, you need to work hard to ensure people work as a team, rather than individual units.

The importance of a positive workplace culture has been repeatedly highlighted in research. Culture is linked to employee productivity, mindset, engagement and empowerment.

Here are some strategies for building a positive remote culture, and promoting teamwork online:

  1. Culture begins with leadership
  2. Consider what makes a good virtual environment
  3. Value communication
  4. Value openness and accountability
work culture

1. Culture begins with leadership

Have you ever thought about your management style? The way you lead has the biggest impact on your overall workplace culture. In a remote environment, you’re relying on people to take ownership and have a certain level of independence - it’s not like you can look over their shoulder!

In an article for Forbes, Jim Mullaney, CEO & Founder, Edoc Service, Inc. talks about how the old “command and control” style of leadership just isn’t conducive with a remote team environment:

work culture

“That whole ‘I’ve got to see you working or I won’t get my money’s worth’ attitude doesn’t work,” says Jim. Instead, he recruits self-managing professionals who are aligned and engaged with the company’s purpose. He considers himself a steward, not an owner. To him, that means taking care of the resources that he’s been given, and making sure that they serve the staff and the clients for overall success. “For the virtual model to work, that’s the mindset you have to have,” says Jim.

For this to work well, it helps to know where you want to be first. If you haven’t already, defining the vision and values of your business can be a great starting point. You can then hire people who meet those values.

work culture

2. Consider what makes a good virtual environment

The environment you build is a big contributor to overall culture. In fact, you could say that environment is the embodiment of your culture at work. The way you create trust between team members and positive relationships is a big influence on environment.

Again, you can lead from the front when it comes to creating the right environment and building trust. On the whole, people do tend to want to do good work - those who are given trust often reward you by reciprocating and doing what it takes to earn that trust too.

Jim Mullaney talks about another aspect of the remote team environment - it must be set up so that a win for one is a win for all:

Instead of a team environment, many companies have a sales environment. “Salespeople are often competing with one another, and they’re not interested in other members winning. It’s all about themselves,” says Jim. “In a team environment, a win for the team means that everyone has to win, and everyone wants to help one another win.”

Part of the environment can be the rituals or traditions that your team observes. When you think about it, groups of people who are close often have certain traditions they follow which helps to bring them close together. You can create these rituals in a remote environment as well. For example, perhaps you celebrate as a team somehow when sales milestones are met, or even have “mini” celebrations for each achievement made.

work culture

3. Value communication

Communication - what we say and how we transmit the message - can have a massive impact on whether or not your work culture is positive. Is feedback encouraged? When and how is it delivered? What channels do team members have available for communicating with one another?

The bottom line is that you need to set up effective communication channels and processes, and use them. There can be a tendency in a remote environment for owners or managers to go very hands-off, especially when you have team members who are up-to-speed. This can be a problem when the only time you’re checking in is to deliver negative feedback, or to hand off some kind of unpleasant task. You could become like the old “seagull manager,” the one who swoops in, dumps a pile of poop, then wings its way off again.

work culture

The danger of this is that people start to feel that they’re not really valued. A positive team culture hinges on how people feel valued, and value their work in return. People need to be acknowledged when they’ve done something great, as well as when they need to improve.

Among team members, that communication is vital to build a sense of belonging and teamwork. There are a number of potential ways to accomplish this remotely. For example, some businesses set up an active “water cooler” channel in Slack. You can get the ball rolling by asking “icebreaker” type questions that get team members talking about themselves. Another example is to have weekly team meetings. Encourage ideas, get feedback, and help your team members to connect with one another and with you, as their leader.

work culture

4. Value openness and accountability

Following right along from how you communicate is how much you value openness and accountability among your team. Effective virtual teams have members who understand exactly where their individual work fits into the scheme of company goals and strategy. Understanding what dependencies exist on their work and how it is connected with everyone else’s helps to create a sense of ownership and accountability.

An open environment, encouraging of honesty and respectfully offering opinions also adds to a positive culture. Allowing everyone to have a voice helps to add to their feeling of being valued and belonging, while potentially giving you different viewpoints to explore. You could even encourage discussions about how you work as a team, reinforcing the idea that you value a positive work culture.

Final Thoughts

There are aspects to building a positive work culture that are definitely much more challenging as a remote team. Physical distance can create emotional distance as well, which is something you need to put strategies in place to avoid.

Successful remote teams tend to have a strong leader who demonstrates exactly what they expect to see in the company. You want teamwork? You display teamwork yourself and provide the appropriate channels and policies to facilitate it.

A positive work culture flows through to everything you do in your business, including your overall success. Remember, a culture will develop anyway in every business, so being intentional from the start is one of the best ways to move forward.


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