Working Remote? You Can Still Build a Legendary Startup Culture.

By: Shivani Persad, April 19 2024

By Nora Jenkins Townson and Gillian Jose-Riz at Bright + Early

Running your startup remotely has its upsides; it’s more inclusive and accessible, enables flexibility, and can help you recruit from a larger talent pool. It also has common drawbacks, including difficulty collaborating and making those pesky time zones and async schedules work. However, the biggest challenge isn’t the calendar or choosing software; it’s building culture. Startup remote culture isn’t just about the fluffy stuff. While no one should be forced into endless Zoom happy hours or ping pong tournaments — feeling like you know, trust, and like the people you’re working with has an outsized impact on how easy and enjoyable it is to do your job. 

At Bright + Early, we’ve helped hundreds of teams (most of them now remote) create the building blocks of their people and culture practices. In our work, we’ve found that remote teams are not more (or less) engaged than hybrid or onsite ones. Organizations with the highest employee buy-in had a robust, clear and highly defined set of remote policies and practices. Ready to build a legendary startup remote culture that feels all your own?

Here are our top tips for building connected, in-synch startup remote culture.

Get crystal clear on your remote work policies

Outline how pay and role progression work in a remote workplace
These are especially important for remote startups to design and write down. Defining career paths, compensation systems and bands, and how feedback mechanisms like performance reviews work are non-negotiable for remote teams, especially once they pass the 15-20 employee mark. Clarity is also inclusive. With solid processes in place, there’s less room for the subjectivity that can hold underrepresented folks back in processes like performance or interview assessments. 

Consider creating an employee handbook made for remote startups
This should include your mission and vision, the values and behaviours you want to reward (and avoid) and your remote work policies. It should also include how employees contribute to the company’s success, what’s expected of them, how performance is measured and your communication and collaboration protocols. Things like core hours, what tools you use, and how you expect people to use them should all be clearly laid out and easily accessible. For remote organizations, we especially recommend having an audit schedule (twice a year will do) and owner for your documentation. 

Define your expectations for communication across a remote team
Be sure to consider aspects such as expectations on response times, to whom team members should go with questions if some are offline, and norms like cameras off/on. Challenges can arise when an async team member isn’t available, or managers have different expectations of whether someone is visibly working. We recommend defaulting to open group chat channels vs DMs for questions and communication. It helps keep people in the loop, and you never know who might have the same question (and be able to use the search bar) in the future. 

Master remote team onboarding

Imagine changing your whole life to join a company, only to have them ship you a laptop and shrug? Onboarding is imperative, especially for remote teams, where a welcome lunch or the office vibe can’t simply absorb culture. Take a page from event planners and service designers: focus on key moments your attendees will experience throughout their first few weeks. Why not send a chain of thoughtful welcome emails from everyone on the team? Ship them a surprise gift alongside that laptop? Or schedule a virtual group activity to have them feel welcome? Be sure to cover basics like working norms, scheduling job shadowing and connection calls with the right people and hands-on product learning. 

You can also make it fun! At Bright + Early, we’re a remote team and onboard new team members by having them consult for a fake startup. They’re provided with a handbook, other HR documents, and a series of people problems the startup is experiencing. Then, using a hunt through our internal wiki and resources, they’re asked to develop projects and recommendations to improve their work and culture. Other offbeat onboarding processes include gamified learning, working as an apprentice in each department, and traditions like shipping code on week one.

Consider additional benefits that support a remote workforce

While you always want to start with basic healthcare coverage (table stakes!), consider additional benefits, like a home office stipend and a coworking budget. If you’re hiring out of your home state, province, or country, you may face challenges deciding what pay and benefits you can offer cross-border. For a detailed walkthrough, see our guides to Ethical Global Pay and Ethical Global Benefits.

Get synchronized

Use tools made for startup remote teams
Hiring across time zones? Consider using asynchronous tools like voice notes and videos on Slack (or tools like Loom), project management tools like Monday or Asana, and keeping a highly documented wiki– we like Notion for this. Another Bright + Early favourite is Miro, which we use for remote whiteboarding and brainstorming. Depending on how many time zones you work across, you can also try implementing core hours, a 2-4 hour chunk of time (ideally with the most overlap possible) where everyone is expected to be online and communicative. 

Have consistent all-hands meetings
Another simple but key tip for staying on the same page is to have really engaging, well-planned all-hands meetings at least every other week. While this is the best place to share key goals and metrics, big wins, and high-level status updates, you’ll also want to connect personally. 

Include activities that encourage personal connection
Some optional group activities that have helped our team (or our clients) connect during a remote all-hands include Out of Tens, sharing a Rose Thorn and Bud from your week, or leaving time for people to present fun non-work things like vacation photos or pets. We’ve seen one organization kick off each all-hands with a “Get to Know X” presentation where a team member shares their favourite things or a recent hobby. The opportunity to learn more about the team as humans was a breath of fresh air before diving into metrics and company updates. Not sure your team will buy in? Model that it’s safe to do so by sharing more of yourself (appropriately!) and never pressure those who want to hang back. 

Prioritize connection virtually and in-person

Plan virtual hangouts your remote team will engage in
Book some virtual hangouts. They can feel a bit forced, but they help people get to know each other or connect via learning a new skill. We’ve found winners include GatherRound (a fun platform of customizable discussion questions that mixes people into pairs and groups), a regular virtual gaming league, or a cooking or crafting class with materials shipped. Our team recently launched a Friday “show and tell ” to combine work and connection.” Folks can bring a cool project they recently completed, share an exciting idea they came across, or an article for discussion. We’ve seen teams rave about internal hackathons that connect team members across functions while upping their personal development. To keep the vibes more “special treat” and less “mandatory fun,” we generally recommend booking virtual socials during working hours.

Try one in-person offsite per year
Do consider an annual offsite. If you can afford to fly everyone somewhere for collaboration and connection, it does make an impact. For distributed teams where one in-person touch-point is not enough, we’ve seen them offer stipends to help team members travel to other hubs and co-workers across the globe. 

Use your internal team chat software to your advantage
Make Slack (or Teams, or whatever you use) work for you! Set up channels to connect about music, share photos of pets and family, or review books. Encourage them to set up and lead their own mini-communities.

Think about facilitating connections outside of work
At Bright + Early, we offer our team spiritual days to connect with their culture, spirituality, and community. Many teams have seen success with offering volunteer days to help their team give back to the community. Some even give stipends to make participating in activities that foster their community more accessible. 

Iterate your startup remote culture over time

Like your product team, collect regular feedback on your remote people’s experience via surveys, 1:1s, and skip-levels. How did hiring and onboarding feel? Does everyone understand the policies and processes? Is anything confusing? What are they loving that we want to keep, and what could be improved or in danger of not scaling? When you check in and iterate often, culture can be your company’s strength, even from a distance. 

To learn more from the team at Bright + Early, join our workshop hosted with the Elevate Innovation team. On May 1st, our experts will share more about enhancing your People Operations. To learn more about Elevate Innovation and how they support founders, click here.

Bright + Early is a modern HR consultancy that helps startups and scale-ups build and grow their people operations policies and processes without losing their unique culture. Need help? Learn more about our services and check out our handy open-source HR guides via Early Magazine.