April 12, 2019

How to Keep Remote Workers Culturally Connected


The concept of a “workplace” is becoming metaphorical. A 2018 survey from workspace management company IWG found 70 percent of global professionals work remotely at least once a week and 53 percent work remotely at least half the week. If present trends continue, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which in-house workers are the minority and remote workers the norm.

This trend has the potential to be a boon for recruiters, because it expands the candidate pool for any given role. Now, hiring is no longer restricted by geographical location.

However, not all companies are equipped to handle remote workers. As a CEO with teammates in more than 15 locations across three continents, I learned this lesson firsthand.

In order to build a successful distributed team, a company must have a strategy for connecting remote workers to its values and culture. Otherwise, remote workers will churn, and you, the recruiter, might be blamed.

The Constraints of Cultural Transmission

When I cofounded GuideSpark in 2008, I had no intention of building a distributed workforce. However, I soon realized that if we required everyone to work at one of our offices in Silicon Valley, we’d be stuck in that brutal talent market. We decided that ability should trump location.

But how would we make remote workers feel like part of GuideSpark? Typically, new employees learn culture through observation: Do my coworkers leave dishes stacked in the sink or put them in the dishwasher? When do people usually arrive at the office, and when do they leave? New employees pick up company norms, behaviors, and vocabulary from watching their coworkers, and this instills in them a sense of belonging.

At best, remote workers might learn the company’s email, instant messaging, and virtual meeting norms. They won’t necessarily feel connected to their coworkers or observe company values in action.

If you were to ask a client or hiring manager, “What do you do to make remote workers feel like part of your team?” you’d likely get a blank look in return.

“I mean, we hired the person, and we chat and email all day. That makes them part of the team, right?” Not quite. The company is missing the key ingredient in a successful distributed workforce.

Shared Experiences

At GuideSpark, we’ve run two experiments that seem to help us attract, bond, and retain remote workers. Both experiments communicate our culture through shared digital experiences. I’m not suggesting that every company copy us, but I do think distributed companies need strategies of some kind for building a sense of community and distributing common values.

The first experiment is Humans of GuideSpark, a story series we modeled on the famous Humans of New York photoblog that captures the lives of everyday people through brief, relatable profiles.

It turns out the members of our GuideSpark team have their own inspiring stories of hardship, self-discovery, and overcoming. One colleague escaped post-war Vietnam and nearly starved at sea. Another lost most of his vision in childhood, so he developed listening and perspective into his superpowers. One coworker’s father believed that “girls didn’t need to go to college”; she went anyway and changed her father’s mind.

As one employee in New York told me, “These stories make me feel connected to people I’ve never seen.”

The second experiment is an internal podcast, Our Voices Our Values, where employees share defining work stories. In one episode, the host and I talked about humility, making mistakes, and the importance of leaning on one another. Another podcast shares how one of our studio writers prevents the blame game from erupting at work. Each episode explores one of our company values and illustrates how different team members interpret and apply it.

The engagement rates on these profiles and podcasts have been stunningly high. We know that because we deliver and track the content like a marketing campaign, with catchy headlines, multichannel blasts, and different messaging to interest a diverse audience. When employees click the link to the story, our platform suggests other profiles and podcasts. That way, employees new and old rapidly learn about our community and absorb its culture, no matter where they’re based.

An Office Without Walls

Fundamentally, an office is a communication technology. However, it limits access to talent and confines people to a brick-and-mortar lifestyle. Our experiments in remote culture proved we could distribute our values and norms beyond an office without suffering any drawbacks.

Speaking as a CEO, I’d want recruiters to be honest about the pros and cons of remote workers. I’d want to be questioned about how I’d manage telecommuters and connect them to our culture. I’d want advice on the benefits and technologies that could attract and retain a remote workforce.

Recruiters have an opportunity to redefine the “workplace” for companies that are ready. This new, more metaphorical workplace can be just as cohesive and aligned as conventional offices — if you do it right.

Keith Kitani is CEO and cofounder of GuideSpark.

Read more in Organizational Culture

Keith Kitani is CEO and cofounder of GuideSpark, a SaaS company helping enterprises transform workplace communications to drive the success of HR programs like total rewards, performance management, culture, and onboarding. Keith has spent over 20 years building communication solutions that connect people and information for both startups and technology leaders like Macromedia and Adobe.