I work for Elephant Journal, an online magazine with staff around the world, and predominantly connect with the team via Skype. The above image depicts my potential range of emotions when communicating with my coworkers. These emoticons are also a big part of the company culture in a remote office.
Skype is our virtual office, which replicates a physical office in many ways. When we use different Skype chat groups for certain tasks and meetings, we refer to “entering them”; when we lose track of where a meeting is, we say we “got lost”. Sometimes we even call these chats “lands”.
Emoticons accompany us wherever we go, allowing us to interact on an emotional level in a virtual environment. These expressive interactions preserve an all-important company culture as it moves to an online workplace.
When we begin a Skype meeting, we “bow in” using this guy to indicate our arrival:
When we’re frustrated, we bang our heads against the wall:
Habitual use of certain emojis can form someone’s e-identity. One editor, for example, always signed in with this:
So she was the sunshine girl, while the rest of us were all like:
By mimicking emotions, Skype and other chat software emoticons (like Slack and HipChat, where you can design your own emoticons) enable employees to share experiences, not just tasks. They help us express our feelings, identities and progress. Because emotions are key to team transparency and decision-making, emoticons facilitate both solid company culture and good work.
But they can only do so much. At some point, even the emo emoticon just won’t cut it to reveal our pessimism; a beer icon hardly conveys our excitement; a gold star is insufficient to affirm a job well done. Even emotive written communication fails to impart the vital humanness of face-to-face interaction.
Thus, while many tout ample communication as the secret to remote company culture, in practice, it all depends on what kind.
Ways to support communication and company culture in a remote office.
Chatting programs can be used unconsciously to hide behind a computer screen under the guise of efficiency or convenience. If it’s something emotional, opinion-based, or involving significant decisions, then “you elevate platform, not tone,” says Upworthy Editor-at-Large Adam Mordecai, whose team is predominantly virtual. “So much is lost in translation when you can’t see people’s faces, so I try to video chat at every opportunity.”
When introducing new staff, announcing big news or discussing a controversial topic, Elephant Journal employees video conference—a feat considering our growing team in disparate time zones. Upworthy’s staff will sometimes work with Google Hangouts in the background to “get that banter going,” says Mordecai—what Zappos CEO calls “opportunity for meaningful collisions”.
One-on-one virtual meetings ensure employees feel cared about and in the loop, especially as remote companies expand. Help Scout co-founder Nick Francis calls one-on-one collaboration “table stakes for any company culture,” noting that everyone on his virtual team has a one-on-one with his or her direct report at least once every other week.
In addition, some one-on-ones and meetings should occur without management present. Though virtual offices make it easier to include managers in chats, that doesn’t mean they always should be. Just as in-person employees can escape for lunch, telecommuters need to be able to catch up and collaborate without feeling constantly watched.
A successful remote work culture depends on daily practices like video conferencing, phone calls, chatting, and apt emoticon usage. Checking in over these communication mediums is the background and backbone for our work and fulfillment.
Consider stepping out of the virtual office.
Finally, in-person employee and/or management retreats can improve morale and teamwork. Companies with remote workers such as Upworthy, Apple, Kayak, Staff.com and many others participate in annual retreats.
Elephant Journal hosts a yearly, weeklong all-staff gathering in Boulder, Colorado. According to Elephant COO Lindsey Block, “Connecting in person during all-staff retreats provides a depth and understanding that goes beyond words on a screen and email communication… [it] adds a level of professionalism and structure within a company (especially one where pajamas might be the usual work attire), and an opportunity to plot out goals and next steps with staff input—creating a shared vision.”
Remote work culture may never beat in-the-flesh office culture. But when you’ve employed a team across the globe, maxed out the methods outlined above, and successfully attained a high level of company-wide productivity and satisfaction, it’s worth considering encouraging employees to find work culture elsewhere, too. Coffee shops and work co-ops are rapidly emerging to match the rising demand of remote workers. In time, our company culture needs can be fostered in part by diverse community workspaces dedicated to cross-field connections.
Caroline Beaton is a Denver-based journalist and work-from-home advocate. Her work has appeared in The Denver Post, The Aspen Times, Yoga International and Elephant Journal, among other places. She recently appeared on MSNBC’s web series “Greenhouse”. Get in touch with her at www.carolinebeaton.com.