How to Build a Great Team Culture When Your Staff Have Never Met in Person

‘Team culture’ is a major buzz-term of 2015, as startups everywhere try to attract the best talent through incentives and gimmickery on a scale unforeseen since the great bubble of the late 1990s.

All over Silicon Valley, free lunches, isolation pods, gym memberships, dog creches and flexible time have become the standard.

But don’t think that just because you can’t compete with Facebook for staff you can’t benefit from developing a strong culture within your business.

In many ways, it’s more important to focus on this with a remote team of contractors, because while they come for the money, they stay for the culture.

Mel and I have been operating our businesses with a large virtual team for the past three years. During this time, we have had over 60 staff members work with us, for periods of time from an hour to eighteen months.

Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot in this time.

Time and again we have found, in talking to our own remote staff directly and in anonymous surveys, that the most important factors to them are not money or even the type of work they are doing. What they care about most of all is stability, predictability and team culture.

For us, the most important lesson – by far – has been the importance of developing a team culture that is inclusive, supportive and resilient to change (because with virtual staff, change is inevitable). In short, don’t treat them any differently to regular staff.

So here I share our top eight tips for building a culture in your small enterprise that will keep your best staff around longer, engaged more and contributing ever more to your bottom line.

1. Include them in meetings and decision-making

The best virtual staff take their job very seriously and often view their trajectory as a career, not just a temporary gig. As such, there are two major benefits of including them in meetings and decisions.

Firstly, they feel included and that they constitute an important part of your team. This is absolutely crucial to their perceived value, as well as their job satisfaction because it is hard working on your own behind a laptop all week. Participating in a meeting and sharing ideas is a great motivational tool.

Including your staff in decision-making also has a great inherent value, to your business as well as to their sense of ownership in the business. You don’t have to go to Ricardo Semler lengths, but merely asking for input before you make a call can go a long way – and maybe just help you too.

Secondly, the ideas they have to contribute are extremely valuable; often, your staff will be more experienced in online business than you. When we were looking for a new task management tool, we mentioned it in a meeting and immediately one of our team from Pakistan suggested Asana, which we’ve been using ever since. I can only imagine how many hours of research and testing that saved us!

Even better, she conducted the training for us for the whole team (including us!) so it saved us a lot off additional effort and gave her an opportunity to take a leadership role.

2. Give each team member ownership of something discrete

It could be anything; monitoring an inbox, drafting the social media posts for you to check, researching something every week. It doesn’t matter what the task is, but the mere fact of being solely responsible for something will require your staff to exercise their initiative and creativity, which they rarely get to do.

You’ll get quality work, and more loyalty – because who likes to work all day long as a mindless automaton? You’ll also get the benefit of new perspectives, because as good as you are, you can’t always be the best at everything. Which leads me to point 3…

3. Don’t micromanage

Nobody enjoys being micromanaged. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, imagine trying to go for a run with lead weights around your ankles while somebody in the stands is yelling at you to go faster – that’s how it feels.

If you’ve hired a person to do a job, give them enough information and instruction to do the job – and let them get on with it!

It’s incumbent upon you to make sure your staff are adequately equipped to perform at work, but beyond a certain point you will get in the way. It’s bad for your business’ productivity and it’s bad for your staff morale.

Nobody wants to work in a company where the boss won’t give them space to be productive and creative in their own way. Your staff are professionals, and if you treat them as such you will receive the benefits in spades.

4. Rely on them

Have you ever had a boss that you were desperate to impress, because they invested in you and trusted you to do your job well?

Remember how motivated you felt to do well for them? Imagine if your team all felt that way about you.  Think how much better the team would perform, how much more productive they’d be.

It’s human nature to want to do well – give your guys the right tools, rely on them to deliver and you will be amazed at what they will achieve for you.

5. Invest in them

Many CEOs of remote teams view their staff as a commodity. It can be easy to fall into this trap when you have a large number of staff. Inevitably people will occasionally resign, or just disappear with no explanation. In such an environment, why would you invest in the development of your staff?

Moreover, why would you invest time and money in developing their skills, when that will simply make them more attractive for someone else to poach?

This is the wrong way to look at staff training for a number of reasons, but the main one is that your staff are human, and the idea of ‘one good turn deserving another’ is hard-wired into us. Put simply, if you support and nurture your staff to improve their skills on the job, they will reward your trust and investment in them by using those skills to do a better job for you.

Why would they want to leave when they have an employer who cares enough to invest in developing their skills? In our experience, the benefits of loyalty and commitment we have received from staff has been far greater than the cost and time we’ve invested in their development.

If you can stop thinking about training, education and development as a cost, and start thinking of these things as part of the profit center, you will be far more open to seeing the very real and tangible gains that you can achieve in your business from giving your staff room to better themselves.

6. Reward publicly

A small acknowledgment of a job well done goes a long way. Often, the mere gesture of a gift or public praise is more valuable to a person than any financial incentive you can give them to do a job well.

Be generous, but genuine, with your praise. Where one of your employees goes out of their way to take care of a customer, or to fix an urgent issue with your website and keep the business running, thank them publicly and explain how their contribution benefits the company as a whole.  People like to feel like they’re part of something important.

We always make a point in our weekly meeting of acknowledging an achievement that each team member has made during the preceding week. After a little while, we found that this culture of acknowledgment filtered out to our remote staff, who made a more concerted effort to single each other out for praise as well.

Nurturing a supportive environment, where people are confident to go beyond their job descriptions to do better for the business, is the single best thing you can do as a manager.

Google has always had their 20% time – and without giving their employees this space to be creative and indulge their own ideas to make the business better, game-changing innovations like Gmail, Google News and Google Earth simply wouldn’t exist. Indeed, 3M were onto this game long before Google; the most famous invention of their ‘15% time’? The Post-It-Note.

7. Keep open communications

The vast majority of dissatisfaction with management stems from a lack of communication. As an employee, if you feel excluded from important decisions or discussions, especially those that directly affect your job, you will naturally feel more vulnerable and, over time, become disengaged.

Why should you care about your company if you feel like your company doesn’t care about you?

That’s a very fair question and one that is easy to forget when you’re a busy manager. You might understand why you made a certain decision, but unless you clearly articulate it to your people, they might take it personally or worse. So take a few minutes and talk about it.

We recommend adopting a simple rule; don’t make any decision affecting your staff or the direction of the business without first consulting your team. You don’t have to make decisions by consensus, but adopting this approach ensures that everyone feels in the loop and will be ready and happy to execute once you make the decision.  It feels good to give your opinion, even if it’s not ultimately the direction taken.

On the other side of the coin, it’s essential to keep an open dialog with your staff about their role and how they are performing against your expectations. No staff member should ever be surprised that they were fired. If you dismiss someone out of the blue for poor performance, without giving them a chance to fix it first, that’s poor management.

Especially with virtual staff, often it’s a simple misunderstanding of approaches or priorities that can be fixed with further discussion and appropriate training. It’s far easier to train somebody than to go through the hiring process, so put the effort in with the people you have.

Conversely, always encourage an active, open dialog about your own performance and that of other managers. This kind of 360 degree feedback will often reveal things about your style that you can easily change, which will result in a better business culture. So don’t be scared of it, embrace it!

8. Support them in reaching their goals (whatever they are)

Our businesses exist as part of a business ecosystem with a very clear value chain for employees. For a freelancer or virtual staff member, the primary motivation is typically how much they can be paid for their time. Naturally, they want to maximize their returns by increasing their income over time.

This is a fact that managers can either ignore, fight or embrace. The natural reaction is to ignore (”I’m a great manager, why would they want to leave me”) or fight (“how could you do this to me…after all I’ve done for you?”)

Not enough managers choose to embrace this reality. But when you do, magical things can happen for your business. Firstly, by giving your employees a clear path to betterment, you encourage them to try new things, extend themselves and make improvements in your business.

A motivated employee will go above and beyond for you for the time you have them. They will seek out opportunities to learn new skills and improve on existing ones, using your business as a laboratory for climbing their own career ladder.

We always ask our employees where they would like to be in 12 months and how we can support them to get there. We have had some really interesting responses, ranging from doubling their hourly rate to learning how to develop apps. We haven’t always been able to directly support these goals, but we have always tried to help at least indirectly, by providing more flexible working arrangements or exposure to different parts of the business.

In fact, we’re happiest when our employees tell us they have to leave because they’ve found a better-paying job. We pay our employees what we can, but some of our stars have learned to fly too high for us. To us, this is the biggest compliment we can be given as managers – that we’ve helped them become better providers and have more time with their families by developing new skills on the job with us.

One example of such a star team member is Diane, who we hired from the Philippines at a rate of $6 per hour. Diane was an exceptional worker and before long was commanding above $8 from other employers. We couldn’t afford to match it, but she nonetheless stayed with us all the way up to when she started receiving $12 per hour offers – and had to make the jump. All this happened within 6 months.

We could lament our misfortune at losing an amazing team member, or we could choose to be excited that we’d helped her move so quickly up the value chain and grateful to have had her for the time we did.

After all, it’s the success stories that attract new and better staff to your company and we’re confident that Diane will be an ambassador for us long into the future. She even stuck around to help train her replacement!

If we’d approached things a different way, I can confidently say that she would still have definitely departed, but it’s unlikely she’d have been happy to come on our podcast.

The final word

Nurturing a team culture is not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight. But if you get it right, the benefits that flow from that are immense and enduring.

So dedicate some time, open your ears and work out with your staff what every day in the virtual office should look like. Value your team honestly, communicate genuinely and together, you will achieve amazing things.