As most companies are grappling with whether or not they will stay remote past the lift of sheltering in place restrictions The Circle community came together with veterans Lori McLeese of Automattic, Paul Machle of GitLab, and Jeff Harper of HashiCorp. To learn from their firsthand experiences as to why it can work, which myths to bust, and the nuances on being all remote.
Why did these companies choose to be remote in the first place?
Access to great talent –
Breaking free from the traditional constraints, like a physical location for an HQ, allowed these companies access to talent they would have not been able to access otherwise which gives them the ability to scale quickly across the company and across all functions. One of the companies is in 76 countries, with unlimited access to global talent. That said, an advisor mentioned that a company newly starting to be remote, doesn’t have to complicate hiring in that way, at least not right off the bat, staying within a region or state (same time zone) that is conducive to your operations, can be a good start.
Build a community –
One of the advisors found that there was an incredible opportunity for their team to connect and collaborate and build a community that broke free of some of the traditional constraints of organizing others. In one company, it is about building a community where everyone feels like they can contribute, no matter the level or position or where they are located. Not limiting themselves to false constraints has driven diversification of ideas that have driven productive and energized projects and teams.
A level playing field –
Having an “us versus them mentality” was an attitude and feeling that one of the advisors found was driven by having a physical corporate headquarters when another portion of their team was distributed. By going all remote they removed the notion of “oh, I need to be at the corporate headquarters in order to have influence” and provided a level playing field that supported the concept of their mission statement that everyone can contribute.
What are myths these advisors constantly encounter when challenged about going remote and how do they bust them?
“Yeah, but. That works for you, but for us, it wouldn’t, and here’s why….”
Can brainstorming work?
The group admitted, that brainstorming being all remote is not as easy as having a whiteboard in a conference room, but it absolutely can be done especially when it’s a collaborative brainstorming session versus asynchronous brainstorming. In general, brainstorming sessions require more preparation (i.e. give deadlines if you want pre-work or initial ideas) and thoughtfulness on how the session is going to be structured. As well as ensuring the agenda for the session is purposeful and communicated to everyone that’s participating. Additionally, the greater the level of trust and openness is built into the culture and encouraged the more effective some of these brainstorming efforts can be.
“There has to be a greater level of trust.”
Asynchronous brainstorming was found to be more challenging as it required more time to drive the feeling that it was collaborative. It takes longer, especially if you’re across time zones. It’s recommended to allow teams up to three days to bounce ideas off of each other, less time than that the behaviors noted were folks visit a document or platform once and then leave, defeating the goal of collaboration.
Some of the tools proposed for effective brainstorming that works for both synchronous and asynchronous brainstorming were Mural and Google Docs and platforms like Zoom for group brainstorming.
Is it possible to build a community in a remote or distributed workplace?
It takes work, but you can. Identify what is it that your organization is trying to solve for and really cares about. Ask ‘why won’t it work’ over and over – dig into the hard questions until you get to the real crux of it, or you get some breakthrough in understanding. “Ah, so if we solve this problem of time zones as opposed to geography, then we actually can create connections. Or if we start leveraging this technology, we can start creating brainstorming opportunities.”
One of the challenges mentioned in a remote world was more silos between functions than you would otherwise have in a physical office. People lose that connected feeling to the company. “There is no water cooler chat.”
“There is no water cooler chat.”
And so, you have to be very purposeful about setting up your interactions, making sure that people have two-way communication, that they feel that they’re a part of a broader company. It is recommended to spend time thinking about how to create a culture with a sense of belonging.
Be intentional about building social relationships in a distributed environment and it’s not just about work. One way this can be done is to connect people through different channels based on interests, whether that’s pets, music, games, whatever, home repairs. A consideration is having an events team that is deliberate about getting teams to join together, whether it’s live or distributed. Or even encourage and support team members that want to spearhead an event of their own. Some companies leverage off-sites as a way to create that in-person social connectivity over time.
Will productivity be the same and how do we know team members are getting their work done?
The anonymous feeling was that the concern is not whether people are working too little or whether they were getting their work done, but that is the teams are working too much when they are remote. Some functions, like engineering, it’s easier to track productivity metrics as their activity can be monitored. But for functions, like accounting and finance, with people all over the world, it becomes a 24-by-seven function.
A group that was of most concern was recent college grads, and whether or not a remote model was right for them. The experience has been that this particular group wants to do more because they want to challenge themselves and advance. So the goal is to feed that hunger that they have around their development. Placing an operational structure that can create enough clarity and focus for this group to execute their job well lands on managers and leaders to do. A greater level of trust was once again stressed.
Thoughtfulness behind what type of talent are you trying to hire, and how you can best support them is key. For one of our advisors, they realized that hiring people, like recent college graduates, their first job, into a distributive environment wasn’t a great experience. And they put a hold on hiring college grads until they could put the structures in place to be able to support this group.
Openness and accessibility to the executive team can only be done face to face?
“Pinging me online is no different than knocking on my [office] door.”
Not necessarily. Slack is a tool these companies use where their team members can easily see executive team members’ status. It’s equivalent to going by someone’s physical office to see if they are there. Virtual town halls lead by different leaders are a way to connect with team members and an easier way to remove the barriers of a physical building’s office doors. In one company, these calls happen daily and employees are encouraged to ask and submit questions for that particular leader. In addition to easily seeing if someone is available, they recommend instilling a feeling of openness and “you can ask anything” motto. If something is not easily answered via Slack, then follow up via a video call to ensure enough context is provided so the question was answered properly. All three companies do a lot of documentation and writing out, making sure that everything is captured for cross-checking and alternative paths.
Certain kinds of hire thrive in this remote environment, and maybe there are others who it’s tough for them?
This one’s not a myth, it’s ‘absolutely’ true. It was found that the highest amount of turnover happens in the first six months and a remote workforce was the number one reason for people leaving. One company screens and focuses on whether the person can be self-reliant to help them predict if this hire is going to be successful in a remote environment. Another company has an interview process involves a paid trial, which they admit is a longer hiring process but helps weed out those where this model isn’t a good fit for them (their attrition rate is only 4%).
Different compensation across different locations can create a backlash?
There were two approaches shared on the call that have worked for these companies to minimize backlash. Although they are very different, the common thread was transparency and to meet people where they are. Sometimes that’s where they are geographical. Different cultures will tend to adopt different practices and different areas of emphasis, wherein one environment, there may be a cultural deep connection to longterm equity, whereas, in others, it may be all about the cash in hand. And so, different practices are adopted to be more aligned with how those think because you wouldn’t want to throw a load of equity at somebody who, really, it doesn’t matter to them. So, it’s thinking more about where people are and meeting them there, and then, also, thinking about the cost of labor in those regions.
“It’s not about the cost of living. It’s about the cost of labor. That is how you have to think about compensation and how you compare it.”
One approach was a global compensation framework where the team members’ compensation was tied to the 50th percentile in the market that they live in. They pay an employee the same 50th percentile in India that we would in the US. They spent a lot of time gathering data to ensure they were fairly compensating hires in the geographies in which they live. Another approach, almost the complete opposite, and admittedly a very expensive one where they try not to create huge disparities between people doing the same role, no matter where they are located. (There is some fluctuation, but not as much as basing it on the pure local market.)
Gitlab has a compensation calculator that many other companies also use for indexing their own pay.
Hybrid is the way to go, right?
For some, maybe it is, and here’s how to consider implementing it.
First, understand that different groups have different needs in terms of how they operate. For one company the engineering team is 100% distributed, while their marketing team is not distributed as they believe they serve more value being connected and operate more effectively in one physical place.
Second, have very defined and deliberate practices around being distributed. If one team is 100% distributed, then commit to that. Not sticking to it could cause folks that go to the office to have conversations on the side and then it becomes a central place whereby decisions and actions take place and leaving out those that are not coming to the office. This can actually start to affect the collaboration and the connective tissue of the broader group. By maintaining that fully distributed mindset around that group, it allows them to be more effective. It creates a bit of a forcing function.
Third, in a hybrid model, it is recommended to be more deliberate about your processes and systems as if you were 100% distributed. This means using as many “open” sources as possible – wikis, internal websites, shared drives or Google docs, etc., rather than “closed” sources – email, DMs, etc. That way, people can search for information as needed. When you have conference calls, everyone should be on a separate laptop (vs ten people in a room and two on laptops). This allows for an equitable experience. If everyone is on their laptop, it will ensure the tools being used optimize for that experience, rather than optimizing for folks who are together in person. Document decisions so that everyone has access to them, not just those people who were in the meeting in person.
Lastly, it’s advised that hybrid is not defined by “work wherever and whenever”. The uncertainty of where a team member is (i.e. taxation issues if not notified) or when are they available (i.e. you don’t know when they are coming into the office), can create challenges in the business.
Experiences from being remote during a shelter in place is an indicator of what our company looks like in a remote model, right?
What is happening today is not normal and there’s a higher level of tolerance happening right now because there’s an awareness that what is happening today is not remote. Remote, outside of a sheltering in place state is going to be different, in a good way as there will be more stability in what working from home will look like. As an example, a percentage of your employees won’t be juggling working and homeschooling at the same time.
Resources to learn more about remote models:
Automattic: Remote Work Reader, Work from Home Productivity Tips
Basecamp: REMOTE: Office Not Required, WFH Q&A
GitLab: The Remote Playbook; All Remote Guide
Hashicorp: There’s No One Right Way to Remote Work
Zapier: The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work, Remote Work FAQ
Resources for when you have made the decision to adopt a remote model:
On Working Remotely: An Automattic Reader
7 Remote Work Lesson for Managers During the Coronavirus
Best Practices for Distributed Teams: Automattic Shares All
Matt Mullenweg’s Tips for Staying Productive
Managing remote employees in the COVID-19 Era
10 Questions You Should Ask Your Remote Employees To Keep Them Engaged
A Guide To Remote Work For Employers and Employees a During Coronavirus
Quick, work remote! A guide on how to set up your remote working strategy
COVID-19: 6 Questions Managers Should Be Asking Employees While Working from Home
The CEO’s Ultimate Guide to Remote Work