In a season one episode of the Australian children’s television show, Bluey, the eponymous anthropomorphic Blue Heeler and her sister face an unanswered question: Can grannies perform the flossing dance? Luckily, the puppies’ grandparents can easily be consulted via video chat, supporting their close family culture while solving a pressing question.

For employees in virtual-first workplaces, this is a familiar journey: A problem is encountered, a digital connection is created with someone to help resolve it, and a solution offers an opportunity to build a workplace relationship. But even as technology helps answer questions about remote collaboration, companies are still looking for ways to foster cohesive virtual-first workplace culture.

“We can maintain a transparent and inclusive culture much more easily when we combine the virtual tools we have at our disposal with best practices,” said Summer Tatlici, vice president of people and culture at Episode Six.

For Episode Six, those best practices include formal practices like recording trainings to support asynchronous collaboration for their globally distributed workforce and offering a day of leave in place of the in-person birthday celebrations of the past, but they create space for the informal encounters that help build in-person relationships by offering room to share common interests and recognize milestones together.

Built In Austin spoke with Tatlici and leaders at RapidDeploy and Engagency about how they have shifted their culture to support employees in a virtual-first environment, including impromptu video calls to resolve pressing questions, dance related or not.

 

RapidDeploy collage of the office and team members
RapidDeploy

 

Martine Friedland

People Operations Specialist

 

RapidDeploy is an open and integrated emergency response platform, supporting 9-1-1 call centers across the US. Their software tools support increased responsiveness when it matters most, and their company culture reflects their commitment to continuous improvement, even while shifting to a virtual-first environment. “When we first went remote, we had little choice in the matter, but we have moved into embracing it fully,” said People Operations Specialist Martine Friedland. Friedland noted the opportunities remote work has had for ongoing communication throughout the workday, while still working to build strong personal relationships across the organization.

 

What is the biggest challenge to establishing a virtual-first company culture? 

In the early days of remote work, we had to really focus on engagement on a virtual platform when we first moved to having all employees remote. This had its challenges, but with a regular cadence of virtual team meets and check-ins we have managed to navigate this new remote world and still create a culture of cohesion in sync with one another. We continue to work remotely with occasional office events for team-building work and collaboration.

 

What’s your number one tip for fostering connection and collaboration on virtual teams?

So much can be lost in a virtual setting, so fostering connection and collaboration in innovative ways to keep channels of communication open and active is important. At RapidDeploy, we prioritize continuous and open communication, through regular team channels and platforms that allow for input at any time throughout a work day in order to to work through the limits of being virtual. We have found new ways to “read” our teammates to ensure what is not being said is still heard, and we are still able to build relationships with peers and look after our team members.

So much can be lost in a virtual setting, so fostering connection and collaboration in innovative ways to keep channels of communication open and active is important.”

 

What remote working tools do you lean on to reinforce culture?

We use many of the virtual platforms available to create fun and regular social online team events. Kahoot quizzes are a crowd favorite. We also drive engagement through our company chat portal, with weekly flyers inviting the team to comment or to strike up conversations without forcing engagement. We create fun online engagement events based on interesting and important dates in the annual calendar which in turn fosters greater understanding of the various cultures we have within the company. We also still encourage in-person team building events to regenerate and reignite online comradery and culture.

 

 

Summer Tatlici

Vice President, People & Culture

 

Episode Six is a payments technology company that offers clients a flexible and adaptable platform. As their team has shifted to remote work, the company has embraced adaptability for their team culture, as well, and looked for new ways to support their employees. “Episode Six is 75 percent remote, so we have made a conscious effort to promote physical and mental wellness by providing free access to Bright, a wellness platform,” said Vice President of People and Culture Summer Tatlici.

 

What is the biggest challenge to establishing a virtual-first company culture?

One of the biggest challenges with a remote workforce is creating and maintaining a unified culture along with learning how to effectively collaborate.

At Episode Six, we ensure that our virtual-first global workforce has a monthly open forum to ask questions, make suggestions and provide feedback. We also offer in-person events and training for those that want to visit the office. Trainings are also recorded and made available internally to those unable to attend in-person sessions.

 

What’s your number one tip for fostering connection and collaboration on virtual teams?

We work to create virtual collaboration by building team rapport and trust, establishing personal connections and bringing people together. Teammates can come together in many different ways, including weekly virtual coffee and happy hours that have extremely high attendance. We are passionate about celebrating our employees and their milestones. In the past, we celebrated special occasions such as birthdays in person, but as face-to-face interactions are now replaced by digital means, we introduced a birthday leave policy that allows each employee to take an additional day off to celebrate. 

As part of our commitment to building a collaborative and connected workplace, we are continually developing new strategies to improve trust, engagement, productivity and performance. It is our top priority to foster a culture that motivates and values our employees, as we recognize that our employees are the company’s greatest asset.

We introduced a birthday leave policy that allows each employee to take an additional day off to celebrate.”

 

What remote working tools do you lean on to reinforce culture?

Being a technology-forward company, we are dedicated to providing and utilizing tools that not only help our employees succeed in their roles, but also make their experience easier and more enjoyable. In addition to allowing team members the ability to maintain a flexible work schedule, remote working tools improve communication and collaboration. 

We have seamlessly integrated Microsoft Teams as our messaging tool, allowing us to quickly host video calls and message each other in real time for easy collaboration. As a result of employee suggestions, various company channels have been established, including celebrating company and employee milestones, sharing pictures of pets, sports and wellness and noting milestones.

 

 

Engagency team video call
ENGAGENCY

 

Kelly Rusk

VP of Technology

 

Engagency is an enterprise web development company that describes itself as people-first, even while moving into an all-digital environment. Building that culture was no mistake, CEO Jason Perry previously told Built In Austin. “We wrote out our cultural mission statement and put it directly in our job descriptions, and that drew in like-minded people who valued culture over everything else. From there we started thinking about how to nurture people and their basic needs during the day,” he said.

 

What is the biggest challenge to establishing a virtual-first company culture? 

The biggest challenge we had was ensuring we could maintain the same level of collaboration we had when we were all in-office, but in a new, all-digital landscape. How do you recreate the impromptu discussions that make business flow? We needed to identify, organize and structure those touchpoints and make them intentional. 

So, we increased our use of collaboration tools like Slack. There’s direct messaging that allows us to transfer that collaborative experience, and actually, we’ve found it’s easier to meet up more in a virtual setting. You can quickly see if someone is online and then do a huddle right then and there. It takes less time, but you still get all the benefits of an in-person meeting, all the brainstorming and collaboration that allows us to execute.

 

What’s your number one tip for fostering connection and collaboration on virtual teams?

A lot of workplaces rely on proximity as a shorthand for culture. Being digital-first, you have to be much more intentional about creating a culture and team identity to help people feel connected and engaged. How do you create your team identity and overall company identity? One-on-ones become even more important, as do group dialogues and our social events. The whole team gets together for happy hour every two weeks. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries to create that personal touch. 

Smaller teams have their own meetups. Our dev team plays online quizzes and games with each other. Our spy-versus-spy game was a blast. The project management team does a separate team happy hour as well to create a more close-knit team connection.

Having identities outside of our project through these types of activities helps foster better communication and collaboration when we’re working together as well. We make jokes. We support each other. We work hard and laugh hard.

Our spy-versus-spy game was a blast.”

 

What remote working tools do you lean on to reinforce culture?

There are a ton of online game platforms for letting off steam and collaborating, like Boombox for a virtual cooking class or escape games. As much as Zoom is a virtual meeting tool, the annotation and background features create a lot of opportunities for fun.

For getting work done, we rely heavily on Slack messaging and huddles. We also have Slack channels for non-work-related things, like music, plants and gardening, so people can connect on hobbies and other shared interests. We also have group chats and individual chats.

 

 

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