10 Actionable Ways to Build and Maintain a Productive Remote Culture
As part of Solutions Review’s Expert Insights Series—a collection of contributed articles written by industry experts in enterprise software categories—Helen McPherson, the Vice President of Operations at Phylum, explains how she’s helped her team develop and maintain a productive remote culture.
As an operations executive, I love building high-functioning teams from scratch. Creating a motivating, productive workplace and finding the right talent is always challenging, but the last few years have introduced new obstacles that have forced all of us to adapt and adopt new ideas. It is so rewarding to create a remote company culture that successfully turns individual hires into team members who connect with each other and your company in a meaningful way.
I joined cybersecurity start-up Phylum during the pandemic as employee number six and was tasked with building a remote culture and team fast. We now have 30+ employees working in 11 U.S. states and multiple European locations. For our 100 percent remote team, creating a cohesive and happy company culture was, and continues to be, critical for attracting and retaining employees in a highly competitive industry.
My approach to building a thriving remote culture relies on four main pillars: having fun, making meaningful connections, helping employees feel seen and valued, and recognizing good work.
When I joined Phylum, we were a pre-seed-stage company. I started team building with free strategies and quickly implemented and designed them to support a small team. As the team grew, I added a few subscription platforms to save time and better support a larger group. You can adapt these strategies to fit your budget at any funding stage or company size. I intentionally combine various approaches that allow employees to engage 1-on-1, in groups, via prompted conversation starters, or unstructured to appeal to different team members, styles, and interests.
Here is the playbook that keeps our tight-knit, remote team connected across different geographies and time zones:
1) All-Hands Meetings Once a Month
Our monthly all-hands meetings are an opportunity to energize the team and see how individuals’ contributions fit into the larger whole. We end each meeting with a game: one team member shares two truths and a lie, and the entire team votes on which one they think is the lie. This has led to fun facts and interesting anecdotes we might not otherwise learn about our co-workers. It creates a more connected relationship when you realize that someone loves heavy metal music, is obsessed with Tom Cruise movies, competes in Strongman competitions, or once got punched with Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves while coding.
2) Friday Hangouts + Watercooler Chats
Without a physical water cooler or coffee machine where people gather in person, we have a 20-minute optional virtual hangout at the end of each week. The conversation is work-related and celebrates big wins or ventures into discussing favorite keyboards, weekend plans, and life updates.
3) LAN Parties
We host a monthly LAN party that brings out the fun and trash-talking with a rotation of group video games. This is hands-down one of the most lively and well-attended team events, and sometimes customers, partners, or other stakeholders even join in on the fun.
4) Team Swag
Nothing says ‘team’ quite like a company-branded hoodie or other swag. I started with the budget approach of storing swag in my home garage and using Amazon mailers to send out individual packages. With a larger team, we now leverage Swag.com to warehouse and send out all of our swag, which saves me a significant amount of time and allows team members to ship their swag to any location.
5) Lunch & Learns
Once a month, a team member will host a short virtual session to share something they are passionate about. From Hawaiian culture and food or traveling in Japan to financial literacy and backdoor Roth strategies, this is an opportunity to learn something new and develop a deeper appreciation for co-workers. We also have cross-team lunch meetings to discuss ways to improve collaboration to meet company goals. As we scaled, I started sending participants an Uber Eats gift card ahead of the session to order from the place of their choice.
6) Coffee Chats
Every two weeks, Donut randomly connects team members for a virtual coffee chat. This is an excellent way to create connections across teams and between co-workers who may not interact in their day-to-day work.
7) # Random Prompts
Every week, I drop a message into the #random channel in Slack to prompt the team to share things like photos of the best trip they’ve ever taken (Iceland to Dolomiti) to what they would pick for walk-on/entrance music (Beastie Boys, Zac Brown, etc.). The results are often lively and unexpected. For ease and automation, I now schedule prompts with Donut.
8) Virtual Parties
Just because we’re remote doesn’t mean we can’t throw parties. We’ve done third-party-hosted events like a coffee tasting and a gingerbread decorating competition. It’s fun to take a break and spend time together while learning something new or winning bragging rights over co-workers.
9) Celebrate Good Work
When we were a small team, we celebrated and called out wins at the monthly all-hands meetings. We now leverage Bonus.ly to celebrate success on a more frequent basis. Each team member has 100 ‘Darwins’ (points) to give each month to anyone on the team, in any amount. Points can be redeemed for gift cards or company swag.
10) Schedule Face-to-Face Time
As a fully remote company, we have hired the most talented team regardless of geography. 95 percent of what we need to do can be done remotely. For the remaining 5 percent, we meet up in person to creatively brainstorm and generate new ideas. On top of that, we have fun. There’s also no remote substitute for go-karting or indoor skydiving as a large group.
While some companies are trying to force employees back into an office, I think most have accepted that remote work is here to stay. I, for one, have embraced it and am dedicated to making our entire remote workforce feel welcome, engaged, and connected to one another and our mission as a company.