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The COVID-19 pandemic may have forced many companies to fast-track their transition to remote work, but we can continue to expect distributed teams to become increasingly common in the future.

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Remote work has the potential to increase equity and representation in the workplace because it expands your hiring pool and can work better for folks across the neurodiversity spectrum. However, in order to realize that potential, team and company norms and policies must be evaluated and redesigned. The ability to tap your teammate on the shoulder to quickly debug code or casually chit-chat with a coworker in the office kitchen doesn’t exist remotely. 

How might we design more inclusive work cultures that account for and include everyone on the team? Shaping an inclusive work culture is good for not only team happiness, but also team output. Employees who feel like they can bring their full authentic selves to work are more motivated, effective, and resilient.

This article is for anyone who is navigating how to lead distributed teams. Drawing from my experiences working with and leading remote teams at Nava, a public benefit corporation dedicated to improving government services, I’ll share practical tips on how to create and sustain an inclusive work culture. 

 

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But first, what is work culture?

Work culture is the set of shared values, goals, attitudes, and practices that signal to employees how they should interact and collaborate with one another in the workplace. It defines how we communicate, make decisions, work together, and share information. 

When designing a work culture that accounts for and includes everyone involved, I find organizational coach Paloma Medina’s BICEPS framework to be a useful mental model for understanding what’s most important to people at work. There are six core needs that people have at work including:

  • Belonging. The sense of connection that you feel to a group of people.
  • Improvement/Progress. The need to feel like progress is being made.
  • Choice. The need to feel autonomy and agency over the decisions made at work.
  • Equality/Fairness. The feeling that access to resources is fair and equitable, decisions are fair, and everyone is treated as equally important.
  • Predictability. The need for the right balance of consistency and unpredictability.
  • Significance. The need to feel your work is recognized and appreciated.

Inclusive cultures consider, nourish, and balance the six core needs of team members as individuals and as a unit.

The challenges to staying connected as distributed teams

Many of the challenges that distributed teams face are rooted in the fact that traditional modes of collaboration assume physical co-location. Think physical whiteboards and ‘watercooler chat’. Here are a few examples of the ways in which traditional office culture breaks down in remote work: 

  • In distributed teams, teammates can be spread across different time zones and therefore may not all be ‘at work’ at the same time. How might we take this into account when it comes to decision-making and alignment?
  • When there are no physical spaces to gather with other people on the fly, you have to proactively create time to meet with teammates. This can easily result in transactional interactions that are strictly focused on work. How might we create virtual spaces for social connection in the workplace? 
  • In hybrid-remote workplaces, where some team members are physically co-located and others are remote, extra attention is required to ensure that all meeting attendees can fully contribute.

The core pillars of culture: norms, rituals, and spaces

Awareness is the first step toward designing more inclusive work cultures. In the rest of this article, I’ll break down company culture into three categories: norms, rituals, and spaces. 

Norms 

Work habits and collaborative norms can and do form organically, often without intentional design and without being made explicit. This can lead to work cultures that do not account for or include everyone on the team, and put the onus on individuals to interpret what behavior is expected in order to succeed. Co-created and explicit values and norms can support the choice, equality/fairness, and predictability elements of the BICEPS framework. Here are a few activities that you and your team can do to create shared norms.

Firstly, you can create a team charter that explicitly defines shared values and collaboration norms. Dropbox Design’s Team Values Toolkit is a great resource for doing this collaboratively with the entire team. Make space for individual team members to share their personal values and inform the team charter.

Secondly, establish and document norms around common interactions, like meetings, communication, making decisions, sharing information, etc. For example, for meetings, should folks be encouraged to have their video on? (Note: I recognize that not everyone wants to be on-camera all the time, which is totally fine! The goal is to discuss and come to an agreement as a team on what behaviors the team wants to encourage and make space for). For sharing information, should folks default to async messaging (e.g. Slack) so that team members in different time zones don’t miss out on important information? For generative idea-sharing and collaboration, what tools can be used to co-create together? At Nava, we love using MURAL for virtual whiteboard activities.

Rituals

Rituals are a core element of company culture. They’re the regular touchpoints and activities that signal a company’s values, and often support the belonging, improvement, and significance aspects of BICEPS. At Nava, we foster connection through virtual coworking; we set aside a regular time to meet as a team for alignment and team-building activities. Each week, our teams jump on a video conference call to hang out and work together for an hour. The time can be used for anything from pair programming to celebrations of personal milestones like birthdays and work anniversaries.

We also utilize shoutouts, as recognition of individual and team accomplishments both big and small is a huge part of the Nava culture. We have a dedicated Slack channel where team members regularly submit kudos and notes of appreciation to publicly celebrate their peers. 

Spaces

One of the common pitfalls of remote work is that meetings can easily become transactional. We spend the greater part of our daily lives interacting with our coworkers, so connecting with each other on a personal and social level is critical to team health and happiness. When I asked my teammates what spaces and activities make them feel connected to their coworkers, they shared the following: 

  • Team-building activities that aren’t work-focused, such as casual lunch sessions, trivia nights, and puzzles. 
  • Employee resource groups, which can offer safe spaces for folks with shared identities or experiences to connect and affect change within the organization.
  • Slack channels for non-work topics, so that employees who may not interact otherwise can connect over things like cooking, owning pets, and more. 

Get started, and stay intentional

Whether remote work is new to your company or not, shaping inclusive culture requires cultivation and regular reflection. As you think about the ways in which you and your team can intentionally design and make explicit its norms, rituals, and spaces, here are some questions to get you started:

  • What are the implicit norms, rituals, and spaces that shape your company or team’s culture? How do they include or exclude folks? Which ones should be made explicit?
  • Using the BICEPS model, what are individual team members’ hierarchy of core needs – and how might shared working norms and values be more attuned to those needs?

Special thanks to all my amazing colleagues at Nava, from whom I sourced many of the practical tips in this article.

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Shaping culture in distributed engineering teams
Episode 02 Shaping culture in distributed engineering teams