On this page, we're detailing how to build, communicate, and reinforce a sustainable culture in a remote environment.
Culture is the barometer of how well values are adhered to and reinforced in an organization. Therefore, culture can only be maintained if values are prescriptively articulated and visibly reinforced through elements such as discretionary bonuses and linking promotions to values.
In a colocated setting, culture is typically formed through tacit or implicit knowledge. In a healthy remote work environment, the building blocks of culture are documented transparently, making them accessible to everyone.
If you want to build a great culture, start with your company's core values. You should be able to hand your values to someone who doesn't work at your organization and they be so well-articulated that person would understand how to treat you and your colleagues. Ideally, your values are public so that others can contribute their own knowledge and experiences.
It takes intentionality to build a company culture in a company that has no offices. While technology and tools are enabling companies to operate efficiently in a remote setting, it's important to focus on creating a great culture first, then using tools to support it.
"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.
In colocated companies, it's easy to let culture be shaped by office decor, the neighborhood in which a company's headquarters is located, or the loudest voice in the room. Not only is this dangerous — one's culture can oscillate based on external factors — but it's not a usable strategy in a remote environment.
In a remote team, there's no office vibe, hip coffee, or Spotify playlists that decide the culture, which is a gift. Instead, culture is written down. Culture is equal to the values you write down, and what you do as a leadership team to reinforce those values.
It starts by being intentional about informal communication.
It's challenging to build and maintain a healthy remote culture. Despite its advantages, all-remote work isn't for everyone. It can have disadvantages as well. In the spirit of transparency, here are some of the challenges and solutions to maintaining remote work culture.
Do not conflate forced work-from-home during a pandemic with cultural degradation due to working in a remote environment.
Many companies forced into remote by external factors such as COVID-19 are recognizing that, in general, employees are not as happy. This creates a response question: "How do you maintain culture in a suddenly-remote environment?"
That is a valid question, but it masks the actual question: "How do you maintain culture in any work environment during a global pandemic?"
In a period of tremendous external stress, culture is less about workplace rah-rah and more about intentionally reallocating that energy to serve society. Leaders must accept that the benchmark has changed. Expecting employees and managers to maintain a pre-crisis level of cheer during a pandemic can further deflate morale, and refusing to acknowledge this reality will make it more difficult for culture to recover post-crisis.
Even a company's culture champions, the most enthusiastic of team members, are under unprecedented duress during a global crisis. Many are struggling to work while doubling as a homeschool teacher, or concerned about the wellbeing of neighbors and community members. The energy they once allotted to championing workplace culture is being used up elsewhere, rightly prioritized to focus on new stressors in life outside of work. Complicating matters further is that few employees are willing to state this for fear of being penalized for taking their focus away from work, and not living up to expectations. It is essential for leadership to proactively take steps to create a non-judgmental culture.
Rather than assuming that workplace culture is eroding, consider showcasing how people in your organization are using their energy to support others outside of the workplace. Hearing stories of colleagues supporting first-line workers, neighbors, and community members will bolster morale at work. Being open about taking time away from work to be there for others who are struggling in the midst of a pandemic will create even stronger bonds at work.
GitLab's Remote Work Report sheds light on the current reality of remote work.
In 2021, we learned that 86% of respondents believe remote work is the future, and 62% of respondents said that they would consider leaving a co-located company for a remote role. Contrary to popular belief, we found that most remote workers aren't digital nomads, and 52% are actually likely to travel less than their office working counterparts.
As leaders and team members were grappling with going remote, the pandemic forced many into quick adoption. The Remote Work Report provides insights on what matters to those who adopt remote work and charts a path for building culture around autonomy and flexibility.
GitLab believes that combining many perspectives creates a more innovative environment to work in, with more satisfied teammates, leading to a better product and increased profitability. Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging is one of our company values.
Inclusion allows us to recognize, respect, and value differences in those around us. Being inclusive requires skills such as empathy, openness, and listening. Inclusion also means we are keenly aware of both positive and negative biases and how those biases impact our daily interactions, work, and employee retention.
Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging is fundamental to the success of GitLab as a remote organization. We include it in every way possible and in all that we do.
Empathy and kindness are core to being a great remote manager. It can be challenging to put yourself in the shoes of a direct report using text communication and Zoom calls. In-person interactions allow for body language to be more easily read. In a remote setting, managers must instead be proactive in asking direct reports how life is going and what their learning preferences are.
For a greater understanding of the importance of empathy in a manager, read GitLab's guide to combating burnout, isolation, and anxiety.
Don't underestimate a 1:1. Regularly schedule video calls to check in and ask how you can help remove roadblocks. Set up Ask Me Anything (AMA) meetings so team members can meet a new leader, learn more about an existing team member, or gain clarity on project or a recent change.
Working remotely leads to mostly work-related conversations with fellow team members, so everyone at GitLab is encouraged to dedicate a few hours a week to having social calls with anyone in the company.
It's a great chance to get to know who you work with, talk about everyday things and share a coffee, tea, or your favorite beverage. We want you to make friends and build relationships with the people you work with to create a more comfortable, well-rounded environment.
To achieve results, team members must constantly 🤝 collaborate and work together effectively. At GitLab, helping others is a priority, even when it is not immediately related to the goals that you are trying to achieve. Similarly, you can rely on others for help and advice—in fact, you're expected to do so.
Anyone can chime in on any subject, including people who don't work at GitLab. Collaboration means providing an effective framework for challenging directly and delivering feedback.
Mentor relationships are an opportunity for individuals to learn from someone's personal experience, background, and perspective. Mentorships help build trust, provide safe space to make mistakes, and encourage both personal and professional development.
Mentorship is an opportunity for both the mentor and mentee to develop their leadership and communication skills and should be led by the mentee, similar to how 1:1's at GitLab are driven by direct reports.
Diversity, inclusion and belonging are fundamental to the success of GitLab. We aim to foster an environment where everyone can thrive. We are designing a multidimensional approach to ensure that GitLab is a place where people from every background and circumstance feel like they belong and can contribute. We actively chose to build and institutionalize a culture that is inclusive and supports all team members equally in the process of achieving their professional goals.
One way to create inclusion among your remote staff is to remove time zone bias via asynchronous communication.
Take initiative to operate asynchronously whenever possible. This shows care and consideration for those who may not be in the same time zone, are traveling outside of their usual time zone, or are structuring their day around pressing personal or local commitments.
For example, you can record and share team meetings using GitLab Issues and Merge Requests rather than sending texts, calls, or Slack messages. Be aware of local holidays, personal vacation statuses, and encourage others to default to documentation rather than pressuring team members to be online outside of their working hours.
For hiring teams, a common challenge is this: "How do I assess culture fit remotely?"
To answer this question, you first need to unlearn a bit, and change your frame of mind. A hiring manager should not aspire to assess culture fit. Rather, you should aspire to assess values fit.
For many, it is assumed that culture is simply the aura, energy, or vibe one gets when walking into an office. This is largely driven by decor and personas in the room. It is dangerous to allow company culture to be dictated by such factors, as this will create an oscillating culture that changes depending on mood or socioeconomic conditions.
A company culture is a company's list of values. Culture is an assurance that each employee respects, admires, and feels invested in a company's values, and that leadership works to ensure values are not violated. As GitLab, a sub-value within our Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging value is "culture fit is a bad excuse."
Remote interviewers should link a company's values during the interview and have a conversation to assess a candidate's alignment and understanding of those values. Particularly in a remote setting, values serve as the north star, guiding every business decision by people you cannot physically see and shaping how colleagues treat one another.
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 & Belonging , 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.
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.
GitLab is a collaboration tool designed to help people work better together whether they are in the same location or spread across multiple time zones. Originally, GitLab let software developers collaborate on writing code and packaging it up into software applications. Today, GitLab has a wide range of capabilities used by people around the globe in all kinds of companies and roles.
You can learn more at GitLab's remote team solutions page.
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:
In negative feedback, one should be specific about what the problem is. For example, saying someone is "not living the values" isn't helpful.
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.
A healthy remote work environment clearly defines its culture and expectations. These written definitions enable team members to exemplify the organization's values regardless of their physical location.
Be open about as many things as possible by making information public. This transparency helps reduce confusion and makes collaboration easier. Use public issue trackers, projects, and repositories when possible.
Transparency creates awareness for GitLab. It does that by allowing us to recruit people that care about our values, gets us more and faster feedback from people outside the company, and makes it easier to collaborate with them. It also helps us share great software, documentation, examples, lessons, and processes in the spirit of open source, which we believe creates more value than it captures.
From family time to travel plans, there are many examples and stories of how remote work has enhanced the lives of GitLab team members.
“The flexibility makes family life exponentially easier, which reduces stress and makes you more productive and motivated. You can’t put a dollar value on it – it’s priceless.” - Haydn, Regional Sales Director, GitLab
The freedom and flexibility that comes with all-remote enables employees to view work in an entirely new light.
Rather than forcing a predefined daily schedule replete with a commute, all-remote shifts allows an individual to define their schedule.
A number of studies by organizations such as Google, Buffer, FlexJobs, and IWG show that driven individuals who place a high degree of value on autonomy and flexibility can experience new levels of joy and productivity in an all-remote environment.
Remote and asynchronous work can help alleviate stress and support mental health.
In this video, GitLab's Head of Remote discusses the mental health benefits of asynchronous communication.
Expectations to be online, available, and responsive during set working hours can be stressful. Our hyper-connected society has allowed this notion to seep into every hour of the day, blurring or destroying the boundaries between work time and personal time.
One benefit to working asynchronously is a reduction of tension. When your entire company operates with an understanding that any team member could be offline at any time, for any reason, there is no expectation for immediate replies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 deprioritized 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.
GitLab is one of the world's largest all-remote companies. We are 100% remote, with no company-owned offices anywhere on the planet. We have over 1,500 team members in more than 65 countries. The primary contributor to this article (Darren Murph, GitLab's Head of Remote) has over 15 years of experience working in and reporting on colocated companies, hybrid-remote companies, and all-remote companies of various scale.
Just as it is valid to ask if GitLab's product is any good, we want to be transparent about our expertise in the field of remote work.
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.
Complete all knowledge assessments in the Remote Work Foundation certification to receive the Remote Foundations Badge in GitLab Learn. If you have questions, please reach out to our Learning & Development team at
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