How we’re building a positive company culture while working remote

A blue and white circle symbolizing our positive remote company culture.

On March 12, all of Diff Agency’s staff received an email announcing that as of that day, everyone was to work from home until further notice. Diff’s Human Resources and Leadership team had been closely monitoring coverage about the global spread of Coronavirus, and that Thursday they made the swift decision to send all staff home.

Audrey-Maude Côté, the Human Resources Manager at Diff Agency, explained that the early decision was made as a precautionary measure for everyone’s health, well-being and for the greater good. 

It’s now been three months since Diff went completely remote. During this time, we’ve taken specific steps to make the transition to working from home smooth. 

There was the initial challenge of sorting out a new daily routine that balanced work and home life. Another obstacle faced was ensuring that all staff had the equipment and resources they needed to be productive at home.   

Audrey (2nd from right) with her team: Sonia, M.P. and Juliana, at

Diff's 2019 holiday party.

With the logistical challenges out of the way, another question emerged: how to maintain Diff’s vibrant company culture without being in the office. We talked with Audrey, Diff’s HR Manager, to discover how her team has ensured a smooth transition to WFH. 

Diff’s Commitment to Positive Company Culture

Culture has been an important part of Diff’s company values and identity since the agency began. Back in 2018, Diff’s CEO Ben Crudo shared with The Globe and Mail it is an ongoing priority to identify affordable benefits that are meaningful for Differs. 

Even as Diff has quickly scaled (we’ve doubled in size since 2018!) Ben has continued to focus on keeping up the strong workplace culture. Last year, he told Fast Company that it was his goal to build the kind of company that he always wanted to work at, despite how large it became. 

Despite growing to over 100 staff, Diff’s culture has thrived. For three consecutive years, Diff has been recognized as one of the Best Workplaces in Canada by Great Place to Work. 

In the last year, Best Workplaces™ has also honored Diff as one of the Best Workplaces™ in Technology, Best Workplaces™ for Millennials, Best Workplaces™ for Inclusion, and Best Workplaces™ for Women.

Diff’s workplace culture has always been especially present in Diff’s downtown Montreal office. Read on to learn from Audrey, Diff’s HR manager, how Diff has adjusted the culture while working remote, and how it’s changed.

Diff’s Company Culture, Before #WFH

What is Montreal’s Diff office like when it’s in use? 

It’s a lot of fun! Within the physical office space you always feel a strong sense of community and openness. Differs are actively encouraged to express themselves in a way that is true to their identity, and this has helped foster an inclusive workplace culture that you can feel in the office. 

How has the office helped to create such a positive environment?

The office was designed and laid out in a way that supports a community feeling. It has lots of open spaces where staff can co-work, eat together, or just run into each other and have a quick conversation. 

Diff’s large kitchen, for example, is stocked daily with snacks and on Tuesdays provides catered lunch. Because it’s well stocked, Differs are often in there throughout the day grabbing their sustenance. 

The kitchen also has a large communal table, which helps make it a space where Differs connect with each other. Thursday mornings are always busy in the kitchen because fresh croissants are delivered!

Recently, Audrey's team arranged for all of Diff's staff to receive a home-delivery of croissants and other treats.

Are there other aspects of the office that contribute to Diff’s company culture?

Absolutely. Another way that company culture is encouraged at Diff is through regular social events. Every month there’s an office happy hour, as well as a company-wide field trip. Smaller departments within Diff go on regular team outings as well. These social events provide a space for Differs to engage with each other outside of work. Differs can get to know each other on a more personal level and build genuine friendships. 

Social events and office perks have been key to cultivating a positive culture at Diff. By giving Differs the opportunity to connect with each other on a personal level, our teams develop strong communication and collaboration skills, which ultimately benefits their work. 

I think these social connections between Differs also makes for a happier workplace. In talking with Diff staff, I’m always amazed by how much our employees genuinely care about each other. There’s a sense of compassion in the office, and I think that this contributes to workplace success in a professional sense.

We’re always looking for smart, curious, and driven people to join our team. You can see all the roles we are currently hiring for, right here.

The Transition From the Diff Office to #WFH

When did it become obvious that Diff might need to transition to remote work because of COVID-19?

In early March it became clear that lockdowns because of COVID-19 were coming. Diff decided to be as safe as possible and send all employees home to work remote. We sent everyone home a bit earlier than other companies because we were already well set up for working from home. Now, we are in our third month of remote work. 

Was Diff’s HR team concerned about how company culture would change with everyone working from home?

I knew that shifting to remote work would mean that the company culture would likely shift as well. My team had a feeling that without the physical office, office perks, and social outings, we’d need to find other ways to continue to foster the Diff community, but virtually. 

So, what steps did HR take to transition Diff and its culture to remote work?

The first priority was making sure that everyone was comfortable working at home. During the first few weeks of remote work we sent regular emails updating all of Diff about how COVID-19 was developing. 

We shared updates about the company, resources for adjusting to working from home, and resources to help Differs cope with the mental toll of the pandemic. We also arranged to have monitors, chairs, keyboards, and other office equipment delivered to staff so that they could make their work from home setups more comfortable. 

Our other priority during the first few weeks of shifting to WFH was making sure that all of Diff’s staff were adjusting to communicating virtually instead of in person. My team shared guidelines with all Differs on how to communicate effectively using Slack. We encouraged everyone to find time to chat with each other, beyond just work meetings.

Were there any other early initiatives to facilitate work from home culture? 

Yes! We created a Discord channel for Differs to log into and co-work virtually. An aptly named Slack channel (#WFH) was launched for Diff staff to share their experiences in. There, Differs have continued to share resources and commiserate with each other’s experiences. Yes, there’s lots of pictures of pets and children in #WFH!

My team and I also wanted to find ways to recreate the in-office perks and events online. The monthly happy hour was scheduled as a Zoom call, and the office’s weekly yoga class instructor shifted to teaching her class over video as well. 

Are there any new culture initiatives that have been introduced since #WFH?

Yes, a couple. We created a communal Diff recipe book for Differs to contribute their favorite recipes to while discovering new ones from their colleagues. We also launched a virtual drawing club, with a weekly “theme” for Differs to use as inspiration for their creative art. 

Differs have been cooking at home and sharing their creations!

Here's Paella, a Spanish rice dish made by Dustin.

Recently, my team and I coordinated a surprise home delivery of fresh croissants (and cookies) to all of Diff’s staff. Diff’s CEO Ben wanted to send them as a gesture to pay homage to the “croissant Thursdays” that Differs love so much when at the physical office. 

Keeping Up Company Culture While Remote

Has it been challenging to maintain Diff’s culture with everyone at home?

Maintaining a positive and supportive company culture while everyone is remote has definitely taken some adjustments. Without the physical office space, we’ve had to come up with new and creative ideas for fostering community from a distance. 

Has your HR team learned anything new from the experience of this transition?

Yes! One of our biggest takeaways has been the importance of actively reaching out to Diff staff, and encouraging staff to reach out to each other. Virtual communication isn’t as natural as in-person communication takes more effort. 

Encouraging virtual communication from the start of WFH has helped our staff to develop it into a new habit. Differs are booking regular video calls with each other, and making sure to reserve some of the time on each call to “check in” and chat about life outside of work. 

Have you noticed any benefits from all of Diff working remotely?

I’ve noticed that the new reliance on video calls for communication has reduced the amount of long email or Slack threads. Differs are more likely to just hop on a call for a quick conversation instead of going back and forth in email or Slack. I think this has resulted in smoother and quicker communication for many of our teams. 

We're getting to know each other's families – including pets!

This is Serge's pup, Chanelle. 

And, we’ve all gotten to know each other in new ways! Through at-home video calls all of us at Diff are meeting each other's partners, roommates, kids, and pets. We’re learning about each other's hobbies and creative interests. 

What’s your biggest tip for other companies that are aiming to maintain or build company culture while working remotely?

I think the key to maintaining culture while staff are all at home is to experiment with different ideas for encouraging staff to connect with each other. Some ideas may work, and others won’t. But it’s only through experimentation that you’ll figure out what clicks. And, companies often have different identities, so what’s worked for Diff isn’t guaranteed to work for others. 

Has working remotely changed Diff’s company culture?

Our company culture definitely looks and feels different when entirely remote. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Diff’s culture has evolved since working from home, and I think it will continue to as time goes on. Our staff are always very forthcoming with their experiences and ideas, so we’ll continue to introduce new initiatives that will certainly continue to evolve the work from home culture. 

The Importance of Supporting Workplace Culture

With most companies working from home for the foreseeable future, making sure that employees can do so comfortably is super important. In interviewing Audrey, it’s obvious that the comfort of an employee depends on many factors, all of which relate to company culture. 

Making sure staff have the equipment they need to work and ensuring they have access to resources relating to working remote, mental health, and more, are important first steps. But to maintain company culture long term, companies need to create ways for their staff to connect with each other on a regular basis. 

Adding social and fun channels to Slack, planning virtual events, and even treating employees to surprise deliveries are all great strategies for supporting workplace culture while working remote. 

We’re always looking for smart, curious, and driven people to join our team. Have a look at our job openings, and if you see one that you like, send your application our way. You can see all the roles we are currently hiring for, right here.

This article originally appeared in the Diff Agency blog and has been published here with permission.

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