How to build a thriving remote work cultureFeatured

When I was job hunting in 2019, I almost did not consider applying at Course Hero because its office was located in Redwood City and I dreaded the commute during rush hour. The recruiter highlighted the flexible work-from-home policy, which allowed employees to work up to two days of their choice per week from home, so I accepted the offer, bought my first car, and downloaded a bunch of podcasts for the commute.

A few months later, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Course Hero switched to a virtual first policy. This shift allowed all employees to work from home indefinitely as long as they lived within 50 miles of a dedicated hub or qualified for an exception, so that they could come in for an occasional team offsite or company gathering.

As a first-time mom of a toddler, I fully embraced the home office convenience, while Course Hero’s company culture kept me very connected to my coworkers. Working remotely has not slowed my opportunity for personal growth or my ability to build a successful remote team. Since shifting to remote work, I’ve had the opportunity to hire new people and manage large teams in the US, Canada, and Australia.

Remote work is here to stay, and as leaders, we need to ensure it works for all of us. I strongly believe it is possible to build a thriving and inclusive work culture in a remote environment, but it requires the right tools and a commitment to excellent communication.

Here are some of my learnings that I believe can transcend across teams.

1. Building trust comes first

  • It is easier to miss nonverbal cues in a virtual environment, so check in with your team to see how they’re doing outside of work, e.g. while being a parent or caregiver, settling into a new city, or simply finding out about their hobbies.
  • To build and maintain strong relationships, default to facetime via video calls. Before diving into business, allow time for small talk.
  • Assign a buddy to new team members, so they have another casual line of communication.
  • Celebrate birthdays and work anniversaries via kudoboards, spot bonuses, and shoutouts, e.g. via Slack for work accomplishments.

2. Excellent communication is essential

  • Consolidate your conversations, e.g. Slack. We chose Slack because we can engage our community on multiple levels (1:1 conversations, team channels, etc.). Slack also has a free version, which makes it easy to try out and get your feet wet.
  • Communicate synchronously via video calls.
  • Communicate asynchronously via Slack and add a personal touch by including gifs or pre-recorded videos.
  • Use breakout rooms to create small group interaction during big gatherings or create a slack channel for people to express themselves without walking onto the virtual stage.
  • Limit emails to external communication or company-wide newsletters.
  • Be mindful of time zones by clarifying whether something is urgent or can be reviewed later.
  • Integrate an interactive element like a poll into your meetings to ensure everyone is engaged.
  • Set up regular skip-level meetings and ensure the (virtual) door is always open.

3. Let’s not forget to have some fun

  • Schedule virtual water cooler conversations and team lunches. While these happen naturally in an in-person environment, you have to intentionally schedule them in a remote environment.
  • Incorporate icebreakers, games, and fun teaching moments (Kahoots, Codenames,, Scattergories, Jackbox Games).
  • Offer virtual wellness events (yoga, meditation, joint tea/coffee break).
  • Create community via employee resource groups (ERG) that often bring together people from different teams and levels. At Course Hero, we have ERGs that bring together women, immigrants, and members of the Latinx community as well as a Slack channel for parents.
  • Offer virtual volunteering opportunities, eg. HandsOnline, HandsOn Bay Area’s virtual volunteering program.
  • Organize virtual offsites and team-building activities.

I hope these learnings serve as a starting point for you to reflect on the inclusiveness of your remote work culture and identify areas of improvement.

While fostering a culture is an ongoing process, you might be able to start by tweaking a few individual and team processes and routines to improve communication. I hope you enjoy exploring new tools and games to foster connection and freshen up social events as much as I do. I would love to hear about your best practices in fostering a remote work culture!

This is really interesting! thanks for sharingCurious if you could expand a bit on some of the points you made on 3) specifically "Schedule virtual water cooler conversations". Can you talk a bit about those and what the format is? In theory I like the idea but I know so many people feel super awkward doing that so I am curious how do you get people to loosen up? and feel comfortable talking to you as if they were IRL?
In my view, the best way to get through the awkwardness is by starting to schedule brief water cooler conversations. The more you do, the less awkward. There are also tools like Donut that integrate with Slack and connect folks for water cooler conversations. Otherwise, these intros can be encouraged by managers and peers.
These are great tips and resources, thanks for sharing! During peak shelter-in-place, my company used for both work- and fun-related activities. It's like Zoom breakout rooms but way more flexible. Imagine a video game where everyone has a little avatar, and you can walk around and huddle with other people's avatars. If you get close enough, you can see their video feed. If you walk away, their video disappears.It's pretty fun, but admittedly, if you know exactly who you want talk to, then an actual Zoom call is probably easier to use. Gather Town also requires some critical mass of active participants before you feel the benefits of it over Zoom.
Thank you for sharing!