Cactus Communications’ Jason Morwick shares his advice on building a strong company culture in a remote-first team.
Remote working can offer many benefits to both the employer and the employee. While workers can enjoy the extra time they gain from not having to commute to work, employers can widen their talent pool and look far beyond the reach of their office.
However, creating a strong culture with a decentralised workforce can be challenging, especially for companies that had previously been solely based in offices.
To help address these challenges, SiliconRepublic.com asked for some expert advice from Jason Morwick. He is head of remote-first with Cactus Communications, an India-based sci-tech company that aims to address the needs of the research and publishing industry through media, content and AI solutions.
Morwick joined the Cactus team in July 2021 to help transition the company to a remote-first set-up, enabling its 1,200 full-time employees, or Cactizens as they’re known internally, to work where they want. These workers are currently spread across 14 countries.
According to Morwick, while the company still has some office locations, these are used by employees on an “as-needed basis”.
“We don’t actually ask any of our employees to live near our office spaces,” he explained.
“Even if a Cactizen chooses to use one of our offices, they will probably be working with team members who are based in different cities, different time zones, or even different countries. That’s why we want every Cactizen to have this remote-first mindset and not be constrained by time, distance or location.”
Addressing culture challenges
Where the old ways of working typically meant that many office-based workers just accepted the status quo, the last two years have opened up a whole new realm of remote, flexible and hybrid working options.
However, this flexibility means not everyone will have the same preferences, so building a workplace that works for everyone has become a big challenge.
“Balancing office-based and remote workers might seem like an intimidating or challenging prospect at first, but it is one that we can handle if we maintain our company culture and be flexible in how we operate,” said Morwick.
“We must be less meeting-centric moving forward and operate more asynchronously than we have done previously. We must also ensure that employees based remotely and in offices are treated equally by ensuring information is shared and people have access to any tools or resources they require, regardless of location. It is on us as an organisation to make the extra effort required to keep all employees connected and prevent people from feeling cut adrift.”
Another major challenge around remote working and maintaining a good culture is centred around the mental health of employees. Studies over the past two years have highlighted the increased risk of burnout and overworking, while Morwick said that a lack of physical connections is also an important challenge to acknowledge.
From his own company’s perspective, the team found the pros of a remote-first culture outweighed the cons.
“Having said that, we are planning many focused interventions to address these cons by being more deliberate in how we communicate and trying to build strong communities in the organisation where like-minded people can come together and form close relationships,” he said.
While many companies are adopting a hybrid model in the hopes of getting the best of both worlds, some experts have warned that this could almost create a ‘master of none’ result, where employees still need to be close to the office and employers still put too much emphasis on in-office communication.
Morwick added that there are additional dangers when it comes to building a positive culture, especially when it comes to proximity bias. And while these dangers can be mitigated, they require extra thought.
“For example, it’s natural for managers in an office setting to have casual, impromptu conversations with team members they come into contact with. If the conversations revolve around work-related topics, the leader should ensure any relevant information is later documented and sent to remote team members, so everyone has the same information,” he said.
“For interactions that are more social, leaders should be aware of how often they have interacted with remote team members and reach out to build relationships or check on their wellbeing. Creating a culture of inclusion requires leaders to make a consistent effort to engage all team members.”
Trust is key in a remote-first culture
For leaders who are considering a remote-first model, Morwick said trust in employees is key so as to not waste time micromanaging them.
“While some companies insist on forensically monitoring and micromanaging remote employees to ensure they are working, Cactus relies on key performance metrics and encouraging strong engagement between team leaders and those working under them to ensure business outcomes are met and our culture is maintained,” he said.
“As we continue to evolve and improve methods for measuring productivity, we continue to evaluate the potential impact on our value of trust. In our experience, trust, transparency and openness with employees leads to much greater results than surveillance and monitoring.”
A strong company culture is an important element of employee retention, and in the current jobs market, it’s extremely important that employers keep their top talent.
In fact, Morwick said the rate at which a company loses employees can often be the biggest measure of a declining culture. So, it’s important that leaders learn to read the signs before that happens.
“Leaders should pay attention to how employees interact as an early indicator of a diluted culture. Employees may be less willing to engage in discussions or meetings, social interactions may decrease, there may be less voluntary knowledge sharing across silos or increased infighting over email versus collaborative problem solving, or interactions becoming strictly task focused,” he said.
“By recognising early warning signs, leaders can intervene and build back relationships to preserve the culture.”
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