Over the past year, Officevibe has been partnering with Oyster HR to bring insightful content to both our audiences. Their expertise in distributed work pairs beautifully with our knowledge of employee experience. We're thrilled to have Kim Rohrer, Head of Employee Experience at Oyster HR, collaborate on our blog to share some of her insights on their transition to a distributed work model and how they maintained their company culture.
With remote and distributed work becoming more common, HR and People teams will need to double down on fostering a strong company culture — especially as companies expand across borders and around the world. How do you create and maintain a common set of values and a consistent experience across geographies, time zones, languages, and cultural norms without a co-located office to serve as a nucleus for company culture?
During the year and a half, I’ve been at Oyster, first as Interim Head of People and then as Head of Employee Experience, I’ve seen our team grow from 75 people in 30 countries to almost 700 people across 70 countries. That kind of hypergrowth is just mind-boggling, but I’m especially proud of the culture we’ve built, guided by our values and a strong sense of mission. Of course, it requires hard work and it hasn’t been without serious growing pains, but the challenges of scaling are all part of the process.
Looking back on the journey, here are some tips and insights I’ve learned firsthand on establishing, maintaining, and evolving company culture as your distributed team grows.
What is company culture?
Culture is hard to define because it’s something you feel rather than see. In fact, an organization’s culture is made up of all the things you don’t see, but which operate behind the scenes to shape your employee experience.
People sometimes think culture is about the employee-of-the-month award, the perks you offer, or the parties you throw. But those things are merely a reflection of your culture. The real heart of your culture is what determines the actions or behaviors that will be recognized and celebrated as opposed to being questioned or course-corrected. The culture determines how you hire people as well as how you handle terminations. The culture is not the perks or benefits — it’s how you choose the perks and benefits you offer, and all of the intentional (and unintentional) choices you make regarding the way you support people. Of course, all of this is true regardless of whether a company is co-located or distributed. But when you can’t rely on physical proximity to provide visual cues and cultural signals, you have to work a little harder to fill in the gaps.
Creating culture is not the responsibility of People teams alone — every single employee is a carrier and steward of team culture and has the potential to impact the direction in which your culture grows. That said, it’s important to have guideposts and guardrails from management; a company’s culture and values should be fully embodied by its leaders and executives, which will help set the tone for the rest of the organization.
What does company culture look like in a distributed environment?
In an office-based workplace, it’s easier to feel the company’s culture by virtue of being physically together and having countless casual micro-interactions throughout the day. A shoutout in an office meeting might lead to a spontaneous celebration of a colleague, which isn’t possible in quite the same way on Zoom.
In a distributed environment, you have to work harder to make your culture visible since you can’t rely on casual interactions, spontaneous occurrences, or visible artifacts on the office wall. You have to work harder at documenting your culture, celebrating wins, and recognizing strong efforts. The work of building and maintaining culture needs to be much more intentional.
Of course, cultural norms and habits can and do develop organically in a distributed workplace. Whenever human beings come together and interact with each other, a culture will develop based on how they work, how they communicate, how they collaborate, and so on. This will happen naturally whether you want it to or not. But what can (and should) be intentional is choosing the behaviors you want to celebrate and champion versus the ones you want to discourage or adapt. The important thing is to focus on elevating the behaviors and attitudes that reflect your intended culture by making them visible and accessible.
Handling the growing pains of distributed team culture
If a distributed company is going through a period of hypergrowth, it can be quite challenging to maintain the culture. When you add new people one at a time, it’s easier to bring them into the fold and have them adapt to the existing workplace norms and expectations. The new hire absorbs the institutional knowledge held by tenured employees and soon becomes an active participant in carrying out and shaping the culture. Conversely, if you have many new people joining very quickly, then the ratio of tenured to new employees shifts quite suddenly, and it can have a destabilizing effect. It’s harder to thoughtfully train and absorb recent hires into the existing culture when a high percentage of your employee base is relatively new.
When a company is growing quickly, it’s important to keep a close watch to ensure that team subcultures remain consistent with the broader culture you’re trying to uphold. Of course, some variation is normal and healthy, but ideally, it should be consistent within the umbrella of the overall company culture. For instance, if the company encourages work-life balance but a particular team lead expects staff to work unsustainable hours, it can create a disconnect that negatively impacts the employee experience.
So how do you maintain culture during rapid growth? Ideally, team and department leaders should be fully bought into the company culture and values, and actively involved in sustaining the culture and upholding the values as they bring new people on board. By acting as stewards and ambassadors of company culture, they can help ensure coherence and consistency across the organization.
At Oyster, we’ve experienced the growing pains of hypergrowth and sometimes the way a team operates might be inconsistent with the broader company culture and expectations. If that happens, the Workplace team (which looks after traditional People functions as well as the operations and infrastructure required for a successful distributed workplace) gathers employee feedback to understand the discrepancies and then works with the team’s management to realign objectives. This way, we can ensure a more consistent employee experience across the organization.
Strengthening trust in distributed teams
Trust is foundational for distributed teams because when you can’t see your teammates in person, you have to feel confident that your coworkers are each doing their part — and doing so effectively and in line with the company’s values.
As a globally distributed organization, building trust is one of Oyster’s core values. On the Workplace team, earning and maintaining trust is always top of mind. We build programs, products, and processes with a high level of integrity and consistency so that we can continue to build trust both within the Workplace team and from the Workplace to the rest of the organization. We know that a trustworthy Workplace team impacts both the high engagement and strong culture we have at Oyster.
One expression of this is our “Follow the Sun” philosophy. This is our internal process of handoffs and collaboration based on trusting your coworkers to pick up your work and carry it forward while you’re offline. This process has four pillars: project management, handoff, meetings, and connection — all of which help us avoid the “always on” trap that many distributed teams can fall into.
The people I work with on a daily basis are spread all over the world — I’m based in California and I have colleagues in other parts of the US as well as Scotland, Nigeria, Serbia, Cyprus, and Australia, just to name a few. Sometimes we have no overlapping hours and it’s not possible to have synchronous meetings, yet we are able to work together and collaborate with relative ease — thanks to having a very intentional set of operating principles. Distributed teams need to have incredibly high levels of trust in order to enable autonomous work, and to allow employees to feel safe and build connections despite the distance and time zones that separate them.
Belonging as a priority in distributed organizations
A common misconception about belonging is that you have to find people who are similar to you and who will understand you innately by virtue of your shared demographic characteristics. In reality, belonging isn’t about sameness; it’s about acceptance. It’s not about having a similar background, culture, hobbies, or interests; it’s about feeling like you are valid and valued, that you are good enough, and treated as a respected member of the team. A sense of belonging derives from being seen, accepted, and welcomed as you are.
As teams grow and expand into different countries and time zones, it’s vital to prioritize belonging and build an inclusive culture. It’s not just about having inclusive policies, but also inclusive practices. This might mean bringing awareness to who you’re naturally inclined to include, and considering how you can expand that to the entirety of your team. It might mean finding people who challenge you or have very different lived experiences from your own and finding ways to bridge those gaps.
In other words, trying to establish community and belonging across differences, requires an environment of trust, safety, understanding, and acceptance.
Tips for maintaining and evolving culture as your distributed team scales
Let’s explore how can you build a stronger, more connected company culture as your business grows and expands in terms of size and demographics.
1. Identify what you want your culture to be
Identify and focus on the best parts of your culture, and how you celebrate them in visible and public ways, both internally and externally. How are you reinforcing the things that are going well? And how are you course-correcting when things are not going the way they should? Just as it’s important to celebrate what’s good, it’s also necessary to be accountable to your values if things aren’t going well.
2. Encourage everyone to be stewards and ambassadors of your culture
Culture isn’t created or maintained by People teams alone! Everyone in the organization plays a role in shaping company culture. Encourage and empower people to become active participants so that each individual feels they have something to contribute to making the company the best it can be.
3. Agree on a plan for accountability
It’s important to have a plan for how to hold yourself accountable to your culture and values. The People team can help the executive team figure out what it means to live the company’s values, and then agree on a plan for accountability — how to safely call each other out in a trust-based environment that assumes the best intentions. The details will depend on the culture you’re defining, but the important thing is to make sure there are both celebrations as well as accountability.
4. Measure engagement and seek feedback from your team
How do you know if your culture-building efforts are working? Make sure you put mechanisms in place to measure engagement and get a pulse on the employee experience. Intuitive platforms like Officevibe make it easy for People teams to collect feedback and measure engagement across an organization.
In the long term, building and committing to a clearly-defined culture that’s rooted in your values will help ensure stability, consistency, and continuity as your company grows and expands. It’ll pay off in terms of employee well-being, job satisfaction, productivity, and business success. And it’ll feel good, too.
About Oyster HR
Oyster is a global employment platform that enables companies to hire, pay, and take care of brilliant employees — wherever they are in the world. As a fast-growing company, you need an all-star team to help you reach your full potential. Instead of battling over top local talent, broaden your talent pool with Oyster—the all-in-one global employment platform that allows you to hire compliantly, pay instantly, and provide localized benefits to your team in 180+ countries.
About the author
Kim Rohrer is a passionate people person with over a decade of experience building inclusive, sustainable, values-based company cultures at tech companies and beyond. She is currently the Head of Employee Experience at Oyster and is also the founder of and advisor to OrgOrg, a global community of over 3,500 people operations professionals. Kim believes fiercely in holistic support for working caregivers and is proud to be a part of the movement to create change as a cofounder at TendLab. Her eclectic career has taken her from theater to tech, always with the common threads of community and care.