Creating a Healthy Workplace Environment… Online!

A Healthy Work Environment is one that is safe, empowering, and satisfying

Today, more than ever, there’s a huge expectation that the future of work will be remote. It makes sense, right? Do your employees work sitting at a computer? Are they more likely to text a colleague in Slack rather than walk to his office? Are they more likely to submit a request for vacation through your HR software than to step up to you and ask in person? If the answer is “yes,” then why spend money and resources in an office at all when you can have a healthy workplace environment online?

But for my money, the best thing about running a business with remote employees was simple. I didn’t have to limit my hiring to where I lived. I could get the best people from all around the world!

Technology has enabled work environments that are much more flexible and customizable

I came to this conclusion over a decade ago, and that’s when I built my 100% remote web hosting service. It was a huge success, right? Wrong! While I had the right idea about remote work, I focused on cutting costs. I also trusted that the people would self-manage. As it turns out, having good employees is not enough. I discovered that for the company to work, I had to build a company culture. I had to create a healthy work environment where people would feel happy and thrive.

I’ve found this to be especially important when dealing with remote workers. It’s harder to establish a genuine connection between people over laptop and mobile screens.

Harder… But not that hard. I mean, people establish connections through the internet all the time. They do it in online multiplayer games. They do it in social networks. They do it in forums and through wikis. I know people that have built life-long bonds through World of Warcraft. So there’s no reason why the same should happen in a virtual office. It’s a matter of getting that healthy online work environment right. Let me tell you how I’ve been doing it.

Onboarding: Set Expectations Clearly, and Early

Do you know when it’s the best time to set a new employees’ expectations of how work will be like at the company? Don’t be fooled by the subhead above! It’s actually before onboarding. You should let people know what’s expected of them during the hiring process.

Of course, excellent HR software will help you make everything evident as soon as your employee logs in. And clarity is paramount! But before even that, you need to make sure that people know what they are getting into when they sign up to work with you.

Remember those Christmas mornings when you were wondering what that fantastic looking present was? And then you found out that aunt Wilma has gotten you… A sweater? Yeah, that sucks. Don’t be the aunt Wilma of the business world.

Onboarding is more than just new hire orientation. Onboarding is a process.

Let people know how you work, what you expect, what hours they are supposed to keep, how vacation will be handled, the benefits that you’ll provide… Before they sign anything. This is even more important when it comes to an online company. When people work different time zones and have various national holidays, unexpected situations come up.

So make sure you have a policy in place, and make sure your employees know about it when you hire them. Then, use your killer HR software to handle the heavy lifting.

Culture comes from the top: keep an open door policy

There’s a difference between being the leader and being the boss. The boss can be a great leader, but he can also be the guy everyone is afraid of having a conversation with. A figure that commands from above and cowls employees into submission. I bet you can guess that this kind of character isn’t going to create a fantastic working environment.

“So what?” You say. “I’m not like that at all.” Sure, of course. The paragraph above wasn’t written for that guy. That guy doesn’t read posts about creating a better work environment! The point is: the boss sets the pace for the whole company. A company with a jerk boss will be a company of jerks. A company managed by a leader boss will be a company of leaders.

Workplace culture has made the news a lot lately — and it’s not always pretty

When talking online, jerks don’t work. Dealing with a jerk online, you’ll turn down the laptop volume and ignore their pings on Slack. Easy! But you don’t want jerks, because you don’t want your employees to ignore one another. You want leaders – people that think and act on their own in pursuit of the business’ goals!

If you’re the guy or girl that’s always incentivizing debate, that always pushes to consider everyone’s point-of-view, that places emphasis on treating others by the golden rule… Then guess what? It will rub onto your employees.

When your employees feel that they can come to you with anything, they’ll start feeling like that about their colleagues. All of a sudden, your online workspace feels more like family. People start building connections and relying on each other.

Keep an open door policy. Make it clear that you’re always available to listen to your employee’s concerns and suggestions. It will trickle down.

And do all this using video chat

Make sure to use video as much as possible when communicating. It will feel like a chore at first. I mean, video requires putting pants on! This was not what I signed up for when I decided to work remotely! But there is too much that you miss when using other methods of communication.

You lose eye contact. And goodbye, body language. It’s almost impossible to get a good read on how a person is feeling through text. It’s not uncommon to get out of an email exchange feeling stressed out with the other part, especially if there’s no agreement. Ofttimes, you perceive them as having a hard time understanding your instructions.

Communication has so many components, and failing to communicate in the workplace effectively is commonplace

The truth is, words that read harsh on the screen – and I mean harsh as in “I can’t work with this person anymore!” – are usually mellow when delivered by video chat. We’ve evolved to be super-reliant on reading faces. Now we have the technology to go over that barrier to distant workplace relations. Don’t waste it due to laziness. And dislike of pants.

Video communication will let you get to know your employees better. It will help you form a much closer relationship with them. If you train your people to communicate with video all the time, a lot of your HR troubles will vanish into thin air.

Cultural Scrabble: Choose Your Words For Simplicity  

Even when someone is very good at English, cultural references tend to go over their heads. It’s not even a question of them being native speakers or not. Place a gentleman from central Scotland next to a Texan teenage girl and see how the conversations go. Odds are, you’d have better luck with a Brazilian/Chinese pair. You know why? Because their English has more in common than the English of the other two.

Colloquialisms give character to a language, but that’s one bit of character that you want to leave out of your online family. These often need lots of historical and cultural background to understand. YES, I’m looking at you, British dude! The rest of the world has no clue what cricket is, and we don’t get your sports analogies! Sod off, old chap.

It seems that clarity and simplicity have become victims of those wanting to sound intelligent and sophisticated

It’s also worth pointing out that this is twice as critical for writing. As explained above, video is crucial for context and body language. But since you will inevitably have to rely on emails and Slack, it’s worth taking the time to practice the art of plain writing. You know, be more like Hemingway and less like Shakespeare.

Talking about Hemingway, there’s an excellent app for that. will check your writing and give you suggestions for simplicity. Try to keep your communications in grade 5 or 6!

Sharing is caring: bond with your remote workplace family

Yes, yes, you should have a #general channel in Slack (or your company’s social chat of choice). So original. Now that we got that out of the way let’s get to the part that no-one else talks about. How to use the thing!

Sure, cat pictures are fun. You can never go wrong with a good lolcat picture. But you need to go deeper if you want to create a friendly and healthy workspace. Dumping the latest funny internet meme is NOT the same as cultivating a familiar culture.

Try caring, instead. And sharing. Share stuff that’s personal to you, and encourage others to do it. What’s that, you say it’s private? You do it all the time on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram!

Let’s pause and think about that for a moment. We have no problem broadcasting our lives on channels that will use it to show us ads for giraffe dating websites (don’t judge me!) and where we add people we saw once at some party as “a friend.” And then we eye the people that we work with every day as if they were going to shiv us on our way back from the bakery? That makes no sense.

Figuring out how much to share—and how much to keep to yourself—can be perplexing

By all means, keep things professional. Two topics, in particular, are wisely left out from office discussions: religion and politics. Anything else goes. Encourage people to share their weekend plans. Comment on the latest movies and TV series. See if anyone else enjoys playing the same video games or listening to the same music.

Be more than the boss who posts funny cat pictures. Be a conversation starter. Families are built on conversations.

Remote work is a lifestyle, not a perk – treat it like such

So let’s rewind a bit to point 1. Before onboarding your employees, you should have decided on your company/management policies.

Can these be the same as the ones you use for your local employees (if you have any)? Sure. That’s a perfect baseline, especially when you’re not too sure about the whole “managing a remote team” thing. You can always add flexibility later.

Something to keep in mind – especially if you have people working locally – is that people working remotely aren’t “special.” They are working the same hours, and have the same level of responsibility that a local employee would have. They shouldn’t be seen as privileged merely because they work from home, or from a co-work space.

Remote work has a little to do with technology and a lot to do with trust

Sure, remote work IS beneficial for the employee in a lot of ways. And it is also helpful for you and your company – you’re not doing them a favor. Remote is simply the way they work, and it comes with its challenges. They are still giving their all to accomplish your business goals, day in and day out. So respect and appreciate them as if they were by your side.

Because when you treat people right, it can feel like they are by your side even when they are on the other side of the world.

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