Beyond the Team Retreat: Everyday Things Remote Companies Do to Build Team Culture

Annual team retreats in exotic places are great, but team culture needs to be built every single day of the year.

We’ve all heard about how remote teams use messaging apps and Google Hangouts to stay in touch. We’ve seen photos of team retreats and heard about how much more productive teams can be when they work remotely.

But the day-to-day experience of working in a remote team can be a huge challenge. Remote workers lack in-person collaboration and meetings, spend more time working in isolation, and lose out on the opportunities for the serendipitous interactions that happen in an office.

For remote companies, building strong culture is even more essential to success. You can’t look over your employees’ shoulders to make sure they’re showing up to work. They need to be motivated to contribute proactively to the team, and you need to be able to trust them to do great work. With so many extra hurdles to building a cohesive culture in a remote company, it’s important to find new ways of spreading that culture throughout the team.

These companies have come up with unique approaches to build team “water coolers” when there is no water cooler…

Building a strong remote company culture starts with leadership. Read our online handbook, Leading Distributed: The Remote Guide To Management, for advice on how leaders can set the tone of their remote organization – from celebrating professional success to quickly addressing bad behaviour.

Buffer builds team culture through personal improvements

For Buffer, a company well-known for its focus on culture, a big part of their team ethos is personal improvement. While this doesn’t necessarily apply to all remote teams, Buffer’s approach does show how a small action can increase team camaraderie.

Each week every Buffer team member chooses an aspect of their personal life they want to improve and shares it with the rest of the team in a Hackpad.

A typical Buffer week.

Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich explains how this process is useful for the team:

“Because all improvements are shared company-wide, it is a great way to get encouragement and find a habit. On top of this, it’s an awesome opportunity to learn new skills. For example, I’ve picked up coding, in part because of this daily log.”

Finding the line between work and personal commitments can be harder for remote workers, whose offices are often in their homes. Without initiatives like this one, it can be easier for work to spill over into personal time, and for hobbies and personal growth to take a backseat.

Zapier encourages work/life balance through weekend recaps

While many companies have regular meetings to cover what progress team members have made recently, Zapier’s strikes a balance between work and personal topics.

Zapier team member Alison Groves says this is one of her favorite things about Zapier’s culture:

“…every week when we’re recapping for our teammates what we did that week on our internal blog, we also include what we’re doing over the weekend. This helps us all feel connected a bit outside of work, and learn more about each other personally. Two or three sentences that really make a huge difference.”

The team at Groove does a similar thing on Monday mornings, recapping their weekends before getting down to business. Groove CEO Alex Turnbull says Groove gets “great culture benefits from having a “water cooler discussion” to kick off each week.”

The water cooler is something often mentioned as a missing office perk — and business asset — in remote teams. Without a water cooler (or something equivalent), team members lose the chance to bump into each other and strike up conversations naturally.

Automattic shares through internal blogs

While you can encourage “water cooler” discussions using internal messaging apps, it can be hard to find a balance between getting to know other team members and not distracting them from their work.

Sara Rosso, Director of Marketing at Automattic — the company behind WordPress — says “when we see each other online, a good assumption is we are all working.”

Because it’s hard to know when it’s okay to have a casual chat and when other team members need to be left alone to focus, Automattic created several different internal blogs based around personal interests. Rosso says these are designed to serve as “online watercoolers”.

“…we have something like 40+ internal blogs where people can share their interests in gaming, music, books, children, pets, fitness, and even beards.”

Of course, with each new communication channel you add, team members have even more to deal with each day. Whether it’s internal chat rooms, emails, or an internal blog, the mass of communication to get through can be overwhelming for remote workers.

The Open DNS and Help Scout save team members from information overload with weekly recaps

Chris Doell, VP of Customer Success at Open DNS, says the best way to keep everyone on the same page is to over-communicate. This can cause a problem of its own, though, where team members are overwhelmed by information.

To get around this problem, Open DNS sends a weekly newsletter to everyone on the team including the most important messages, decisions, and notes that came up during the week via chat, email, and in meetings.

The newsletter will usually cover things like customer feedback, shout-outs for accomplishments announced during the week, and any important changes made to processes or workflows. Including support and appreciation of team members in the newsletter helps the team bond and celebrate each other’s wins.

Similarly, Help Scout replaced their weekly all-hands call with a video recap sent out every Monday. CEO Nick Francis says:

“I love the Monday video updates. They’re a great way to keep our remote team connected, celebrate accomplishments and update everyone on company news. The weekly team update has turned into something we all look forward to and talk about over the course of the week.”

The best part is, teammates around the world can watch whenever is convenient for them. Asynchronous communication for the win!

Groove boosted team camaraderie with a 30-day push-up challenge

The Groove team uses experiments to figure out what helps their team bond and perform at their best. They’ve experimented with having no meetings at all and the other extreme: a meeting every workday. More recently the Groove team tried an ad-hoc team experiment, when someone suggested they all join in on a 30-day push-up challenge.

“We — nearly everyone on the team — committed to doing something over the course of the next 30 days that would push us, challenge our limits, and bring us together around a common goal. And it had nothing to do with work.”

CEO Alex Turnbull says this one-off idea sparked something bigger in Groove’s culture:

“It may sound a bit odd, but right away, it felt energizing. Like we had just developed a deeper relationship across the team in a matter of hours.”

The challenge helped the team in a variety of ways, according to Turnbull. “Even those of us who prefer to work “alone” can struggle with that isolation every now and then,” he says. The challenge helped break up everyone’s day by forcing them to step away from the computer and complete a task that wasn’t work-related.

For Turnbull, starting the day with a push-up challenge encouraged him to make healthier decisions throughout the rest of his day, as well:

“Even if I do ten pushups in the morning, I’m less likely to make unhealthy food choices later on, because the workout, even though it’s a small one, makes me think of today as a healthy day. Multiply that effect across the entire team, and you get big health impact.”

The team agreed that everyone would announce when they’d completed the push-up challenge each day.

Image credit: Groove

The check-in aspect of the challenge gave team members another reason to touch base with each other, and made it more obvious that they were all working together on a common goal.

“It’s like training for a marathon together, or learning a new language; it has a bigger impact on your personal life, and thus makes the culture building we’re doing feel more personal to everyone involved.”

As a remote team grows, it can be harder to organize experiments like this one for the whole group. The bigger a team becomes, the more small teams within the company emerge, and leaders can start thinking about ways to build culture in these smaller teams specifically.

Automattic lets any team organize their own “hack week”

While many companies have regular retreats to bring the entire team together, Automattic has a second type of retreat for the smaller teams that exist within the company. Teams at Automattic are able to leverage the company’s “huge travel budget” (made up of the money saved on office space) to organize their own “hack week” anywhere in the world.

Teams have used this opportunity to meet up in Tokyo, Athens, and Australia.

Zapier also does this, though it’s more often just one person flying out to meet another, rather than a whole team getting together.

Zapier CEO Wade Foster says all this flying around can be expensive (Zapier also hosts regular full team retreats), but is worthwhile:

“…the great part is that you’ll likely have the money to cover [travel] plus more since you don’t have to pay for a central office that everyone is working in.”

As small teams emerge within the company and work together more often, it can be harder to keep everyone on the same page. Different teams work with different technologies, try new experiments, and attend different events. Another part of remote culture building is finding effective ways to share this more specialized information so it can benefit the whole company.

Zapier encourages team members to share their knowledge with internal talks

Like many other remote companies, Zapier holds a weekly video call for the entire team. These meetings give everyone a chance to see team members they might not interact with otherwise.

But there’s also something special about the weekly hangout at Zapier: the lightning talk. Here’s how CEO Wade Foster explains this team custom:

“These hangouts are also a good chance to learn something new. Each week someone inside the team does a lightning talk or demo on something interesting or if someone is in the running to join the team, we have them present a lightning talk.”

Doist makes all leadership discussions transparent

Here at Doist, the company behind the digital task manager Todoist and the team communication tool Twist, the team has decided to make their #Doist Heads channel completely public. Anyone — including brand-new team members — can join the channel, browse the topics being discussed, and read the conversations behind all high-level decisions that are made at the company.

This kind of transparency ensures that everyone is aware of the challenges the company faces and builds the level of trust necessary to align a team from around the world behind a common goal.

While there’s value in more common approaches to building a remote team culture, such as full team retreats and one-on-one meetings, these small strategies show how different companies are finding new ways to build strong cultures.

Whether it’s a weekly team newsletter, financing mini team “hack weeks,” making leadership conversations completely transparent, or simply setting aside time to share weekend plans during weekly meetings, the small everyday things can go a long way in connecting team members and strengthening of the company’s culture overall.

See how Twist helps remote teams stay in sync asynchronously, no matter how many time zones you collaborate across.