Building a Remote Culture: Lessons From High Alpha Innovation’s Growth

Sydney Evans

Let's talk about how we made remote

Building a remote culture is a challenge that the majority of us at High Alpha Innovation did not anticipate taking on -- but in retrospect, it’s become a core (and vibrant) part of our studio’s culture. The pandemic has forced companies to rapidly move to a remote-first-driven mindset, with the need for quick adoption of best practices, and we’re no exception. While our headquarters are in Indianapolis, we have employees in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, Washington DC., and other closer locations throughout the Midwest. As a distributed team, we have had to experiment, fail, and build quickly to have a strong culture in our first year and a half as a company. And as part of the HR team, I have had my hand in implementing culture initiatives that impact our growing team of almost 30 -- which is amazing in and of itself, considering we had less than 10 teammates just a year ago.

Amidst that growth, here are three tips that I would offer for building a remote culture:

  1. Encourage informal conversations

In a remote workplace, casual conversations aren’t the same. Yes, you have small talk at the beginning of each meeting, but it’s beneficial for your team to have time strictly for non-work conversations. Recently, we implemented a Slack application called Donut, where every month all employees get randomly matched with each other and have a 30 minute Donut chat. Building interpersonal relationships across the team should be a top priority for all companies, whether they are remote, hybrid, or in-person. 

We also have a virtual daily stand-up meeting that is dedicated for talks of any kind--brainstorming sessions, best meal-kit provider, showing off pets, you name it! There is no expectation to attend, but it does provide a space to socialize. Another fun activity we enjoy is Third Thursday Social, which is put on by our FUN Committee. As the name suggests, every third Thursday we split into groups and answer questions, such as, “If you had to eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” It’s a chance to relax, let loose, and learn something new about coworkers. Whatever the activity is, make sure to provide opportunities for employees to connect!

  1. Recognize employees from little wins to big celebrations

We are in the process of launching many incredible startups, which means we are often celebrating! However, it’s important to recognize the small, everyday achievements as well. Continuous recognition, not only during performance reviews, decreases turnover and increases engagement and productivity. A simple Slack message can boost someone’s mood, and it’s a pleasure to see them happening each and every day.

Another factor to consider is public vs. private recognition. Some employees are uncomfortable with public recognition, and prefer 1:1 recognition. Make sure to ask how individuals prefer to be recognized: this alway includes positive vs. negative feedback -- our default mantra is to praise in public, (constructively, directly, and respectfully) criticize in private.

If your company struggles to consistently prioritize recognition, get leadership involved. If they start recognizing others in a public space, everyone will follow. At High Alpha Innovation, we utilize a Slack application called HeyTaco and our celebrations channel is always buzzing with praise.

“One unintended benefit of this program that I hadn't thought of was the general sense of positive feelings towards teammates: I am constantly thinking about the most redeeming qualities of each individual” - Nathan Newburn, Accounting Manager
  1. Discuss and respect boundaries

To preface, let's remember that working remotely ≠ 24/7 availability: consider that employees have other responsibilities outside of work. Setting and maintaining boundaries is a priority, and it is up to your coworkers to discuss and respect them. To foster this, I lead a workshop called Working Styles & Behaviors, where a small group of employees have a conversation that includes boundary-setting.

Examples of setting boundaries include: 

  • After 5:30 PM is family time 
  • Blocking times and setting working hours on calendar 
  • “If you need me after work, text me” or “here are my preferred after-hours contact methods”

Boundaries will look different for everyone; mine, for instance, look a lot different than some of our employees with 5 children! Despite the differences, it is critical that everyone show respect. If you’re about to send a message at 2 PM on a Saturday and you know that a coworker is at the beach enjoying her weekend, use your best judgment and wait to send until Monday (remember: scheduling email messages for later is always a great option). Be aware of time zones as well; I am in Central Time, so I start an hour after our Indy folks. (Side note: be sure to check out my colleague Ryan Larcom’s article if you are interested in learning more about radical transparency when it comes to setting boundaries.)

In closing, I’d emphasize that overall, communication is key. You need to have fun conversations, publicly or privately recognize others, and discuss boundaries and follow through on maintaining them. Remote is the new norm, so if you aren’t constantly evaluating and improving your culture, you are falling behind. And if you’re interested in joining our culture-forward team of talented builders, be sure to check out our open positions. Quite simply, we have made remote work not only work, but thrive!

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