When you have offices, a lot of your communication happens face to face, and most of those interactions aren’t documented anywhere. Jeff said “paint the walls red”, and Anna’s team did exactly that. If this happened in a hallway chat, there is no documentation of why they decided to do it, or when. If there are no meeting notes, you can’t easily go back and say “this discussion happened on April 2nd, 2018, these 3 people were involved, this is how it was decided”.
Let’s think of your remote team now, and what the process looks like for them. Even the most bare-bones setup for a remote worker involves some kind of chat system with the ability to search, e-mail, and meetings scheduled through calendar invites or by calling through your chat system. If you aren’t taking meeting notes, it won’t be an easy-to-find path, but you may still make it back to the source if all comms happened digitally. This means you have a few ways in which you decide things, how you communicate casually, and how you show what your organization values.
Before we move on, lets do an overview of some methods used in each environment.
Where meetings happen
Who gets invited
This one is a little trickier. Remote environments often require that you are aware of multiple time-zones, which introduces an extra layer of complexity not found in offices. While there are ways to make it work, it’s still something to take into account. In both offices and remote environments, it’s good to be mindful of the vacation calendar and working hours, in any case. People sometimes go on vacation or take long weekends, for starters, and they may need to pick up kids, care for their parents, and a million other things outside the workplace.
How decisions & decision-making is documented:
What happens after a decision is made
How people’s achievements are made visible
What did we learn from this comparison?
I can see you going “But this doesn’t prove anything!”. And you’d be right. It doesn’t. What it does, however, is show you that in remote companies the main communication blocker is in casual settings, not formal decision-making such as communication of goals or onboarding people into your cultural values. You no longer get to just tap Jeff in the shoulder(**) to discuss an important issue, or find them in the hallway(**) you now need to DM them or email them. The inability to do things remote prevents you from doing? That is also culture.
In a remote company, you can’t try to hide your lack of healthy team culture and values with a ping pong table and a few after parties. You have to do the work. You should still do the work in an office, but that’s not the topic of this blog post.
Your team can gain alignment just as well, and it’s more likely that you will know at the very least who decided what, and how it was decided. In most remote environments, it’s unlikely that something happened without at least a message in your internal messaging system (ie: slack), and if you follow some good practices like note-taking, sharing back decisions, and creating agendas for your meetings, you will have a detailed log of how something came to happen, plus more opportunities for people to give their thoughts in a structured or unstructured fashion.
Culture is not ping pong tables and beer. Culture is who gets promoted, who gets a raise, who gets hired. Culture is also firing that person who is being a jerk to all your support teammates. It’s how you treat your customers, and whether people get promoted for being excellent at their jobs. Culture is the behaviors you reward and punish, and you can do those things just as well in a remote team.
I’m not saying remote work is perfect or easy (it’s not!), all I’m saying is that we’re giving remote work too much credit for its ability to create more dysfunctional teams than offices create.
We can create dysfunctional teams with unclear culture in both environments, but we have arguably more hard data about our culture when communication is optimized for asynchronous communication.
(**): please don’t do this, even if you’re in an office. It’s an easy way to make sure decisions are made without involving everyone needed, and it distracts people.
PS: lots of people don’t do well in offices. Lots of people don’t do well remotely. For those groups, it’s obviously detrimental to do one or the other. What’s important to remember is that both groups exist and that some are in-between (need a balance, which can also be just fine).