As digital technology continues to advance, more and more companies are going virtual. Viral content leader UpWorthy, for instance, has over 100 employees distributed around the globe. WordPress continues to thrive with a 100% remote workforce. Mozilla has people working in more than 30 countries.
Going virtual means exposing the company to new challenges and risks. The nature of the non-workplace makes it difficult for employees to form genuine connections with one another. Communication pipelines break down and productivity suffers.
To combat these issues, virtual companies need to create and maintain a strong company culture.
Company culture is loosely defined as a shared set of passions and values. It also reflects the relationships of its team members and their interactions with each other. Workplaces with strong company cultures see higher employee engagement, productivity, and happiness. Their employees share a common purpose, and strive toward the same goals.
A strong company culture is important in any workplace, but it is imperative in a virtual one.
Advantages of Being Virtual
Companies choose to be virtual for a variety of reasons. The CEO might embrace the flexibility that the non-workplace offers. Geographic movement is not restricted and alternative workweek arrangements are more viable. Virtual companies also save significant costs by forgoing office space, and their employees save money on things like transportation and food.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of going virtual is that companies are not limited in their hiring.
Lucy Suros, EVP of Brand and Content for the e-learning company Articulate, recalls how the company came to be.
“When the CEO started this company, at the very beginning, he was looking for the premier expert in a certain thing, and that person happened to be in India.”
Another highly skilled candidate also happened to be a plane ride away. Rather than settle for a less desirable candidate closer to home, the CEO decided that skill was more valuable than location. Articulate has been virtual ever since.
“It’s really about being able to find the talent regardless of geography,” Suros says.
Jake Goldman, CEO of the Web development and strategy agency 10up, agrees. “One of the reasons we’re remote is because we wanted to be able to bring in very talented, very high skilled employees.”
Goldman argues that if 10up wasn’t virtual, he would never have been able to build it to it’s current caliber.
Importance of Company Culture in a Virtual Workplace
A 2012 Gallup poll showed that 22% of employees who spent more than 50% of their time working remotely felt actively disengaged. Disengaged employees are more likely to experience lower productivity and turnover.
In a virtual workplace, the barriers to exit and the opportunity for turnover are much higher. It’s easier for employees to leave a virtual company because they don’t have to break physical bonds with their co-workers. It can also be more difficult to form relationships and stay emotionally invested in the company
Strong company cultures address these issues by increasing employee engagement, as well as other vital attributes like happiness and emotional well-being.
According to a study conducted by StackHands:
- Companies with engaged employees outperform those without by up to 202%.
- Peers and camaraderie are the main reasons employees go the extra mile – not money.
- Highly engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave the company they work for.
Strategies to Create a Strong Company Culture
Without the ability to simply pop by a coworkers desk, communication becomes exponentially more difficult. The way you make up for that, Goldman explains, is to make communication much more deliberate. “When you take the time to make the effort it seems more meaningful, deeper, and purposeful.”
“We have to be intentional about communication,” Suros says.
To be deliberate and intentional about your communication, Goldman and Suros recommend scheduling regular meetings, either by video, phone, or chat. There should be a designated time and day for reporting progress, checking in with teams, and discussing issues and challenges.
It’s also important to set expectations before these meetings ensue. Ensure that both parties understand the meeting’s agenda, how long the meeting will run, and what should be accomplished by the meeting’s end.
Suros and Goldman emphasize the importance of video communication. Being able to see someone’s face and connect with them on a visual level facilitates a more authentic relationship, and improves the accuracy of the communication taking place.
To keep employees engaged and invested in the company, it’s important to help them feel valued. The 10up team makes it a priority to acknowledge each other’s achievements.
“It’s helpful to create a system of positive recognition,” Goldman says. “Employees in good company cultures recognize each other’s successes and share information about their wins.”
10up also uses their internal blog to give shoutouts and kudos to individuals and teams. Employees can even reward each other with digital badges.
The folks at Articulate frequently post about each other’s wins on Slack, a team communication tool. There is no required format or criteria for such posts, and Suros says it can be as simple as someone writing “Great job on this!” or “This person helped me so much on that!”
Another great opportunity to enhance employee engagement is by providing consistent and constructive feedback. According to StackHands, companies that implement regular employee feedback have turnover rates that are 14.9% lower than for employees who receive no feedback.
Suros prefers a constant feedback loop rather than a yearly review, and argues that a more informal approach works better than something from the top down. 10up’s strategy is slightly more structured. Each team, or “pod,” has a manager, and that manager is in charge of providing feedback, conducting performance reviews, and helping his or her team members improve their skills.
“There’s lots of coaching and peer mentorship,” Goldman says. “It’s a culture of learning through doing.”
Personal relationships are another key tenet of strong company cultures, and while high engagement and deliberate communication helps foster those relationships, there is no substitute for physical interaction. That’s why 10up and Articulate host annual retreats where everyone comes together to participate in team building exercises, learning seminars, and social activities.
“We do an annual retreat because there’s something special about in-person dynamics,” Suros says. “You want to reach out and touch that person, to have a real human connection.”
Goldman agrees. “To counterbalance how easy it is to not feel attached to your company, you need to make sure there are mechanisms for people to have a personal relationship and connection.”
Tools for Creating a Strong Company Culture
Many of the aforementioned strategies would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to properly execute without the following tools.
- Group Collaboration: Slack, Trello, Twoodo
- Video Conferencing: Zoom, Google Hangout, Vidyo
- Cloud Storage and File Sharing: Box, Dropbox, Google Drive
- Real-Time Chatting: HipChat, Pie, ChatGrape
- Feedback: 15Five, Better Feedback
- Screen Sharing: Screen Hero, Screen Leap, Mikogo
Running a virtual company is not without its challenges, but by building and maintaining a strong company culture, these challenges can be overcome, and the company can enjoy the many advantages offered by their distributed nature. Remember to prioritize human connections and personal relationships, encourage deliberate, result-oriented communication, and establish a system of positive recognition. With the right tools, strategies, and attitudes, a virtual workplace can be every bit as successful, if not more successful, than a traditional one.