Scaling the Culture Remotely – 4 Lessons I Learnt

startup culture

What is culture?

Enough has been written about culture of a startup, little has it been understood from an employee’s perspective. The cool work toys, beanbags, free Gyms etc in a job description do not give a clear sense of culture at a startup. What really matters is the vibe or the energy that you get when you enter into your workplace. Culture enables an employee to bring his heart to work…everyday. Strongly followed culture generally acts as rocket fuel for growth of a startup.

How do you scale the culture for remote teams?

As the startup ecosystems across globe are becoming much more mature, the founders have a good sense of when, where and how to scale a business but their main challenge remains the scaling of the culture. Here are some leanings that I had while scaling operations of two startups.

Establish physical and virtual feedback platform

Three things break as soon as we start hitting the scale in a startup:

  • Communication
  • Processes
  • Product

Broken communication is most dangerous among these. A small tightly knit can share ideas/concerns easily. However as soon as a company starts scaling to other geographies, all the communication channels tend to fail. The results are even more fatal when your grassroots level employees are non-technical like drivers etc.

Establishing physical and virtual feedback platforms can solve all these three issues.

Physical feedback forum

In we had a physical communication from down the chain. All the field executives provided feedback to field managers and the most relevant feedback moved up the chain. This channel enabled the managers to set priorities (based on our culture and values) and provide status of the actions taken on the feedback provided by troops on the ground.

Virtual feedback forum

Think of it as customer forums on any tech site where customers help each other or give feedback to the company. We used slack/whatsapp initially but soon we realized that it is still not a tool for the masses. What really worked for us was integrating the feedback tool into our driver application itself. It kept the team closely knit and share values & culture with all the remote employees. Additionally we instantly knew where and which processes and product features are breaking.

Hire and Train for Culture

In a scaling up stage team succumb to cupidity of hiring based on professional skills and experience, I have a counter views on that. I firmly believe that hiring strategy should always be culture first. A startup employee has to be always open innovate on new product features, implement new process with new people. Making the hiring process too corporately backfires. Once we hired for culture we used to make sure that local leaders like City Managers/General Managers who are champions of culture spend a month a two with the core team to inculcate same values and culture in them. Hiring Chief of Cultural Officer doesn’t work till the times we don’t ensure rest of the member team are recruited with culture-first strategy.

Federalism in scaling the culture

Once the local leaders have been ingrained with common cultural values then it doesn’t need to be controlled centrally. Tactical aspects of maintaining those cultural values can be different. For eg: In my first startup our core team loved Poker nights than team retreats culture in New Delhi. The executive team needs to account of the preference of all local teams and assign financial resources accordingly.

Test Cultural Camaraderie in your team

Often during smooth times (although they are pretty numbered in a startup) the cultural and values seem intact in a team but this camaraderie breaks when teams are under pressure. Hence it is very important to conduct frequent tests of the team’s culture when all members are stretched. The teams that believe in mission and culture of a company often become more cohesive during pressure situations.

Please share your experiences in the comments below or connect with me on LinkedIn

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