Culture has become a hot topic in the field of business leadership as of late. I’m willing to bet that many of you have already read, thought, and talked about culture at great length before arriving at this article. That begs the question, though — why are you still reading?
It seems that, despite all the buzz and chatter surrounding it, the idea of corporate culture is still ill-defined and poorly understood. Now, I don’t claim to have the definitive, conclusive take on the subject. I chose to call this a “case study” not because I thought it sounded more “academic”, but because I recognize that this is only one unique case. I realize that my experiences won’t necessarily apply to every business out there. However, I’m confident that it will prove useful to some.
My wife, Shannon, and I founded BELAY in 2010 (originally as Miles Advisory Group). From day one, we maintained a 100% remote workplace. We decided on the virtual business model for a variety of reasons, but the primary motivator was a desire for a better quality of life — for both us and our employees. Research has shown that remote workers are happier, healthier, and more productive than their in-office counterparts. Their families undoubtedly benefit, too.
However, the virtual model isn’t without its drawbacks. Chief among them is the challenge of cultivating a cohesive company culture when there’s so much distance between your employees. But it can be overcome. In 2017, Entrepreneur Magazine ranked BELAY number one among all small companies for top company culture. Again, every organization is different. So, I can’t claim to have a decisive, one-size-fits-all solution for creating a better company culture. What I can offer is my own experience and the insights that have come with it. In doing so, I hope that you might find something you can apply to your own business. I believe that if more businesses treated culture and employee wellbeing as key performance metrics — on par with quarterly earnings and profit margins — our entire society would benefit. It’s with that idea in mind that I offer my thoughts here.
What is (and isn’t) Company Culture?
Culture is not your company’s dress code or the number of hybrids in the parking lot. It also isn’t about your employees’ age, race, color, or creed. What defines a company’s culture is not what makes its employees similar; it’s what unites them to work towards a common goal despite their differences. In this way, what defines a company’s culture is different than how we typically define culture for, say, a country. I suspect that a lot of the confusion surrounding the idea of corporate culture stems from this fundamental difference. Don’t be misled by the shared terminology. In the business world, culture isn’t about shared rituals, dress, or cuisine. It is about the way your employees view and treat one another. It’s about the ways in which interpersonal conflicts are handled. It’s about how you celebrate successes, and how you overcome failures. It’s about how (and how often) your team communicates. It’s about how officers interact with junior employees. It’s about a shared commitment to reaching shared goals in a way that everyone has agreed upon.
At BELAY, we make no bones about our spiritual beliefs. The very first thing on our list of core values is “God”, and we make clear that our faith in The Bible informs our sense of professional stewardship. With that being said, you don’t have to be Christian, or even believe in God, to work with us. We believe that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their beliefs. The only thing we ask of our employees is that they share in that mutual respect. And that works as an excellent illustration of what is and isn’t company culture — what defines our culture most is the shared respect, not the shared belief.
How to Cultivate Company Culture
Now that we’ve clarified what “culture” is and isn’t, we can talk about how to cultivate it. To that end, the most important thing you need to remember is be intentional. You may have heard that phrase used before in the context of business culture. In the simplest terms, all it means is don’t expect culture to create itself. Culture can manifest organically in communities, but in the corporate setting, it requires effort. That effort can come in many different forms, but step one should be creating a kind of master document — a cultural “manifesto” if you will. In that document, you should clearly define your company’s core values, guiding principles, and essential policies. That doesn’t mean crib a few vague, tired lines from someone else’s generic mission statement. The document should reflect your organization’s unique goals and priorities. It should also reflect who you want to be as a leader.
For example, one of our “core tenets” at BELAY is our very strict “no gossip policy”. Because we see respect as such an essential characteristic of our culture, we have zero tolerance for office politics and petty backbiting. I don’t think any sane leader would argue that gossip is a good thing, but culture is ultimately defined through action, not talk. In relation to our no gossip policy, that means there’s been a few times when I had to let an otherwise excellent employee go because they were gossiping. The goal isn’t to be vindictive. It’s just that for culture to be effective, it needs to be consistent. Making exceptions — especially when based on favoritism or seniority — is a surefire way to erode a company’s culture.
Lead by Example
Where consistency is most critical, though, is among a company’s leadership. There is nothing that will disillusion a team faster than a leader who doesn’t “practice what they preach”. You can’t expect others to do something that you aren’t willing to do yourself. So, think long and hard before committing something to your “manifesto.” At the same time, leaders who do practice what they preach can be the most powerful advocates a corporate culture can have. As in all walks of life, the most effective leaders lead by example first. So, become the living embodiment of what you want your company culture to be — then, and only then, should you ask your employees to follow. I know that probably sounds like a lot to ask, but remember that no one forced you to become an entrepreneur. You chose to lead, so do it well.
The Challenges of Building Remote Culture
The obstacles that remote teams face when trying to cultivate culture aren’t entirely unique. What makes things more difficult for them is the size of those obstacles. Even in an office setting, leaders need to work hard to overcome the inherent differences in their employees. The HR rep from Louisiana might not jibe so easily with the actuary from New York. Your job as a leader is to overcome those differences and inspire your team to work towards common goals.
A leader’s job is essentially the same in a remote setting. The only difference is that the emotional, personal distance between coworkers is amplified by literal, physical distance. Not being able to make unspoken amends with a sandwich from around the corner is a huge disadvantage! Some leaders take the drill-sergeant approach to these sorts of problems — “Get along and get your work done, or else…”. Some even view internal discord as a positive thing, thinking competition and infighting will lead to better output. Not only is that perspective ugly, it’s also flatout wrong. Time and time again, research has shown that happy employees are more productive than unhappy ones; and teams that collaborate perform better than teams that compete.
The Solution for Building Remote Culture
Just as the challenges of cultivating culture are essentially the same in remote and in-office settings, so are the solutions. In the virtual workplace, you just need more of them. And in my opinion, the swiss army knife of all cultural woes is communication. Whether in the office or out, I’ve found that effective communication is the best way to overcome disputes and inspire connections. And when it becomes an essential element of a company’s culture, effective communication will prevent most disputes from ever happening in the first place.
So, at BELAY, we’re happy when we overcommunicate. For us, too much information is just the right amount. And a recent survey of remote workers seems to confirm our experiences. Of the 1,200 plus remote workers polled, 69% said that communication with their employers was lacking. And 55% said their bosses communicated almost exclusively by e-mail. The world may be changing rapidly, but we’re still human. We want to connect in ways that are more personal than via text on a screen. And ironically, modern technology is now working to facilitate that.
Tech to the Rescue
Today, there are literally hundreds of websites, platforms, and applications designed to help remote teams connect and collaborate. But of the many forms these tools take, I feel that the most essential for cultivating a remote culture is video conferencing. The ability to chat face-to-face with another person from anywhere on Earth was the stuff of science fiction not long ago. Today, it’s so ubiquitous in both our personal and professional lives that we sometimes take it for granted. Don’t. Whether you have a 100% remote workforce, a blended workforce, or you simply allow your in-house employees to work from home occasionally, video conferencing is indispensable. Encourage your employees to use video chat whenever possible, even when the phone might seem easier. Yes, that means you’ll have to do your hair and get out of your pajamas, but the power of face-to-face interaction cannot be overstated.
At BELAY, we even use video conferencing as a social tool. We’ve started doing “virtual happy hours” from time to time, in which our employees get together on Zoom just to hang out and unwind after a long week (and yes, adult beverages are usually involved). As a busy, stressed-out entrepreneur, that idea might sound silly at first blush. But commradery is invaluable to a team’s performance. So, use today’s wealth of high-tech collaboration tools to your advantage. Your culture will thank you for it.
Conclusion: Formulate, Advocate, and Execute
There are three key steps in the process of cultivating culture — formulate, advocate, and execute. Formulating consists of carefully considering what you want your business to be. This is where you sit down and agonize over your manifesto on company culture. Advocating consists of getting on your soapbox as often as possible to promote the culture you formulated in step one. Finally, execution is where you will your culture into existence by being its most faithful adherent. These steps are the same for both remote and traditional workplaces.
In the virtual setting, however, leaders will need to be all the more dogged in making them happen. But if our success at BELAY says anything, it’s that a robust company culture can overcome any amount of distance.