The Culture Handbook For Making Your Remote Team Fun

As a CEO running a remote startup of just a few people, I always viewed culture as something only bigger companies dealt with.

You know, like Google.

Afterall we didn’t have an HR department. We didn’t have a large budget to buy games, or even an office to put them in. We just each had personalities and that’s what defined our interactions.

Little did I know, however, how much culture affects each and every one of us, from the top to the bottom of our organization, whether it has 10 people, or 10,000. It’s the binding force that unites us, and it’s never too soon to get started thinking about it.

Afterall, in a 200-person survey done by Edureka, they found that when asked what was the most important factor if you were looking for a new job today, 25% of people said culture.

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Which is, kind of a lot, especially considering that one of the options was pay and benefits.

Luckily, if you’ve stumbled onto this article, then your heads in the right place. So kudos!

Let’s begin.

Company Culture & How To Make Your Team Fun: Cliffs Notes

Culture is important because:

What is culture, and what does it do?

  • Culture is your company’s personality
  • It includes your company’s mission and vision, work atmosphere, and how much hierarchy there is in your company
  • It influences every single interaction you have with your employees (or your employees have with each other)
  • It plays a huge part in motivating your employees to go the distance.

Culture is NOT:

  • A ping pong table
  • A napping pod
  • A chill-out area complete with Playstation

To define your company culture:

  • Think about the principles and values you’d like to center your culture on
  • Think about how these should influence the way your employees work
  • Define your company’s mission

Hiring employees who have good culture is important because:

It’s a lot harder to get rid of someone who isn’t a good culture fit later on.

An example of employees living and breathing their company’s culture:

Cold Stone employees singing after receiving a tip. (This is enforced and standardized across all Cold Stone stores).

To make sure your employees’ hearts are really in it, build company culture:

  • Assign new hires a buddy to help immerse them into the culture
  • Company challenges, book clubs, and trivia competitions
  • Get to know each other segments, and lunches together
  • Yearly team retreats (if your budget permits)

You should start working on your culture when:

You hit 10 employees. With a sizeable enough team, you have an external force which helps keep everyone in line.

Who is responsible for your team’s culture?

Not the CEO, who has too many things on their plate – hire a part-timer and make this part of their job scope.

Examples of businesses with great company culture:

  • Moz, which has an About Us page that showcases all their employees
  • Zappos, which makes it mandatory for all employees (even lawyers and accountants) to undergo the same 4-week training program that the call center reps do

Tools for measuring team satisfaction:

Your action list to building an awesome company culture:

  • Determine your company values and mission
  • Put someone in charge of rallying your team and organizing bonding activities
  • Send out surveys approximately every six months to measure your progress
  • Use the feedback you’ve gained to fine-tune your initiatives

If you’re hiring, also do the following:

  • Use your company’s values and mission to evaluate if candidates are a good fit
  • Assign a buddy to each new hire that joins your company

Why Culture Is So Dang Important

Culture isn’t just one of those nice-to-haves. It’s a must-have.

Consider this:

Companies with strong employer brands reduce their cost per hire by as much as 50%. You know how you really want to build a team of A-players, but you can’t afford to entice them with attractive salaries? This is your work-around!

Then there’s also the fact that happy employees are 12% more productive. This one pretty much speaks for itself.

Last but not least, let’s look at this from a high-level perspective:

Studies show that over a period of seven years, companies with more engaged workers grew revenue 2.5x as much as companies with less engaged workers.

Think about it… in seven years down the road, your company could be worth $100,000. OR it could be worth $250,000. It’s up to you!

Productivity and all that jazz aside, culture is also important… simply because you want to be working at a place that you love.

I mean, you probably quit your full-time job because:

A) You were sick and tired of working at a company which was cold and callous, and feeling like you were a cog in a machine

B) You couldn’t stand the office politics and the endless b*tching

C) You didn’t believe in your company’s values and goals

Now that you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re basically your own boss, you don’t have to deal with all of that anymore. HUGE sigh of relief, am I right?

But here’s the thing:

As your company grows, you gotta keep an eye on it, and make sure it doesn’t morph into that place that you once hated to work at.

After all, you want your new hires (even those who work remotely!) to be excited to be a part of your company…

…you don’t want them to have to drag themselves to work everyday (like how you once did).

Got it? Great!

Let’s move on to defining what culture is.

What Culture Is And What Culture Isn’t

Here’s a pretty depressing statistic:

Only 12% of executives believe their companies are driving the “right culture”.

But what does “culture” or the “right culture” even mean?

Simply put, a company’s culture refers to the personality of the company.

This includes stuff like your company’s mission and vision, your work atmosphere, and how much hierarchy there is in your company.

That’s not all… your company culture also influences every single interaction you have with your employees (or your employees have with each other).

For example:

Let’s say your employee is supposed to submit an important report by the end of the day. Halfway while working on this report, they realize they’re way out of their depth, and there’s no way they’ll be able to hand in something decent by the deadline.

Under these circumstances, does your employee…

  • Explain things to their manager, and ask for more time
  • Seek their colleagues’ help, or…
  • Lock themselves in the toilet and have a panic attack?

It all boils down to company culture!

If you have a supportive culture where colleagues help each other out, and employees aren’t afraid to approach their managers, then your team will feel empowered to ask for help instead of floundering in a corner.

On top of that, your company’s culture also plays a huge part in motivating your employees to go the distance.

This all boils down to having a centralized vision and purpose. Of course your company exists to earn profits, but what’s the backstory?

Do you want to disrupt a stagnant industry and bring innovation to consumers?

Do you want to serve a group of customers which are less well-off, and have traditionally been neglected?

Or do you want to raise awareness about a cause that deserves championing?

When you figure out your why (and communicate it to your team), this makes everyone’s work a ton more meaningful.

Yes, your employees will still have to overcome certain challenges, and deal with the aspects of their jobs that they don’t particularly like… but now that they know there’s a larger goal the company is working towards, it makes everything more worthwhile.

Now, at this point, it should be fairly clear that your company culture is a sum of several things (including your values and beliefs). What this means is that culture can’t be equated to one specific item or practice.

I know, I know, those articles you see about company culture all talk about the same few things: ping pong tables, napping pods, flexible working arrangements, and all that jazz.

But come on – you’re a smart guy. On some level, you know that building culture isn’t as simple as some office games and calling it a day.

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If you have a chill-out corner in your office with a Playstation and a couple of beanbags, that’s not culture.

But if you have that corner, plus the understanding that employees have the autonomy to take a break any time, without their managers breathing down their necks… then we’re getting somewhere.

When & How To Officially Define The Culture

Now, when you start a business, you can either define its culture from the get-go, or let its culture evolve over time.

Many business owners do the latter. I mean, you’re busy enough trying to serve your existing customers and keep up with your lead generation efforts as it is…it’s tough to justify setting aside time for something that doesn’t directly affect your revenue.

But here’s what you need to consider:

Oftentimes, how you go about dealing with things becomes ingrained in the minds of your first few employees. This slowly morphs into some semblance of company culture, and it’s passed on to new hires who join your team. Slowly, these practices become an unspoken norm, and this eventually defines the style of your workplace.

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Basically, your employees take their cue from you, and whatever you say or do in the company will have an impact on them.

For example, let’s say you’re speaking to a customer on the phone, and you’re a teeny bit irritable with them because they’re so demanding. You put down the phone, swear under your breath, and go for a walk to clear your head.

Now, I’m not saying the rest of your team will immediately start being testy with their clients and cursing at them too… but this does demonstrates to them that under certain circumstances, this kind of behaviour is excusable.

6 months down the road, you might find that your competitor is getting tons of press because they’ve just won a “Best Customer Service” award from a prestigious publication… while you’re getting bad reviews on your Facebook page, which talk about how your support staff are impatient and impolite.

Here’s the tricky part: most business owners are pretty oblivious to the momentum that’s building up, until one day, it hits them like a ton of bricks.

They show up at work, and half their employees are rolling their eyes and displaying signs of impatience while handling enquiries on the phone, and the other half are sitting at their desks and complaining about their clients. Yikes!

To make sure this doesn’t happen with your business, be more proactive in defining your company culture.

Creating Your Company Culture (It’s Not Rocket Science!)

First, sit down and think about what you’d like to center your culture on. What principles do you want to build your foundation with? What are the values which you want your company (and your employees!) to embody?

Next, think about how these should influence the way your employees work.

To hammer home a “Do More With Less” principle, for example, you might put into place a policy that says that working overtime is not allowed. This means that your team will have to find ways to be productive, and use their time wisely – because they can’t rely on staying back late to get their work done.

Next up, your company’s mission.

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Now, this should say something about what you’re going to do for the community at large. Cheesy as it sounds, this really boils down to contributing to society (and hopefully leaving your mark on the world!)

To get your creative juices flowing, here are some examples from reputable brands we know and love:

Amazon – “To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.”

Alibaba – “To make it easy to do business anywhere.”

Google – “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

PayPal – “To build the Web’s most convenient, secure, cost-effective payment solution.”

Kickstarter – “To help bring creative projects to life.”

Coca-cola – “To refresh the world…To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…To create value and make a difference.”

To see how all of that can come together in the form of a presentation, check out HubSpot’s deck below. The founders at HubSpot term this “part manifesto, part employee handbook”.

[slideshare id=17415022&doc=culturecode-v7-130320111259-phpapp02]

Hiring Rockstars Who Fit In With Your Culture

Okay, now you’ve got a pretty solid base to work with. Your next step? Hiring team members who are a good fit with your company culture!

Now, if you’re still a small start-up and you’re working with freelancers and remote staff, you might be wondering if it’s really necessary for you to do this.

Well, if you’re hiring freelancers for once-off tasks (meaning that you’ll work with them for a week or two, and never hear from them again), then you probably don’t need to take culture into account when screening your potential candidates.

But if you’re hiring remote workers whom you want to develop a long-term relationship with, then yes! Don’t just ask your candidates about their technical knowledge and their skill sets – try and suss out if they’re a good fit for your company’s culture as well.

Remember, it’s a lot harder to get rid of someone who isn’t a good culture fit later on!

Making Sure Your Employees Live & Breathe Your Culture

Ever wonder why Cold Stone employees sing after receiving a tip?

It’s actually part of Cold Stone’s guidelines!

Love it or hate it, this is a company enforcing culture and standardization across all their stores.

Of course, you’ll need to make sure that what’s going on internally is a true reflection of how your company culture is portrayed to the outside world.

Let’s say you’re the CEO of Cold Stone. If your customer-facing team is made up of a bunch of chirpy, effervescent employees who love belting out tunes and engaging people, then that’s great.

But what happens if you’ve got a bunch of grumpy, antisocial employees who would much rather be working somewhere which doesn’t require as much interacting? They might plaster a smile on their faces for the duration of the song, but then they’ll go back to being glum and morose.

Firstly, this takes away from the customer’s experience, secondly, your employees might take to social media to vent about their jobs. (Assuming that their profiles are private, this might not escalate into a full-blown PR nightmare, but it’s bad for your brand nevertheless!)

So, how do you make sure your employees’ hearts are really into it?

For your existing employees, make sure you have a program or activities in place to build team culture. (We’ll get to that in a bit!)

On top of that, implement a system that allows you to gather feedback on employee satisfaction. If any of your team members are facing certain problems, or has beef with the way things are handled at the company, you’ll want to speak to them and get things ironed out ASAP. Again, I’ll talk about this in detail later on!

Okay, onto your new employees.

For these guys, make sure to reiterate your company values and culture, so that they understand how much these mean.

If you’re working with a team that’s 100% remote, it might take a while for your new hire to fully immerse themselves into your company culture.

After all, they aren’t hanging out with their colleagues on a day-to-day basis. This means they can’t actually look to other members of the team to see how they tackle certain situations, and take their cue from there.

In this case, I recommend assigning your new hire a buddy – this should be someone who’s been with the team for awhile now, and someone who embodies the company’s culture to a tee.

This buddy will be responsible for getting your new hire settled in, answering any questions that they may have, and checking in with them to make sure they’re doing well. Ideally, you should also get this buddy to share their personal story with your new hire… we’re talking about stuff like:

  • How the buddy came to join the company
  • What the buddy enjoys the most about working in this company
  • The most fulfilling part of the buddy’s job

This way, your new hire will get a warm welcome to your company, and they’ll also have a clear picture of how things work around there.

When Should You Start Working On Your Culture?

The way I see it, you should have a rough idea of what kind of company you want to build since Day One. You need to be able to picture your end goal so that you can stay motivated!

But when do you have to devote more time to building your culture and communicating your culture to your employees?

There’s no hard or fast rule, but I’d say that you should definitely work things out by the time you grow to 10 employees. (If you want to get started before that, though, all the more power to you!)

Why 10? Mostly it’s just a nice round number, however, it’s also a sizeable enough team that it helps to have some external force keeping everyone in line i.e culture.

Ways To Improve Culture (That Work Even For Remote Teams)

Imagine this: you’re at a friend’s house party, and the host introduces you to the room as the founder of XYZ company.

Immediately, people look impressed. Some guy comes up to you, and shakes your hand enthusiastically.

“Man, I’ve heard so many good things about XYZ company. My brother-in-law actually had a stint with you guys early last year – and he couldn’t stop talking about how it was an amazing place to work.”

Feels good, right?

To get there, you’ve got to play the part of the cheerleader, and rally your team. Here are a few ways in which you can do that!

#1: Company Challenges

Pick a challenge, and work on it as a team! These can be as easy or tough as you’d like, and they don’t have to be work-related at all.

Some ideas:

If you want to encourage people to step out of their comfort zone, have a challenge where everyone has to speak to one stranger (and pay them a compliment) everyday. Baristas and other service staff don’t count!

If your employees collectively say that they want to work on their fitness, challenge them to climb a flight of stairs everyday.

If your team wants to be kinder and more giving, challenge them to ring up their parents and chat (bonus: and say “I love you!” to them) every week.

For more ideas, check out this bumper list of wellness challenges.

#2: Book Clubs

Got a lot of employees who like to read? Come up with a book club where your team can hangout (virtually!) and chat about the books that they’re reading!

The most democratic way to do this is shortlist, say, three options, and get your team to vote on which they prefer. To get started, check out this list of popular book club suggestions.

If you’ve got the budget, you can even purchase ebooks for your team to read. You’ll just be buying a single copy and disseminating it across your team… so this won’t eat up too much money!

#3: Trivia Competitions

Trust me on this one…

When you’re trying to get a group of people bond, there are few things as powerful as geeky interests. We’re talking Harry Potter, Marvel superheroes, Lord Of The Rings… all that good stuff.

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If your team happens to share one of these interests, organize (online!) trivia competitions where your employees can have a friendly stand-off.

These websites will help you out: TriviusGame, TriviaPlaza, and Sporcle.

#4: Get To Know Each Other Segments

There are so many things you can do here.

One of my personal favorites is the Two Truths, One Lie game. Each person says three statements about themselves, and everyone else votes on which two statements are true, and which is the lie. It’s a great way of getting to know your team (and discovering the cool things that everyone has done!)

#5: Lunches Together

Have a dedicated time slot once a week where your team hops on a call. Then just hang out and have lunch together!

If your team consists of people from all over the globe, then timing this could be a little tricky. But as long as everyone’s in the call and having some sort of meal, you’re good to go!

For extra brownie points:

It’s pretty fascinating to see what and how people around the world eat, so why not get your employees to talk about their meals? This doesn’t have to be a formal show and tell by any means… keep it casual, and have fun with it!

If your team is up for it, you can even send each other care packages filled with local snacks. Yum!

#6: Team retreats

Once you grow to a certain size, and you can afford certain perks, I recommend having yearly team retreats. Here’s an example from Close.io.

The trick is to schedule these in advance and go during off-peak periods so you can minimize your costs. You don’t even need to fly to another country – you can do a road trip to a nearby state, get a cheap hotel or an Airbnb, and spend two days bonding with your team and strategizing.

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Getting away from your normal routine is a great way to decompress, and you can look forward and do some planning for the future.

Don’t make these all work and no play, though! You’ll still want to schedule time to just relax and goof off with your team. Chill by the beach, have a cookout, crack open a couple of beers… that’s how you do it!

For more information about planning your team retreat, check out this handy guide.

Alright, moving on!

Who Is Responsible For Your Team’s Culture

At this point, you’re probably realizing that building a team’s culture is a lot of work.

This begs the question…

Who’s the best guy or girl to get the job done?

At most small companies which don’t have HR departments, this tends to fall on the CEO.

But because the CEO has a never ending list of things to take care of (I’m sure plenty of you are nodding along as you read this!), culture often ends up slipping through the cracks.

To avoid this pitfall, get someone else to be responsible for your team’s culture instead!

You probably already have someone on your team who’s a great fit for this job. At NinjaOutreach, we asked one of our part-time designers to take on this role. She was young and fun, and had a knack for energizing the team, so it worked out perfectly.

If you don’t have a suitable candidate, then go ahead and hire for this position. Again, you can get a part-timer, so this doesn’t cost you too much.

One caveat: as the CEO and founder of your company, you’ll still need to lay the foundation where your culture is concerned. This means you’ll be the one who hashes out your company’s core values and mission, and all that stuff.

Once you’re crystal-clear on where you want your company to go, then get this person in and task them to build your company culture according to your specifications. You’re still the architect of your company’s culture… this person is simply helping you follow through!

Examples Of Culture At Other Companies

While you can only really know a company’s culture from working there, some companies do a great job of outwardly crafting a personality. Here are some examples:

Moz

Moz has a great About Us page where they feature all their employees (you can click in to learn more about each person, as well as what they do at Moz).

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This is super simple, yet so effective. You’re showing your team that you’re interested in them as a person (instead of treating them like robots which exists to help you hit your revenue targets). At the same time, you’re humanizing your company and brand, and providing fun behind-the-scenes content to your customers!

Zappos

Zappos – which is famous for its top-notch customer service – has an excellent employee training program that helps them build culture.

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Regardless of their job titles, all new hires at Zappos go through a mandatory 4-week training program. This is the exact same training that their call center reps undergo… it doesn’t matter if you’re an accountant or a lawyer; you’ll still have to get down and dirty, and spend two weeks on the phone taking calls from customers.

This allows all of Zappos’s staff to have a better understanding of their customers’ needs and motivation, and it build a fantastic culture where employees are extremely tuned-in to their customers.

That’s not all… after the end of your first week in training, Zappos will also offer to pay for the time you’ve spent in training, PLUS an extra $2,000 if you quit.

Crazy smart, huh? This effectively weeds out the folks who are just there to make a quick buck. The people who don’t take the money are the ones who are truly invested in their jobs, and are serious about building a career at Zappos.

Tools For Measuring Team Satisfaction

After all the work that you (or your employee who you’ve put in charge of culture!) have done, it’s time to measure how you stack up.

What I like to do is to use Typeform (which is a free tool!) to send out surveys to the team. Keep these short and sweet – get them to rate the management, the team, and the company culture.

We did this once every six months, you may choose to do it more or less often. Once you get your team’s feedback, evaluate how you’re doing and think about how you can keep the momentum going.

If you want to use a tool which is built specifically to measure office engagement and feedback, there’s also Officevibe and Polly.ai. These are more pricey, though, so you’ll have to check if your budget permits!

Your Action List For Building A Kickass Company Culture

Let’s do a quick recap!

To build an amazing company culture, you’ll have to...

  • Determine your company values and mission
  • Put someone in charge of rallying your team and organizing bonding activities
  • Send out surveys approximately every six months to measure your progress
  • Use the feedback you’ve gained to fine-tune your initiatives

If you’re currently hiring, be sure to also:

  • Use your company’s values and mission to evaluate if candidates are a good fit
  • Assign a buddy to each new hire that joins your company

Alrighty, you’re on your way to becoming the next Zappos! ;)

What are some of your favorite ways to build company culture?