Radically Remote: Building Workplace Culture When "Place" Is An Idea

Working remotely is one thing. Leading a fully remote team that helps others find remote work is quite another.

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Regional depression. That's the term used to describe what happened in Youngstown, Ohio back in the 1970s. For much of the 20th century, Youngstown's roaring steel industry had catapulted it into "American Dream" status. It was the kind of place where, if you were willing to roll up your sleeves and put the work in, you could receive the kind of steady income that allowed you to own a nice home and raise a family.

But after World War II, manufacturing started to shift abroad and the nature of work began to change. This resulted in economic powerhouses like Youngstown, Ohio collapsing. In just five years they lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in annual manufacturing wages. Such a collapse of course made it all but impossible to pivot toward something else, and many regions throughout the United States (such as where I'm from in Pennsylvania) are still searching for ways to pull themselves out.

Restaurant chains and grocery stories are occasionally hiring, but outside of that it's tough going. Even the retail shops that I used to go to as a kid have either closed or are in deep decline as companies like Amazon offer an easier and often cheaper way to shop. And if there's a university in the area, such regions typically see a mass exodus every May as graduating students—including those who want to stay—are forced to leave in search of work.

In his piece for The Atlantic titled, A World Without Work, Derek Thompson writes about how as work in Youngstown collapsed, so too did the culture of Youngstown. An area of hope was now essentially helpless as rates of crime and depression skyrocketed. But beyond this observation, Thompson positions the rise of technology in terms of what it may mean for the future:

Agricultural technology birthed the farming industry, the industrial revolution moved people into factories, and then globalization and automation moved them back out, giving rise to a nation of services. But throughout these reshufflings, the total number of jobs has always increased. What may be looming is something different: an era of technological unemployment, in which computer scientists and software engineers essentially invent us out of work, and the total number of jobs declines steadily and permanently."

A point missing here, and certainly not some new gem I've created, is that the "total number of jobs" is no longer so dependent on place. A cashier may certainly lose their job as a machine takes over, but so long as that cashier is given the chance to retool, the world is now open to them. In this case, place becomes not just physical location but a limitless idea. As Toni Morrison said when she delivered Princeton University's 250th anniversary convocation address:

The idea of the place is visionary, is change, throbs with life and leans toward the edge."

...is visionary

FlexJobs is the leading job search site specializing in professional telecommuting, part-time, freelance, and flexible jobs. However, they continue to garner positive national attention from media outlets like CNN and Forbes, in large part, because their staff of over 60 is living and breathing the remote work lifestyle as they help others navigate their own way into it.

If the future of work continues to demand that we step outside our geographical constraints, and it sure seems to be, then it makes sense to pay attention to those who aren't just championing the cause but who are living it as well.

"The culture is your company’s compass, and it's ultimately about operating with integrity and communicating on a very real level," says Carol Cochran, Director of People & Culture at FlexJobs.

For sure, workplace culture used to be tied to place, to a particular geographical location. But while that may be decreasing, we are seeing an increase in remote teams paying attention to how they're developing their culture—whether it's with colleagues in the same city or oceans away. For us, culture is part of everything we do. It's how we hire, how we onboard, how we communicate, and collaborate."

Cochran's team at FlexJobs is entirely remote. But while they embrace technology to help them stay connected—they use a desktop app to help them visualize each department and who is working where, for example—they make sure not to use tech as a crutch.

"Creating a great workplace culture doesn't demand all colleagues are working in the same place, but it does demand a team that values the fundamentals of good communication," Cochran says.

She believes it’s important to first see everyone you encounter as a holistic being rather than a worker with a set of skills. This means that family life and personal interests are shared openly in the workplace and embraced as part of creating a strong culture that values and respects the employee's life outside of work.

...is change

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For Cochran and her team, change at the team and personal level is an integral part of how FlexJobs develops their workplace culture. "Over the years we've done all kinds of interesting team activities, but it's important to let them go when or if the team isn't engaged with it anymore," Cochran says.

Each December, FlexJobs employees used to have a secret drawing where they'd select a colleague and then send homemade cookies as a gift. When it started, everybody loved the activity. It was a fun way to stay connected across the distance, but eventually it started to feel like a burden for too many team members. FlexJobs didn't fight to keep it, they scrapped it.

"Right now we do group yoga, we have a trivia night, and we've even started belly dancing classes. They're led by members we hired who happened to have these skills and an interest in sharing them via video classes for our team. The yoga class has been especially great so far because it's a form of 'desk yoga' where our instructor helps us to open up areas that often get tight while sitting at a computer," Cochran says. "Still, we're always open to changing or trying something new if the team isn't enjoying it."

On a personal level, she shared an experience where she had been unintentionally embarrassing a colleague. But because FlexJobs had created a workplace culture that valued open channels of communication, she was able to ask her colleague, "Do you have trouble accepting praise?" This question grew because Cochran saw her colleague as a rockstar, but noticed when she praised her publicly that the colleague became reserved.

"I do," the colleague said. And this was the entry point for the conversation that helped Cochran see that she should make sure to praise this colleague in private. "These may seem like small changes," Cochran says, "but they actually build over time to develop an environment where everybody feels comfortable and each teammate feels like they're able to communicate when they don't feel comfortable."

...throbs with life

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Creating a great workplace culture on an entirely remote team goes far beyond effective communication. It's also about empathic communication, an ability to take great interest in the lives of your colleagues, not forcing them to open up but creating the space for them to do so if they want to.

"It's really about creating a company culture of caring," Cochran says. She spoke of how she's formed deep relationships with her colleagues, watched virtually as a husband prepared for military deployment and as a colleague went through cancer treatments.

For Cochran and her team, a thread that connects their workplace culture is their shared interest in some of the lives of those who they're able to help find jobs. When someone cancels their subscription on FlexJobs, they're asked to share the reason why they decided to cancel. While of course some responses are simply, "I found a job and no longer need your service," Cochran often hears some incredibly inspiring stories as well.

There's a particular story, from when Cochran joined FlexJobs four years ago, that still sticks with her:

There was a dad who had an autistic son. The family had so many doctor's appointments and therapy treatments, and the dad had eventually blown through all of his vacation and personal time—with none left he had no idea what he was going to do in order to take care of his family. He eventually found a full-time position through FlexJobs that gave him health insurance, kept him at the salary he needed to provide for his family, and of course gave him the flexibility of schedule so that he could give his son everything he needed."

It's stories like these that have made the team at FlexJobs believe that everybody deserves the option of flexible work. "This is what fires us up, this is why we do what we do," Cochran says. "Every single day we hear stories from job seekers who are cancelling their subscription because they found a job, and so many of those stories are about how some level of job flexibility will radically change the course of a person's life for the better."

...leans toward the edge.

Those of us who have had the privilege to work remotely for years may feel like it's the norm, but it's still a labor movement very much in its infancy. A 2015 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (pdf here) found that 23% of employees did some or all of their work from home, and in a 2015 survey from AfterCollege, 68% of millennial job seekers reported that an option to work remotely would significantly increase their interest in an employer.

Fully remote companies are still leaning toward the edge of a new frontier. They are at once trying to hold onto what lessons they've found valuable from traditional brick-and-mortar work, while figuring out what works best in a work environment where place has an altogether different meaning than it used to.

The FlexJobs team is in a unique position on the frontlines of this movement. They have daily access to the narratives of their customers, and from the narratives of their own experiences. Though FlexJobs is leaning into the future of work—where place is a physical location but also an idea—the next line of Toni Morrison's speech may be what guides them to whatever is next:

The idea of the place is burrowing into the heart of a theory, of a concept, casting its gaze toward the limitlessness of the universe, not merely moving toward the future but in certain instances driving it."

Does your team embrace remote work or have insights to share about how you've developed your remote team's workplace culture?

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-For information about FlexJobs, visit FlexJobs.com

-work from home photo: Tony Alter

-work remotely photo: Tyler Ingram

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