How to build a high performing team culture in a remote environment

Building a strong and differentiated team culture is pretty challenging. Add “remote” to the mix, and it becomes very clear, very fast that you’ll have your work cut out for you.

It is possible however to build a strong remote team culture –we’ve seen some recent success stories from Automattic, InVision, Zapier, GitHub and other companies that are building both world-class products and world-class teams often while collaborating 100% remotely.

We’ve learned from the best, and have also collected some insights ourselves–working across 4 offices, in 5 time-zones in 4 different countries–and wanted to share this quick and easy guide to building a high performing culture for remote teams.

Why culture will make or break remote teams

A company’s culture is made up of the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a team. It’s how people work together towards a common goal and often it’s the framework or guidepost an employee uses to make decisions independently, it’s how company leaders build trust in their teams (or fear).

In collocated teams, where people are generally in the same office, culture can evolve organically: Through shared experiences, team activities, collaboration around projects, the time they spend together, a sense of purpose and belonging that stems from relationships they’ve built at work, and a tactical connection to a company’s mission.

Building a remote team culture can also happen organically, but it requires more deliberate thought and proactive effort to shape. In a remote team, it’s easy to end up only interacting with your teammates work-related things. Many people become isolated, less engaged and over time more and more disconnected from the company mission or strategy. Ironically, companies open up remote roles to tap into new talent pools, only to turn around and not properly or fully engage them as a remote team member, missing the full value that employee can bring to the table.

Studies have shown that teams that are more emotionally connected, and engaged work more effectively together.

Teams that are emotionally connected can be vulnerable with one another because there is a baseline of safety and trust in the relationship, which means they’re more willing to say out loud that crazy idea that may or may not fly–or, more willing to push back when they see something that they don’t agree with.

JESSE JAMES GARRETT

Chief Creative Officer at Adaptive Path

There’s also more and more evidence that shows a strong cultures directly influences a team’s performance and ability to be successful (delivering better results, faster results, shorter development cycles, etc). So let’s take a look at the ways you can improve your team’s culture and have a positive impact on your company’s performance.

So what is the real story? Why are remote team cultures so unique?

Building remote team culture requires rethinking all your processes; From recruiting and onboarding to employee performance and career progressions to collaboration and project management. Let’s see how companies that have become pioneers of remote work rethink these processes to achieve excellent results.

#1 Recruit an All-star team

Recruiting is an easy first step. By understanding the attributes you’ll need in remote team members, you can better assess candidates in the recruiting process to ensure they will be a good culture-fit and a good culture-add for your remote team.

You’ll want to bring on people who have strong collaboration skills (experience with frameworks like agile or design thinking would be a huge plus), also independent and autonomous (maybe specialist like engineers, or designers) and probably–at least to start–more senior than junior. Junior people tend to need more facetime, more coaching and more structure; Junior people would be better to hire once you’ve build up a strong remote culture with other team members, processes and tools to effectively support their growth.

To be successful as a remote team member, you have to be enormously autonomous. That’s the best way to make it work with remote teams. Practices like test projects and short-term evaluation are something that we carry through with all our distributed employees and freelancers.

Jessica Tiwari

VP of Product Management at Upwork

#2 Increasing time to value of remote teams through onboarding

When you bring people on board, it’s your responsibility as a hiring manager to make sure the person has all the right resources to be successful in their role. Here are some steps you can take to support the new employee and secure quick wins for them:

  • Develop a two-week plan. Remote workers take longer to onboard because they aren’t in an office with others. Creating a plan, setting all the meetings (3-4 per day) with agendas, video links, etc. will reduce the stress and anxiety new hires can have and ensure that new hires are getting introed to all the people, processes and projects they need to right away. 
    Pro-tip: It’s good to balance these sessions with some in-formal chats (like a coffee chat or lunch where you deliver lunch to both parties and they can enjoy together over video as they get to know each other).
  • Start with a small project. Collaborate on developing a clear plan for 30, 60 or 90 days so the new employee is aligned on the expectations for the role. Give them an exercise within the first couple of weeks that requires cross-team collaboration or knowledge discovery to introduce them to other team members, information at the company and regular ceremonies within your remote culture. At Miro, we recommend a book called The First 90 Days to all our new hires to help them achieve their goal. It’s also important to agree on the way you can measure success for this period.
  • ONBOARD IN COHORTS. Onboarding in groups is a great way to minimize the effort and redundancies of onboarding new hires and training them; It also creates a sense of community amongst your new hires. Crazy Egg, a SaaS startup that grew from 6 to 29 employees in 2018, uses this approach. They hire people in groups, and each group has’ squad hosts’ (not team leads) who create an environment for people to feel comfortable collaborating and ‘functional stewards’ (not technical leads or project managers) who are there for technical support.

By onboarding people together (ideally folks who will work together), we start creating shared experiences across the company. It’s good for the new team members, but it’s also easier for the company – onboarding takes time and energy. By having a steady, structured cadence and cycle, you balance the integration of new people with the completion of existing work.

Suneet Bhatt

GM at Crazy Egg

  • Ask for feedback. If you are not experienced in running a remote team, the chances are that you won’t master onboarding for your first hire. Ask each new remote employee to pay close attention to the process and tell you what worked and what didn’t. This will allow you to continuously improve the process for your future hires.
  • Make space for a personal connection. Ask your team to reach out to a new hire and introduce themselves, so they start building a relationship from the first week. If you have resources invite a new hires to spend some time together at the HQ, meet for lunch, have an offsite with everyone or even create some remote-based ceremonies for teams to spend non-work related time together.


At Pivotal, for onboarding we bring people to the office. When we hire someone, for the first one to two months are spent at the office working with the team to build the relationships and build the context to help them be successful once remote.

Aloka Penmetcha

Director of Product Management at Pivotal

#3 Deliberate, clear and transparent communication is key

It’s great to have a set of values that are shared by everyone on the team, but it’s not enough. To build a strong, effective remote culture, you have to embed your values into everything you do and have rituals that reinforce certain behaviors. Here are some things to consider when promoting openness and transparency:

  • Create a space to outline your goals and values as a team. Collaborate with your colleagues to come up with your mission, vision, and core values and outline it in a shared document or on a virtual whiteboard, so everyone can revisit it and make sure their personal goals and OKRs are aligned with it. Set quarterly or monthly check-ins to track performance based on those values.
  • Set up team rituals and preferred means of communication. It’s important to set recurring team meetings that establish a pace for an iterative process for projects, etc. At Miro, many of our teams are Agile and regularly conduct sprint planning, backlog grooming, and retrospectives for projects, as well as bi-weekly calls for OKR traction, and 1-1s, department meetings, and quarterly company all-hands. . We also try to acknowledge our differences and learn about everyone’s preferred mode of work. For example, some team members took 16 Personalities test and wrote personal manifestos to help other teammates understand how to better communicate and work with each of us.

At Pivotal, we have certain rituals that are very team oriented (standups, retros, etc.), and they help teams be autonomous and iterative in process.

Aloka Penmetcha

Director of Product Management at Pivotal

  • Prioritize meaningful work. In a remote team, it’s easy for people to feel like they need to respond to requests immediately to show that they are staying actively engaged. However, it’s important to agree on that everyone has space to carve out time for meaningful work that requires uninterrupted attention. It’s important to create boundaries within remote teams. You can agree together how to do it: time blocks on the calendar, status settings on Slack or a full weekday with no meetings.
  • Document all the critical decisions. Create a virtual ‘pulse room’ (a document, a virtual whiteboard, a Slack channel, or something else) for each project you are working on. So even if someone can’t be at a team meeting or at a hub with the part of the team that is collocated, they can understand the current status of the project and don’t feel like they miss out or don’t belong to the team


As soon as you have at least two people who are working together in the same space, the complexity in aligning people is so much bigger. There are a lot of facets to effective communication, but killing water cooler conversation is a big part of it. We make sure that any decision you’ve made is written down, so people who weren’t there can refer to it.

Jessica Tiwari

VP of Product Management at Upwork

  • Find creative ways to stay engaged. Host a virtual happy hour or a breakfast session where people from the same field (for example, product development) can discuss their challenges. Sometimes you don’t even need a separate meeting for that — you can incorporate some of the team building games into your regular calls or start a Slack channel to exchange photos of your pets (at Miro, we love our #miro_mascots).
  • Create a mentorship program. One of the most important aspects of building trust and a sense of belonging in a remote team is helping people grow and learn from their peers. Incorporate rituals that will help everyone grow individually as well as a group: discuss each person’s goal at a performance review and set a metric to measure progress, host a workshop on giving feedback, or start time weekly for regular lunch and learns.


Tools

Needless to say that while you are working remotely, you need the right tools to communicate and collaborate with your team. Here are the top tools we’ve found to be most effective:

  • Messengers. Whether you prefer using Slack, Skype for Business, Mircosoft Teams or anything else, messengers are a good place to connect with your team daily, ask questions and respond to small requests.
  • Video conferencing. Face-to-face team meetings are an important part of building trust in the team. Make sure you actually turn a camera on to read each other’s emotions better. Try Zoom, Google Hangouts, Appear.in, or something else.
  • Real-time collaboration. Use Miro, Google Docs, or other tools for brainstorming ideas, sharing visual references, or collaborating on a Kanban/Scrum board.
  • Task trackers. Whether you use Asana, JIRA, Trello, or something else, it’s an integral part of the workflow that will keep your team motivated and help everyone to track progress.
  • Calendars. Encourage everyone to keep their calendar updated (Google.Calendar, Any.do, Microsoft Outlook Calendar, or anything else), so it’s easier to sync up.

Many remote teams tend to be pretty tool-agnostic, but it’s important to agree with your team on some general rules: which tool are you using for daily/weekly check-ins? where do you keep your quarterly goals? where do you ask for immediate help when something goes wrong? Think of different aspects of your work communication to set the right expectations and avoid losing time.

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