Are remote teams doomed to failure? Is it possible to build a positive team culture when everyone is distributed?
One of the most common arguments against remote working is that remote teams miss opportunities to have ‘watercooler moments’. But the truth is, it’s totally possible to create space for casual conversation and support as a remote team! Here at Olark, we’ve incorporated a host of strategies to help us enjoy our work days together and form relationships with our teammates.
Of course meeting with your supervisor is important. But at Olark, every Olarker is assigned a coach as well as a supervisor, and coaching conversations are structured as broader check-ins to address workload, celebrate wins, and chat through what’s working and not working at work (and personally if you’re comfortable). The Olarker and the coach set their own goals and format for the meetings to ensure sessions are most effective. The great thing about a coach is knowing someone is there to talk to and bounce ideas off of, even questionable ones like “I am thinking of taking on another huge project.”
Weekly team sync
Every Monday, the entire Olark team joins a Zoom call for our weekly all-hands team sync. There’s plenty of business in this call, but we’re very intentional about making this a time for personal connection, too. The call opens 10 minutes early for people to join and chit chat casually — we post a fun question in the meeting doc to kick off conversation, but what with weekend updates and pet cameos, we usually don’t need any prompting!
After 10 minutes, we kick off the formal meeting with any big announcements or celebrations, and then move right to Kudos. This section of the meeting is our time to thank or celebrate teammates who’ve been helpful or particularly awesome. We limit everyone to three kudos per week, since we could easily eat up the whole hour just giving kudos! We also hashtag our kudos with related Olark values.
Once we’re full of all the good feelings, each team gives a summary of what they have been focusing on, any relevant metrics, and what’s coming in the near future. We try to keep things brief, and the meeting doc lives on as a reference. Finally, we wrap up back on a celebratory note, with a quick mention of upcoming birthdays and Olarkaversaries.
Show and Tell
The team who learns together, has more fun together, right?
Olarkers are a bright and diverse bunch. We have interests all over the place and we all love learning. It’s not uncommon for colocated teams to have a regular lunch and learn series, so we found a way to do that remotely.
Each Friday afternoon, we have Show and Tell time scheduled. Anyone can propose a talk, and we use a simple Trello board to collect ideas and schedule presentations. We have learned about a huge variety of topics, including the history of Olark, how Olark handles security and complex engineering processes, tips for attending Burning Man, adoption, conflict resolution, and how to be a digital nomad. We also have some regular series such as HR corner, year in review talks from our founders, and “Hot Seat” sessions in which one Olarker has 5 minutes to tell their life story and then answers quick-fire questions from teammates. We’ve even had a literal show and tell — everyone had 1 minute to show something on their desk and tell us about it.
Holidays and Gnomes
Everyone loves presents! In an office setting, it’s easy to order in cake, lunch or other treats to celebrate birthdays, company anniversaries and more. With no offices at Olark, we send the treats to our celebrants. To keep it fun, the gifts come from an anonymous team called the Olark Gnomes. The gnomes are really experts at sending fun, customized gifts for birthdays, Olarkaversaries, new babies, and promotions.
During the winter holidays, everyone can join the fun with our Holiday Gnome program. Sign up, fill out a survey, and go shopping, then a gift magically appears in your own mailbox at home. And, of course, post a picture of your gift in Slack. Seeing the pictures of the gifts is almost as fun as opening our own!
Remote teams still need to communicate, and possibly even more than co-located teams. At Olark, our primary day-to-day communication tool is Slack. We have all the Slack channels you’d expect, such as a team-wide channel, channels for each department, management and HR channels to ask important questions, and channels devoted to specific projects. But, since we like to have fun, we also have channels where we can hang out, laugh and share interests. Here’s a sampling!
- #cute-overlord: Cats, puppies, our sweetest pet photos, and the best of internet cuteness
- #olarkparents: Because our kids are cute, and also challenging
- #space: Because we’re geeks
- #games, #switch, and other consoles: see above
- #self-care: we have a value of #chill and this channel is for inspiring and supporting each other in taking care of ourselves
- #gardening: to share tips and pretty pictures
- #hack-shack: we are makers and tinkerers and house builders
- #gym-time: for the more fitness minded Olarkers
This is just a sampling! The important thing to note is that although we don’t have random water cooler time, we do have many non-work conversations during the day.
Olarkers love to travel, and seeing coworkers while on vacation is something we consider a treat. We have a spreadsheet to refer to with where everyone lives and what their guest capacity is. Completely voluntary, but a great resource!
We have flexible PTO, and as happens in many tech companies, Olarkers struggle with taking enough vacation. Our HR department solved this sticky problem by offering cold, hard cash for checking out of work. Part of the deal to get the money is to share your vacation photos and a few highlights from the trip. It’s a wonderful way to have that post-vacation conversation with a distributed team.
News story viewing parties
Olark has been in the news a few times over the last year. A colocated team might just turn on the tv in the meeting room, break room or elsewhere. We find someone with a cable subscription and watch together on Zoom using their screenshare feature. It’s fun to see our teammates featured, and to talk about the story together from around the globe.
We’ve shared our Sweet Support before, and it bears repeating. Celebrating teamwork is always a good plan. Celebrating with everyone’s favorite candy is the best.
Even with meetings, fun channels, and candy, sometimes you just want a chat with a coworker. Slipping out for coffee around the corner isn’t an option, but a coffee or tea date over a video call is! The team is encouraged to use our Zoom accounts to reach out and have a friendly, non-work related chat when the mood strikes. We even have a Slack channel for that. :)
Company holiday parties are an institution, right? Back in the founding days of Olark, we celebrated Lighting of the Redwood at our Bay Area Office. As Olark grew and Olarkers had more family obligations, we moved it to a remote celebration over a Zoom call that remains open all afternoon. We schedule craft time, trivia competitions, show and tells, and give virtual cheers with eggnog made from Kyle’s grandma’s recipe. Those with good taste drink tea or cider.
As much as we love being a remote-first company, we do genuinely enjoy spending time together in person. And sometimes face to face really is the best for intense planning sessions and long-term relationship building. So once a year, the entire Olark team gathers for a full week of workshops, brainstorming, planning, karaoke, and eating all the good food we can find.
Any one of these communication strategies would be a nice bonus to working remotely. When combined, they create a culture of communication, friendship, inclusiveness and just plain fun. When we share meaningful moments of Chill together, it’s easier to Assume Good Faith, Speak our Minds, Practice Empathy, Help Each Other Grow, and Make it Happen on our project teams.
What does your remote team do to keep the communication flowing? How do you create watercooler moments? We’d love to hear what works for you!