How to Build Culture Remotely: A Survey of Our Community
This article is part of a 3-part IDEO U series on remote work. Read The Future of Work is Hybrid and Tips From the IDEO U Community on Combating Remote Fatigue.
Remote work has impacted some of the most meaningful moments in the workplace—going to a favorite lunch spot, attending an annual holiday party, getting coffee with a coworker. It has made culture building, which includes an organization’s sense of camaraderie as well its values and purpose, particularly difficult to maintain while physically distanced.
For many organizations, culture building will need to be reimagined for a remote context. Our survey on remote work found that 86% of people anticipate their organizations to remain at least partially virtual going forward. With a hybrid future of work, how might we create an environment of connection and purpose while working remotely?
We reached out to the IDEO U community for advice on remote culture building and received hundreds of ideas on how to stay connected. Here are the tips you shared, from connecting with your purpose to finding moments of celebration.
1. Connect with your purpose
One of the most important parts of culture building is feeling connected to your organization’s purpose. Reflect on your values and aspirations, and see how they fit in with those of your company. For example, if one core value is “make others successful,” you could find ways to learn about and highlight the work of your coworkers—you could even design a team ritual around it. Stories about customers and the community can also remind others of the impact of your work and create a deeper sense of purpose. Recognizing the moments that bring meaning and fulfillment in the day can make you feel more connected to your team and organization.
“We have core values that have been able to shine during this time, such as ‘care for others’ and ‘do the right thing.’ I've found that connection to purpose becomes even more essential when everyone is remote—anytime I've felt adrift from purpose, it's really affected my motivation and mental health.” – Samantha B.
“Share stories of our customers and community to keep it real—why do we exist?” – Alice L.
“Volunteering for ‘extracurricular’ unpaid projects to keep me in sync with both my own altruistic goals and those in the mission statement or master plan of the organization, and to continue learning new things about myself and the world around me.” - Linda G.
"I appreciate teams that have been sharing videos that highlight frontline workers in our organization and other significant days like International Women's Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Juneteenth, and Pride. Our employee affinity groups and networks have also done a good job keeping people informed and connected." - Sandra E.
"Asking individuals to share their personal aspirations to enable the people in our group to assist each other in realizing these aspirations. We then as a group align team activities with individual goals." - Michael M.
2. Celebrate your team
When we’re physically distanced, it can feel like there are barriers to sharing joy and gratitude with others. What was as simple as giving coworkers a hug or hosting a birthday lunch now requires more intention and planning. Many of you mentioned how meaningful it has been to receive small gifts and surprises from your team, ranging from handwritten cards to care packages. Creative items like plants and cooking kits can be an effective way to create shared experiences. While working remotely, it’s important to find reasons to celebrate with one another—whether it’s a birthday, an anniversary, or simply appreciation.
"Make stickers and send them through the mail, and deliver snacks and other surprises." – Sarah F.
"A cookie swap: we drew names from a list of teammates and baked or ordered a batch of cookies to send to our match." - Robert H.
"Our annual year-end holiday party could not take place this year, but we knew that people were craving connection. So we conceived Holiday Spirit Week, which was a series of ‘gifts’ we gave to one another: the Gifts of Gratitude, Joy, Savoring, Reflection, and Laughter." - Leah K.
"Having the same food sent over to each person before staff meetings to make it feel like we're all there, somehow." - Harold L.
"Birthday, wedding, and baby shower deliveries from the office, better known as drive-by drop-offs." - Anonymous
"We don't postpone celebrations—we do them digitally instead. Every Friday, we build a Spotify playlist around a specific theme. We’ve had music quizzes, cook-alongs, and other feel-good activities such as yoga and handcrafting." - Evalena L.
3. Build trust through openness
When people don’t have the opportunity to be vulnerable and bring their full selves to work, it’s often harder to build trust on a team. Sharing your passions and aspirations outside of the workplace encourages others to be open as well. Having more difficult conversations around complex issues, rather than simply day-to-day tasks, can prompt reflection and lead to a more expansive culture. By showing others what inspires, motivates, and challenges you in your life, you create an environment of belonging and trust.
“Our COO started a pandemic log. They are her personal notes and observations about the strange journey we're all on—including her family coming up with creative ways to safely gather and her thoughts on finding respite and joy. These messages have injected warmth and caring, as well as showed some vulnerability we're all feeling.” - Linda M.
"We set up a weekly show where different employees can share some of their personal interests—from systemic racism to making cookies to wine. We also have regular contests like reducing our digital footprint or running challenges.” – Adil M.
"Dedicated time for sharing and opening ourselves and other team members to personal pursuits and passion projects. These have been shared quickly during work hours and offered up as optional groups and skill-sharing times outside of work—with a focus on having fun, unwinding from work, and getting to know ourselves and each other through showing and telling.” – Daniel H.
“I host an internal weekly video podcast where I interview other employees. Much of it focuses on their personal life. It's a way to connect with others in ways that used to be more commonplace pre-COVID.” – Chris D.
"Hearing my leaders be vulnerable lets me know I am not alone in trying to keep it all together.” – Anonymous
4. Embrace camaraderie
Providing ways for people to connect on a personal level can help build a sense of camaraderie. Designated spaces and channels where everyone can share updates on life beyond work, from photos of pets to what you’ve been cooking, allow teams to get to know one another more deeply. Some of you also noted that creative team challenges, random pairings to chat with coworkers, and social rituals during meetings have brought your teams closer. Whether it’s a structured employee resource group or an open social channel, it’s beneficial to give people different ways to meaningfully engage with the community.
"We have social channels we try to populate with lots of warmth, good things, and gratitude for one another. Kindness has been key.” – Olivia B.
“We have creative contests in our company chat like 'funniest dog meme,' or 'guess whose baby picture this is.' We also have a time blocked out on everyone's calendars on Wednesday mornings for a coffee date where you're reminded to simply reach out to someone to chat for 15 minutes if you'd like to." – Liz Z.
"We have Fun February and Wellness Wednesday Slack channels. We often give people the choice of a shallow ('how do you like your eggs'), medium ('where is somewhere you would like to travel next'), or deep ('what is something you would do if you knew you couldn't fail') question to answer." - Jennifer M.
"Our employee resource groups have held meetings just to connect with each other and bring humanity to what we do. I have taken to playing entry music as people come into the meeting (a good party host always plays music so guests don't enter an empty room). It's super fun to see people's moods shift and witness them actually take a deep breath before we launch into our work.” – Holly K.
"We have a virtual prayer/meditation group that connects twice a week. This is a safe place where people can share their challenges, and it's really created a warm, welcoming community that will continue after we get past all this.” - Mirtha V.
Designing for remote work
After reading these ideas on building culture remotely, propose some of them to your team to try. In your next team meeting, leave a few minutes to explore this question: How might we foster deeper, more meaningful relationships with one another at work?
If you’d like to explore more of IDEO’s resources on remote work:
Has your organization done something to build culture remotely? Let us know at email@example.com.
Get more tips on facilitating collaborative work to unlock innovative ideas in our online course, Cultivating Creative Collaboration.
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