Do You Have to Sacrifice Culture When You Go Remote?

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4 min

Written by: Tobias Günther

I recently talked to a founder who was trying to make a tough decision: whether or not he should adopt remote work with his company.

He was torn. Because he was afraid of losing something precious: the wonderfully close and connected culture his team currently had.

This is a concern I hear all the time. Lots of founders and leaders seem to associate “remote work” with “weak, distant, or nonexistent culture.”

I argue that the opposite is true. If you approach it the right way, remote work can be a real blessing — and a driving force for a healthy, connected culture.

* * *

Enter my own story. I’ve been working remotely since 2010, long before it became a common model. Back then, my company was spread over two office locations; we were running a model you’d call “hybrid” today. But the real change came 2015: we closed down both of our offices and switched to a “fully remote” setup.

Until then, I would have categorized our culture as “good.” No major problems, but nothing spectacular either… But the switch to fully remote changed everything: all of a sudden, our culture didn’t just “happen” anymore. No more after-work beers, shared lunches, or bumping into each other at the water cooler. All of these serendipitous encounters weren’t happening anymore.

I had gained an important insight: that I had to become active about our culture. Of course, this would mean a lot of work. Especially in the beginning, while I was still learning how to build culture. But that’s exactly why remote work can be such a major advantage for a culture: because it forces us to become deliberate, intentional, and strategic about it.

As I said, our office-based culture wasn’t all that bad. But it was haphazard; a lucky accident. Had you asked me back then how our culture worked, I couldn’t have given you a meaningful answer. I would have scratched my head and shrugged my shoulders.

Compare it to what we were able to build as a remote team: a much stronger, much more connected, and very deliberate culture. One that was robust and reliable, not depending on me or any other individual.

It all started with the realization that I needed to start “building” our culture, like an architect. And, if I had to go to all this trouble, I shouldn’t settle for just “good”… I could build a fantastic culture!

* * *

Now, you might argue that building a culture deliberately, intentionally, and strategically could be done in an office-based environment, too. And you’re certainly right. But I know only a mere handful of teams that have actually done that — compared to a whole host of remote teams!

I see two reasons for this phenomenon:

  • First, in a remote setup, you have no other choice but to become active and intentionally design your culture. Teams in an office-based environment rarely show the same determination, commitment, and sophistication when it comes to their culture.
  • Second, some of the core principles of remote work come in tremendously helpful when it comes to culture. Asynchronous communication, documentation and process design, deep work, … all of these things are inherent to a (good) remote setup. And they can be used to support building a great culture.

Let me give you two examples for cultural aspects that I see much more often in remote teams than in ones that are co-located.

Example #1: A culture with more and stronger relationships

In an office-based culture, it’s almost unavoidable that people form their own (sometimes rather closed off) groups. They have relationships with their colleagues — but only with those they work with. People from other departments or sub-teams feel like strangers.

Make no mistake: this problem doesn’t only affect huge enterprises. It already happens in a small, 10-person company!

Also, the way relationships are built and maintained is mostly left to chance: people that “like” each other will hit it off, mingle, and sip their coffee together. But stronger, more resilient relationships? Those remain a rarity.

In a (good) remote work environment, leaders can’t leave relationship building to chance. By approaching it in an intentional and structured way, strong relationships can emerge on the larger scale of a whole organization.

Example #2: A culture that doesn’t depend on people being available all the time

In most office-based cultures, people are used to having their colleagues around: when they have a question, face a problem, or have an idea they want to discuss, they will simply walk over to the respective colleague’s desk or grab the phone.

This sounds unproblematic at first, but it creates a system where people become dependent on their colleagues being available. And this, inevitably, becomes a problem… when they’re suddenly not available: because they’re on vacation, sick at home, or when they’ve left the company.

In a remote work environment, when that particular colleague might live in a time zone 6 hours ahead of you, you can’t depend on them being available all the time. You have to design a system that’s independent of individual people. This makes everyone much more flexible in their own work; and the organization as a whole much more robust and resilient.

A Stronger Culture, Because of (Not Despite) Remote Work

I know, without a doubt: if we hadn’t switched to a fully remote setup in 2015, our culture — along with our communication, relationships, and structures — would never have reached the extraordinary quality they have.

For me (and for many other teams I know) remote work has been the catalyst for building an exceptional team with an exceptional culture.

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