While working in your sweatpants may be a welcome break, your team may need to unlearn some bad workplace habits before it can run smoothly online.
As more companies decide to close their office doors and set up shop remotely, we’ve been flooded with inquiries about how we run our distributed team. I’ve been reluctant to offer tips and tools — not because I don’t want to share what’s worked best for us, but because I don’t want to give anyone a false sense of security. A list of tools is not, in itself, a strategy for success.
Remote work is hard, and for our growing team of 21 full-time employees working across 17 cities, and our community of 4,000+ freelancers in all 50 states, remote work is not just a phase. Yes, there are obvious lifestyle perks — mid-day walks, freshly-cooked meals, and naps as needed — but remote work is also a fundamentally better way for us to build our business. It gives us freedom to hire great talent, regardless of their location, and it allows us to move fast.
We made it a priority early on to research, test, and apply different methodologies until we found the right ways to keep everyone aligned and empowered — meaning department heads could make decisions and keep things moving across time zones without any lag or lack of clarity.
With the giant caveat that things may get worse before they get better, here’s a transparent look at the rigor behind our fully-remote company, and why it works.
We take structure seriously.
Wethos uses the OKR framework to set our quarterly goals, out of which fall monthly and weekly objectives. Every week, our employees can expect the same set of meetings to discuss progress towards these goals, and adjust priorities to achieve them. We defend this schedule as best we can to make sure there’s a regular cadence for reporting, feedback, and collaboration. Each department also has their own internal stand-ups — some daily, some every other day — to help unblock their teammates as needed.
Not only does this reporting cadence reduce surprises, it inspires innovation. Teams and individuals are allowed to experiment and fail, so long as we are learning and adapting quickly. With an established rhythm for these conversations, our teammates are much better equipped to offer support to one another. Cross-departmental creativity and collaboration are at an all-time high. We currently use Google Hangouts for these meetings, with a “Cameras On” policy that we find helps people relate on a more personal level.
We set clear expectations.
Training and on-boarding are key to setting the tone for a positive remote work environment. If you’re rolling out new remote work policies, don’t just gloss over them in an email. Make time for a formal company-wide meeting to brief everyone on the changes, including the strategy behind them. Follow up with departmental Q&A sessions as a forum to discuss how changes impact day-to-day operations.
As a startup, we’re all dealing with lots of unknowns and a constantly-evolving thesis about our work. The best thing we can do to curb anxiety — especially in a fully remote environment — is check in often with our employees about the definition of their role, what they’re ultimately being held responsible for, and if there’s anything they need to meet their goals more effectively.
We take a temperature check each Friday on 15Five, to make sure everyone feels connected and supported. We also plan bi-weekly 1:1’s with managers to create an open environment for real-time two-way feedback, always inviting constructive criticism and giving all team members space to suggest workflow optimizations. Notes from those 1:1’s are also added to 15Five as a transparent and shared record. Rather than save honest conversations for performance reviews, we review each other’s performance continuously and — as a result — get continuously better, week over week.
We’re intentional about how we communicate.
We, like tons of other companies, use Slack for nearly all of our internal conversations, using gifs and reactions to keep the mood light. Email is reserved for external communication, and for formal updates or assignments that need more context than Slack comfortably allows.
To get around time zones, we use Loom to record our presentations and huddles. Loom has reduced the number of meetings we have by creating a way to provide one another with asynchronous feedback (within a given deadline, of course). One of the worst habits to break from traditional workplaces is having “closed door” conversations where decisions are made in passing — Loom also gives us an effective way to document all processes and decisions, proactively creating transparency across departments.
We set boundaries and respect them.
Everyone on our team is ultimately empowered to get work done when it suits them best. As long as they’re behind a laptop for real-time collaboration from 11:00am-3:00pm EST (our regular 4-hr window for meetings), and working an average 40-hr work week, we’re okay with folks setting their own preferred work hours. We’ve got a mix of early birds and night owls, but we adhere to a general norm of not contacting others after 6pm in their respective time zone.
Our weekly huddles and 1:1 meetings aren’t just for chatter. They have clear agendas and clear takeaways. We don’t schedule new meetings unless it’s a last resort, and only when the other participants have agreed a meeting is the best course of action. If we’re working on a more complicated new idea or initiative, we host structured worksessions, take polls and surveys, or even use tools like Optimal Workshop to build consensus across the entire company.
More or less, this system works. The structured team check-ins allow us to make sure everyone is making adequate progress towards weekly priorities, without tracking their every movement. If folks feel like their days are becoming too heavy with meetings, we suggest that they block work time on their calendar to keep things balanced. If folks need to “check out” of Slack to focus and get things done, we ask that they simply set away messages to let teammates know when they are next available for more ad hoc conversations or feedback.
We create reasons to connect besides work.
For a lot of people, work without the workplace can be lonely. We make it a point to create reasons for people to have fun outside of their regular responsibilities. On Slack, teammates share photos of their office pets, homemade meals, and favorite outfits — things we might otherwise miss without a physical space. And in our #off-topic channel, you can always find a chat about the latest trending articles, podcasts, playlists, or Netflix shows.
We celebrate birthdays by flash-mobbing internal meetings, or with guest appearances from Cameo celebs. Every few weeks, we have a video “coffee break” or “lunch hour” so teammates can chat freely about what’s new in their lives. On these days, we make it a point to send a bit of cash over Venmo or via Starbucks so that their break is covered by the company. We trade book recommendations, and even ship books back and forth if we find a particularly good read. And twice a year, we get the entire gang together in-person.
TL;DR — if you’re lacking structure IRL, the transition to remote won’t be easy.
Plan to treat your remote transition as its own workstream, do extensive research on what systems might suit your business best, invest in infrastructure, and consider that your team might need to unlearn some bad workplace habits before it can operate in full capacity online.