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The Importance of (Virtual) Water Cooler Chat

The Importance of (Virtual) Water Cooler Chat

How to build a strong company culture with a remote team

It’s no secret that fostering great company culture is becoming increasingly important. Millennials, a significant portion of our workforce, are costing organizations up to $30 billion in turnover annually, however, this turnover rate halves for those working in a high-trust culture.

Companies, especially tech start-ups, are conscious of this and are investing more time and resources into creating amazing corporate cultures; but after working with distributed teams across many cultures and industries, I believe the key doesn’t lie solely in ping pong tables, catered team lunches, and an endless supply of the latest flavor of canned sparkling water. 

A quick coffee run or a brief hallway conversation aren’t lost minutes of productivity in the office - however small, these moments help strengthen company culture by fostering friendships, encouraging idea exchange, and breaking down silos. Take, for example, Hootsuite’s CEO, Ryan Holmes, who credited #randomcoffee encounters to a company-wide culture transformation. 

However, with 70% of the world regularly working remotely and distributed workforces on the rise, these coffee break opportunities are disappearing. This leaves us with a paradox: how can we build a company culture in a workforce that demands stronger bonds while managing teams in different locations?

Corporate culture is something that's incredibly important to us at SevenRooms. The solution that Bolton Remote was able to provide gave us the ability to maintain a high-touch relationship with our remote team."

- SevenRooms Customer Story

Earlier this month, I attended Startup Grind’s Europe Conference in London and was listening to a panel discussion on “How To Work Together as a Team While You Scale” featuring speakers from Asana and Intercom - two great companies that help break down barriers in the digital world for businesses to stay connected both internally and with their customers. The biggest takeaway for me was that having distributed and remote teams needn’t preclude you from having a cohesive company culture and office camaraderie - regardless of location.

After working with all types of startups and established organizations at Bolton Remote, I’ve identified three key factors that will help build and maintain a great team culture with remote and distributed teams.

How to unify a remote team: Three key steps


1. Start with the right people

No matter how many innovations we see in workplace technologies, this remains true: great people are the key to great companies. But in today’s competitive talent landscape, this is easier said than done.

One of the common challenges that I see with startups who have pressure to scale is they often end up compromising talent quality for quantity. While more hands on deck may fill an urgent need, it can come with consequences which ultimately makes building a great corporate culture infinitely more challenging. Throw in the remote work factor, and teams can quickly become disconnected and disengaged.

It is important to take as much care during the hiring process for remote team members as you would for in-house employees. Simple measures like conducting video interviews instead of phone interviews and asking ‘cultural fit’ (not just skill-related) questions go a long way. By taking the time to ensure you are hiring are the right people for your team, the process of fostering and strengthening company culture - no matter where your team is located -  will come more naturally.



(Ilana Brown, Seven Rooms)


2. Be deliberate with communication

Regardless of whether it’s a Friday wine-down or a company-wide announcement, building a high-trust culture is all about creating opportunities for connection through deliberate or incidental communication. Transparency is essential to company culture, and leaders need to enable this through the right processes and channels.

One of the best examples I’ve seen is Buffer, a SaaS company that employs a fully distributed team of close to 100 people in over 15 countries. The entire team uses a variety of channels including Slack, Discourse, and Zoom to encourage open communication and discussion, openly shares revenue, and processes and runs regular face-to-face retreats to strengthen team bonds.

Of course, not every distributed team can afford retreats but this doesn’t mean you need to compromise on face-to-face communication. Scheduling time to build relationships within your team is just as important as scheduling time to work. Creating deliberate moments of communication can be as simple as creating 10 minute daily chats where the entire team gathers on Zoom or Hangouts to just talk, as they would at morning tea or lunch, or building an extra 5-10 minutes into scheduled meetings to allow for unstructured conversations. Leaders and managers should also be accessible to their remote teams and seek regular video catchup sessions to build open communication pathways and ultimately work towards a high trust environment.


3. Build cohesion through a collective vision

If everyone is working towards a collective goal, they’ll be more inclined to hustle together to get the job done. Many organizations approach us saying they’ve tried working with a distributed team but that their workers always felt separate from the organization. Oftentimes the issue isn’t the concept of remote work or the distance separating individuals and teams across the globe; it’s the lack of clear company and individual goals.

OKRs, SMART goals, KPIs - no matter which way you choose to go about it, individual and team goals are a must. Building these goals creates a feedback loop. Setting and achieving goals reinforces your team members’ roles and contributions within the business. The more they feel they are contributing, the more connected they feel to the team and company.


Over to you

While technology can facilitate distance, it can also bring us closer together. Remote teams can build a thriving company culture - it just requires focusing on communication, creating opportunities for connection, and ultimately rethinking and redefining “company culture” for today’s digital age. Welcome to the new office water cooler. 


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