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  • Travis King

Sprawl Consulting's 6 Guiding Principles for Virtual Culture Building

Have you been at an awkward virtual happy hour in 2020? Join the (awkward virtual) party... 

Only a few years ago, when I was home with my parents around the holidays, it took a lot of gentle reminders and crude sign-language (with my video off), to help my folks understand that when my computer was open I was almost always working. I wasn’t playing video games, downloading new music, or just surfing the net (shaka, bro). Rather, I was working at a remote organization helping to build one of the world’s largest communities of digital nomads.


Remote work is ubiquitous now due to COVID-19, and just because everyone now knows that working remotely is a possibility, it doesn’t mean we’re doing it right. A lot of organizations were forced to adopt this style of work, oftentimes begrudgingly, and they never made the proper adjustments or even an earnest attempt to make it as successful, productive, and enjoyable for its staff as possible. The one element that often gets disregarded first and left to be ignored in the corner like a 4-month-old Christmas tree, is the organization's team culture—the intimacy, connectivity, and camaraderie of the staff—who are the company.


From what we can tell, even those organizations that prioritize culture, aren’t quite sure what that looks like remotely—leading 2020 to be the year of the awkward virtual happy hour. We’ve all been there—in a zoom room with 30+ people, where nobody takes the lead, Brian talks way too much about his dog's bad hip, Jasmine keeps forgetting to go on mute so you get to listen in as she munches baby carrots, and 75% of the people on the call never even speak at all. If you’ve been at a virtual happy hour like this, you are not alone.


Along with varied attempts at virtual happy hours, the other primary ways we’ve seen remote companies aim to boost culture are 1.) through updates or shoutouts from leadership on all hands calls, 2.) pre-meeting light chit chat with your direct team, and 3.) a yearly offsite retreat (which are a great idea for dispersed companies, but oftentimes squandered because the retreat was planned by someone in HR who already has a full plate, not to mention zero experience in retreat planning.)


To be blunt—culture building as a remote organization is hard. We’re a social species who want to be together, body language makes up the majority of our communication, and there is an infinite world of content and entertainment behind our screens that is very hard to compete with. (Have you ever scrolled on your phone during a virtual meeting? Exactly.)


Recognizing this challenge, at Sprawl, we identified 6 principles to successfully build culture as a remote organization. We have ideas galore for each of these six principles, but hopefully, this gets the wheels turning and serves as a starting point.



1. Create a shared team identity.


If you’re not a sports team with matching jersey’s, where does a shared team identity come from? For millennials, and the younger generation of talent coming up in the workforce, oftentimes feeling proud of the organization they work for is even more important than their compensation, so that is a great place to start.


Finding ways to instill pride in a team will undoubtedly unite it. Pride in the organization will come primarily from its core values and a genuine desire to do right in the world—to be apart of the solutions to our greatest challenges, rather than contributors to the problems. Evaluating the organization's values, charitable giving, and service work policies (or lack thereof) is a great first step.


"I expect a company that helps out the community to be more compassionate, trustworthy and ethical. A job is a place where I spend an obscene amount of time outside of my family life. It is important that the time I spend working is for a cause or business that does some good in the world.” (Millennial Impact Report, 2014)


As a remote company, you’re already doing two things that are in line with the solutions and progress we all need for the future. You are more environmentally sustainable, and you have the ability to hire from a more diverse talent pool. Are you doing those things? Are you sharing those things with your team? You may have an enormous source of pride right at your finger-tips, and you just haven’t shouted about it from the virtual rooftop yet.


Lastly, back to the team jerseys—new swag, designed and created thoughtfully, always does have a way of boosting morale and uniting a team. Who doesn’t want a new zip-up hoodie or a super-soft sustainably made t-shirt? This is another incredibly simple, affordable, and effective way to get your team members beaming about their company.


2. Cultivate fun moments in everyday work.


Earlier I mentioned the common pre-call small-talk: Discussing of weekend plans, the previous night's activities, or what’s happening in the background of someone’s screen. These are all a fine use of 10 minutes, but it’s in these exact 10 minutes that you can really bring joy into someone’s workday.


If a team call starts with the manager saying “how is everyone doing today?” you can most likely already imagine what plays out. Mic-dominant personalities share unimportant, unmemorable things for 5–10 minutes, then the work part of the meeting starts. It’s not awful, but imagine the difference if a manager starts the meeting by saying, “Let’s start by having everyone share one piece of good news! Try to keep it to around one minute.”


What happens in your imagination then? What piece of good news, large or small, do you have right now that you would share? This simple change in the prompt dramatically changes the next 10 minutes and is just one way to ensure each person is seen, heard, and included. It ensures everyone will be more engaged in the rest of that call as well.


“Structure breeds creativity” is one of our core values at Sprawl, and this mini-structure of changing the prompt to be more both more specific and inclusive vastly changes what comes next. Ultimately, those small changes add up to vastly change how people feel about where they work.


3. Inspire culture ambassadors, or even designate official remote work liaisons.


That’s how I got into this. Nobody told me that part of my job was to steer the culture at Remote Year, I just felt called to it. Some combination of being on the team from the early days, my youth work and camp counselor background, and a genuine desire to want to work somewhere that had a connected, caring and happy team, led me to spend part of each workday thinking about it. How can we get everyone to love working here even more? (This is exactly how our “awkward childhood photos” thread started on Slack.)


I guarantee that there are people on your team who would love to be given the unofficial title of cultural ambassador, or even an official title like “remote work liaison.” Not to mention, having members of your team scattered throughout the organizational chart thinking about culture helps things to to take off and then stick—it’s how organic moments develop into traditions and become part of the culture. When management says “this will be fun,” it’s received a lot differently, then if Josh, everyone’s favorite sales rep, posts a photo of his grandma and goes on to explain, “I thought we could start this new fun tradition, where...”


If you put the right people on the bus, in the right roles, you can happily take a nap in the back while it safely speeds towards the desired destination. The destination, in this case, is a remote organization with a positive and connected culture that everyone can feel, and that other people want to be apart of.



4. Find moments for meaningful recognition.


Every company has some way to recognize staff and encourage desired behaviors, the question is how much those systems actually impact people’s quality of work and their level of engagement. Does your recognition system result in folks taking initiative, exceeding expectations, or going beyond their role description?


Sure, recognition is largely to make people smile and to feel good, but if done well—a system of meaningful and powerful shout-outs can positively alter the culture and get more from the team as a whole.


If you get a shoutout at work, it certainly makes you smile, but, does the possibility of getting that shout-out, make you want to be a better version of yourself? If the answer is no, your culture has room for improvement to develop a meaningful recognition tradition or system that drives the team’s culture forward.


5. Connect individuals across teams.


This is an issue that both remote and co-located organizations have to keep in mind if they want their culture to shine. If there is no reason for Jeremy from sales to interact with Aidah from product development, then you have to create one. If people at your organization don’t actually know what other teams and individuals are working on, if they have to guess at how hard they’re working, how committed they are to the mission, you’ve left individuals open to doubt and with a lot of unanswered questions swirling in their minds.


At Remote Year, I initiated a quarterly call that quickly became a well-loved team-wide tradition, called “Silo Breakers.” The call was designed to connect folks across teams who don’t normally have a reason to chat during the workweek, so we could know more about what everyone at the company was working on, how we could potentially help with those projects, and finally—more about who they are as three-dimensional humans. (Where is your favorite place in the world and why? Who were you in high school? If you were a musical instrument, which one would you be and why?)


We all have lives outside of work, and we shouldn’t feel like those parts of us don’t belong at work. Which leads me to my final point…


6. Encourage people to bring their whole self to work.


Work is an important part of life, but it is not our entire lives. You want Matt to be able to share his love for hockey, Jenna to feel comfortable talking about her newest hand-crocheted sweater, Jerry to post pictures of his “fridge pickling” set up on slack, and Luke, Will, Camille, Brad, Jean and everyone else with kids to be able to vent and share about parent-teacher conferences, soccer practice, getting puked on and all the blessed moments of parental life.


This certainly helps people feel seen, but these moments of genuine sharing are also how folks end up feeling accepted and connected. You got puked on this weekend too, how crazy?!


Setting up moments and spaces for this type of sharing is exactly how you end up with the much-anticipated yearly staff broom-hockey game, led by Matt during the off-site retreat. It’s why Jasmine started her virtual weekly crochet class. Jerry’s pickles are why half of the company now orders a CSA box from a farm, and letting parents be themselves at work is how “#thejoysofparenting” became the most fun and active non-work-related Slack channel on your organization's communication platform.


Find ways to encourage your people to be their whole self at work—it’s how they’ll begin to care about each other, it’s how they’ll organically become cultural ambassadors for the company, and it’s how they’ll end up singing the praises of their co-workers and the company to anyone who will listen.



If you work somewhere that doesn’t have a team culture that you’re proud of, please reach out. I’m guessing you have a budget to address employee satisfaction and retention, and I’m also willing to bet Sprawl can make a measurable impact for a fraction of that budget.





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