The first rule of corporate culture is you don't talk about corporate culture.
That's Mary Sobon paraphrasing the famous line from Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club to explain her approach to maintaining that special something that makes a company unique.
Actions speak louder than words, says Sobon, a Nashville, Tennessee, "culture coach" who works with startups and fast-growth companies such as Emma Inc., the email marketing business, and Redpepper, an advertising agency, also in Nashville.
Sobon developed her philosophy as a regional marketing manager at McDonald's Corp. When the fast-food chain reorganized and eliminated its Nashville office, she started coaching another displaced McDonald's executive and then moved on to helping other local business owners.
Here are some of her other rules for maintaining corporate culture with large populations of virtual employees:
1. There's no one right way. Every company is different, so your culture has to fit your business. Don't make the mistake of thinking remote offices have to be carbon copies of headquarters. "Groups develop their own flavor of your culture. I wouldn't expect to go to New York and have people there act like they do in Nashville," Sobon says.
2. Value the individual. Creating a unifying set of beliefs and values doesn't mean mimicking the Borg, the cybernetic organism on Star Trek: The Next Generation whose mantra was "Resistance is futile." Instead of trying to assimilate the personalities of people you hire, go after the best workers you can find and set them free to do what they do. "Understand the value of that person and meet them where they're at," and let the company expand to include them, Sobon says.
3. Talk early and often. Fast-growth companies need formal and informal communication channels so corporate-level execs can talk to far-flung company leaders as often and quickly as needed. That could include Skype calls twice a day or more if you're ramping up a project. "The more we can connect people to the actual work, the stickier the culture becomes," Sobon says.
4. The bigger the conflict, the more important it is to deal with it in person. Skype, instant messaging and email are OK for low-conflict, day-to-day communications. But when disagreements arise over strategy or how a project is going, hash things out face to face. "When you try to do that through an email thread, weird things happen," Sobon says.
5. Develop rituals. Families do certain things to celebrate holidays, whether it's eating turkey at Thanksgiving or going to a midnight church service at Christmas. Companies need rituals, too. It could be something traditional like hosting an annual holiday party–and paying for everyone to be there. Or it could be less conventional. Once a year, Sobon's ad agency client holds a 24-hour "create-a-thon" where everyone works on ads for a startup not-for-profit—then goes out to celebrate. "The more you create those things and tell people they're part of your organization and your organization is special, people will understand how to behave," Sobon says.
6. Make the rounds. Don't just tell people who work remotely that they're as valuable as other employees—prove it by visiting regularly. "If you say something is important, you should give up the time and money" to show it, Sobon says.
Michelle V. Rafter is a Workforce Management contributing editor based in Portland, Oregon. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.