Replacing the water cooler: How we make remote culture work

Prior to 2020, my company (Less Annoying CRM) had a culture built around in-person interaction. People worked remotely from time to time, but everyone would be in the office most days. That made culture easy, because in-person human interaction is pretty well established at this point.

When the pandemic forced us to go remote, honestly, it barely impacted work itself. Everything is done by a person sitting at a computer. It didn't really matter that the computer happened to be at a person's home instead of an office.

But culture, well, that was a different story. All of a sudden, there were no chance interactions by bumping into people in the halls. There was no "let's grab lunch today and chat" or "How about a drink after work?" There was no more metaphorical water cooler.

What we did to adjust

The most important thing I've learned about culture since going remote is that it's not one thing. In-person, people interact in so many different ways, and about so many different topics. Some of it is work related, some of it is purely social. Some things involve large groups, and some are one-on-one. People behave differently in the office during work vs. outside the office during lunch or a happy hour.

If we want to build a great remote culture, that means layering many different ideas on top of each other.

Each individual idea by itself wouldn't come close to replacing what we had in-person, but when you combine them all together, I think it works well. Here are all the things we do right now:

This is our Sococo virtual office

Co-working in Sococo

We use a tool called Sococo.  Sococo is a virtual office where you move from room to room, and see where everyone else is. While it does support video chatting, we mostly use audio-only. If you turn on your mic, everyone in the same room as you can hear you, so it's extremely low-friction to talk with people. It's also surprisingly comforting to be able to see other people in their offices, going to meetings in the conference rooms, etc. It's extremely gimmicky, sometimes to the point of being a bit cringe, but I really think it works.

Group work

Each week, we randomly assign groups of ~6 people at a time to an hour-long block to work together in the Sococo conference room. There's no expectation that anyone has to talk, but it's a way to guarantee that for at least one hour per week, there are other people around if you do want to talk. Normally an hour of group work is about half silence while people work, and half talking (both about work and non-work topics). This is especially good for people that like being around others, but find video chats to be exhausting.

Social lunches

In-person, one day per week we would cater lunch and everyone would eat together around a big table. This was a highlight of the week for most people.

To replicate that experience remotely, now everyone is assigned a group of 6-8 people to eat lunch with one day per week (the groups shuffle each week). We don't have everyone in the same lunch because video chats break down if there are more than a handful of people (in person you can naturally tune out the people on the other side of the table, but that doesn't work virtually).

Rose + Thorn

We've always had an hour-long all-hands meeting every Wednesday. It used to be all about work: Discussing projects, making decisions, etc. As soon as the pandemic hit, we realized employees were losing track of each others' lives, so we now devote the first half of the weekly meeting to doing a "rose" and a "thorn". If you haven't heard of this, we go around in a circle and each person (if they want to) shares a good thing from the last week (rose) and a bad thing (thorn). For the most part, these are personal things, not professional.

I know it sounds like some kind of lame summer camp team-building exercise, but it really is a great way to stay connected with your colleagues.

Company newsletter

As CEO, I have a better high-level view of all the things happening at the business than anyone else. Part of my job is to share that info with everyone, so we can all appreciate how our individual work contributes to the big picture.

In person, this happened naturally. I'd have casual conversations with people, or they'd have conversations with each other, so everyone mostly knew what was going on. Those conversations stopped when we went remote, so I started sending an email out to the whole company once per week summarizing anything worth knowing. This includes new projects we're starting/finishing, financial updates, hiring news, and more. I now realize that I should have been doing this all along.

Weekly project updates via Slack

We use Slack for internal team chat. We also pay for a Slack add-on called Geekbot. Geekbot messages each employee on Monday morning to ask a few questions about what they did last week, what they hope to do this week, and if they need anything from anyone else. Everyone responds to Geekbot, and the responses get aggregated in a Slack channel so everyone at the company can quickly review what everyone else is working on.

LACRM-gram

We have a Slack channel where each week, we're all reminded to post a photo from our phones that we took over the last week. It's not expected that everyone will have something they want to share, but if anyone has pictures of anything interesting (family trips, a special meal, playing in the snow, etc.) they can share it in the LACRM-gram channel. This is yet another way we stay connected.

Asynchronous video

In a remote setting, it's natural for a lot of things that would have been in-person conversations to become asynchronous (i.e. you send a message, and the other person can look at it whenever they get a chance). Most asynchronous channels are text-based (e.g. email and Slack) which is great for a lot of things, but it tends to be less personal.

So if I have something I want to communicate that could benefit from a personal touch, instead of sending an email, I send a Loom video. Loom makes it really easy to record yourself and/or your screen and share the video quickly with others. For example, in my company newsletters, most of the updates are text, but sometimes I'll share a Loom instead.

Happy hours

Every Friday after work, we have a "happy hour" which just means we hop on a video chat and talk for as long as people want to. Most weeks, only a few people join, but if there's a special occasion (see below) there's normally a better turn-out.

Game and craft nights

It's really hard to do fun stuff as a group remotely, but it's not impossible. We try to schedule an optional mid-week after-work activity about once per month. Some things we've done that worked well:

  • Jack Box games. One person will need to "host" the game and share their screen with everyone else. I especially like Drawful 2, Fibbage, and Quiplash because they're easy to learn, and they don't require sound.
  • Among us is a bit more involved than Jack Box and it requires everyone to have the game installed, but it's a ton of fun for people who aren't afraid of video games.
  • Someone on the team is big on arts and crafts, so she put together a crafts kit for anyone who wanted to join, and taught us all how to make a felt pouch.

Celebrating birthdays and milestones

I'll be honest, celebrations just aren't as much fun remotely. But they're still important. If someone has a birthday, or if we have a major accomplishment to celebrate, we'll normally dedicate the first few minutes of the Friday happy hour to that. On weeks where we're celebrating, more people tend to join the happy hour. Since we're mostly all still in the same city, sometimes someone even volunteers to deliver something (e.g. a snack, a drink, etc.) for everyone to enjoy together. Just because we're remote doesn't mean we can't have shared experiences.

Takeaways

I want to highlight how we do a lot of different things to keep everyone connected. Some things are real-time (video and audio chats), and others are asynchronous (Slack and email). We use a mix of video, audio, and text. Some things happen during work, and others are optional after-work activities. Some are purely social, and other are purely about work.

When you think about it, that's how real in-person culture works. It's nuanced, multi-faceted, and serendipitous. We've found that the best way to recreate that remotely is to create as many varied touch points as possible.

What the haters will say

The goal shouldn't be to reproduce in-person culture. Remote culture should have its own dynamics.
My response: I'm glad you're happy in this remote world. Most people aren't. Overwhelmingly, my employees have expressed that they miss the office, and so I want to capture as much of that culture as I can in this remote world.

This is just too much stuff
My response: It looks like a lot when you see it all written down, but it really doesn't feel that way when you're experiencing it. It does take a lot of work to plan and execute well, but the experience for each individual employee is pretty natural.

You shouldn't do things outside of work hours, especially when people already spend all day staring at a screen.
My response: Fair enough, but I think it comes down to balance. Some people don't mind more screen time and are hungry for social activities. I agree that it's important for after-work events to be 100% optional, and to be careful about actually honoring that. It's especially important for management to lead by example and not attend all of the after-work events (my co-founder almost never attends, but I almost always attend) and to not show favoritism based on attendance.

It's not a boss's job to provide their employees with a social life. Work should be about work, and employees can socialize on their own time.
My response: I think that's a sad way to look at it. Most people spend more time at work than doing pretty much any other thing in their life. Sure, I hope they get social fulfillment from other areas of their life as well, but if you're spending 40 hours per week at work, it'd be stupid not to try to enjoy it as much as possible. Also, I think productivity is higher when employees genuinely enjoy being around each other.

Have thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear from you! I'm @TylerMKing on Twitter.
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