Making culture work for remote teams

Sometime in the early 2000s, the founding team of a young web design company in Chicago decided to give up their office. It was too big and expensive. So they rented a few desks elsewhere. As the company grew, they hired designers and programmers from across the globe, allowing them to work from wherever they were. Then, to run the company remotely, they built a project management tool. And with that, the web design company pivoted to become a developer of web-based software. You might have heard about their latest product—an email service called Hey.

The high-decibel buzz around Hey has barely drawn attention to the fact that Basecamp remains a remote company. It’s worked so well for them that in 2013, founder Jason Fried and partner David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of the iconic Ruby on Rails web application framework, published their second bestseller, Remote—Office Not Required. It was timely.

Earlier that year, Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer had banned remote working for all employees, triggering debates across the industry. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” Yahoo’s HR team explained in a memo. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

Remote offered a counterpoint. That the emergence of new technologies allowed for effective collaboration and communication. And a well-defined culture code could function as a key binding ingredient, marshaling even truly distributed teams toward a common goal.

“Culture isn’t a foosball table. It’s not a paintball outing in the forest. It’s not even the Christmas party where Steve got so drunk that everyone had a good story for the rest of the year. That’s people hanging out and having a good time,” Jason and David wrote in their book. “No, culture is the spoken and unspoken values and actions of the organization.”

As I researched into how companies are infusing culture into their newly distributed teams, I repeatedly came across this phrase, or a variant of it—culture isn’t a foosball table. For long, tech companies have advertised free food, informal dress codes, play areas, unwind zones, and other perks that outsiders often interpret to be their culture. While those perks make for vibrant and desirable workspaces, they do not define culture.

Culture is about the values and codes that instruct a company’s approach to work—attention to the quality of their products or services, how they engage with their customers, with their employees, their appetite for risk. While remote working certainly presents some challenges, culture, approached this way, has the ability to direct focus on efficiency and delivering high-quality work. Especially for distributed teams.

“Having people work remotely forces you to forgo the illusion that building a company culture is just about in-person social activities,” Jason and David say in Remote. “Now you can get on with the actual work of defining and practicing it instead.”

Basecamp’s approach to business, work and culture has powered it to the $100 billion club. But even this flagbearer of remote working is grounded in the realities of the Covid-induced lockdown. “We can’t pretend that just because we’re a remote company already doing this for 20 years that we’re going to be firing on all cylinders,” David says in this blog. “You can’t expect people to have 100% of their faculty and attention available for work when the world is in the biggest upheaval that most people at Basecamp have ever been through.”

That said, companies with deeply embedded agile practices largely have been able to cope better against the impact of the Covid-19 crisis, according to McKinsey. “The pandemic has shown that agile teams can be highly effective in a remote setting,” the consulting firm says in a report. “The critical success factors have been a stringent adherence to the agile cadence, efficient use of remote-collaboration tools, and the creation of a virtual co-location.”

In another report, McKinsey underscores purpose as a driving force: “A sense of purpose can help employees navigate high levels of uncertainty and change and ensure that their efforts are aligned with the highest-value activities.”


All of this came together for Sampriti Roy when she joined Freshworks in early June, months into the lockdown spanning India. During her virtual onboarding, the IT team activated her personal computer to the company’s secure network (a stop-gap until it could issue her a company laptop). And the HR team, apart from running the induction, handed her a 54-page e-book titled ‘How we work—all that you need to know about our workplace.’

The book not just provides a detailed overview but also narrates the founding story (has to do with a broken TV) and lays down the company’s purpose and culture. Using photographs and illustrations, the book also gives a sense of the office for someone who’s never stepped in it—CEO Girish Mathrubootham posing by a lifesize sketch of his icon, the Tamil actor Rajinikanth, other pop culture references, and a barista aerating filter coffee the traditional South India way. (Employees at Freshworks’ Chennai office never seem to tire of the coffee.)

Vignesh Vijayakumar, an HR manager at Freshworks, credits the company’s swift switchover to remote working and onboarding to the IT and admin teams as well. (While several companies resorted to layoffs, Freshworks continued hiring for critical positions amid the global economic havoc caused by the pandemic.)

“Without the HR, IT and admin teams coming together within a short span of time, we would not be where we are today,” says Vignesh. “Anticipating a lockdown, we activated our business continuity plans and placed orders for critical assets including dongles, laptops and other devices necessary for working without disruption. It all happened within a week.”

In under a week of joining Freshworks, Sampriti was presented with a unique opportunity—to hear Girish at an all-hands introducing the latest version of the company’s culture codes, with an emphasis on craftsmanship. A week later, she got to hear Girish again, this time addressing the Corporate Marketing team. A month later, Sampriti was invited to participate in a culture workshop for new recruits.

“The all-hands gave me an idea of how the leaders are looking at things, how they are planning ahead. When you join a company at a time like this, you are normally scared about what the future holds. Getting to hear from the CEO and other leaders instills hope and confidence,” says Sampriti.

A few days later, on a Europe culture call-outs group on Workspace, Marion Escude gave a shoutout to Vimala Ganesan for a project they are working on, tagging the post under #Craftsmanship. Marion is a customer success manager based in Berlin. Vimala is a technical account manager in Chennai.

“The project owner is completely discovering the tool and Vimala proactively mapped features and workflows with explanations to the goals they’ve shared with us… that has reinsured the customer and wowed them,” Marion wrote.

“Marion sees the big picture for the customer and translates that to how we can help our customers understand and achieve their business goals,” Vimala says later on a call. Craftsmanship, to her, is about thinking of the customers’ problems as your own, paying attention to the smallest details, and finding the best solutions possible.

“Recently, I noticed some mismatch in a customer’s reports. So I went through every single record and compared those with other sheets to see if the metrics matched. I was finally able to narrow down the actual issue and go back to the customer with a solution,” she says. “So long as you show the right intent and the customer is aware that you are giving your best, they will work with you in seeing through to the solution.”

With most companies and their customers working remotely, craftsmanship has become even more important, says Marion. “We need to be proactive and build trust. Velocity is also important as is transparency with our customers.”

Apart from Girish’s frequent chats with employees, Freshworks organizes a bunch of fun interactions to keep the spirits up as well as what we call Culture Conversations. This is where the company picks one culture code—say, ‘Happy work environment’—and have managers and their teams discuss what it means to them.

“Ultimately, culture is how our people experience Freshworks, right? How we enable them to do the work they are meant to do, how we set the parameters for how we judge their performance. Essentially, all of that is what forms culture,” says Chief Human Resources Officer Suman Gopalan.

Freshworks’ relative young employee demographic means more people are comfortable engaging online—“because that’s how we are used to a lot of social engagement.”

Even so, Suman’s not one to underestimate the value of in-person social interaction. “What we have experienced is that when employees are able to build emotional bonds with their colleagues and with the company, that is truly when they are engaged employees,” she says. “So when you go remote, there is still a big question on how you build that emotional connect.”

It may be a while before we have an answer to that question. For now, the corporate world is in an evolutionary phase that’s upending several hallowed beliefs and traditions. Culture, though, is proving to be a tenacious bedrock of great companies, whatever form they take.

[With additional inputs from Sanjay Gupta]