Insights

Building Culture with a Distributed Team

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"Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Those famous words are attributed to pioneer of business management consulting and self-described "social ecologist" Peter Drucker. Having influenced ubiquitous brands from IBM to Intel, nonprofits including the Girl Scouts of the USA, and even United States presidents, Drucker was undoubtedly onto something. Without a strong underlying company culture, strategy falls apart.

This idea that company culture is the foundation on which solid business is built applies to distributed workforces as well. Half of Black Pixel team members work outside of Seattle, and all Seattle-based team members have the option to work remotely as they see fit. Culture guides our overall structure, teams, and individuals. It has a place in everything we do.

Cultural norms for a distributed workforce don't materialize on their own though. Culture is something that needs constant care and commitment. Our company culture is dependent on a strong influence from our CEO Daniel Pasco, dedication from our department leaders, and buy-in from every team member.

"It's essential to long-term success," says Pasco. "A large part of our management's responsibility is embodying and communicating this sense of shared organizational culture within each team. Even though people are in other parts of the world, they are still tethered by this common thread."

Our design team is a great example of how company culture works even when team members are remote. Chief Creative Officer Phil Letourneau leads the eight-person team, half of which work remotely at any given time. Moving beyond ping pong tables and happy hours, let's look at what really makes this creative group successful.

Collaboration

Some companies (most famously, Yahoo) ban remote working for fear that collaboration and production won't happen unless everyone is face-to-face. But, the most common word used by our team members to describe Black Pixel's culture is "collaborative."

"We use all the tools we can find to improve collaboration: Skype, [Google] Hangouts, [Apple] FaceTime, and other communication mediums," says Letourneau. "We use Dropbox and Adobe Creative Cloud tools quite a bit to keep our designs in sync with each other."

Slack plays a big role in how we communicate and collaborate company-wide. It's our common ground: a place to recognize accomplishments, share ideas, and have casual conversations that would normally happen in an office. This is especially true for our design team. The #designers channel is humming every day with conversations on everything from design inspiration to specific projects.

"The team is very enthusiastic about prototyping and programming," Letourneau adds. "These tools help us be more effective within our own team, making ideas easier to communicate when we're not together, but also with the rest of the company and our clients."

Structure

Leaders who are invested in providing structure for their teams will see culture thrive. Structure doesn't mean micromanagement though. For Letourneau and the design team, structure comes from embracing transparency and keeping everyone accountable.

"Regular meetings bringing everyone together is a good start," he explains. "I try to make every meeting I attend a video call, so I get to see and be seen. Taking advantage of opportunities to get some or all the members together is good too, whether it's at a conference or visits to the Seattle office."

In addition to regular team meetings, each team member has a one-on-one meeting with their direct supervisor every week. Not only does this help address issues that come up from time to time, it fosters openness and trust.

Cultivation

By having a remote workforce, we have a larger pool of talented people to hire from. But, not everyone has what it takes to work remotely. It's up to our team leaders to make sure they hire personality types that align with this style of working. These are the top three qualities Letourneau looks for when hiring new designers:

  • Initiative: When working from home, everything from pets to home repairs will jockey for your attention. You must be able to structure your day, ignore distractions, and produce solid work independently. But it's just as important that you initiate problem-solving and communication. That leads us to Letourneau's next criteria.
  • Communication Skills: Connecting with your team as much as possible is crucial. In an office, coworkers naturally benefit from casual conversations ranging from account deals and projects to families and weekend plans. In a remote setting, you are invisible unless you make yourself heard.
  • Honesty: Since no one is able to peek over your shoulder to see what you're working on or stop by your desk to ask a question, being forthright is important. A good team member is willing to share their progress, ask for feedback, and speak up when they need help.
  • Support

    "We're curious people," says Letourneau of the design team. "We're all exploring different facets of design, looking to learn new things, new techniques, new tools. We all respect each other, and ego takes a backseat."

    By having plenty of tools for communication and collaboration at their fingertips, each team member is empowered to create solutions to inefficiencies and set their teammates up for success. In turn, our design team has helped create applications that our clients love.

    "I have to play it carefully in terms of what we can talk about publicly, but we've shipped [app] designs that are on tens of millions of people's phones, which is mind-boggling," says Letourneau. "We also managed to design-and build, and test, and ship-an entire app for Funny or Die in one month."

    Company culture provides a framework for collaboration, structure, cultivation, and support, and when nurtured, it bolsters your business' bottom line. As we expand to include more team members in other parts of the globe, we continue to develop and revise our own culture to keep everyone moving in the right direction. How do you build culture within your remote teams? Share your insights with us on Twitter using the hashtag #remotepixels.