In the good old days (read: before the global Covid-19 pandemic), it’s likely that most of us took the concept of a corporate team culture to mean the day-to-day experience of working for a particular company. In other words, when we talked about a team culture, what we were talking about was what it’s like to go into an office and work there every Monday through Friday.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has upended not only how we think about team culture, but also how we think about work itself. Many people unfortunately lost their jobs through layoffs and furloughs, and those who held onto their jobs were forced to work from home.
And while some companies are moving toward bringing employees back to the office—and others will likely follow as more people get fully vaccinated—it’s expected that remote working will become permanent for many employees as companies look to save money on office space. Of course, because designers (like writers) can really do their jobs from anywhere, the design industry embraced remote working long before the pandemic hit.
But as an increasing number of firms are just now navigating the challenges of building a team culture with a remote workforce, there’s no better time to get some tips from someone who’s done it.
To be sure, even for a company that has been remote since its inception, there are still going to be challenges in building a solid team culture when employees don’t physically work together.
“Like any company, there are growing pains and being a remote team has advantages along with disadvantages,” says Elena Berkowitz, director of culture for RocketAir, which has always been fully remote. “We are faced with how we can encourage a certain way of doing things while working against various time zones and different working styles.”
One advantage of forming a remote company in 2021 rather than 10 or 15 years ago, is that technology is catching up to the different ways that people are working today. But technology alone doesn’t build culture.
“We are seeing huge growth in new communication platforms for remote work, but they don’t solve for everything like the invaluable experience of an in-person meeting,” Berkowitz says.
Ultimately, team members are going to have to be on the same page about what the company is doing so that everyone is working toward a common goal. While the new communication platforms have made it easier for employees to connect and stay in touch, building a successful team culture requires a good deal of buy-in to the company itself. Says Berkowitz:
I've always thought of culture as how a company makes decisions when there isn't a clear precedent. There's a common thread that encourage everyone to show up. We have a group of incredibly talented and unique individuals who work together every day.
You know how when you were a kid and you’d sometimes run into your teacher while out with your mom or dad at the grocery store or mall and it always seemed sort of weird? It was weird because you couldn’t imagine your teacher having a life outside of school; what was your teacher doing buying food like your mom or dad does?
We were obviously never going to get to know our teachers very well beyond the classroom (that would be weird), but here’s a question to ask yourself now that we’re all grown adults with jobs: How well do you know your fellow co-workers outside of work? When you work in an office together, you likely end up with at least one coworker who you become work friends (or even a work spouse) with: The co-worker(s) with whom you talk to about non-work stuff, go get lunch with and grab drinks with after work.
But when you don’t ever work in the same office with your co-workers, building rapport can be a little trickier, especially with co-workers who live in different time zones. After all, your Zoom hour could be a colleague’s lunch hour.
For RocketAir, building a company culture became more important as it scaled up and built out its employee base. The firm was founded in January 2018 as the sole venture of founder and CEO Taylor Rosenbauer; it now has 30 full-time employees and contractors, with the expectation of increasing that number to 40 by this summer.
So, what does it take to build that culture with your remote team? Berkowitz highlights two key steps:
When the legendary management consultant Peter Drucker famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” what he meant was that no matter how good a company’s strategy, if the company’s culture sucks – or is nonexistent – it will be very difficult to carry out that strategy. And as Berkowitz notes, finding that “common thread” is crucial to building a strong company culture because that thread can tie the company together no matter where employees live.
This is especially important because one of the big advantages of being a remote company for a design firm is that it allows you to open the talent pool beyond borders. In turn, this allows talented designers to open up their job search as well.
“Working from home is a huge advantage that allows people the flexibility to live where they want and even the opportunity to move around,” Berkowitz notes.
At the end of the day, building your team culture is what will help your firm build an actual team. Minus that culture, you could have a collection of employees who just happen to work for the same company without really ever working together.
“First and foremost, a culture’s objective is to ensure a healthy and happy remote workspace, where everyone feels included and inspired to do their best work,” Berkowitz says.