How to Build a Conscious Culture Across a Remote Team
By Lona Alia
Conscious Culture is not just for the head office! The pandemic has been a game-changer in terms of remote work. 16 percent of companies are now fully-remote while 62 percent of employees now work remotely some of the time. Further, 85 percent of managers believe that remote work will become the new norm. For CEOs who have pledged to create Conscious Culture, remote workers need to be accounted for.
As someone whose raison d'être is to help remote workers and companies, I have spent many coffee breaks and nights wondering how to best build a Conscious Culture across my team and other remote teams. Here are three winning plays that I have discovered.
1. Prioritizing the health and well-being of remote workers
Conscious Culture companies put the health and well-being of their workers first. Happy and healthy workers are also productive workers.
Given that workers spend most of their time in front of their computers, desk ergonomics is the first place to start. A couch or coffee shop is ok for short periods but they punish your back and shoulders over longer periods. Encourage your remote team members to use a dedicated desk with an adjustable chair. This is the foundation for a healthy work posture. I have found that the best encouragement is to reimburse your team members for the cost of a good work desk and chair or to subsidize membership at a good co-working space.
An inclusive and transparent work culture
I have found that when you first start expanding your team to remote workers, it can be easy to forget about them when it comes to meetings and other activities; out of sight is out of mind. That’s why you need a deliberate policy of inclusion. “Conscious culture is the culture of inclusion”. Every worker should be treated as a valuable and unique part of your team. As much as is reasonable there should be no distinction between remote and in-office employees.
Improving inclusion should start with onboarding but should also extend to scheduling meetings, and informal hangouts. In an office, informal hangouts can be spontaneous and organic but remote workers, need some level of structure to ensure that they happen and work. I have found that a quick chat before meetings works as does online drinks, and birthdays. And if you can afford it, bringing all team members together in a third location for a special retreat or mini-conference is a great team builder. Our team recently went to Mexico and had a great time together in the warmer weather and were able to connect in person and over cocktails!
Transparency is also key. And this is where written communication shines: “Writing > Talking”. It may seem like a burden to write out goals, agendas, minutes, proposals, decisions, and office norms but when it is written down everyone can see it in their own time. This promotes clearer expectations and reduces misunderstandings and employee stress over uncertainty. It also has the side benefit of clarifying ideas in the mind of the author.
Thankfully, new apps make it easier than ever to write things down. Slack and similar apps preserve key dialogue and provide transparency across an organization and across time; new employees can quickly see the backstory of a key client or the common pitfalls of the company’s CRM system. It is a vast improvement on email where key information is siloed off in inboxes and is forgotten about. Most project management apps not only provide all details on projects but also allow team members to post comments and questions on particular tasks.
Transparency should also include regular feedback sessions with remote staff. In the office, it is easy for managers to check in on their staff at the water cooler or over coffee but for remote staff, managers need to carve out time. Regular feedback keeps communication lines open further reducing misunderstanding, uncertainty, and stress.
Lastly, remote workers should have equal opportunities for promotion. While a certain position may always have been in head office it may not need to be. Having a glass ceiling for remote workers will erode their long-term morale. Can your company afford to develop good remote talent only to watch them eventually walk away?
Physical and mental health
In most countries, companies have statutory obligations to help staff with physical and mental injuries that occur in the workplace. Further, in many countries like the US, employer-provided health insurance is standard. Given this, it would seem inequitable to not provide similar protection to remote workers who happen to live overseas. Would a New York office treat workers in Los Angeles differently in terms of health or mental illness? So why should overseas employees be treated differently?
In the past providing medical insurance for remote workers across several countries was an administrative nightmare. Is anyone in your office an expert on the Albanian or Argentinian health systems? Today, companies like SafetyWing provide an all-in-one platform to easily provide and administer health insurance for remote workers in over 175 countries.
Contingency plans for remote workers
The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted companies with best practices in contingency plans for remote workers. Very early on companies like Wix and Vistaprint paid for their Ukrainian employees to relocate to the country’s west or nearby countries. The 2001 terrorist attack highlighted the need for contingency plans more generally. The conflict in Ukraine is now doing the same for remote workers.
2. Make culture explicit
Too often I’ve seen culture and values hidden away in documents with little impact on everyday operations. At least in-office employees have the benefit of rubbing shoulders with executive management who should hopefully espouse the company’s culture. In any case, both in-office and remote employees benefit from making culture more explicit.
Write it down
Everyone writes down their mission and values, but how many companies write down the key tenets of their culture and what is expected of employees? There should also be clear guidelines on what employees should do or should expect when cultural norms are not adhered to or break down.
Culture also needs to be at the core of onboarding. At a minimum, it must be included in the standard onboarding deck or presentation, but to give it the necessary authority, it is best if the CEO or manager presents the key cultural tenets live. There is no space for misunderstanding when employees hear about the importance of a company’s culture from the top!
While good companies put culture front and center in their onboarding, fewer companies include it as part of their recruiting. This is an oversight! It is much easier to find employees who will commit to your culture when they are evaluated against it and self-select for it during the recruitment phase. The easiest way to do this is to adopt a “screening out” approach. That is, use questions to screen out candidates who are not a cultural fit.
You can also adopt the practice of a “Yes Champion”. That is, there must be someone on the recruitment panel that absolutely believes that a candidate is a good fit before they can be hired. The successful candidate must be near-perfect for your company, not near-decent.
3. Making work hours count with flexibility
Remote work is flexible work and can increase productivity but there need to be adjustments for remote workers, especially for those in different time zones.
Where possible, remote workers should be given sufficient autonomy so that they can carry out their work without being road blocked by unnecessary oversight by managers. Sometimes a simple clarification can turn into multiple days of delay when emails or Slack messages are missed and have to be followed up. No one likes playing tag over email or Slack!
Clear roles, responsibilities, expectations, and instructions can also grease the wheel for remote workers. Confusion and uncertainty are productivity killers. As previously mentioned, writing things down in detail helps enormously and is well worth the initial pain.
Above all else, there needs to be patience and understanding around communication. Remote workers need to make their work hours and response times clear and they need to be respected. There should be no expectation that anyone is available at any time. Nor should remote workers need to be dictated to because they cannot immediately respond to a request, sufficient time needs to be allocated when two-way communication around a task or an issue is needed.
Conscious Culture is a commitment to all the people in a company. How can a credible culture be created when some workers are treated noticeably differently from others or their particular circumstances are ignored? A commitment to Conscious Culture is thus a commitment to remote workers. Differences in wages by geographic location are reasonable given differences in local wages and living standards but not including remote workers in key meetings, discussions, and social activities is not. As the globe continues to flatten so must companies remove the barriers that prevent them from fully utilizing and attracting remote talent.
Lona is a social impact entrepreneur, Y Combinator founder, Advisor at EU for Innovation, and a digital nomad.
SafetyWing is building the first global safety net for remote companies, remote workers, and nomads worldwide. It offers medical insurance for nomads and remote companies around the world. It is also developing other insurance products such as pension savings and income insurance. Its products are built and designed by a fully remote team of nomads distributed across three continents.