By Jen Rhymer
If remote companies are unable to generate the informal aspects of what occurs in organizations they would be at a disadvantage. Yet, many remote companies including Help Scout, Doist, Dribbble, and Time Doctor are successful meaning they must be able to create some informal elements without physical proximity between individuals.
Below are 5 informal elements that are important to establish in remote companies. To hear directly from these and other remote companies (and teams) regarding how they were able to get started and scale their organizations, join the second annual Running Remote conference in Bali this June.
1. Personal Connections
Building social ties between individuals is a critical aspect for success. Friendships promote trust and the sharing of information across teams. While there is no lunch room or coffee breaks for people to get together is still possible for companies to create space for interaction independent of discussing work tasks.
Examples of this includes Slack channels dedicated to interests groups (i.e. dogs, board games, or cooking), utilizing the Slack donut bot to create random suggestions for a social chats, book clubs/ game nights/ happy hours on Zoom, and occasional in-person meetups at conferences or company retreats. Getting people talking about more than their work deepens connections, creates familiarity, and supports trust, which results in higher performance overall and greater employee satisfaction.
Another aspect of informal organizations is building an understanding of what others know, also called metaknowledge. Knowing who knows what and who has strong ties with others is something that is implicit in offices. People overhear conversations, observe communication between others, and over time are able to create a mental map for how information is spread in a company. In remote companies the ability to observe interactions or overhear what your neighbor is working on is not possible.
Therefore, companies need to proactively make information public so that “observation” is possible. Examples, of how to do this include organizational maps with the responsibilities of others and how they connect, regular internal updates shared by each team or division, the ability to join Slack channels which are not strictly needed for your work, and visibility into the decision making process of managers and executives.
These can be supported through project management, communication, or social networking tools. The more information people are exposed to the easier it will be for them to build their mental map. The creation of metaknowledge throughout an organization improves efficiency as well as innovation through the recombination of ideas.
3. Social Norms
Over time groups develop social norms and act to guide the behavior of new members. One primary way that norms are transferred is through the observation of patterns demonstrated by others. These observations can occur in a remote context (in much of the same way discussed previously), yet a purely digital environment may not fully capture all behaviors, and gives very little information about what is not acceptable.
Therefore, explicit discussion about cultures, values, and attitudes of teams and organizations is a critical step in creating consistent social norms. Norms allow for predictability and establish shared expectations this minimized conflict and improves satisfaction. Over time norms evolve, especially as organizations grow or team members change, as such the process of developing and discussing these norms required ongoing engagement.
4. Peer Monitoring
Generally in monitoring activities physical proximity is assumed, for example a boss stopping by an employee’s desk or sitting in an open area with coworkers noticing their daily activities. Informal monitoring is an important element which again relies on the observation of activities and others. The ability of remote organizations to be able to leverage this requires a combination of both public work, so that observation is possible, as well as a practice of direct communication (often implemented in a way similar to the concept of Radical Candor), such that feedback can be given and received from peer to peer while still having a positive impact on work.
The idea of having regular informal monitoring and feedback from peers allows for continuous development and less reliance on a boss to be available to meet. In remote work the availability of specific others in real time is not always feasible and having the flexibility to do work, receive feedback, and continue to move forward without strict hierarchical monitoring is essential.
5. Spontaneous Interactions
The element of spontaneous interaction is traditionally considered dependent on physical proximity, and the proverbial “water cooler conversations”. Prior research on location establishes that with closer proximity interaction increases and that even which floor people are on has significant implications for how much they interact.
However, more recent research using wearable devices demonstrates that open office spaces actually decreased face to face interactions but digital communication remains prevalent. What this means for remote companies is that digital communication can, and will, be used for spontaneous interactions but there needs to be some type of visibility trigger (which could include any of the social interactions previously discussed).
Each of these informal aspects are important to developing a successful remote organization, and while every organization has unique considerations learning best practices from others who have made remote structures work is an ideal place to start.
The Running Remote conference is a two day event that will be full of discussion about practices, structure, and behaviors that work and sharing about those that have been challenging to use for remote teams. Use code ‘remoters’ to get 20% tickets to Running Remote and come learn from the challenges and successes of the remote community.
 Bernstein, E. S., & Turban, S. 2018. The impact of the ‘open’workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373(1753): 20170239.