Lessons From A Year Of Remote Work, Part 2: Culture Is Critical

 Read Part one  here

Read Part one here

I can’t get this story out of my head. It’s about a guy with his first ever remote job, and there’s the usual fare... the glory of commute-free days, the luxurious splendor of a mid-morning walk—a pleasure generally reserved for retirees and professional dog walkers. Then comes this horrifying tidbit: One day, he logs onto a routine video conference call with his team and laughter erupts. Turns out he forgot to put on a shirt before dialing in.

I read that story last year when I got hired for my first ever remote position, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to talk up remote work without inadvertently calling forth an image of a bare-chested dude trying to duck out of webcam range while his coworkers enjoy a fit of hilarity. It’s just mean. Admittedly, I can’t think of a helpful way to respond to an accidentally shirtless coworker, but I’m certain gang-laughing isn’t it. This is a stretch of a comparison but now and then the sound of running water and pots banging can be heard in the background on our team calls, and you know what happens? Nothing. No snide remarks or affronted throat-clearing. More than once I’ve muttered to myself when I thought my mic was muted, and this is how many people have teased me about it: 0.

Culture Matters More When Your Company Is Your Housemate

Drew Housman, author of the Shirtless Skype Call story, shares his cringe-worthy anecdote as evidence of a remote work downside he calls, “Being caught off guard.” But if when you make a mistake, your coworkers laugh at you, that’s not thanks to an inherent flaw in distributed working. That’s a culture problem. And it would rear its mean-spirited head whether the mistake in question was joining a video call half-naked or sitting down at a full conference table with a hunk of spinach on your upper lip.

Here’s the surprise takeaway from my first year on a distributed team: I’m no less affected by my company’s culture as a remote worker than I was when I went to an office every day. If anything, the way we interact with each other and our customers is more impactful because it’s not happening on some corporate campus I drive to and away from each day; it’s happening in my own home. When you work remotely, you’re effectively inviting your employer into the place where, I’d argue, you ought to be able to feel safest. My advice? Extend those invitations selectively.

Vetting Culture

Everyone in an organization contributes to its culture, but no one person controls it entirely. Before signing on to a remote team and bringing their existing culture into your refuge from the stressors of the world at large, it might be wise to suss out your potential housemate first.

Some ideas for doing that:

1. Ask For Value Stories, Not Just A List Of Values

I didn’t have to do this; my interviewer beat me to the punch. I asked about company culture, and he launched into anecdotes illustrating the organization’s values in action. Up until that point, he let me do the lion’s share of the talking (which makes sense), and his manner throughout seemed to be that of a man who errs on the side of laconic—not reserved necessarily, but disinclined to use 50 words when 5 would do the job. Still, one question about culture and he delivers an impassioned address on transparency and empathy, complete with practical examples of how both play out in his company’s day-to-day.

His enthusiasm spoke volumes, but the stories themselves sold me. Why? Because cute values pages on company websites and fun, engaging culture videos—while interesting—tell us zilch about how a company’s values are expressed in the mundane reality of its everyday operations. Bottom line: A company representative that cannot articulate real-world examples of his/her organization’s values in action probably represents a company that doesn’t live out its values. Hard pass.

2. Pay Attention To How The Interview Panel Interacts

First of all, is there a panel? Or do you only have contact with one or two people throughout the hiring process? That’s telling. I’d be wary of any company that declines to solicit a variety of input when making hiring decisions but even more so if the job I’m applying for is remote. Working from home can be isolating, but an organization that values collaboration is better positioned to help me mitigate that isolation.

Assuming there’s a panel, do they interrupt each other? Avoid eye contact? Is everyone given a chance to ask questions of you? Their treatment of each other is as good an indicator of how they’ll treat you as any you’ve got at this point.

3. Assess Public-Facing Communications

Does their behavior in the marketplace jibe with the value stories they shared with you? Does it sync up with the way they interact with each other? A company that claims to put people first, for example, but uses guilt-trip marketing to get site visitors to sign up for their mailing list is—spoiler!—not a company that puts people first.

 It’s called confirm-shaming and it’s not ‘people first’

It’s called confirm-shaming and it’s not ‘people first’

Maybe I’m being overly generous here, but I suspect that for most Jeckyll-Hyde companies, this dissonance between who they claim to be and how they behave in the marketplace is not deliberate deception. It’s a lack of self-awareness and/or a failure to bring all departments fully into the fold. Maybe their product development team is hyper-focused on “people first,” but their marketing department has free rein to do whatever it takes to hit their conversion rate goals (the fact is, guilt-trip marketing will get those numbers up). Either way, a company that lacks integrity will be a difficult employer.

Remember, It’s Your House

I like my remote job, but that’s not solely because it’s remote. It’s also because the culture I’ve welcomed into my home isn’t one I have to defend against daily. I don’t call in to meetings with my stomach in knots because someone might start shouting (or laughing at me when I make a mistake). I don’t field instant messages with snark about coworkers. My teammates show up each day and treat each other with courtesy and respect. Because it’s my first remote job, it’s tempting to conclude that that’s the difference, that remote jobs are better and remote teams are more professional and remote employers are kinder. But that would be a mistake.

Culture is critical. You have the right to vet it.

Part 1 | Top photo by Héctor Martínez