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Matherson: How to maintain a strong culture across your remote (or hybrid) startup

By Nate Matherson, Co-founder of ContainIQ. Nate is an experienced entrepreneur having founded multiple venture-backed startups which have notably been funded by Y Combinator and others.

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us it’s that the American workforce likes remote work – and they’re pretty good at it too. A recent Stanford study found that workers can be up to 13% more productive when working from home.

That said, switching to a completely remote model isn’t the best solution for all companies. Both younger and older workers have expressed their desire for at least some in-person work, citing connections, culture, and energy as the things they miss about coming into the office.

That’s why over two-thirds of the American workforce claims that a hybrid model – in which they are spending some time working from home, and some time in the office – is their preferred style for work.

ContainIQ, a Kubernetes monitoring and tracing company, we’ve been operating in a hybrid model for over a year. We’ve learned a lot in that time. Our employees have thrived with increased flexibility, and we’ve come a long way in learning to navigate the problems that can arise with remote work.

Why is a Strong Culture Important at a Startup

Culture can make or break any organization. It’s usually a great culture, not necessarily a great idea, that makes companies successful.

At a startup, that sentiment is even more true. Startups rely on the innovation, communication, and creativity of their employees more than large corporations. If the culture doesn’t encourage employees to work hard towards a common goal, a startup won’t reach its potential.

When adopting a remote or hybrid work model, the loss of company culture is a major risk. It’s easy for coworkers to just become faces behind screens, and it can be difficult for managers to build the same level of cohesion among their teams.

That said, it’s still possible to foster a healthy and productive work culture, even when employees aren’t face-to-face every day. Here are the four most important tips we’ve learned at ContainIQ on how to create a hybrid work culture that will enable your startup to thrive.

#1 Over Communicate

If you’re worried you aren’t communicating enough with your staff, chances are, you’re right. Great remote managers communicate clearly and often with their teams.

Things can get lost when speaking through a screen, email, or text. Body language and vocal intonations don’t come through. So, it’s important to be expressive in communications, and don’t leave anything out.

It’s also important to remember that communication is a two-way street. Having great lines of workplace communication means that employees are empowered to express their voices back to management. A few ways companies can give their employees a voice include:

–   Polling staff on things they like and dislike about their remote work experience

–   Set up times to discuss their experience with remote work, and be open to addressing struggles employees are experiencing

#2 Emphasize Informal Discussion

The conversations that lead to a tight-knit company culture don’t usually happen in the big meetings. They take place at the water cooler, in the break room, or over lunch.

When shifting away from an office, you lose these places for informal discussions. It’s easy to slip into a habit of only talking to your co-workers about work.

Informal discussions are the backbone of strong company culture. It’s where we learn about each other, share big ideas, and often when we feel most like ourselves in the workplace.

To ensure that casual conversation is still happening in our workplace, we like to:

  • Set aside time for weekly meetings in which groups of workers can talk about anything and everything they want to
  • Set up office games like Fantasy Football, Oscars prediction contests, or leaderboards for popular online games
  • Be intentional with our in-person time together

To expand on the last point, if you are operating in a hybrid model, think about how you are using your time in the office. In-office days aren’t necessarily the best times for general staff meetings; these can be done virtually.

Instead, use your in-person time to emphasize the things that bring your staff closer together.

#3 Clear and Accountable Goal Setting / Planning

When polled about their biggest fears when transitioning to remote work, many managers responded that “they felt they couldn’t track employee progress as well.”

Employee growth is important for all parties involved – managers, companies, and the employees themselves all benefit from a staff that is actively setting and accomplishing goals.

In a remote work setting, managers and employees can all too easily fall into one-dimensional relationships. All the “get this done” without any of the mentorship and goal planning that comes with a strong employee-manager relationship.

It’s essential that a remote workplace promotes goal setting by:

  • Making sure employees and managers are communicating frequently about what their goals are, barriers they are facing in achieving them, and how the managers can help
  • Creating a goal setting and planning system that is clear, and rewards workers when they reach them
  • Incentivize goals that involve other members of the team, so frequent communication and collaboration are necessary

#4 Employees In Love With What They Do

Okay, so this one isn’t exclusive to remote workplaces – at ContainIQ we’ve been looking for employees who are in love with what we do from day one.

Still, it became even more obvious how important it is when we made the commitment to a hybrid environment.

Over 40% of managers fear that they lack the skills to manage their teams remotely, and many felt that this fear caused them to micromanage their employees in remote settings.

What we’ve found is that when your employees love what they do, the space they are in and are driven by the mission of their company, there’s never a need to micromanage. These employees are productive anywhere. In the interview process, you can ask questions like:

  • What are you excited about building at our company?
  • Why do you want to work in this industry? In our case, the Kubernetes monitoring industry.

It goes without saying that work-life balance is important. And loving the work that you do doesn’t mean that you are giving up that balance.

Final Thoughts

Hybrid and remote workplaces are here to stay. The number of remote employees has doubled in the last two years, and that number is expected to double again by 2025.

But remote work doesn’t mean a great culture has to be sacrificed. By communicating clearly and working hard to foster strong relationships, managers can continue to create the type of culture that will allow their start-ups to thrive in this new American workplace.

Matherson: How to maintain a strong culture across your remote (or hybrid) startup | Clay & Milk
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