5 Ways to Enable a Thriving Remote Work Environment
As of 2017, there were more than 170 companies in the United States who were 100 percent remote. There was a 17 percent increase in the number of remote jobs posted to job sites in the last year alone!
However, when I started Fourlane in 2009, there were just 10 remote companies. Work from home was most associated with multi-level-marketing. Remote work products, such as Dropbox, Slack and GoToMeeting, were either non-existent or not widely known. Because we didn’t have a physical office, I struggled to be seen as a “real company,” and there was no blueprint for building strong company culture from behind a computer screen. Our first four years involved a lot of trial and error.
Now, almost 10 years later, we are a thriving team of 30. I am the most productive I have ever been, but I still have time to take my son to the park. And, no one bats an eye when I tell them that we are a “100 percent remote company.” Remote working is the future … we just happened to arrive a little early. So, I’m here to share with you five lessons we’ve learned about how to create a stellar culture and stay productive.
1. Always be communicating. We have four internal communication methods at Fourlane. Each is used for a different purpose, and all of our staff is oriented on when and how to use each type of communication.
Chat: Quick questions and messages. We use Slack and chat throughout the day. Slack allows for setup of group channels around a particular topic. We find the old axiom, “If you have a question, someone else probably has the same question,” to be true, so for general clarification, we always have people default to the group channel so everyone benefits from the answer.
Email: Non-urgent communication and project delivery. Email is appropriate for longer-term communication around a particular topic. We tell our team to err on the side of brevity with email. Since so many people use their phone for email, we want to send them quick messages that they will easily be able to digest and respond to on the go.
Phone: We make phone calls from inside Slack and use a VoIP phone system. Phone calls are used for clarification when chat won’t do, and brainstorming or troubleshooting a particular project or issue.
Regular Meetings: Each of our teams has a weekly meeting and each individual has a weekly one-on-one with their manager. Having these standing meetings helps us cut down on the clutter and one-off questions, since the team knows they will get a chance to address any issues during their weekly chat. It also gives everyone regular human interaction, and a chance to come up for air, joke around, present ideas and celebrate wins together.
Communication is crucial to assuring everyone is on the same page and there are no dropped balls or misunderstandings.
2. Build a company wiki. Early on, we realized the importance of having a central knowledge base. This isn’t unique to remote companies, but it is especially important for us since remote working removes a lot of the learning by osmosis that might happen in person.
The company wiki should document the 20 percent of processes that run 80 percent of your business. There should be answers to commonly asked questions, particularly around your business or product capabilities. There should be step-by-step instructions on how to perform the most crucial tasks in your business, with pictures, if possible. And, there should be organizational charts that show who is responsible for what, and who to contact about various issues.
A company wiki allows your team to be proactive about finding answers themselves, rather than constantly pinging the rest of the team. And, it allows people to more easily step into new roles, since there are detailed instructions on how to perform their daily job functions.
3. Keep an open door to leadership. Being remote, it is much easier to end up “in the dark.” In person, you might see leadership going into a meeting, catch snippets of conversation or have informal chats with the CEO. To combat the issue of silos and isolation that can very easily occur in a remote setting, we try and keep ourselves as transparent as possible.
This means that everyone, including the CEO, has an accessible calendar, and any employee can book time on anyone’s calendar. We can see when people are out, when people are meeting with a client and when people have set aside time for specific tasks.
We also encourage chat and communication across the company hierarchy. Junior employees feel comfortable communicating with me directly, and I make an effort to keep an eye on what they’re up to and let them know when they’re doing a great job.
4. Get to know each other. We start every department meeting going around and having each person share something from their personal life. This could be an exciting milestone, such as getting married or buying a house. Or, it could be something simple, such as reading a great book. We want to make sure that we give everyone an opportunity to share his or her personalities and interests.
We also share our business win for the week. This is great because it allows us to celebrate successes with the team and share valuable tips and tricks. It is incredible for leadership because we get deeper insight into the motivations of our team.
We are committed to getting together in-person several times a year. These include:
- Company holiday party. Studies have shown a strong link between high employee morale and companies who invest in a holiday event.
- Two give back days. We have a great partnership with an Austin-based charity that packs and decorates tote bags full of clothes and toiletries for kids entering the foster care system. Twice a year, we offer everyone a “free” day to get together and give back. We often follow this up with a company happy hour.
- Yearly retreat. We host a two-day retreat every year. The first day is focused on professional development and continuing education. We have a state-of-the-company meeting and recognize outstanding performance by members of the team. The second day is a fun activity centered around team building. We’ve done scavenger hunts, cooking competitions and wine tasting. The goal is for us to deepen our relationships as a company, and then take those new friendships back to our remote offices. It is an expensive investment, particularly flying in our out-of-area team members, but it is something everyone looks forward to every year.
- Quarterly leadership meetings. Our leadership team meets in person every quarter to plan, strategize and assess company health. These meetings have a standard structure, so everyone knows what to expect and can come prepared.
We’ve also been trying to be as fun as possible on Slack, while still getting our work done. We all laughed about the yanny/laurel debate, and we often share funny pictures of our kids or pets. You don’t need to miss out on being social just because your company is remote.
5. Learn how to identify the right people. Not every potential employee is a fit for remote work. In fact, I would say only around 15 percent of people are going to thrive in a remote environment. That’s okay! You just need to get really good at figuring out who those 15 percent are. Some of the key personality traits we look for in new hires:
- Fast learner.
- Effective communicator. Make sure their written communication and phone skills are on point.
- Patient. Sometimes, things can take a bit longer when back and forth is required, or when you’re coordinating multiple schedules. You want people who can pace themselves and stay engaged in projects, even when there are delays.
- Organized. Ask potential new hires how they manage their inbox. That will tell you a lot.
- Self-motivated. We don’t micromanage, so employees need to want to contribute and get their work done.
- Open to learning new processes. We rely so much on our back-end systems, and being fluent in how to use them is critical to working at Fourlane. So, people who are stuck in their ways, or don’t want to learn our process, typically do not succeed.
We have found some truly amazing team members who come from very diverse backgrounds. Some of our team came prepared with the exact skillset they needed. Others started in a junior role and worked their way up. Some like to go heads down and focus on their work, while others love to be social and love chatting with their coworkers. But, they all are motivated, sharp and organized.
Being a remote company is something I would never trade. And, we constantly get feedback about how much our team loves the flexibility. If you have more questions, feel free to check out our Future of Work blog post, where we answer some of our most frequently asked questions about everything from hardware to lunch breaks!