Virtual vibes: mastering the art of company culture when fully remote

Apr 18, 2024

Since its inception in 2014, Giant Swarm has been 100% remote — not as an afterthought or a late-minute addendum but as part of its core (and I think very cool) founding philosophy. 

An ever-evolving philosophy that challenges the status quo and invites us to do things better and differently, all while not taking itself too seriously. As our VP People Anna noted, “Being remote is just a form of organization. You need human structures and psychological safety regardless."

100% remote works for Giant Swarm because we 100% believe:

  1. People should do their best work, the company doesn’t need to define where or when that gets done. 
  2. The best people naturally want self-organization and self-autonomy. 
  3. Without being bogged down by a physical office, we can attract the best talent from across the globe. 
  4. In the saying “right place, right time,” the “right time” took priority when founding Giant Swarm — since launching relied less on the founding members all being in one physical place like Cologne, and more on striking at the moment of optimal timing and conditions.

"The benefit of being able to hire top talent anywhere needs to be weighed against the challenge of not having all employees together in one office. As an open source company, we collaborate with a global community daily — so we must solve the issues of distributed teams regardless. The pros are immense: access to diverse perspectives that improve our products and culture. The cons, like communication barriers, exist in any structure and must be actively managed. Ultimately, every organizational model involves trade-offs. We choose to optimize for empowering our team with flexibility and ownership. That's a battle we think we can win." — Co-Founder Oliver Thylmann

I have been fortunate enough to be a part of the Swarm since 2019, and in the time since I joined, I’ve witnessed the organic nature of company culture working with and sometimes coming up against the realities of remote work. 

In the best of times… People from across the world share their lives and along with it their unique perspectives and this enriches the whole company all via the magic of Slack.

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In the worst of times… People isolate themselves and it’s difficult to determine a virtual mood. It's tougher to pick up on subtle cues like body language or tone over video calls. You also have to do even more to create a safe space that encourages constructive feedback. This is even more pronounced in a culturally diverse work environment. 

In addition, newer team members may feel isolated trying to find their niche and build bonds without face-to-face time. You need more variation... meeting for a beer never gets old, meeting virtually for a beer, however, does. 

That being said, remote work doesn’t hamper company culture but I do think it exposes its fault lines more clearly. Or to put it a different way, Slack and other virtual tools are great at sharing the good — travel, engagements, babies (So. Many. Babies.), and graduations (we have over 30 different dance emojis) but aren’t as intuitive when sharing the bad. 

Good company culture isn’t about hiding the bad but rather about cultivating a robust and resilient culture that can withstand the natural changes of life with kindness and empathy. 

To that end, at Giant Swarm, we have the following channels and tools:

  • Team Facilitators 

Our structure includes both Product Owners and Team Facilitators for each team. While the PO ensures the right work is prioritized, our Facilitators focus on employee happiness and cohesion. They handle logistics — scheduling meetings, running standups, and onboarding new members. But more importantly, they provide emotional support through regular 1:1s and acting as a sounding board in difficult (or annoying) times. This investment in the "soft skills" of team development is crucial when working remotely. Our Team Facilitators also guide new hires in building connections and overcoming remote work learning curves.

  • Metalistening 

We have an open Slack channel called Metalistening for times when work isn't the hard part — life is. The channel description says it best: "What's on your mind? What's difficult for you right now?" It stems from a place of vulnerability and trust among all Swarmies. Rather than bottling up personal struggles, we can support each other mentally and emotionally despite the distance. This raw transparency is invaluable for nurturing authentic connections in a virtual environment. It helps us empathize with what colleagues face behind the scenes.

Individual Development Budget: Everyone can access an annual stipend of €1000 for self-directed training and courses. Whether improving coding skills or brushing up on languages, each teammate knows their development needs best. For example, I just completed a Communications course with the School of Life. 

Book budget: There’s a monthly book allowance of €40 through which everyone can order any reading material that sparks their interest — be it fiction or nonfiction, print or digital. We don't judge a book by its cover. 😉 This has also led to the creation of our informal book club where we have a monthly chat about what we’ve been reading. 

Employee Assistance Program (EAP): We have access to a 24/7 hotline that provides confidential mental health support on life's challenges. While we aim for an open culture in addressing problems, some sensitive issues require privacy, expert counsel, and assurance. Our EAP offers an essential safe space and a caring ear.

Our remote culture means embracing progress while staying grounded in humanity. As long as we lead with empathy, listen with care, and lift each other, I think we’ll be just fine. The future remains virtual — and vibrant.

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