Fostering Team Culture in Remote Startup Environments
Workplace culture is defined by the shared values, attitudes, and belief systems that permeate every level of an organization. It both guides and gives meaning to the ways people navigate their work environment. A positive, team-oriented workplace culture reduces employee stress, improves teamwork, increases productivity, raises morale, reduces employee turnover, and most importantly, promotes transparency.
Companies often develop strategies for fostering such a culture, from group retreats to mentorship programs, with varying results. But in order to build a positive team culture intentionally, the strategic cultivation of culture must be as pervasive as culture itself. Rather than dedicating sporadic periods of time to group activities, the vision for team culture must guide each decision and action taken by the leadership team first.
Despite the plethora of culture-building strategies and advice, for many leaders, it remains a confounding and elusive goal. In part, this is a result of its implicit nature. Team culture cannot be written in a deck and shared with the team the way other company goals and expectations are. It shapes attitudes and behaviors in a range of pervasive ways, while remaining flexible and responsive. Unlike strategy, team culture cannot be assigned or enforced from the top down; it is cultivated across all levels of the organization in intentional and unintentional ways.
While leaders cannot impose a culture on their teams, team culture is inextricably linked to leadership. It is cultivated through the attitudes and behaviors of all team members, including (and especially) the leadership team.
In startup environments, the impacts of leadership on team culture is felt and amplified in unique ways. The smaller the size of startups mean that each member of the team is more closely linked to the company’s leadership team and, on average, interacts more with leadership than most employees of large organizations. This facilitates greater opportunity for navigating work without the structured hierarchies that are necessitated for clarity’s sake in large organizations. As such, it is imperative that culture-building strategies go beyond the traditional ‘fun activities’ and perks, to guide interactions since their effects can be felt by every member of the team directly.
At Stratizant, for example, we’ve committed to making impactful decisions as a team to contribute to a culture where each team member’s opinions are equally valued and respected. This commitment was put to the test in a significant way at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, where financial strain demanded tough decision making. In order to uphold and build on our team culture, the problem we faced and its possible solutions were discussed and agreed upon collectively. Each member of our team (including myself) agreed to cut our pay by 25% in order to reduce the financial burden on the company and prevent the need to downsize. In other words, we all took a hit to prevent any individual from undergoing a serious blow. When we were past the difficult period of time each person’s pay went back to 100% and we were able to make up and repay what had been missed.
Our decision, and our approach for arriving at that decision, are not just examples that highlight our strong team culture; they are strategies by which we actively cultivate that culture.
Granted, even in a startup it’s not feasible to involve the entire team in each decision a company makes, but for us, decisions that have the potential to personally impact our team members are made together. Collective decision making relies on transparency, which ensures that even when decisions don’t go the way of some team members, the reasons behind that decision are clear to everyone. Choosing how and when to involve the broader team is pivotal in determining the kind of culture you’re cultivating within your organization. As is ensuring that the concerns and opinions of your team are taken seriously when they are involved.
In addition to the size of startups, those that are remote have special opportunities, challenges, and considerations for team building. The absence of physical space for holding people together and facilitating ongoing interactions demands active efforts for bringing team members together, especially those whose work doesn’t regularly overlap. Collective decision making is one strategy for achieving this, but if a team culture is not fostered prior to coming together for important discussions it becomes incredibly difficult for everyone to feel comfortable sharing their opinions and concerns openly. It’s critical, therefore, that communication among all members of the team is facilitated on an ongoing basis.
While some companies focus on team retreats and mission statements for guiding team culture, we’ve found that with a team committed to being present and engaged culture is cultivated and reinforced in the daily interactions and difficult decisions that are made collectively. By approaching team culture in this way, it becomes a robust environment that guides and gives meaning to even the most difficult decisions an organization faces, which in turn improves the overall employee experience.
Agarwal, Pragya. How To Create A Positive Workplace Culture. 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/pragyaagarwaleurope/2018/08/29/how-to-create-a-positive-work-place-culture/?sh=f9317cf42727
Groysberg, Boris et al. The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture. 2018. https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-leaders-guide-to-corporate-culture