Building a Sense of Culture Within a Distributed Team

When you’re a leader of a business team, you’re responsible for one thing. This one thing can transform the way people not only feel about working, but the satisfaction they get from their contributions. It can be the difference between winning and losing, between problem-solving and chaos. And it can be summed up in one word:

Culture.

Your culture is the way your team communicates, works, passes the time — even the way your tiny little community of motivated workers has fun.

It’s one thing to build a culture when everyone is in the same room. But what if your team is distributed across the globe: technology experts in India, designers in the UK, home offices in the United States?

Here are how some of the top business leaders bring people together.

Vision: Decide What You Want the Culture to Be

If the leader is responsible for the culture of their team, then that culture comes down to a decision you make. What, exactly, do you want the culture at your company to be?

This isn’t just a question of results. It’s also a question of style.

In the business world, there is more than one way to shear a sheep:

  • Do you want to foster creativity with a fun and irreverent atmosphere, like the one Herb Kelleher built at Southwest Airlines?
  • Are you more concerned with Spartan effectiveness, with an emphasis on results and not process?
  • Is enthusiasm the most important thing, especially the fervor that comes with fully buying in to the brand, a la Ford?

If your culture attracts talent, there’s no wrong answer here. You can even combine elements from successful cultures if you like.

What’s important is that you understand culture begins when the leader of a team decides how work will be done.

Start at the Beginning: Unconventional Interviewing Tips

When they have the opportunity, effective leaders start building their culture before someone is even hired.

Consider PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. During job interviews, he would say the following:

Tell me something that’s true, that almost nobody agrees with you on.

This goes above and beyond the usual “what will you bring to our team” questions and gets to the core of the kind of professional they are. “It sort of tests for originality of thinking,” says Thiel, “and to some extent, it tests for your courage in speaking up in a difficult interview context.”

At Google, they often ask interviewees questions like, “How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?”

It seems like an odd question, but Google isn’t necessarily after the answer. They want to see the process interviewees use to arrive at the answer. Perhaps more importantly, they want to see that the interviewee doesn’t give up and say, “I don’t know.”

You don’t have to use these specific questions to build your culture. If you’re in the position to hire, you should know what you’re looking for and create questions that test for these specific qualities — even if those questions are a little outside the box.

Make Culture an Investment

The companies that become famous for their winning business culture don’t just stumble into their success. They make culture a priority and treat it like an investment.

Let’s return to the infamous culture fostered at Google. At the Google campus, they provide free chef-prepared meals, free haircuts, free dry cleaning. They offer gyms, swimming pools, even “nap pods.” You won’t have to go far to relax with video games, foosball, or ping pong.

These perks are not free. Google fronts the cost for them and understands that they pay their techies a hefty salary even as they play ping pong.

But when viewed as an investment, the expenses make sense. Google is competing for top Silicon Valley talent — they have to make their office somewhere people actually want to come. And relaxed, happy employees tend to be happier to come in and do the work that’s asked of them.

Even if you don’t have the deep pockets of Google, you can always invest time or energy into making your culture better.

This becomes much easier to do when you stop viewing good business culture as merely a nice thing to have. Think about a winning culture as an investment that pays long-term dividends. The more time you invest in creating a quality culture, the less time you’ll have to spend resolving conflicts or funding team-building exercises to compensate.

Like Google, think of culture not as a bonus, but as a necessity of doing business.

Foster Group Investment by Making It Fun

Remember A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens? In it, Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly old boss who makes life miserable for his single employee, Bob Cratchit.

It’s only when Scrooge reflects upon his time with his cheerful old boss, Fezziwig, that he regrets his own behavior. The leader, Scrooge realized, always possesses “the power to make people happy or unhappy.

As a team leader, you possess this same responsibility. And no matter what your individual style may be, your team can always benefit from a little fun.

We saw this in the aforementioned turnaround at Southwest Airlines. Herb Kelleher built a company that made the fun of the employees a focus: flight attendants became free to joke with the passengers and turn safety instructions into veritable comedy routines.

Southwest also lowered costs by having flight attendants clean between flights — which in turn helped reduce time spent at the gate. The result for customers was a straightforward, efficient, fun experience that stood in stark contrast to the businesslike approach of every other carrier.

There’s a real business value in fun. Make someone’s job fun and they’re more likely to go the extra mile for you, as the flight attendants of Southwest do. It’s human nature: we’re more inclined to emotionally invest in work that makes us happy.

If you host a weekly web conference with your global team, you’re going to maximize attendance if you find ways to keep these meetings light and fun without distracting from the overall objectives.

Become Enthusiastic Company People — Because it Pays Off

Simply put, your team needs to believe in what they’re working toward.

Let’s turn to another airline: JetBlue. JetBlue invested in its own culture by sending new crewmembers to a fun and involved orientation in Orlando, Florida. They met with Jet Blue leaders, enjoyed good food, and even flew fun simulators along the way. The result, according to Entrepreneur, was an airline that expanded profit from $58 million to $168 million in just four years.

JetBlue didn’t copy the fun routines of Southwest Airlines, but they stuck to the principle of making team culture an investment.

Who wouldn’t want to work hard for a company that cared enough about its employees to meet with them, feed them, entertain them? It’s the golden rule in effect: by being a company that cared about its employees, JetBlue became a company worth caring about.

Make a Commitment to Live Meetings

We’re human beings. No culture will exist without communication.

Regular live meetings and video conferences are the best way to keep communication as real as possible even when your team is distributed across the globe.

The Harvard Business Review recommends that globally distributed teams follow a few principles to foster effective communication:

  • Following up on communications across different platforms. This is especially important if you don’t receive a confirmation from an email, for example.
  • Find a time that works best for everybody. Different time zones can throw a wrench in your plans, but it’s better to set a certain time and let people adapt rather than never get a time set at all.
  • Don’t forget a little empathy for those who might feel out of the loop, either. If your entire team is in the United States and you have a contractor in Romania, you might want to reach out to them more often.

Some of the principles of culture-building will hold up no matter where your team is. But don’t forget to make an investment of time and energy to make sure each of your distributed team members feels like they belong.

Remember that You’re the Boss

“Some prefer to work in a different way. Ultimately, they will either adopt the Ford culture, or they will leave.” — Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford

Culture is decided by leadership, which is why enforcement ultimately rests on leadership as well. Alan Mulally’s words may seem harsh, but sometimes maintaining a culture is as much about what and whom you don’t include.

This isn’t to say that a stubborn and hard-working person won’t fit in if you’re trying to build a fun culture. But if employees and contractors derail your live conferences, projects, and email threads on a repeated basis, you might want to ask yourself if they’re really showing the dedication your culture deserves.

Above All Else, Be the Culture You Want to See

According to Dale Carnegie Training Research, the majority of engaged employees saw their manager as someone who sets a good example. Those not fully engaged said the same only 25% of the time.

If you lead a distributed team, then that example starts with you, including:

  • The way you communicate with employees: showing respect commands respect.
  • Enforcing your standards: if you don’t want employees working 24 hours a day, don’t respond to emails yourself at all hours of the night.
  • Set the tone: those who work for you will tend to only exhibit the behavior they believe is acceptable in online meetings. If you keep things light and relaxed, chances are, it will have a domino effect.

What are some of the strategies you’ve used to build a sense of culture within your distributed team? Share your insights below.

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