Building a tightly knit team across locations improves productivity and business outcomes
Having employees in decentralized locations — whether by choice or necessity — is one of those blessings/curses made possible by modern technology. It’s a boon for flexibility and freedom but can also make it harder to align people around the company’s mission, strategy, and culture.
Udemy is a global company, with instructors and students from virtually every country in the world, and our employees represent more than 30 countries of origin too. We have offices in three different time zones (San Francisco; Dublin; and Ankara, Turkey) too. We want to make sure everyone feels like they’re part of the same team, but that only happens with a strong underlying culture and value system to ensure our brand and values remain consistent.
Much has been written about keeping remote workers accountable and the challenges of managing dispersed project teams. Less closely examined — but equally important — is how companies can help unite far-flung coworkers emotionally and get everyone immersed in the same culture. It’s hard enough when you’re just on separate floors of the same building; imagine what it’s like when most of your colleagues are just waking up as you wind down your workday.
At Udemy, we’ve found effective and even fun ways to forge interpersonal bonds across thousands of miles. It makes for more collegial interactions, of course, but it’s also better for our bottom line — building a tightly knit team across geographies makes us more productive and nimble and helps us reach important milestones.
This past January we held our second all-company retreat, bringing together employees from all three offices in one place for three days. This is easily one of the best things we’ve ever done to help people get to know each other away from their daily work routine.
We regularly have our colleagues in Ankara and Dublin join our all-hands meetings live via webcam and participate in Q&As with us, but our retreat takes the connection to another level. If you’ve only communicated virtually, you know how it feels when you finally get to look someone in the eye and see their body language. In my experience, the best brainstorms happen in person.
The retreat agenda featured plenty of strategizing and planning, but it was also a rare opportunity to hang out and socialize at leisure. Being in each other’s physical presence was powerful and inspiring, and that’s how empathy develops. You’re more likely to return that call or email if you’ve met in person before.
Many of our Turkish and Irish colleagues worked out of the San Francisco HQ for an additional week or more before and after the retreat too.
There’s actually a lot of travel between Udemy offices. Some of our employees have spent months or even years in one city before transferring to a different one, which makes them more apt to stay in touch with former officemates on a personal level and not only when they need to collaborate for work. When people move around, they carry our company culture with them.
Our onboarding process is consistent across geos but also customized, as needed, for local differences (e.g., regional labor laws). No matter where people start their Udemy journey, they’ll be greeted with a goodie bag of company swag, and their managers will follow a standard onboarding checklist.
Everyone takes part in a two-day orientation here in SF, where we go through Udemy history, review our culture and values, discuss company goals and strategies, etc. This also gives me and other members of our executive team a chance to meet Dublin and Ankara hires in person for lunch and make direct connections.
In addition, new hires are recognized and warmly welcomed by the entire company. Announcements go out with new employees’ photos and fun facts about personal interests and hobbies, not just job title or team assignment, so we know more about each other as individuals. I also make a point to give shout-outs to new hires and highlight promotions in every office during our all-hands meetings.
Equality of experience
The most important element in unifying a decentralized workforce is consistency — holding everyone, everywhere, accountable to the same values and and performance standards and giving everyone equal opportunities to grow and advance in their careers. You definitely do not have to be based at HQ to have a shot at a leadership role.
Integrating remote employees into a cohesive unit with shared values and goals can be tricky, but it’s the only way we can preserve the culture that’s made us a successful company people are proud to work for.
Originally published at www.inc.com on April 11, 2017.