Because even if all colleagues work at a distance, job satisfaction and effectiveness need to live in a common culture of values and goals.
We asked Liana Hoffmann, one of our Team Leads at Inpsyde, how she masters this challenge in her team every day and which strategies she has developed for optimal remote work across borders and time zones.
Liana Hoffmann has been Team Lead at Inpsyde since December 2019 and ensures smooth customer care and communication in the support team.
Liana’s team consists of 16 employees who live on different continents. The resulting differences in mentality and time differences also represent a daily challenge in Liana’s team.
Inpsyde, as a 100% remote company, has been dealing with these challenges, how a corporate culture can be lived and strengthened in remote work since the company was founded.
Liana, what is the term “Remote Team Culture” all about?
For me, a team defines itself as a group of people who work together to achieve a common goal. In a team, you always have to deal with different individuals and different origins, opinions, values, expectations, etc.
At Inpsyde, there is also the fact that we work remotely on the one hand and worldwide on the other. This increases the challenge of keeping the team together every day and committing to a common goal.
In a team culture, I differentiate between the official and the unofficial side:
- You can write down official team culture on a website, for example, or in a social media presence. That is about a kind of announcement or PR, which affects the company’s own team culture, i. e. values such as trust, transparency, or adaptability, which a company practically lives “outward”.
- The unofficial team culture is a culture of actually lived values and emerging dynamics in the team. It represents the actual reality, because you regularly deal with questions like “What do we value in our team?” or “How do we treat each other?”.
“Remote Team Culture” goes one step further: It deals, for example, with the different requirements in daily work processes across time zones, with the expectations of results when the team cannot physically work together, or how I can best get my employees in the mood for the common goal – also or especially remotely.
What are the specific challenges in remote team culture?
Well, for one, it is the remote working itself. It is about giving employees a feeling that they are 100% trusted and are permitted to be independent. Yes, you heard right. Many people do not even know from their classic office worlds or in their culture that you have to structure your daily routine yourself and not to get it prompted. That is also called “micromanagement” when everything is narrowed down to the smallest detail. There is no such thing in my team.
When working remotely, communication is essential because everyone in a team has to stay in constant contact among each other, coordinate with one another, and keep up-to-date. That is particularly necessary when working in a team over thousands of kilometers and with few or rarely time overlaps due to the time zones.
It starts with the daily to-do list, goes through questions about a specific problem, and ends with general things like vacation planning. My employees coordinate their vacations self-sufficiently, without my intervention. Even when vacation times overlap, they are encouraged to clarify this among themselves and find a mutual solution.
And how do you deal with the challenges as a team leader?
Team culture is based on the corporate culture, which is why the remote practical experience that Inpsyde has had since 2006 had to be transferred to my team in order to establish my own small remote team culture.
Since every team brings with it a different dynamic, I also learned through “learning on the job” what makes sense and is practical in my team.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to develop a team culture that makes my employees stay. I’m very pleased because – let’s be honest – everyone would like to enjoy work and ideally work according to their strengths and weaknesses!
Of course, it also plays a major role that I, as the Team Lead, clearly formulate my expectations and goals and get my employees excited about them.
For me, it is also a matter, of course, to include the different backgrounds of my employees, in particular mentalities or cultural aspects as well as individual characteristics. This makes the team members feel respected and like to show their full commitment. Having a talent pool with the right people is extremely important for remote teams!
How did you find out what makes sense? Have you trained yourself on this?
I actually attended a workshop on “Virtual Team Culture”. But then I quickly found out that you cannot always apply general guidelines across the board.
Working at Inpsyde with the fast-moving challenges of the IT industry, in particular, requires individual and agile strategies. In addition, there is a 100% remote system at Inpsyde and our multicultural employees.
What helped me was the realization that teamwork also bases upon psychology. Therefore, I bought some books in this area such as “The Making of a Manager!” by Julie Zhuo, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey, and also did autodidactic research on this topic in all blog posts and articles.
This reading not only provided me with a deeper understanding of the people behind the employee. It also showed the individual dynamics of a team and how to deal with them.
Were you able to draw on your own experiences or personal characteristics? Which ones helped you?
I am a very open and tolerant person by nature and have always had empathy and a feeling for connections and things “between the lines”. However, you do not only need these characteristics as a team leader but also in daily contact with people, I think.
I have always been fascinated by psychological topics as well. Particularly when being profound. So when you have an aha moment and learn something that will help you in life – whether privately or professionally.
Of course, I also worked in other jobs and companies before Inpsyde. These experiences also facilitate recognizing for myself what is essential to me in my daily work and at my company, and what is not possible at all.
As a result, I could, for example, organize meetings accordingly, i. e. as many as necessary, as few as possible. The quality and relevance of a team meeting are most important to me. Such as things like “Is everyone invited who relates to topic X?”, “Does everyone get their speaking time?” or “What is the purpose and aim of this meeting?”. Of course, this also includes sensible scheduling per week or month.
That is the only way to make meetings a relevant core part of the team so that the team does not simply “mark time” or even perceives meetings as a disruptive factor.
How does a manager contribute to a good working atmosphere? Or is that not so important when working remotely because all employees work for themselves?
But on the contrary! When it comes to this topic, I must say that I not only schedule relevant meetings but also meetings that are more of an informal get-together or where we play virtual games. We have WordPress training every two weeks to discuss new features and styles. Once a month, we have icebreaker meetings. I think it is at least as essential to meet and get to know each other virtually on a private basis as it is to discuss work topics.
Because these informal meetings lead to the fact that one regards the other person as a human being which might sound strange at first. However, imagine that your team does not only consist of extravert people but also shy ones. You will not believe how quickly a shy team member “thaws” when the atmosphere is regularly laid-back, and there is a lot of laughter.
In a remote team culture, however, it is just as important that everyone is in constant contact with each other, even if you are not sitting next to each other in the office. Being approachable is a valuable quality that helps your colleagues to appear as real people remotely.
A good team culture also means having time to talk about routine topics that concern each of us. In an ordinary office, for example, you do this in the coffee kitchen. When working remotely, you have to take your time for these things.
In this context, there is the so-called call-out day in our team culture, in which it comes to the award of so-called kudos, which means something like praise or recognition. These kudos are given by the colleagues if, for example, you have shown specific support with a problem or a project/task has been successful. So it is a public appreciation of achievement and is very well received by everyone!
Establishing a remote team culture is one thing. But how did you manage to shape a good culture in your team? Do you have any tips for this?
Of course, I did not know the proper recommendations for action for my team initially. These have only crystallized over time and through “learning on the job”. Five questions that have contributed to a good team culture have proven themselves:
- What role does the team play?
- How can I make my contribution as a team member?
- What impression do I want to make on the team?
- What is the “unofficial” team culture?
- What is the common goal?
What role does the team play?
The first question arises as to what key role the team has to play. A clear, realistic, and convincing definition helps everyone in the team to know WHY you are doing WHAT.
How can I make my contribution as a team member?
The second question aims at each individual in the team because each employee plays a role in the team. Therefore, everyone should ask themselves, for example, what they are fighting for in their jobs or how they can support the success of others.
What impression do I want to make on the team?
The third question is about what impression I, as a team member, would like to make on my colleagues. You don’t just think about yourself and what the external impact is like, but you also focus your attention on the needs of other employees.
What is the “unofficial” team culture?
This results in the most difficult but most important part: looking at your team from the perspective of your team-mates. Some people find that very difficult, because you have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of others and ignore your personal thoughts and feelings.
What is the common goal?
The final step is describing a common goal for the team. We gave distinction to the word “SMART”: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based.
Okay, now we have got to know a good remote team culture. What comes next? Is it a sure-fire success from now on?
Not at all! For a team culture to remain “good”, it must constantly be put to test. And it has to be maintained sustainably. I have also developed five steps for this:
- Each influences the other
- Stay transparent
- Stay flexible
- Live a feedback culture
- Develop yourself further
Each influences each other
The first step means: keep the right people and surround yourself with the best in their field. Only in this way, they are a benefit for the team and for the entire company.
In the second step, it is necessary to keep all employees up-to-date. Of course, that also goes into my direction as a team leader. I am also responsible for ensuring that everyone in my team is informed and knows what to do. That includes regular meetings, newsletters, and internal company information such as sales figures or novelties.
Flexibility has to live. The team can also take responsibility for something. It doesn’t always have to be my part. For example, you can adjust meeting times flexibly, for they are not set in stone. Or if my employees have built up overtime hours, I encourage them to reduce them promptly.
Live a feedback culture
It is also important to me that there is a feedback culture in my team. Feedback doesn’t always have to be negative. Especially when it turns out positive, it can mean an enormous boost in motivation. In addition, we don’t see each other very often due to remote work – and if we do, then only virtually. It is particularly important to share feedback on a regular basis. The feedback itself should of course be formulated respectfully and objectively. I attach great importance to this! For example, I have set up a 1:1 meeting that takes place every month. And the aforementioned call-out days, in which employees or colleagues from the team are praised by name.
Develop yourself further
Last but not least, it is about continuous further development of each individual, which maintains a good team culture. Because, especially in virtual teams, working together means constant work on yourself and in day-to-day cooperation. That is the only way to keep a team homogeneous, up-to-date, and amicably connected to one another. Pulling together – that’s what teamwork is all about!
What is your conclusion on a remote team culture?
I don’t know if you can call it the bottom line, but I see remote team culture as a constant challenge and not set in stone. A team culture lives and changes, especially when new employees join a team. Then the dynamics in the team change and all employees have to be attuned to one another.
Especially when it comes to global teamwork like at Inpsyde, in which you have to take different time zones and cultural differences into account. Such dynamics between employees are entirely different and sometimes asynchronous.
In addition, you can only see your colleagues virtually and not in person, so that everything has a specific formal framework. Not losing contact with each other, supporting one another, or celebrating successes together is a great challenge – and an incentive at the same time.
The main focus should not be on the individual in the team, but on the team in its entirety. The goal is always to cope with the daily tasks together as a team and to advance Inpsyde. That is why everyone is in the same boat.
Which paths are still to be tread? Or what mistakes to avoid?
When asked which mistakes you should avoid, I can only answer that “mistakes” or even failures may just be accepted as such! Mistakes are part of the process when it comes to gaining experience and learning. It may be precisely these challenges that shape you and positively influence your thoughts and actions.
Finally, I would like to add that I find the corona-related development heading for remote work or home office pretty pleasant. That is perhaps the most recent and decisive trend of our time for both companies and employees.
Since 2006, we have been working remotely at Inpsyde. Of course, we have gained a lot of experience during this time. So if you have to deal with the challenges of remote work and global teams from scratch, you are welcome to contact us.