It’s no secret that building and maintaining a robust company culture is challenging for any organization. Is it any more difficult for distributed agile teams, in which an engineering organization is spread across multiple offices — or even across different countries and time zones?
I’m Distillery’s General Manager. I’ve been with the company since 2012. As a fast-growing company with 150+ people distributed across 5 offices, 2 countries, and time zones 10 hours apart, I’ve got a strong perspective on this question.
What’s my answer? It’s not more difficult. It’s just different in certain ways.
The bottom line is that there’s no “easy” way to build a strong company culture, whether your team is in one office or one hundred. Since it’s a consequence of how a company actually functions, it can’t be manufactured. It’s something you need to pay deliberate, daily attention to.
You can’t manufacture culture, but you can bring it to the surface. You can work to define it, demonstrate it, and protect it. By making our workplace culture a central focus for our people, we create a conversation and working environment that strengthens that culture. Here’s how we do it at Distillery.
Defining Our Company’s Culture
You can’t build or maintain a strong corporate culture across any sized organization without first defining what it looks like.
Distillery has created a triad of documents describing our company culture. Together, they define our values, service principles, and communication principles.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a clearly delineated set of core values. A company culture flows directly from a company’s values. Ideally, values should come from the team itself.
In developing our values statement, we used questionnaires to gather team input. That way, it wasn’t Distillery leadership saying, “These are your values. Abide by them.” Rather, it’s all of Distillery collectively saying, “These are OUR values. This is what matters to us.” Here’s a summary of what we came up with:
- One team, one mission, reflecting our conviction that we create better results working together, not separately. We have each other’s backs, supporting each other at every turn. This applies at the macro level, such that colleagues in different offices and countries still see themselves as a single, united whole.
- Growing and evolving is at the core of who we are. We can always be better. We invite everyone to share ideas for improving our processes. We collaborate on any process changes.
- We strive to be faster, better, and smarter. We’re committed to participating in conferences, higher education courses, and knowledge sharing across our team. It helps us be the best experts we can be, and to be deliberate about developing our people’s skills.
- We ask for help. To ask for and offer help are essential to a healthy team. It helps us find better solutions faster and ensure the best possible outcomes.
Our Product Delivery Service Principles
We’ve agreed on basic principles that help us deliver the best possible products to our clients. These definitions help us clarify and communicate our priorities. In particular, they focus on:
- People, which we view as our central success factor. We treat all our people with respect and trust them to be independent, responsible, goal-oriented, and professional. We place high value on teamwork, building an organization in which we’re truly all for one, and one for all.
- Bringing value, reflecting our commitment to positively impacting the world by supporting our clients’ success. We strive to ensure that every decision benefits the product and promotes our clients’ ultimate success.
- Expertise, our superpower, strengthened continually over the years. We’re proud of our expertise and aware of its value. We focus on bringing the benefit of our expertise always and everywhere.
- Our culture of experiments, which helps us drive flexibility and continual improvement throughout every aspect of our work, processes, and practices. We are not afraid of mistakes. With every new iteration, we move closer to becoming the best version of ourselves.
Our Communication Principles
We’ve spelled out a basic set of communication principles that all team members should adopt. These principles are centered on transparency, continual feedback, empathy, information superfluity (giving more details rather than less), common sense, and the ethics and discipline of our communications. They help us to ensure a consistent communication approach across our distributed teams.
Demonstrating Our Culture
Establishing Equality, Respect, and Trust
Everyone at Distillery treats each other as trusted, valued equals. We promote day-to-day behaviors that reinforce this, including:
- Accessibility: All leaders are accessible to all employees, no matter their level. If a newly hired marketing associate wants to talk to our CEO, Andrey, about some ideas, he or she has an open invitation to do so. Working in a distant office never keeps anyone from reaching out.
- Empowerment, not micromanagement: From day one, we’ve hired trustworthy professionals and trusted them to do their jobs. While managers check in frequently to see how people are doing and how they can help, we give our professionals a great deal of autonomy. It reinforces a culture in which everyone feels valued, trusted, and central to our mission.
- Transparency: Information about how we’re doing and where we’re headed is shared organization-wide in weekly “TGIF” (Thank God It’s Friday) meetings. (See below for more on TGIFs.) Generally speaking, there’s no filtration process by which only certain people are allowed to know certain things. Anyone and everyone are welcome to pose questions to our CEO or other leaders.
- Speech: We show our respect in the language we use. Many of our employees are native Russian speakers; in Russian, you use a different form of speech when you’re talking to an equal versus a superior. At Distillery, nobody uses the superior form. There’s no need, because we’re all equals.
- Compensation and flexibility: A handful of years ago, we made 100% of our employees salaried, getting rid of any hourly wages. We also began allowing more flexible working hours. We simply trust everyone is doing the best job they can. It’s had a huge impact on our company culture, creating an atmosphere where our people feel trusted, respected, and free to conduct their workdays in whatever way makes sense for their lives.
- Open office layouts: Across our distributed teams, managers and executives sit side by side with our designers, developers, and other support professionals. This helps eliminate boundaries and encourage ongoing communication.
- Feedback and recognition: Our 360-degree feedback process encourages employees at all levels to provide feedback to one another. It proceeds not only top-down, but also bottom-up. Employees also perform self-reviews. As an outcome of this collective feedback, we work with employees to develop a plan encompassing both personal and professional development. We also try to ensure people get the credit they deserve.
Promoting Transparency and Ongoing Improvement
Weekly TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday) Calls
As a distributed team, our weekly all-hands TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday) calls are central to our strategy. They help us ensure we’re regularly sharing information and updates across our entire organization. They encourage productive dialogue at all levels, helping us identify opportunities for how we can serve our clients — as well as our employees — better. Most importantly, they keep us unified, despite the fact that some of us work more than 5,000 miles apart. Here’s how TGIFs work:
- Timing and language: When it’s 5pm in our St. Petersburg, Russia international headquarters, it’s 7am in our US headquarters in Los Angeles. So as the Russia-based team finishes their Friday, the US team is just starting theirs. Even though all Distillery’s Russia-based employees are bilingual in English and Russian, we hold one call (at 5pm in St. Petersburg) in Russian and another (at 9:30am in Los Angeles) in English. That way, Distillery’s leadership can attend both calls, and people in each country can participate in their native languages.
- Format: Employees participate either onsite or online. We keep the tone informal. After each session, I summarize what we covered and share it on a TGIF-dedicated Slack channel. That way, anyone unable to attend (i.e., due to vacations or project-related conflicts) can catch up and ask questions. Nobody’s left out of the loop.
- Advance prep: Employees can ask questions about anything in the Slack channel the full week before. I do my best to cover questions on that Friday’s call.
- Content: All calls begin with a company update. (While I provide the Russian call updates, US call updates are provided by Andrey, Distillery’s CEO.) These weekly company updates keep our team connected, so that every employee stays “in the loop,” regardless of their location. Following the company update, I lead our Russian calls, focusing on new projects, updates to existing projects, and information about upcoming events or meetups. We also highlight internal events, share presentations (e.g., new trends and technologies), and discuss any new or changed processes. Whatever the topic, I always do my best to give proper credit to others in the organization. Our English calls also begin with Andrey’s company update (the only difference being the language), followed by updates from our US-based department heads (Marketing, Sales, and Product). On both calls, we always allow time for questions, discussion, and “cool stuff” (a time where employees are encouraged to share their own news and successes).
To many, weekly all-hands meetings probably sounds like a big investment of time and effort. It is. And it’s worth it. As our distributed teams continue to grow, TGIFs keep us unified. One team, one mission!
Quarterly and Supplemental Meetings
We hold quarterly all-hands events that let us take a deeper dive into how we’re doing relative to our quarterly and annual goals. These events also let us further explore company initiatives, new technologies, and process improvements. We also hold meetups as needed with select subsets of people. Generally, this happens when a new process or planned change to an existing process warrants its own focused session. This helps with change management, and with ensuring that process improvement efforts can succeed.
How We Build Strong Relationships Within Our Distributed Teams
Distillery’s people do a fantastic job of building and maintaining strong relationships with each other — even when most of their interactions happen remotely. Still, face-to-face events are important in cementing these relationships. Video calls and day-to-day interactions on Slack also keep our people feeling connected.
Remote relationships work best when they’re complemented by at least occasional face-to-face interactions. That’s why we frequently send employees from one office to visit employees in other offices (both within the same country and internationally). While the expense and coordination are considerable (especially since these are often international trips), they’re worth it. The experience helps our employees:
- Build stronger bonds. Sometimes they’re meeting colleagues they already work with remotely. Sometimes they’re meeting colleagues new to them. Whatever the situation, face-to-face interactions create stronger relationships.
- Share knowledge. We often send more advanced or experienced employees to visit other offices to train and mentor others.
- Model our culture and values. Employees who’ve been with us awhile naturally act as “radiators,” spreading our culture and values simply by being themselves.
Bi-annual Company Parties
We hold two big company parties annually in spring and winter. We gather as many people together as possible in locations in each of our cities. The focus is on building and strengthening bonds between team members, as well as having some fun.
These parties include a range of interactive sessions. The sessions often bring together employees who may not otherwise have a chance to work together. Building relationships across different parts of the business inevitably leads to stronger processes and work products, as well as better problem solving.
Informal Social Events
Distillery’s 150+ professionals comprise a giant, international family. We’ve achieved that family dynamic by encouraging – and organizing – frequent group activities and celebrations. For example, our LA-based team organizes group hikes to the mountains, our Taganrog web office has a communal “Burger Party” feast in the office most Fridays, and some of our developers participate together in the Russian game show “What? Where? When?” We sponsor holiday celebrations in all offices, and do our best to remember everyone’s birthdays.
It’s not rocket science: Keeping communication flowing on a daily basis helps to keep distributed teams connected. So while we of course use Slack to communicate about project work, we also have a few Slack channels dedicated to having fun and blowing off steam. People post videos, photos, memes, jokes, and discussion topics. They talk about vacations, families, and what’s for dinner. After all, the more connected we feel, the better we work together. We also use Slack for video chats. Seeing each other’s faces on video helps us feel more connected, even if we’re working in distant offices.
Supporting Ongoing Education
Our “better, faster, smarter” commitment requires ongoing focus. That’s why Distillery supports a range of networking events, conferences, and professional meetups as sponsors, speakers, and participants. We also support and sponsor university-based events such as hackathons, round tables, and discussions. We finance our employees in attending both these events and higher education courses. We also encourage them to share what they learned with colleagues. Some share their experiences on our company’s blog, further increasing their impact.
Protecting Our Culture Across Distributed Teams
Building a culture isn’t enough. You need to be deliberate about protecting it. That means taking great care in how you hire and onboard new employees. After all, a single ill-fitting hire can have a ripple effect throughout your organization, chipping away at the culture you’ve worked so hard to build.
The people we hire must be a good fit for our company culture. In all offices, our interview process incorporates specific questions focused on ensuring fit. They focus on identifying people who are:
- Collaborative team players — who can also work autonomously. Candidates’ ability to be a team player should be something they know and value about themselves. They must also be able to work independently when needed.
- Strong communicators. Communication is central to effective teaming and maintaining a strong company culture across our distributed agile teams.
- Proactive in ensuring process quality and integrity. Software development success requires a strong process foundation. Candidates must show they’ll be proactive in adhering to processes, and changing them when needed.
- Willing, sharing learners. We’re in a dynamic industry. We need to follow the changes. The right candidates will be willing to learn new things, and to share their knowledge and experiences.
- Mature enough to ask for help. Again, asking for help is one of our core values. It’s crucial that candidates are able to acknowledge and own any problems, and to ask for help when it’s needed.
- People who have strong opinions AND a willingness to compromise. Candidates should be willing to share their ideas and perspectives. They should have the courage to stand by their convictions and challenge others’ points of view. At the same time, they should understand the importance of considering others’ ideas and compromising when needed.
Distillery’s extensive onboarding process keeps culture and values at the forefront. We believe in:
- Putting it in writing: Our handbook, which HR goes over in detail with new hires, prominently spells out our values.
- Hands-on HR for week one: HR professionals are responsible for guiding employees through their first week. The goal is to answer as many questions and cover as many nuances as possible.
- Modeling: New employees’ managers, colleagues, and department heads play an important role in teaching them about our company culture. By modeling our core values in their day-to-day interactions, they help new employees understand how we manifest our values.
- Mentoring: Establishing personal mentoring relationships early in the onboarding process has a massive impact. Mentors also model behavior and help guide new employees in making choices that reflect our values.
- Ongoing feedback: We obtain feedback as often as possible from as many different people as possible — from the new hires themselves, HR, colleagues, mentors, and clients. It helps you understand where training or changes are needed.
Building a Culture We’re Proud Of
I’m immensely proud of all we’ve done to build a strong company culture across our distributed teams. It indeed makes us better, faster, and smarter — as well as a company our clients and employees know they can trust. Now that’s something to value.
Want to learn more? Check out our 5 Tips for Successfully Managing Distributed Teams!
Anar Babaev is Distillery’s Managing Director. He has wide-ranging experience on the client side and the business side, having worked in account and project management, sales, and client relations at various international software and IT organizations. Anar is passionate about creating a better client experience through proactive issue identification and problem solving. In his free time, he loves spending time with his family, listening to music, and reading. He has a massive collection of baseball caps, rarely leaving the house without a hat.