remote worker sitting at home wearing headphones and smiling, a plant, couch, and TV visible in the background
SDI Productions/Getty Images

Company culture can seem like something that’s reserved only for big companies with robust HR teams and hefty company event budgets. But I’ve come to believe that it’s critical to invest in culture no matter what your team size—especially if you’re working remotely.

This truth has really been drilled in as I’ve watched fellow founders fall prey to the Great Resignation thanks to disengaged employees who aren’t connected to the company, and seen friends land exciting new jobs only to experience “Shift Shock” after realizing the culture doesn’t match their expectations.

SEARCH OPEN JOBS ON THE MUSE! See who’s hiring here, and you can even filter your search by benefits, company size, remote opportunities, and more. Then, sign up for our newsletter and we’ll deliver advice on landing the job right to you.

The good news is building team culture doesn’t have to overwhelm a tiny staff’s time or resources—and it doesn’t even have to come just from the top. I’ve built several companies and found that small steps from people at all levels of the organization can have a major impact on bolstering camaraderie. Even with my current team of just seven employees, I regularly look for ways to create a better working environment so our employees feel engaged right now and our culture stays strong as we grow.

Whether you’re a leader or an employee looking to improve the workplace for all, here are four simple steps to consider.

1.
Spend less time together (yes, really).

If you’ve ever found yourself sitting in your sixth straight hour of virtual meetings and not-so-optional team events, you’ve experienced firsthand how many newly remote teams think that more time together automatically means an improved culture. You can only foster relationships with face-to-face time, right?

At my company, we’ve found the opposite to be true: The more we cut down on time employees are expected to be online, the more engaged they are when we are together.

For instance, instead of expecting our employees to be online from nine to five, we introduced flexible work windows: We ask that all of our employees be available during the same few hours during the middle of the day, but otherwise, they can work whenever they wish. This gives everyone consistent times to connect while also supporting flexibility.

We’ve also cut back to just one full-team meeting a week—and encouraged employees to consider whether other meetings they schedule are the best way to get a particular task done, or if asynchronous work or a Slack chat would be just as effective. Oftentimes meetings aren’t the best option, we just don’t take the time to think about it.

Because we don’t overdo meetings or insist on too much forced team time, people actually look forward to coming together. As the old adage goes, distance makes the heart grow fonder.

If you’re a leader:

Look for opportunities to cut down on the time your employees are required to be together—whether that’s adjusting your working hours or reducing unnecessary meetings.

If you’re an employee:

Consider whether every meeting you schedule is truly necessary, or if you could shift some of them to email or chat to give your teammates a little more space during the day.


via GIPHY

2.
Give your social time some structure—but keep it fun!

Let’s be honest: The last thing anyone wants these days is another awkward virtual happy hour. Instead, we’ve tried to give our online social time more of a purpose than just staring at everyone’s tiny Zoom windows.

For instance, we encourage employees to take breaks throughout the week to play virtual games together. Besides relating back to the mission of our company—a digital games platform—playing together is great for a few reasons: It allows employees to socialize in smaller groups, and it’s been shown to increase workplace satisfaction, improve mental capacity, and promote stress relief.

We’ve also turned the occasional virtual happy hour into an opportunity for team recognition: Rather than chatting aimlessly, we ask that everyone toast another employee for something they’ve done particularly well recently. Not only is the recognition motivating and morale-boosting, it gives everyone a chance to learn more about one another’s strengths.

If you’re a leader: 

Plan company events with a purpose beyond just spending time together, such as an activity you can do together (online Airbnb experiences may give you some ideas) or an interesting prompt to get people talking.

If you’re an employee: 

Next time you’re scheduling a virtual hangout with your coworkers, consider how you can create a little more structure for the event. You could also suggest some ideas for upgrading your existing team events (or even volunteer to host the next one).

3.
Admit that work isn’t the only thing that matters.

Especially as work and home lives have blended together more than ever, leaders are kidding themselves if they think employees aren’t spending time on some personal needs throughout the day. Instead of trying to crack down on it, we’ve found that encouraging it has made our culture stronger. We want employees to feel able to prioritize the non-work activities they value, so we invite people to block off personal time on their calendars—and even share what the time is for if they feel comfortable.

For instance, I have time blocked off every morning to get my kids to school; another teammate has a daily workout carved out; and another reserves time to have lunch with his wife twice a week. I know other companies that make it the norm to let the team know via chat when you’ll be offline and why, whether you’re taking a sick dog to the vet or headed out one afternoon to check out a house.

This isn’t about knowing what everyone’s doing every minute of the day; instead, it’s about building a culture around respecting non-work values as priorities. In our experience, this approach helps people connect on a deeper level and has built a culture of support, not judgment, around the fact that work isn’t the only thing that matters. More importantly, when senior leaders implement this approach—without repercussions for how employees are spending their time or biases that support certain personal priorities but not others—it shows that your company cares for your team’s holistic well-being.

If you’re a leader: 

Let employees know that they’re free to block time for personal priorities, and walk the talk by modeling it on your own calendar. Don’t force employees to tell you about their personal needs as a manager—that can be a quick way to cross some boundaries—but if you start the trend by being a little vulnerable, your employees may be happy to follow.

If you’re an employee: 

Take steps to normalize valuing one another’s personal priorities, such as sharing why you’re blocking off time on your calendar and not bugging your teammates when they’re signed off.


via GIPHY

4.
Find ways for people at every level to voice their needs.

Finally, the best way to find out what would make your employees or teammates happier is to ask them. Employee engagement surveys may seem a little dated, but when done right they can be a powerful way for leaders to learn how to better serve their teams—and for employees to voice what they really need to feel supported.

Twice a year, we send out a survey asking questions like:

  • How connected do you feel to the team?
  • How happy are you?
  • How productive do you feel?
  • Do you feel like you’re set up to successfully work as a remote employee?
  • What would help improve any of these things?

Just the process of asking is critical. Whether you’re a team leader or simply running a project, it’s pretty easy to be tuned out of the day-to-day experiences of others, particularly when you’re working remotely. But the information and ideas we’ve gathered from these surveys has also led to a lot of the actions I’ve mentioned above and ultimately has helped improve our employee engagement by over 40%. Having a benchmark is also helpful in understanding whether changes you’re making are working. Plus, as long as you actually take some action from the surveys, it can really help your teammates feel like they have a voice.

If you’re a leader: 

Send out your first employee engagement survey ASAP (if you haven’t already), and set up a regular schedule for doing so. Make sure you actually read the responses, communicate your plans to address the feedback, and take action!

If you’re an employee: 

Talk to management or HR to see if they’d be open to creating any easy way for employees to share their thoughts on how you could create a stronger and more supportive culture. You can even do this on a smaller scale by sending a short survey to the other team members on a project you’re leading or to any employees you manage.