Hello there and thank you for listening to The Business Storyteller Podcast. My name is Wilson and I’m your host today. In this episode, we’re exploring why company culture matters for a fully remote team and I’m delighted to be joined by Rachel Wright, a founder and HR expert living in Berlin, Germany.
In Rachel’s latest professional chapter at Zengrowth, which is a fully remote digital marketing agency with a team of 40, Rachel defined and shaped a remote first culture, first as the head of HR and then as the interim CEO of the company.
Hi Rachel, welcome to our podcast today. It’s so great to have you with us. How are you doing?
Hi Wilson. Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to get to join you today and talk about remote culture.
I’m so keen to learn more from you today and I’ve fairly introduced you a bit, but I’m sure our listeners would love to know you better.
So would you like to tell us more about your career journey and what led to your role at Zengrowth?
Sure. So my career has its roots in HR and communication. These are skills that I honed doing work with the European Commission at a PR agency and then later at Zalando, where I was first in the brand marketing team before switching internally over to the people and organization team, where I worked on communications topics.
Around 2019, I decided to leave Zalando and took a year off to found my own company, Celbretti UG. We’re based in Berlin here and it’s a service that delivers premium picnic. Both to teams and to individuals here in Berlin during the summer season.
In 2021, I had the chance to join the team at Zengrowth, first as the head of HR, where I had the exciting opportunity to really build the HR function from the ground up and really bring everything that I had learned at Zalando to bear. And then later that year in November, the CEO decided to take a sabbatical. And at that point, I was asked to step in and cover for him for about six months during that time.
Wow, that’s a lot of milestones that you have achieved throughout your career so far. It’s so great to be learning from you and today, I’m excited to kick off our conversation about why company culture matters for a fully remote team.
So let me start off with this question, which is why do you think culture matters especially in a remote company?
For me, culture is really the way that an organization shows up in the world. The values that a company has and these can be either explicit or implicit, which I think we can talk about later. I see them as being manifested in the way that the colleagues, worker, team members work internally but then also by extension in a way that the company then delivers on its value proposition to its customers. So I think it’s really important.
When I think of culture, the Peter Drucker quote always comes back to me, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I think that maybe culture is like a tad bit more important than strategy because it’s really what binds everyone together and aligns you as a team or at least it has the ability to do that. So I think in this way, culture can really bring everyone together so that you’re moving together as one unit towards the goals that you set as a company. As I mentioned before, I think it also shapes the relationship that you have with your customers for better or worse.
And lastly, I think that it’s also important in terms of your employer value proposition. It can be a bit of like a secret sauce, you could say when it comes to your recruiting efforts. I recently did a poll on LinkedIn just to kind of gauge with all of my network members who had made a career switch recently, what it was that attracted them to their new employer? Surprisingly, for me, it was less a bump in compensation, which is generally why we might think that people leave and actually more the cultural aspect which attracted them to make a switch.
Those are some good points and I really appreciated you mentioning about the internal and also the external effects of culture. I think many times we think about how it’s going to affect us internally only within the team but actually the way we speak to the customers makes a difference and I appreciated you mentioning at the end about how people are drawn to culture if they want to work for you.
I remember even in my story when I come to work at Piktochart, the first thing that I look for was the culture. I look at the values and try to find out if this is the right company for me, and so I really appreciated that hearing from you.
And maybe just to get the last piece in. So why it’s so important for remote setups especially. As you probably also know working in a remote team, trust and communication are really key I think for the success of a remote company.
I think when it comes to culture, it’s really important that your company culture values trust, open communication, and that in the behavior or in the way that this is manifested that you’re also able to create a safe space for colleagues to maybe raise their hand for help if they need it or to feel comfortable saying when something went wrong.
Because I think especially like in a remote setup, these are things that you’re not going to see. So it really hinges on people feeling comfortable to be able to communicate that to you.
Adding on to that, prior to the pandemic when people were able to work together, probably the emphasis on company culture isn’t that much. But due to the pandemic, people having to work remotely and working from home, the emphasis for company culture has heightened a lot I realized in the past two to three years.
Companies that have really great working culture are the ones that are still thriving at the moment. Is that correct? Do you see the same observation as well?
Good question. I think before the pandemic, we’d always paid maybe like lip service to culture. I remember, especially back in my corporate setup, we’d make these really nice posters. You would see culture in giveaways, in the posters on the walls. I think what the pandemic really showed was actually what kind of culture companies had. Because all the sudden, you had an entire work forces that were placed under extreme amounts of strain and I think in these kinds of circumstances, either the culture that you’ve cultivated and are truly living is going to come and help you, or you’re going to default basically to the culture that you have in actuality.
I think also during the pandemic is probably a time of a lot of self-reflection for a lot of people and really thinking about what is important for me? Is it the compensation or is it maybe more of the way that I feel like I’m treated at the company that I work with, the actions that I see? And so I think maybe around this time, a lot of people decided that actually culture is a bit more important or more important than I thought.
Yeah. Well, thanks for sharing and bringing your expertise to the table on that. I’m aware that in your experience from Zengrowth, you have introduced company values as part of shaping the culture over there.
Can you share more about that and what are some lessons that you have also learned along the way through implementing company values?
Sure. I would say in terms of lessons, there are for me I would say three key lessons that I learned. I think the first one is really that culture starts with values and values need to be built from the ground up with a bit of strategic guidance of course. When we started at Zengrowth, we already had a team in place of around 25 to 30. So the way that I kicked off the work was with a Typeform survey to really gauge the values that our team members already saw as living, what they thought that our customers appreciated about us and maybe what they thought we could be doing a bit better.
I took that input and then also had a conversation with our CEO and COO at the time to look at our strategy and really think about what kind of company do we need to be in order to meet these strategic goals? And then comparing both the input that I got from the team as well as the strategic goals that leadership saw. I kind of was able to identify strengths in there. Of course like this teamwork and collaboration is really already starting to come through. People appreciate that.
The way that we level up is also there but maybe I think we could be bringing a bit more honesty and to this in terms of being able to give one another feedback, for example, which would have been something that had shown up in the Typeform survey. I think in this way, really drawing from and asking your team for input is really important, so that would be my first lesson.
The second would be after you do have your values in place to really use those as the basis for hiring new team members. I think Ray Dalio in his principles said that when it comes to culture and values, you shouldn’t try to rehabilitate people. You should really try to find people to bring onto your team who are already aligned with the values that you have.
For me too, I think that this makes everything a lot easier in terms of working together and it’s also just kind of like this flow state when you bring people to your team who are already align and who already value what you value. You already have these similarities.
And then the third one that I learned is really to be explicit about what it means to live the values. I think sometimes culture gets a bit squishy and it can be left a bit to chance. I really think that it’s something that should be shaped intentionally. A couple of the ways that we did this for example or to take our values and to align our values to our company policy, which is then something that we communicate it to every new hire in our onboarding.
We would have the value and then basically how this was reflected in our policy. What it meant to really live this and the behavior that we wanted to see. From there after you’ve communicated it, I would say do shout outs and feedback to really call out when people are living the values that you want to live. To kind of celebrate this.
One of the ways that we also did at Zengrowth was through a Slack series where after we had defined the values, I asked all of our team members which is the one that resonates most for you and how do you see yourself already living this? And then through this way, I was able to collect like a lot of different stories and then like once a week in the very beginning to publish these stories, of course with the person’s permission to give everyone a view into what does it mean to live this value and also to give them a sense that the team members around them were already living the values too, which I think when it comes to behavioral changes, it’s also quite a powerful motivator.
And then lastly on this point, not to shy away from having tough conversation when you see behavior that’s not in line with the values. I think one of the way that we did this was through our performance management framework. In the summer of 2021, we basically pulled feedback from the entire team and had a way then of looking at where’s the performance bar and also where do team members see one another living the values and where do they think that we could be maybe stepping up?
This also allowed us to give individual feedback to each of our team members to say team members really see you living this value. However, they think that maybe it would be great if you could lean a bit more into this one.
I really appreciated you giving us a deep dive into the process of you all building values in Zengrowth and I love how you start off. I think that’s the right way, which is to get the input of the people and your employees as well. Getting everyone to contribute and to give their feedback about it and then implementing it. I think that’s such a great place to start.
As you’re sharing about that, I was just reminded even in the early days of Piktochart where we have to set our company values and then seeing that process. So I wholeheartedly agree with the four steps that you have mentioned.
I think also like if it’s just an exercise that’s completely top-down, baked maybe by the leadership and then kind of like deliver to the rest of the team. I think what you see is maybe a disconnect and I think you also have to do a bit more work when it comes to unpacking what the values mean and what it means to live them. So definitely already start engaging the team that you have from the very beginning and go from there.
Yeah, that’s right. Well, we talked about some of the benefits of culture and I’m sure there are also a lot of setbacks and challenges that we have all faced, especially in trying to build the culture for a fully remote company.
Would you mind sharing some of your experience when it comes to the setbacks or challenges of building culture in a fully remote team?
Sure. When I think of maybe the main challenge, I think it comes down to behavior. I think behavior is really the key ingredient for culture. Like we said before, you can print values on fancy poster and you can give away giveaways but unless people really see these values being lived in a company, it doesn’t really have meaning.
For me personally, I think that stories are a really powerful way to bring behavior, to explain and unpack the behaviors that you want to see being lived and aligned with your values. And then also to celebrate these behaviors as they’re being lived so that everyone has together a really good view to what does it mean to live our values at our company?
I think another potential that stories have are to bind people together and really give them a sense for what it means to belong to a company. They kind of like create this almost like company myth I would say, kind of a feeling of belonging maybe to a tribe. So I think maybe the challenge is when it comes to a remote setup is the formats that you have to tell stories and maybe getting creative about how you’re able to role model and elevate stories of colleagues really behaving in line with the values. I think I already mentioned the Slack series that we ran. I think that performed quite well.
Another idea could be like using a shout-out channel. This is also something that we use at Zengrowth on Slack. I think as well like some good ideas are using hashtags, for example, just so that you can kind of connect content back to the values and also taking a look to see how you can use existing formats. For example, your all hand meetings. I know for us just like throwing a slide at the very end of our weekly team stand up that ask everyone to share something that they learned that week and using this one slide in this moment at this meeting to really connect back to our value of really being growth minded and on the lookout for learning.
I think another challenge in the remote setup is really kind of getting a conversation going. I think looking at your Slack channels. Slack is what we use at Zengrowth. So if it’s what you use, you might see some channels where conversation just falls flat. Maybe there’s a lack of engagement and I think they are of course, there are a couple things that you can do, maybe by decreasing the number of channels that you have to try and pull the conversation more towards certain channels.
I think that a community manager for example can also be a really key piece of kind of keeping the conversation going and really making sure that you’re calling out great examples of values aligned behavior when you see them and really kind of keeping the momentum going when it comes to cultivating culture.
I think the challenges are real and I’ve also seen a lot of companies who thrive in it or some who are still trying to learn from it. But like what you said, there are so many aspects to look into. It comes down to actually the behavior. I appreciated how you shared some of the ideas that you have done through Zengrowth and seeing the success in it as well. Thanks for sharing all that.
Now, we talked just now a bit about how company culture is something that’s internal and also external at the same time. My question for you now is, in your experience of leading Zengrowth as the head of HR and interim CEO, how has the remote work culture benefited Zengrowth as a whole, both internally and externally?
I think internally being able or like the culture that we brought to life in our remote setup really helped us work together as a team. I’m just thinking back like Q1 of this year, for example, was quite challenging for us. And through this time, I think our values of communication, transparency, and also leveling up really helped us come together and work as kind of like one lean mean machine, you could say. I experience like moments on Slack channels that felt like playing football, or like soccer. I’m an American who has been living in Europe for too long.
You know where you really were in this sort of flow state, which I think especially like in a remote setup is really special to experience. It’s very fun, light even though the work that you’re doing may be challenging or the time that you’re going through together may be challenging, you feel a real connection I think to the team members that you have. To experience this in a remote setup where you have all of the freedoms that entails you’re working from home, working from different locations, working with colleagues in different countries than you I think is really cool and really shows the potential that the remote work setup has if you’re able to nail culture.
I think when it comes to the external perspective, I would say that spending time on cultivating our culture sort of helped us punch above our weight you could say when it came to recruiting. As you mentioned, we’re quite a small team of 40 team members distributed across Europe and maybe as a company, we’re not as well known as other companies out there.
I think by using the values as a key piece of our recruiting process, by putting them into the questions that we ask candidates, also by putting our values on the career website that we had to make sure that it was already very clear from the outset like this is what we value as a company. And then engaging with candidates in that conversation, it signals to candidates that like this was something that was actually quite important for us.
And like we said in the beginning of this conversation, we’re seeing more and more that culture is something that’s really important for candidates and for job applicants. And I think in having this conversation and underlining how we do have values and we live these values, we’re able to connect with candidates and really hire some great talent. I would say that really changed the way that our team looked and worked I would say during my time there which was really neat to see. I think also the company values act as a guide internally and externally.
I think when it comes to the area of hiring for people, it’s such an important part. I remember in Piktochart, whenever we have an interview with someone and they have to go through our culture interview, we often will tell them this, that we’re not looking to only hire the right person for the company, but we’re also making sure that you’re working in the right company for yourself. When we align on the values, then we’re able to hire the right people on board. Like what you said earlier as well, it’s easier when people come onboard with the same values. We’re aligned and we can work together and move on even more.
Totally. I mean like with any relationship, it should really be like a win-win. I think if you do culture right, then it’s not going to be for everyone. It’s something special for you as a company. And it’s not going to connect with everyone and that’s okay. As a company, you need to be okay with being different and this is what’s going to really attract the right people to you. It’s something I believe.
Yeah. I think that’s also reassuring for some of our listeners here who are aspiring business leaders to know that your culture is unique to your own company. So don’t try to be anyone else. Just be yourself and I’m sure by doing that, you’re already hiring and attracting the right people to your company.
Well, thanks for sharing so much about that and we’ve talked a bit about your experience in shaping the culture of Zengrowth. For business leaders, whether they are existing or aspiring business leaders, what would be some of your top three actionable tips for them when it comes to building a great culture for their remote teams or company?
Yeah. So I would say like top three tips. The first one, to find the values and then embed them in your processes. When I talk about processes, I’m talking about, for example, your hiring, of course, your onboarding, performance management, the way that you give feedback and also the way that you celebrate success. All of these should connect back to your values and this will help strengthen your culture.
My second tip would be to make it a habit. As I said before, I really believe that culture comes alive through behavior and the key here especially as a leader is to try and create habits, so that a culture isn’t something that just happens. It’s very intentional. I think some of the habits that I tried to cultivate at Zengrowth would be in my Monday greeting to share something that I learned recently and connect this back to our ‘We Level Up’ and really try and engage people in learning new things.
I think we already talked about the slides, I for example that incorporated in our all hands also to elevate things that people had learned. Another slide that we stuck in there was is there anyone that you want to thank today? I think this helped us maybe connect back to transparency, communications. I think every time that someone thanks someone, it was really like, someone so help me do this and really showing that the way that we work and our effectiveness as a team really comes back to us leaning into these values.
And then I would say, lastly, making sure that you’re giving feedback and shoutouts. This is also something that I would really recommend making a habit. I think in the beginning, you need to get the ball rolling. And so what this looks like for me, it’s like putting it actually into your calendar, scheduling it in like this is like 30 minutes, maybe twice a week or even 15 minutes where I’m going to thank, who am I giving a shout out to in the team and actually then writing it into Slack so that you keep that conversation going and also so that others in your company see you as a leader really living the values.
And then the third I would say is get creative as a team. I think a lot of times as leaders, you think that we have to have all of the answers and that’s really not the case. I mean, I had some creative ideas but I also asked our team members. How do you think we can lean more into this, or how can we bring this to life and make it fun? One idea from one member of our team was have a talent show to help team members connect in that way maybe once a month.
A couple other ideas would be sending books that really connect back to your culture. One favorite of mine is ‘Growth Mindset’ by Carol Dweck. We’ve also seen that growth mindset is a common value that many high performance culture have so maybe this could be one that others can use too. And then also seeing how you can align your benefits with culture as well. Just some creative ideas.
There are many great ideas and tips that you’ve shared, so I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for sharing all of these valuable tips with us.
Now, let’s talk a bit about the future because I’d love to hear your insight on your prediction perhaps of what you foresee the culture in remote companies would look like? As we now know that more and more companies that have taken the approach towards remote working are now going fully remote as well, especially bigger organizations. So what do you foresee the culture in remote companies to look like and how will that affect the future of work?
So I truly believe the future of work is going to be async and remote. I think this is going to have an impact on work in two ways. I think first, that the quality of work and results is going to become more important. For anyone who has worked in an office, and I think most of us have that experience. We may be familiar with kind of modeling productivity, kind of signaling productivity by being present and of course in a remote setup, this isn’t possible anymore. I think this means that collaboration, transparency, how efficiently you communicate, these are things that are going to become even more important in the future.
Another way that this is going to have an impact on how we work is that how you show up and behave online is going to become even more important. For example, when you show up to a meeting, do you have your video on or off? If you’ve ever had to present in a meeting where everyone has their camera off, you know how lonely that feels. I think if this was the kind of culture that you’re building at your company by maybe showing up with your camera off all the time, it might be something that you want to reconsider. I mean of course everyone has an off day and yeah, keep the camera off but I think it’s really what kind of habits are you creating?
I would also say this is going to show in the way that you communicate with your team members. Are you building a culture of maybe quick and efficient communication, where information is kind of flowing back and forth? Maybe also especially as a leader, are you empathetic in your communication? Tough conversations are even maybe a bit tougher, I would say. Like when you have to do it on a video call. This is also from experience and looking at how you navigate that.
And then lastly, I think storytelling formats are going to become even more important. So I know like Nicole in the episode that you did with her from Buffer spoke about some of these emojis and GIFs that have secret meanings. I think that’s so cool. I think also like images can become shortcuts for how we are. I know, for example at Zengrowth, I introduced a visual metaphor as our team kind of like in this raft going down like a white water and then we just kind of use that image again and again to kind of like trigger like, “Hey this is us, this is our team.” This is the time that we’re going through right now but we’re going to get through it together. So I think being able to tell stories through images will become more important.
And then lastly, probably also using video content. I think it’s going to become more important. Especially I see this as being an important tool for leaders. When you think of the future of work as being async, I think video has a high potential to really be able to form a connection and deliver a message to your team. So I think this will be something that leaders will be looking to leverage more in the future.
Thanks for sharing so many insights and I think predictions of what business leaders can expect to happen in the near future. I’m sure that our business leaders who are listening to this would greatly appreciate all the things that you’ve mentioned earlier today. Now, we’re coming to the last question. We talked a lot about great company culture and how to build that.
So my last question for you is this, what are some of your favorite examples of brands or companies out there that you think are doing really well in successfully building a great culture for their remote teams?
Yeah, sure. I think we talked a lot about maybe the usual suspects of those companies that have been working remote for a bit longer. So of course, InVision, Buffer, Zapier all have really great remote cultures, I would say.
Maybe just a couple examples from lesser known companies. So for example, Help Scout. I think one of the interesting ways that they’re building a great remote culture would be with their Friday Fika, which I think is like a Swedish word for a snack, where they basically pair people within the team randomly with one another for a short coffee break. I think if this is something that you’re looking to do maybe in your company, Hopin is a really great way to do it. It’s this app that allows you to randomly pair people and set them up with a meeting that you define. That’s pretty neat. I think that Donut is also another way that you could do it just over Slack. Localised.
This is where this talent show idea came from, which I felt like really cool. So looking to create a talent show once a month where everyone can come in maybe with a skill or something to share that you might not see in their LinkedIn and using this as a way to really connect people. What I also like about this format is that I think it’s very inclusive. It doesn’t really need to be connected to alcohol, which I think is something that traditionally companies have used to bond or connect with. I think it’s also a format that you could do maybe in the middle of the day for colleagues who maybe have families who are working or aren’t available in the evenings. So those are a couple that I like.
Yeah, I really appreciate some of the brands you mentioned. I think when it comes to remote working, there’s so many great companies to look out for so I appreciate you also mentioning other brands that are not usual suspects.
Well, thank you so much for sharing so many valuable and helpful insights with us today, Rachel. I truly have enjoyed learning more from you as well when it comes to the importance of building a company culture and why it matters for remote team.
Now as a wrap up to this episode, I’d love to ask you some fun questions. These are questions that I usually ask our guests to help our listeners learn more about what inspires you.
Alright, so my first question for you is this, what is your favorite movie?
Yeah, I had to think about this but I think it’s ‘The Big Lebowski’. It’s one that I always come back to whenever I need a laugh. I think it’s a classic but if you haven’t seen it, then I’d really recommend it.
Yeah, I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t seen it so now that you’ve recommended, I should.
It’s a lot of fun. It also has a really great soundtrack.
And what about your favorite book?
Yeah, so at the moment, I’m really into Ocean Vuong. He’s an American poet originally from Vietnam and I really love his book ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’. He also grew up in the same area that I’m from, Connecticut in the United States. It’s really neat to see his descriptions of this place. So I really like that.
Thanks for sharing that. And my final question for you is this, if you’re not doing what you’re doing today, what will you be doing?
If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now like in another lifetime, I would really like to be like a host or a manager of one of these Alpine mountain huts in the Alps. I think it would be so cool to get to the challenge of trying to cook something really tasty for the hikers every day and also to be able to see the sunrise and sunset. That would be really cool.
Sounds like a challenging but also a really nice job to have. That was fun and I trust that through these few fun questions, our listeners have also enjoyed knowing you better and what inspires you.
Before we conclude, for our listeners who’d love to reach you or stay connected with you, how can they do that?
Yeah, sure. They can get in touch with me at my website, so it’s thewright.site. So that’s the and then write like my last name and then .site And of course on LinkedIn. I’m quite active there. So always happy to connect with new people.
Rachel, once again, thank you for coming to our episode of The Business Storyteller Podcast. Thanks for being here and spending your time with us. This is all we have for today and till the next one.
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