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Building and reinforcing a sustainable culture

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On this page, we're detailing how to build, communicate, and reinforce a sustainable culture in a remote environment.

How do you build and sustain culture in a remote environment?

"How do you build and sustain culture in a remote environment?" or "How does culture work remotely?" are questions we frequently hear at GitLab. In colocated settings, culture is often implied, built from how team members treat one another, what is rewarded, what is chided, and what is deemed acceptable during in-person interactions.

Building a culture across a company where there are no offices requires intentionality. While technology and tools are enabling companies to operate efficiently in a remote setting, it's important to focus on documenting culture first, then using tools to support.

In the video above, GitLab's Head of Remote discusses the topic of scaling culture during an interview with Stuart Miniman, host of theCUBE and GM of Content at SiliconANGLE Media. A portion is transcribed below.

Remote is much better for your mental health and sanity than other settings, and it's because it forces you to work asynchronously. At GitLab, we have people spread across 65 countries, so almost every time zone is covered. But, that also means that someone on your team is likely in a vastly different timezone. In fact, they may be asleep the entire time you're up working.

With an asynchronous mindset, it enables all of us to take a step back and assume that whatever we're doing is done with no one else online. It removes the burden of a nonstop string of messages where you're expected to respond to things immediately.

From a mental health standpoint, when you have an entire company that embraces that, we're all given a little more breathing room to do really deep work that requires long periods of uninterrupted time.

As a society, we're getting close to a tipping point where people are at their limit on how many more messages, or emails, or seemingly urgent pings they can manage while also doing their job well. We may be a bit ahead of the curve on that, but my hope is that the industry at large embraces asynchronous communication, and allows their people more time to actually do the work they were hired to do.

No unwritten rules

There should be no unwritten rules in remote culture. Intentional documentation is essential to avoiding dysfunction within a remote company, and this also applies to culture. At GitLab, this begins with our company values: Collaboration, Results, Efficiency, Diversity & Inclusion, Iteration, and Transparency.

Culture is best defined not by how a company or team acts when all is well; rather, by the behaviors shown during times of crisis or duress.

Intentional onboarding

A team member's first experience with company culture is unavoidable. The onboarding experience serves as the first post-interview encounter with culture, and it is essential to infuse the importance of values into that experience.

Remote onboarding should set aside time for a new team member to read and digest a company's values, which serve as a company roadmap to culture. Consider having a mentor or onboarding buddy specifically ask questions related to values, providing opportunity for the new team member to dive deeper into how they are lived day-to-day.

Reinforcing your values

Whatever behavior you reward will become your values. New hires and promotions serve as important decisions to promote and reinforce values. GitLab reinforces its values by what:

  1. Leadership does.
  2. We select for during hiring.
  3. We emphasize during onboarding.
  4. Behavior we give each-other 360 feedback on.
  5. Behavior we compliment.
  6. Criteria we use for discretionary bonuses.
  7. Criteria we use for our annual compensation review.
  8. Criteria we use for promotions.
  9. Criteria we use to manage underperformance.
  10. We do when we let people go.
  11. We give value awards for during Contribute.

In negative feedback, one should be specific about what the problem is. For example, saying someone is "not living the values" isn't helpful.

Never take culture for granted

While the importance of culture is driven home during onboarding, continual reinforcement is required to keep it top-of-mind. In the course of business, it's easy to lose sight of values and culture when focusing on OKRs and KPIs. However, it is vital for leadership to remind themselves and other team members that values should never be pushed aside or lowered in priority.

Every decision a business makes should align with their values. Otherwise, values will be seen as "merely words," and culture will disintegrate.

If your company gets all team members together on a regular basis, consider resurfacing values or providing opportunities for groups to live out those values through community service. Just as certain trainings are recommended or required each year as part of a company's ongoing learning and development efforts, reminding team members of values is vital to sustaining a strong culture.

Gratitude and transparency

Persistent negativity can erode culture. While feedback is a gift, there's a fine line between reacting with hope and determination when facing a challenge and allowing a sense of apathy or dread to permeate a company. Leaders should be cognizant of this and act swiftly if there's a noted drop in outward gratitude or transparency in communications.

Emna G., founder and CEO at Veamly, spoke with GitLab's Darren M. on how she fosters and sustains a thriving culture within a remote-first company.

Every Monday, we get everyone on a Zoom call for something we call "Gratitude Monday." Everyone shares what they're grateful for. It doesn't have to be work-related. The idea is to live by gratitude; we need to learn how to embrace it.

Some Mondays, you've had a bad weekend or you've woken up on the wrong foot. For me, I try to push my team to take a moment, pause, and really feel it. We see the difference when we remember what we're grateful for.

We also do "Meditation Wednesdays," where we get on a Zoom call and we do breathing exercises. Then we share what we're stressed about, and what we're looking forward to. The idea is that it's OK to be stressed — we're human — but we want to balance that stress and create empathy.

Spotlight culture ambassadors

A remote culture is only as strong as it is lived. At GitLab, we encourage team members to surface culture on a regular basis through the following mechanisms.

  1. Say Thanks
  2. Use value emojis — CREDIT emoji — to recognize messages that exemplify a company value.
  3. Recommend a colleague for a discretionary bonus. If granted, the rationale and values lived are then documented and announced during a company call, serving as a beacon to others on how to improve the lives of others by living the values.
  4. Serving as a GitLab Contribute Ambassador, which helps the entire company get the most out of a weeklong trip to spend time with each other in person every 9-12 months.
  5. Everyone can contribute to strengthening GitLab's values by creating merge requests and fostering discussion.

Put structure around culture

It may sound counterintuitive, but there is great value in putting process and structure around culture. For example, if a company has an unlimited vacation policy, but has no suggestions or process around it, you may create a culture of fear with regard to taking time off.

Emna G., founder and CEO at Veamly, spoke with GitLab's Darren M. on the importance of process in building remote culture.

Put process around things. Studies show that when a company has unlimited vacation, people don't take vacation.

It's important to be communicative about the minimum that needs to be taken. It's also important to be clear on the structure. If you give a team something without structural limits, they really don't know how to navigate it.

If you put structure around this, and you document it, you eliminate the guilt and the fear of missing out. — Emna G., founder and CEO at Veamly

It's important for leadership to set the tone, but it's even more important to document what will define your culture. Each time a scenario arises where there is no clearly defined answer, look to your company values to determine the answer, and then document.

Documentation is a shared benefit, and is something that should be embraced by all members of the organization. While it may feel inefficient to document nuances related to culture, creating good habits around this will ensure that culture is as strong in the future as it was in a company's infancy.

Close the office

Where feasible, consider closing the office and operating as a 100% remote company. This eliminates the possibility of any remote employee being seen, intentionally or unintentionally, as a second-class citizen within the organization.

If this is not feasible, and your company operates elsewhere on the spectrum of remote, ensure that your culture reinforces a remote-first way of doing business. It takes a concerted effort to transcribe hallway conversations into one's handbook or Slack channels, but ensuring that each employee is seen as a remote employee is the only way to ensure equal access to information.

Contribute your lessons

Creating and evolving company culture is something that all remote organizations must tackle. If you or your company has an experience that would benefit the greater world, consider creating a merge request and adding a contribution to this page.

Return to the main all-remote page.