Guide #029: How to establish values and build culture within a remote/distributed team

Leaders should personalize company values for themselves and their teams, as well as create an environment where employees are able to mold and contribute to the culture.

Recognize that company culture stems from its mission and values

When undertaking culture building within an organization, center on your company’s mission, the impact you want to have in the world, and psychological factors that make your workplace a conducive environment for people to thrive in. For example, if your company is in the fintech space, then your values might be related to your mission and centered on democratization, equity, empathy, empowerment, and caring for other people. Alternatively, if your values are centered around “move fast and break things,” the resulting culture might be one that is more accustomed to experimentation, trying things out, and viewing "failure" as a learning opportunity. Build your company culture on values that support people and set them up for success.

Consider employee well-being and mental health when establishing company values

When building culture and codifying values, ensure that you're accounting for your team's well-being and mental health. This means different things to different companies, but some needs are universal, like the need for mental health support in the workplace, including in the company culture. There's a growing trend for more and more emphasis on well-being in the workplace, so it's important to note that it can't just be a benefit or a perk like offering a therapy provider. It's deeper than that. It's questions like, How do you foster psychological safety? Are you giving people the autonomy and flexibility to do their best work? How are you fostering training and mentorship to ensure there's equitable pathways for career advancement? These are all questions to be considered as you're shaping your company culture. The latest Surgeon General's Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being is an excellent resource to explore these dimensions further.

Personalize company values to make them applicable to you and your team

As a leader, you're expected to represent your company values and model them for your team. One way to do this is by personalizing those values and determining what they actually mean for you. Part of the process can involve digging into your leadership style and asking yourself what type of leader you want to be. For example, if "creativity is boundless" is a company value that you prioritize, this might translate into you pushing for more time to do innovation projects, or creating space for deep discovery so your team can do more blue sky, divergent thinking. To help align your team to the culture, have an open conversation with them, either as the team is first being created or when new people join. Discuss the company values, what they mean to each person, and how they’ll model these values in the day-to-day. By doing this, you’ll make company values more relevant to your team and create a shared definition of what they mean.

Use primers to align your team on the behaviors and mindsets that are most important for them to emulate

Primers are a set of resources intended to provide tactical examples of the way you want your team to show up. They also spark rich discussions about how you and your team want to work and build together. The goal of a primer is to align your team on the mindsets or behaviors, based on your company values and culture, that are most important to the product and business. To create a primer for your team, compile a set of videos, articles, podcasts, etc. that best illustrate those mindsets or behaviors. Make sure to include a diverse range of voices and mediums. You want the primer to be engaging, memorable, and easy to consume, so consider including interactive resources, a diverse representation of voices and authors, fun pop culture references, short excerpts from academic research papers, captivating podcast episodes, notable chapters in a book, etc.

Reward people who exemplify company values

Consider hosting Culture Awards where your team, or even your entire company, can vote for who best exemplifies a specific value. This is a great way to give everyone a tangible example of someone they can look up to and see exactly how values are being demonstrated. Another low-effort way to recognize your team is by hosting team awards with fun categories inspired by your company culture. For example, values can be represented by a toy, like a stuffed SpongeBob Squarepants to represent playfulness and a toy hammer for resourcefulness. For remote teams, consider mailing these toys around the world, from one person to another as different teammates are recognized.

Leverage communities and in-person interactions to build a sense of belonging

Employees on a remote or distributed team still yearn for a sense of connectedness. Communities at work are a great venue to highlight company values and shape company culture alongside like-minded individuals. One way to provide intentional social connection is by identifying "cultural ambassadors," or people who are amazing examples of your company values, and ask them to host in-person events in their local cities. Provide ambassadors with a stipend to organize meetups in the best way they see fit. Also, consider hosting a company-wide or team retreat or off-site at least twice a year. Off-sites are typically a few days of programming with the goal of driving alignment on goals, strategy, and values and building connections.

Establish, invest in, and maintain Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Beyond organizing around location, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) offer mini-communities within companies and help reinforce the importance of diversity and belonging in the workplace. Companies should offer and/or sponsor ERGs to host cultural celebrations like heritage months, speaker series, and virtual and in-person events like conferences. These activities are great for finding and building community and often provide psychologically safe spaces for marginalized communities who might feel more confident contributing to the company culture alongside others who look or think like them.

Reflect company values in the benefits offerings

For remote teams, consider perks that align with your values. Nowadays, it's not enough to just offer a basic set of benefits to your employees. People want to see that their company walks the walk and is willing to invest in their values through the benefits offered. For example, if work/life balance is a key component of your team culture, you can model that by offering a WeWork pass that gets employees out of the house more. If mental health is an important aspect to your culture, ensure that your offerings capture the spectrum of needs, from those who need clinical care to those who just need light support. If peak performance is crucial to your culture, provide work-from-home stipends to help employees create functional and comfortable office environments at home.

Provide feedback and performance reviews through the lens of company values

Create a template of a few open-ended questions to ask direct reports to reflect on the ways in which they have exemplified company values and how they might improve moving forward. Provide feedback to your direct reports from the lens of company values (i.e., "You are modeling this behavior really well," or "You need to improve on this behavior and it's important to the company because..."). This helps reinforce to everyone that great performance is more than just metrics; it's your ability to deliver amazing results while modeling your company culture.

Provide a way to give feedback on the culture itself

Company culture can't only be something that's delivered from the top down; there also needs to be a bottoms-up approach as well. To build a sense of ownership, crowdsource your culture so that anyone can contribute to it. This can be done through culture surveys and discussion forums for people to openly share what's working and what isn't. The surveys will have a wealth of feedback so it's important that leaders are open to listening and making changes. To ensure actionable next steps and accountability, translate the feedback into commitments that are shared with the entire company. Circle back within six months, or another appropriate timeframe, and take the same culture survey again to see what has changed or persisted.


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