Culture remote company

Chapter 10: How to build company culture

Posted by Luke Thomas
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The number of ping-pong tables at the office does not create a healthy company culture. In a remote-first world, a Slack channel where employees can talk about their pets is not your company culture either.

If we want to truly understand how to build a strong company culture when remote, we need to first understand what culture even means.

What is culture?

One of my favorite definitions of culture is by Edgar Schein in the book, Organizational Culture and Leadership:

"Organizational culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems."

He breaks down culture further, which I’ve summarized below:

1. Artifacts

Artifacts are visible, observable signs. They could be specific rituals, habits, the language you use, and behavior that your team exhibits on a regular basis. These artifacts can be observed by outsiders.

2. Values

Values are shared opinions about the way things should be. The most obvious example of shared opinions are company values that aim to guide behavior and how you hire (and who you need to let go). If artifacts are the “what,” then values are “why” you act and behave in a particular way.

3. Basic Assumptions

Basic assumptions are another level deeper than values. These are principles that everyone takes for granted and is never challenged by the group. For example, the importance of spending time with each other, how people should relate to each other, and more.

Defining your company culture

The reason why it is so important to define your culture is because if you don’t, you will look at artifacts (like a ping pong table at the office or a Slack channel) and will incorrectly label this as your culture.

You’ve only peeled back one layer of the onion!

If you want to dig deeper and better define your company culture, consider getting your team together and completing a group exercise where you:

  1. Document the artifacts ⁠— write down the unique behaviors, norms, and other observable things your company does
  2. Ask “WHY do we do this?” ⁠— this will help you unpack the company values and shared beliefs.
  3. Match artifacts with values and identify gaps ⁠— Sometimes you will see that you behave in a way that doesn’t line up with your values. It’s important to dig deeper into these gaps that exist, as it may mean you need to iterate on your values.

How it works

At Friday, here’s a few behaviors that you may observe if you join the company as a new hire:

  • We dislike regularly scheduled internal meetings (3 per month, with 2/3 being unrelated to work)
  • In every async update we share, there’s an opportunity to share something personal
  • We try to build products that feel fun
  • We try not to take ourselves too seriously

Why do we act this way?

One of our company values is that we aim to be autonomous by default. Our goal with this value is to enable everyone in the company to run at their own pace.

If you look at the everyday behaviors (the artifacts), there’s a little bit of a disconnect here.

This disconnect happens because the basic assumption lurking beneath the surface is that we believe every day at work should feel a bit more like Friday. We spend 40+ hours a week working, why can’t we make this time feel more like the last day of the work week?

The reason why we try to be autonomous by default (a company value) is because we want to give people time and space to do their best work. Another basic assumption we have at Friday is that doing your best work drives happiness, not the other way around.

This simple exercise can help you quickly understand what’s really driving group behavior at your company. While you will never be able to perfectly articulate your company values, the key ingredient is to constantly discuss and iterate on them.

Values in Action

At this point, you should have a clear understanding of how to define and convey your company values in a nuanced way without saying “we have ping-pong tables and fun Slack channels.” The next step is the more difficult part. How do you constantly reinforce these values when everyone isn’t in the same room?

If we think about the culture framework, previously we were trying to peel back the layers and identify the basic assumptions. Now, we are trying to reinforce the values into everyday behavior. We want to work in the opposite direction.

Why does this matter?

Your company values glue the organization together. They shape behavior, how you hire, and who you may need to fire. If you don’t have glue, things will fall apart.

Values must be constantly reinforced

The first step to reinforcing your culture values is to make your values visible and easily referenced. This is much tougher to implement than it sounds.

Here are a few examples of how to reinforce your values at work:

  • Before you hire someone, you should ask questions based on your company values and determine if there’s alignment. You could also highlight these values on your company website and job pages.
  • When you onboard someone new, you should reiterate these values right away
  • Values should be front and center in your company handbook
  • If you have an office, values could be displayed on the wall or a bulletin board
  • When you do monthly reviews or quarterly planning, you should reiterate the company values

What may surprise you is that most of your company will not remember this stuff. According to research, 95% of a company’s employees are unaware of, or do not understand, its strategy. While this statistic is unfortunate, it’s entirely predictable. Values tend to be aspirational and can be too abstract to shape everyday behavior.

Your values must be integrated into the everyday

After reinforcing values, the next step is to incorporate them into everyday behaviors. It’s not enough to talk about what’s important. You will need to live them out.

For example:

  • When hiring, create structured interview questions based on company values for potential recruits.
  • If you use tools to share recognition/kudos, make sure you can tag a company value. Even better, there should be analytics to show if you are trending in the right direction or not.
  • Performance reviews or annual reviews should incorporate questions to verify that people are living out the company values.
  • If you need to make a difficult decision, list out the appropriate values at the top of a decision document or at the beginning of the meeting.

Please keep in mind that it’s okay if your company values are aspirational. Values are a forcing function for who you want to be and how you aim to behave. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about striving to be better than yesterday.

Aisha’s perspective

“Giving kudos at Friday is a brand new experience for me. At my past in-person internship, my boss and coworkers thanked me for completing my work as I finished it. Now working remotely, I wasn’t sure how that was going to translate over.

Friday gives you a chance to send kudos publicly or privately to different people on your team, while also tagging one or more of the company values. On my first day of work, I received some kudos from my coworkers, welcoming me to the team. It made me feel like I was already part of the team. I’ve received kudos for doing great work, and I sent kudos to others for the same reason—whether I was impressed with what I’d seen, someone helped me out personally, or just because I felt like it that day.

I really think it’s nice to receive kudos, because it feels like all the progress you’ve put into work has been seen by others. It’s satisfying that even though we don’t see each other face-to-face, we can still feel connected.”

Want to keep reading? In the next chapter, we discuss how to stay accountable when remote.

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