Building a Distributed Culture That Feels Like a Culture

As society cautiously begins to return to “normal,” I’m seeing a lot of my friends and colleagues debating whether or not it’s time to bring their teams back into the office after a protracted period of working from home. There are industries where a permanently distributed workforce just isn’t feasible, but digital marketing isn’t one of them; I heartily recommend that any agency owner (or anyone who’s thinking of starting an agency) at least consider permanently moving their business to fully remote work.

Being a fully remote, distributed team has been a core part of the way UpBuild does business since our inception, and working here has really sold me on building a distributed team. The benefits to doing so include:

  • Low overhead. If you’re managing a company with a physical office location, chances are that the rent, utilities, and upkeep on your office space take up a big portion of your budget every month. 
  • Flexibility as a job perk. Building distributed work into your company’s operations means that your employees have more freedom to tailor their work schedules around their individual needs, whether that means being home for the cable repairperson, moving to another state, or traveling the world, all while still getting their work done.
  • Productivity. We’re all aware by now that open-plan offices don’t work, right? A distributed workforce can go heads-down on work when they need to, without worrying that officemates’ chatter or randomizing requests will take up their whole day (not to mention avoiding that nasty cold that seems to go around every office every fall).
  • Hiring the best possible candidates for the job. Your next SEO superstar could be living just down the street from you, but they might also be living five states away. Having a fully distributed team means that you’re not limited to the local labor pool, or having to budget for relocation costs when hiring. It also means that if your SEO superstar’s spouse gets a new job, or their parents get sick, or they move to California like they’ve always dreamed of doing, they can keep doing their rockstar work for you with no worries about the move.
  • Wearing your comfies every day. And spooning your dog whenever you want to. And complete control over the office thermostat, playlist, and snack fridge. Need I say more?

I don’t mean to make it sound like the decision to go remote is super easy and comes with no downsides. There are a ton of factors to consider, especially if you’re moving what used to be a co-located team to 100% distributed work. When I talk to other agency higher-ups about the possibility of going remote, they bring up some really legitimate concerns: When you can’t see what your team is doing, how do you know they’re not slacking off on the job? How do you make sure that everyone knows what they need to know? Most importantly (in my book), how do you build a team that feels like a team, and delivers consistent results to your customers, when you hardly ever see each other in person?

There are a lot of great resources out there on how to run a remote business (I recommend checking out the blogs of notable fully-distributed companies like Buffer and Zapier), but for my money, solving the problem of creating a distributed culture goes a long way toward addressing the other fears you might have about starting a distributed business.

I’m five years into managing a fully distributed team at UpBuild, and here are a few things I’ve learned about creating a distributed culture along the way:

  • Hire carefully. Our hiring process, from first job posting to the new hire’s first day at work, takes more than two months. During that time, I pretty much don’t work on anything else — it’s an incredibly time- and labor-intensive process. That invested time pays off, though, when we bring on the right person. When you’re not in the office with someone every day, it can be hard to spot small issues before they become big problems, so taking the time to vet someone carefully before they start will save you time in the long run. Speaking of which:
  • Trust is paramount, which means you have to work to build it. Trust is the absolute backbone of a distributed team (you could argue that it should be the backbone of any team, but *sips tea* that’s none of my business). That careful hiring process is a good start, but you can’t stop building trust once somebody comes on board. Make sure you’re checking in on new hires frequently — do they have what they need to get the job done? Is the work they’re turning in up to your standards, and if not, what coaching do they need to get them there? The best way to build trust with someone is to show them that you’re trustworthy. Demonstrate that you have your team’s backs when it comes to difficult clients or work situations, be as available as possible to hear their questions and concerns, and show your team that when they do make a mistake or need to ask what might feel like a “silly question,” you’re not going to punish or ridicule them. 
  • Have a plan to onboard new people. A person’s first day at a new job is always fraught with uncertainty, and that goes double for a new job at a distributed company. You can help your new hires feel like part of the team faster by ensuring that their first few days in their new role have some structure and clearly-defined activities, so they’re not just twiddling their thumbs alone in their home offices; when they fire up their company email for their first day of work, they should have a list of tasks and a clear agenda for what’s going to be happening when. Remember — they won’t be able to just get up from their desk and ask you what they should be doing, so make sure you’re checking in frequently. Encourage the use of tools like Slack, not only for work conversations but also as a place for the team to get to know each other; try to be extra active in watercooler/off-topic type channels during a new person’s first week, and encourage the rest of the team to do the same. Double- and triple-check that new hires are invited to any and all recurring meetings or video calls they need to be part of — there’s no office for new people to overhear conversations, and if everyone’s in an online meeting, there’s no way for them to see everyone gathering, let alone poke their head in and say “should I be in this meeting?”
  • Create clear expectations about when and how the team should be working. Even with a team that’s spread across multiple time zones, you can still have a core set or sets of hours when the whole team should be online. At UpBuild, our office hours are 9 am – 2:30 pm Pacific Time (12 pm – 5:30 pm Eastern). You may notice that that doesn’t add up to 40 hours a week, which is an intentional choice that allows us to foster that sense of flexibility I mentioned above. Outside of those hours, the team is free to structure their workdays however they like to make sure things get done, but having that designated time when people need to be available for meetings and responsive via Slack and email helps facilitate collaboration remotely. (Note: if your company is based in the US, this will mean that your team members will need to be classified as employees, not independent contractors, but that’s probably the right call for you if you’re asking them to e.g. all do the same work the same way anyway.)
  • Be proactive to combat isolation. Even people who have been specifically looking for a remote work opportunity, and are excited at the prospect, may still be unprepared for just how isolating working from home can be. That isolation can be a source of major employee burnout, so as a leader, it’s good to be proactive about helping your team deal with distributed work’s isolating effects. Manufacture opportunities for the team to get to know each other as people: at UpBuild, we have a “Watercooler Wednesday” chat every Wednesday in our #watercooler Slack channel, where we’ll have a prompt question that everyone can answer and discuss throughout the day. Inspired by Buffer, who does the same thing, we also have Pair Calls twice a week, where team members are paired up with each other for a 15-minute conversation about anything they want — as long as it’s not work. The team hasn’t used it much in the past year, but we also provide a “coffee shop stipend” for team members to use if they’d like to work from a coffee shop or co-working space on occasion.
  • Put the money you save back into your team. You don’t have to spend the equivalent of a year’s worth of office-space rent on your team, but since your overhead is so much lower, think about investing some of that money you save on office supplies back into office supplies for your team’s home offices. We offer our team members a $500/year home office budget that they can spend on whatever they need to get their home workspaces exactly the way they want them — whatever that means for them. Team members have used their stipend on everything from new desks and chairs to new laptops and peripherals, from the perfect lamp to a space heater for their drafty basement.
  • Document, document, document. This is one we’ve learned the hard way over the years, and I think it’s something we’ll be continuing to get better at for the lifetime of the company. When your team members can’t see each other, or each other’s work, it can be easy for their processes and their finished products to start to drift apart from each other without anyone really noticing. I think allowing for some variation in work styles is healthy, but to maintain a cohesive culture, you also need to have a strong idea of “how we do things here.” Take the time to document your internal policies and processes so new people aren’t left guessing. When that drift starts to happen, you’ll be glad you have that documentation to fall back on.
  • Define your values and make sure you live by them. One of the hardest pieces to building a distributed culture is answering the question, “what does it feel like to work here?” An in-person office will inevitably end up having a vibe (whether or not it’s the vibe you intended to create is another story). But how do you create any kind of vibe with a group that’s spread out across the country? Having a clearly-defined set of company values is a good first step, but as with everything else pertaining to company values, they’re only useful if you’re truly living by them. At UpBuild, we talk a lot about what the “UpBuildy” thing to do is, and fall back on our values to make difficult decisions easier. That trust that I mentioned? That comes from the team having a clear idea of why you do the things you do, and from you demonstrating that you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is.
  • Evaluate based on the right criteria. Frankly, if you’re worried that you won’t be able to tell if your team is working if you can’t see them sitting at their desks all day, you’re focused on the wrong thing. To successfully manage a distributed team, you need to have a very clear idea of how you’ll be evaluating their work and making sure they’re providing value to your clients. That might include things like leadership being CC’d on client emails and attending client meetings regularly to make sure team members have the support they need to communicate confidently with their clients, diligent use of time- and/or task-tracking software, and or it should definitely look like a robust internal QA process to ensure that everything your team puts out is brand-consistent and up to quality standards. If: 
    • your team is putting out awesome work,
    • their clients are happy and successful, and
    • you can get ahold of them when you need them (i.e. they’re showing up for meetings and responsive to email and Slack during office hours),

then does it really matter if they’re at their desk for 40 hours in a given week, or if they’ve got the soccer game on in the background while they work?

After the last year, many teams have already found a bit of a groove in their work-from-home lives — but since none of us knew how long the pandemic was going to last when it began, you may have been setting remote work policies on the fly, or attempting to recreate your in-office culture remotely, rather than trying to build a distributed culture. If you’re making the leap to becoming a fully-distributed team, now is the time to take a step back and do some planning for what your new internal processes will be, and how you plan to build a work culture that your team will be proud to be a part of, wherever their desks might be.

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Drawing on over a decade of digital marketing experience (both in-house & agency-side), Ruth leads the team to drive client strategy forward.

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