Geoff Wilson / Culture / March 11th, 2014

Best of SXSW14: How to Build Culture in a Distributed Company

I continue to be blown away by the content at SXSW, and by the number of people attending. Heck, even Grumpy Cat put in an appearance. In the busy Saturday afternoon lineup, I found a session of particular interest to me called “How to Build Culture in a Distributed Company.” As you’ve seen from all our moving activity recently, 352 is distributed across three offices (Atlanta, Gainesville and Tampa), and we also have a handful of work-from-home employees. We have always placed great emphasis on our culture, but it is sometimes difficult to maintain a strong culture with team members in so many different places. Of course, that’s a challenge that many companies face these days as telecommuting and remote teams have become more prevalent.

Grumpy Cat is her own brand ambassador.
Grumpy Cat is her own brand ambassador.

The session was led by speakers from four companies that are very distributed, or entirely distributed with no offices at all. As such, all four had good opinions and experiences to share. The panelists were: Danya Cheskis-Gold, Director of Community at Spark Capital, Lori McLeese, HR Lead at Automattic, Mischa Nachtigal, Product Team Member at Upworthy and Patti Chan, Managing Director of Project Management at Intridea.

Each of the speakers stressed the importance of leadership when a company is becoming distributed. It may seem like an easy step to extend culture and practice to a distributed office, but company leadership must discuss the cultural impact of distribution and create plans to minimize any negative effects, like lower morale or employee exclusion. That may seem obvious, but the point is you must be intentional about preserving and building the culture, and to do that you must have a constant awareness of how the culture can be or is being effected.

Fostering a Distributed Culture

There are a number of things you can do to build culture among distributed teams. The first, and most basic, is to make sure you have team members routinely reaching out to the distributed employees. It’s easy for remote employees to feel isolated or out of the loop, so you want to make sure it’s someone’s responsibility to routinely maintain contact.

It’s particularly important to reach out to remote team members whenever there’s bad news. While water cooler rumors in an office can be negative, it’s actually far worse when a remote employee gets a sense that something has gone wrong. Since they are isolated they have no one to talk to around the water cooler, and therefore they may invent their own stories and assume the worst. Failures should be communicated quickly and transparently, along with identification of the next steps to ensure the same failure will not happen again.

Give Teams the Tools for Culture

Online tools have made bridging the communication gap between distributed teams much easier. Given the incredible number of collaborative and productivity tools available, it’s not surprising that the speakers were unable to reach a consensus on which ones were the best, because what is going to work best really varies by company. The most common tools mentioned were Hip Chat, Skype, WordPress.com (for internal blogs and project blogs), Hackpad, Yammer, Facebook Groups, Google Docs, GotoMeeting, Confluence, Asana, Trac, Sales Force, Box and Jira.

At Automattic, prospective employees are first interviewed through a Skype text chat, not voice or video. Automattic has employees spread throughout the entire world, so employees have to communicate with each other often by Skype text chat, so doing the first interview that way is a good opportunity to test the applicant’s ability to communicate with their teams.

Of course, intrateam communication is only one part of the equation. Culturally speaking, it’s more important to setup ways for remote employees to still participate in water cooler discussions and to celebrate success with remote teams. Internal blogs or Google Hangouts can be effective, but at 352 we use Yammer heavily to allow employees to praise each other for accomplishments. We use those Yammer praises to award employee prizes in staff meetings to encourage our teams to keep the praise going.

More importantly, our entire staff is connected through Skype with team-level, department-level, office-level and full-staff chats to share knowledge, accomplishments or even funny videos. It’s been an invaluable way to maintain connections between every member of the 352 team. Whatever system you use, you want to make sure it becomes a routine for your team to serve up praise and celebrate wins.

Ongoing Culture Building

Some other great ideas that were shared by the speakers for building culture in a distributed company include:

  • Setup competitions between distributed employees. For example, have employees with Fitbits post how many steps they take each day and have a leaderboard surrounding that.
  • Whenever two employees happen to be in the same city together, have a standing budget to allow them to go to dinner together at a nice restaurant. This encourages connections to be made.
  • When sending an employee to a conference, allow them to pick another employee who isn’t in their city to take to the conference with them.
  • Encourage people to share what they are working on with their co-workers, especially those who are distributed. At 352, we are starting to do this through our monthly all-staff meetings – we give each team 3 minutes to present their recent work to the entire company via video conference. Using online tools for this purpose is another solution.
  • Force conversations between new employees and remote employees who they may not get to meet face-to-face by scheduling casual introductory calls or hangouts.

Even though all of these tips will make having a distributed company much easier, the speakers agreed that it’s still important to get the whole company together face-to-face periodically. At 352, we do this through company retreats and department summits a couple times each year.

The benefit of getting all of this right is clear. Culture is the secret sauce of great companies, and keeping the culture strong across distributed teams is paramount to success.