Work always comes with challenges from overstuffed task lists and unclear communication to office bullies and apathetic bosses. But remote work puts the spotlight on a set of specific workplace issues.

In Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2019 report, remote workers said their greatest hurdle was loneliness (19%), followed by collaborating or communicating (17%) and staying motivated (8%). These findings indicate issues with teamwork and a lack of cohesive company culture for remote teams.

Will the strategies companies have traditionally used to instill culture and engagement work in the digital age? We asked remote work experts to share their insights on company culture for distributed teams, how to boost engagement and ways companies can foster culture remotely.

Why Culture Matters For Remote Teams

Company culture, whether it's a remote or office-based environment, is an important way for employees to understand what the company values beyond their individual contributions. “At times of change and uncertainty, teams benefit from having a strong compass in the company culture,” said Karen Anderson, chief human resources officer at IT security company Mimecast. “Often this comes in the form of norms, values and the ways in which we communicate.” 

Teamwork and culture have more influence over company success than any other technique or tactic, said Darren Chait, co-founder and COO of San Francisco-based tech firm Hugo. “Getting culture wrong is more detrimental than missing the mark on any one strategy,” he said. “All that is to say that it is absolutely imperative that managers pay attention to employee engagement, whether in a remote or shared-office environment."

Does Remote Culture Happen Naturally?

Without active management, the culture that naturally develops could incorporate poor habits, ineffective communication or other negative characteristics. That’s why it’s crucial for managers and business leaders to course-correct cultural norms along the way. “To bridge the remote work gap, organization leaders need to take an intentional approach,” Chait said.

But leaders should also be careful not to overdo it. “It is important that you don’t over-orchestrate or even try to emulate another company," Anderson said. "But you should be explicit with values and norms and be prepared to repeat and embed them in a multitude of processes.” That means actively fostering certain values through clear communication, performance, goals and employee recognition.

Instilling a Remote Company Culture

While culture can develop naturally, most companies benefit by deliberately defining core values and encouraging a unified culture for its remote workforce. Here are some tips:

Learning Opportunities

Use More Video 

When it comes to remote culture, Anderson believes the principles are largely the same but the techniques are different. “For example, you may need to rely less on written emails as you can miss critical tone that you may need to convey,” she said. “So it is important to increase the use of videos, virtual town halls or even gamification that could support employee engagement and learning.” These efforts don’t need to be difficult to produce, and in many cases developing culture through these methods could be more organic, effective and sustainable.

Try 'Donut' Meetings

“There's an app called ‘donut’ which randomly pairs people in an organization together for 30-minute meetings,” said Jessica Day, co-founder of innovation management platform IdeaScale. Meetings occur every few weeks so that each person within the organization gets to spend time with someone else. “These meetings [have no agenda] and have no other purpose than personal connection,” Day said. These kind of meetings can be an alternative to in-person happy hours and other social events companies would traditionally schedule throughout the year.

Recognize Individual Employees

Day's organization also presents a special recognition to one employee per month. “Employee of the month may sound cheesy but people have really responded to it,” Day said.

Her organization collects positive anecdotes from employees about an honoree in a designated Slack thread each month. “Then, when we announce who the employee is in our monthly town hall we invite them to that Slack thread so that they can see all the wonderful things that people have written about them,” she said. Recognizing individual employees as valuable members of the team helps create a positive working culture, regardless of where and how they work.

Encourage Transparency

Be more deliberate about seemingly non-essential communication. When employees aren’t together in the same office, communication is often more purpose-based. “Don't underestimate what's overheard or observed by simply being in the same place,” Chait said. “There's huge value lost in not sharing nice-to-know or in-case-you-may-be-interested content, and there are many tools that enable and encourage sharing to achieve transparency and org-wide exposure.” Slack and other less formal communication methods can encourage employees to share more interesting tidbits of information that may not be critical but will ultimately create more engagement.