Top tools and strategies for a successful remote workforce: An Off the Ledger LIVE! discussion.
Remote workforces are here to stay, and with the right tools in place, the movement to distributed teams can revolutionize our work/life balance without compromising workplace culture and communication.
Three speakers who have lived the remote experience at thriving companies joined Airbase’s Global Controller, Kelly Hicks, for the opening session of the Off the Ledger LIVE! virtual conference, entitled “Building smart with distributed teams.”
Each speaker arrived at a remote-first company from a different route. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sam Ross worked in an office with a long commute. He often found himself staying late in order to have phone meetings with colleagues in other countries, and missing his kids’ bedtimes, until his company opted for a remote policy to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. He’s since moved to a position as General Counsel at Remote, a company that, not surprisingly, has been remote since its inception. In his experience, companies that have always been remote-first have a much easier time than companies that were forced to make the shift in the spring of 2020.
When Jenny Bloom was first introduced to Zapier in 2016, she was admittedly skeptical about the company’s remote-first approach. “I wasn’t convinced that you could grow and scale a company remotely,” she says now. She asked to start out as a contractor so she could evaluate, but after just a few weeks, she realized she didn’t think she could ever go back to a traditional office, and she went on to serve as the company’s CFO remotely for six years.
In contrast, Darren Murph made a conscious decision to pursue a remote position. “About 15 years ago, I made an intentional and deliberate choice to optimize my life for flexibility.” He’s now Head of Remote at GitLab, a company that has always been remote by design.
“I also saw remote work as the natural evolution of work, much like the way a cellphone is the natural evolution of a landline.”
Challenges and proven solutions.
Sam spoke of one challenge inherent in distributed teams: everyone wants to be heard at the same time. “It’s like being in one of those WhatsApp groups where you can’t keep track of a conversation because everyone is trying to get their point across and nobody knows what’s going on.”
To combat the noise, “You need to use tools and methods that create a sense of calmness and cohesion between people,” he said.
Darren emphasized the importance of having the right tools from the beginning. “If you are transitioning to a remote workforce, you really should audit every tool that you touch and ask, ‘Is this a tool that supports a distributed workforce?’”
“Let’s embrace tools that allow work to happen in a location-agnostic way.”
Some of the tools and policies used by the speakers include:
Notion for knowledge sharing. Notion is a key element of Remote’s strategy to distill and simplify communication because it helps avoid a never-ending stream of messaging by providing a central repository of knowledge.
Effective Slack policies. Jenny explained that Zapier tries to keep Slack messages out of DMs as much as possible, so no important information is missed.
Lattice. One of the bigger challenges regarding culture and values is sharing bad news remotely, whether it’s terminating a position or sharing sensitive information. Sam emphasized the importance of being intentional, and finding empathy for the situation. Lattice’s people management platform can help frame those discussions, he said.
Remote. The Remote platform helps make it possible for companies to hire from anywhere in the world. “We take care of the hiring, we take care of the benefits, and we advise on HR practices in a candidate’s home country.” Sam said.
A reimbursement system that handles international payments. Reimbursements can be complicated to administer once employees from many countries travel to other countries.
Policies and best practices.
Hiring practices that recognize the realities of remote work. In many ways, remote work makes life easier when it comes to recruiting, since talent can be based anywhere. But it’s also important to recognize that not everyone is suited to it. Jenny learned to assess a job candidate’s suitability for working remotely by asking questions like, “What would you do if you were stuck and your managers and peers weren’t available?” in order to find candidates who were problem-solvers and self-starters.
Empathy. Instead of launching right into a meeting, Sam recommends starting with a simple “How are you?” or a similar question.
“It’s not ideal not to be in a room with someone if you’re having a tough conversation, but the key way to mitigate that is to make an extra effort to treat the person as a human being,” Sam said.
Shared fun experiences. Team building can be a challenge with a distributed workforce, but it’s still possible to build shared experiences by giving team members stipends to do a common activity. Darren said that investing in personal time is always worthwhile, particularly as the pandemic restrictions let up. “Getting together once, twice, three times a year goes a long way.”
GitLab has had great success with a “community impact hour,” during which everyone in the company spends time out in their own community doing volunteer work while wearing company swag, and taking a selfie at the end.
Sam added that the simple act of sharing experiences outside of work can have a similar effect, since even talking about meeting friends and family can have a humanizing effect and create a sense of belonging.
A willingness to open up. The speakers agreed that sharing personal information about lives outside of work improves work culture on a more profound level than it may appear on the surface.
Excellent onboarding practices. All panelists agreed that clear onboarding practices are more important for remote employees, and that all policies must be clearly documented. Darren recommended ensuring that every new hire has an onboarding buddy so that everyone has someone to reach out to in the beginning.
Clear communication. In a remote environment, it’s more important than ever to be easily understood. Zapier offers employees a course in writing to help everyone understand the impact of clear communication.
Guidelines to mitigate risk. Although remote-first companies generally have stronger business continuity protection, some guidelines around data security and sharing of information are imperative.
Sam added that policies should be in place regarding sensitive issues related to risk management. Some issues, for example, shouldn’t be shared on Slack to a broad audience.
The impact on corporate culture.
The impact of remote work on corporate culture goes both ways. Darren explained that remote settings really require a company to define its culture, and particularly its values, if they want to succeed.
“In a colocated company, you can get away with values being aspirational words on a wall. In a remote company, values have to double as operating principles. They have to inform explicitly how you live the values.”
He added that having explicit values gives companies the opportunity to hire for values, a practice that leads to smoother operations and decision-making.
One thing is certain, companies have to meet the opportunities and challenges of remote work. “I think the market forces will move towards more distributed, more flexible, more inclusive than less,” Darren summed up.
Watch the complete Off the Ledger LIVE! session.
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