Here’s a thought experiment: Think of the two cultures of Los Angeles and New York City. Got a mental image of both? Great. Now try to strip out everything geographical—major landmarks, local weather, and so on. What are you left with?
When we think of “culture,” so much of that is tied to a physical location. And that’s just as true of work cultures as urban ones. But here at Goodway Group, a digital marketing company with over 400 U.S.-based employees, we have a work culture that’s earned high marks on Glassdoor and kudos from Fortune‘s Great Place to Work initiative and the Society for Human Resource Management—and we all work from home. In fact, around a dozen of our team members live in RVs.
In my experience, it isn’t the tools and tech that make a 400-plus remote workforce successful. Those things only enable remote work to happen at its most basic level. They don’t build an effective, collaborative, award-winning culture. Here’s what does.
Make It The Norm
You know the person who works from home on Fridays? And whenever there’s a meeting, they have to dial in but it’s basically like they’re not there? They don’t feel like they’re there, either. Letting some people to work from home some of the time is a recipe for frustration at best. Even if the schedule is well laid out, the playing field feels uneven. This is especially true if upper management is in the office and others aren’t. Everyone has to be outside of a central office to make it work.
One of the main benefits our employees cite about working from home is that it lets them do those important “life” things that they’d otherwise struggle to handle if they had to commute to an office every day. Things like spending time with their families, exercising, cooking, house work, staying employed when their families need to relocate, and so on. By allowing people the flexibility to tend to their lives during the workday, you award people an incredibly valuable benefit that they grow to cherish. If you hand this benefit out to only a select few, it’ll backfire by sowing envy among your staff.
For those that do want to work from an office environment from time to time, we provide WeWork memberships, which can help provide that flexibility and interaction even though the workspace isn’t specific to our company.
Hire People Who Can Thrive In A Remote Environment
People usually fall into one of two categories: the “I would love to work from home! I get so much done!” camp, and the other being, “I can’t work from home. I just get so distracted.” What many CEOs fail to understand is that they’re currently employing a large number of people who fall into the first category already, those who are simply more productive out of the office. These people are then forced into a less productive environment because it’s just the norm.
Operating a successful remote workforce means hiring right, which is really no different from hiring a successful onsite workforce. It’s just that onsite employers rarely think of it this way. We use assessments like Wonderlic’s Personal Test to screen for characteristics like “achievement striving,” “dependability,” and “efficiency,” all of which the tool’s developers have found are great predictors of success in a remote environment. As part of a rigorous interview process, these assessments have helped us get pretty good at determining early on whether someone will be a good fit to work remotely.
Default Toward Documenting Things
Think about how many impromptu in-person conversations you have in a week. In how many of those are agreements or decisions made? Usually quite a few, right? But these go undocumented, simply because both parties made eye contact and talked about it in-person, which seems to create enough commitment on both sides for there to be follow-through. Eye contact doesn’t have enterprise value, though. Documentation does.
When joining our company, new employees are exposed to “the wiki.” It’s Atlassian’s Confluence, but it has achieved a kind of ever-present, pervasive presence in our culture. Notes from every meeting are on the wiki. My one-on-ones with my direct reports are protected to just that person and me. But department notes, leadership team meeting notes, and most all other meeting agendas and notes are left open. This inspires trust and accountability, too. There are follow-up tasks on every page with the assignees called out.
Related: How Trello Employees Use Trello
Want to know where your business has process and documentation gaps? Have everyone work from home for a week. Seriously! If nothing else, it’s an amazing audit tool.
Getting Together Should Be A Celebration, Not A Chore
I’ve never met anyone who’s truly excited to go into work every day. But we’ve found that when you rarely have a chance to get together with your coworkers, most people are legitimately excited once an opportunity comes around. At Goodway, we’ve been going to Deer Valley, Utah, in the summer, and Las Vegas around the holidays for a week apiece. Those big meetups are absolutely packed with meetings, work, and celebration.
When people arrive, they’re genuinely excited to see each other—hugs abound because we literally haven’t seen each other in six months. For remote employees, seeing their work family can be as exciting as seeing extended families. And like any family reunion, come Friday, everyone is ready to head home.
One of the main reasons companies screw up while trying to create flexible work environments is because they do it halfway (two days a week, for instance), or as an exception for some and not all. The “right mix” is that there is no mix that’s right: You’ve got to go all in and commit to a fully remote culture. Let people opt into an office environment when they want to, and use resources like coworking spaces to accomplish that. When people make their own choices, it shouldn’t surprise you how much more they appreciate the results.
Jay Friedman is COO of Goodway Group, where he’s helped grow the company from just 19 employees in 2006 to an over 400-person workforce.