Reflections on Remote: Office Not Required (From the perspective of People Ops on a small, remote…

Reflections on Remote: Office Not Required (From the perspective of People Ops on a small, remote team)

I’ve worked in one and only remote company for almost three years, and I never got around to reading Jason Fried and DHH’s Remote: Office Not Required. Part of the irony with my situation is that I’ve worked in a remote company, but never “remote” (I’m at our office in Portland, OR).

There are about 5–6 people in our office at any given time, and we also share our space with two other small companies.

Remote describes office life as an “interruption factor[y]. A busy office is like a food processor — it chops your day into tiny bits.” While at times I’ve experienced this, our office tends to be quiet. We’re often spread out into different rooms, collaborating with coworkers or talking to customers who aren’t at the office.

Though I don’t have a steady schedule, I do have the flexibility to work from home when I want. I also have a desk and all the equipment I need to work from the office, too. I prefer to stay at home when I know I need to focus on one project for hours. Since most interruptions that can happen at home are “things you can control. They’re passive. They don’t handcuff you.”

I won’t accuse my Portland-based coworkers of handcuffing me to work, but even I fall into the trap of finding it easy to turn to my left or right and ask a quick question — interrupting both their workflow and mine.

I’m in charge of recruiting, interviewing, hiring, on-boarding, and retaining people at our company. I don’t do this alone, of course, but rely on our team to help me along the way. I typically talk to folks during the first interview, and one thing that I get excited to talk about is the way we work together. “Letting people work remotely is about promoting quality of life, [and] about getting access to the best people wherever they are.” I can safely say, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to incredible people, even when we weren’t ready to hire them for a particular role. Knowing that excellent folks are interested in working with us, and that we can hire them no matter where they are* makes me happy. And makes my job a lot more fulfilling.

*For the most part — depends on the role.

I can appreciate the two caveats Remote brings up early on in the book:

1. Not seeing your coworkers face-to-face everyday might help you be productive at first, but eventually it’ll leave you feeling disconnected
2. A structured schedule is likely missing from your work, so you’ll need to rely heavily on personal responsibility to make sure you’re keeping yourself accountable

Regarding number 1, we meet in person as a whole company twice a year: once in the Spring, and once in the Fall. We use the Donut slackbot to pair us randomly together for “serendipity chats” via video call. We send people to conferences, workshops, classes as part of our continuing education budget. And, we’ve also had mini-retreats for one or more teams to get together to work on a big, meaty project that will require more face time.

Number 2 is difficult. We like to be as open and honest about how hard this can be in a remote environment in our job descriptions and during the interview process. We give a lot of freedom to our employees, but that, in and of itself, can be overwhelming, especially when combined with the not-being-around-your-coworkers-in-person (#1) issue.

There’s still a lot I think we can do to help people transition to this kind of environment (especially if they’ve never worked remotely before). The best we can do regardless, is to keep in close contact with each other, especially managers & direct reports, and especially during the first couple of months. If we’re communicating regularly, then we’re in the know of when things aren’t working, and when they are.

People have an amazing ability to live down to low expectations. If you run your ship with the conviction that everyone’s a slacker, your employees will put all their ingenuity into proving you right. If you view those who work under you as capable adults who will push themselves to excel when you’re not breathing down their necks, they’ll delight you in return.

That quote resonated with me more than most in the book. Most of my life, I’ve had managers who (made it seem like they) didn’t trust me; in my attempt to prove otherwise, I would exert more effort both physical and emotional. When that didn’t work, I’d burn out and leave. This is the first place in my professional life, that I’ve been given a chance to learn and grow and make mistakes. I think a lot of that starts with the fact that we are a remote company; responsibility and autonomy is applied to every role.

Think about it — when we create a product, introduce new features, and provide excellent support, we’re delighting our customers by giving them the tool(s) they need to be successful. Myself, and my coworkers are the customers of the company, and our culture, how we work together, and how we’re organized is our product. Everything I do in my job, I want it to be to their benefit because when we support them, they flourish; in turn, our company and business thrive.

Sometimes, distractions can actually serve a purpose. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, they warn us — when we feel ourselves regularly succumbing to them — that our work is not well defined, or our tasks are menial, or the whole project we’d engaged in is fundamentally pointless.

As a small, but growing startup, we’ve had these symptoms creep up on us before. A huge learning experience for me is understanding that the symptoms (like being distracted, or unmotivated) aren’t the disease, they indicate other problems, a place where we’re coming up short for our employees (and customers). That could be clear definition of the work to do, what to do if/when you get stuck or have questions, and how the work fits into larger company goals.

There’s so much to say around company culture, but I’ll be brief. Remote gives a brief, but effective definition of culture:

The best cultures derive from actions people actually take, not the ones they write about in a mission statement…how decisions are made, the care that’s taken, the way problems are fixed, and so forth.

Most of our interactions as a remote company take place in written form. Therefore our actions, reactions, language, are recorded in words for all the see. The written record helps us to share, store, and organize information, and it will keep us accountable. If we say we’re an empathetic company, and there’s evidence of un-empathetic language or actions, everyone can see it. Because everyone can see any division from what we say and what we do, our leaders have to acknowledge it and work with everyone to fix it.

In our environment of the written word, miscommunication is bound to happen — our written words lack our voice, our tone, our expressions and body language. When in doubt, clarify. If a comment is unambiguously aggressive, however, Remote suggests making “an example of even the small stuff — things like snippy comments or passive-aggressive responses.” We rely on our managers to set the tone of the company, and to correct it when it’s negative or hurtful. “It works even better if policed by everyone in the company.”

The old adage still applies: No assholes allowed. But for remote work, you need to extend it to no asshole-y behavior allowed, no drama allowed, no bad vibes allowed.

I love that Remote brings up how the traditional work environment encourages butts in seats instead of real work getting done. It says that many companies want to keep track of how long you’re working, when you arrive and when you leave, but a remote company has no choice but to focus on the work actually happening. Asking “show me what you did today,” introduces clarity. “When it’s all about the work, it’s clear who in the company is pulling their weight and who isn’t.”

During any interview process, we’ll ask for examples of real work you’ve done. We’ll also include a couple of questions in our application form that will allow you to expand on some ideas — obviously, we want to understand your thought process and understanding of the role, but also determine the clarity of your writing. As I mentioned above, we’ll often collaborate in writing and often asynchronously. Writing clearly and with empathy, will power your work in this environment, and help you connect with your coworkers even faster.

The hiring process always asks for examples of work — sometimes we ask for that in the application, and sometimes we’d like to share some of our own work to talk through with you. “The main way you’ll communicate is through the work itself,” so it’s critical that we get to see real work from candidates during that process.

For creative positions, like our recent Marketing Designer hire, we chose two of our top candidates to participate in a paid project with us. We asked them to create real work that will appear on one our websites, so we made sure to fairly compensate them for their time. We also set up a basecamp for the paid project — I invited the candidate and the whole hiring team. This broke down some barriers that we would otherwise have with several different email chains. The candidate now had direct access to the whole team, and could feel more comfortable asking questions as they came up.

At the end of the paid project, we asked them to put together a written summary of their thought process, how they planned the work, and a review with screenshots in the project basecamp. By using the same tool they’ll communicate the most in during the hiring process, it gave them a very accurate view into how we work. After they posted the summary, we gave the hiring team another day to review it and get ready for a group video call with the candidate. Each person on the hiring team was able to review the candidate’s work asynchronously, and without distractions, which ultimately led to a better experience for both the hiring team and candidates.

I want to quickly follow up here with that while many of us can be productive, some of us tend to put in extra hours because there’s always more to do. When you work remotely, it can become easy to work through the day without taking a real break. Not being face-to-face with coworkers, and especially your manager, in an office — they can have a hard time noticing you’re burning out.

37signals encourages employees to consider what a good day’s work looks like, and then ask themselves if they feel like they’ve done that toward the end of their work day. If it’s yes, you know you can sign off, feeling good about what you accomplished. If it’s no, then they can “treat it as an off-day and explore the Five-Whys (asking why to a problem five times in a row to find the root cause).”

It’s everyone’s job to be on the lookout for coworkers who are overworking themselves, but ultimately the responsibility lies the managers and business owners to set the tone.

Working remotely can come to mean that you’re available all the time, and your “unlimited” vacation policy means you’ll never get one. Overworking and not taking breaks or vacation means you’re on the road to burnout and you’ll be leaving the company soon whether you want to or not. At your tipping point you won’t have a choice — and we’ll lose a valuable member of the team who we enjoy working with, not just because they’ve done excellent work here, but because they’re truly a wonderful person to be around (virtually, most of the time, and literally at retreats).

In the same way you don’t want a gang of slackers, you also don’t want a band of supermen. The best workers over the long term are people who put in sustainable hours. Not too much, not too little — just right.

Another section of the book helped me define my own inspiration for me work, and the value add I have at the company (if I’m doing a good job).

Keeping a solid team together for a long time is a key to peak performance. People grow closer and more comfortable with each other, and consequently do even better work…Remember, doing great work with great people is one of the most durable sources of happiness we humans can tap into. Stick with it.

That means that as People Operations, I’m not only working to add great people to our team, but ensuring we’re supporting them while they’re here to keep them here for a long time — to ensure our teams stay connected and do great work together. When we fail at either one, I’ll need to lead the effort of self-examination, information-gathering, and come up with possible solutions while working with our leaders and coworkers.

If anything, the human connection is even more important when hiring remote workers because it has to be strong to survive the distance.

When we’re interviewing for any role, we get folks from several different teams to help interview the candidates. Regardless of whether or not we end of hiring the candidate, lots of different people have had the opportunity to improve their interviewing skills, and come away with a better understanding of what skills we’re looking for in a candidate. The interviewee will also have a better connection with several members of the team before they end of joining (or joining us in the future).

I was thrilled to read Remote’s description of a manager’s role:

The job of the manager is not to herd cats, but to lead and verify the work. The trouble with that job description is that is requires knowledge of the work itself. You can’t effectively manage a team if you don’t know intricacies of what they’re working on.

It means that should know what needs to be done, understand why delays might happen, be creative with solutions to sticky problems, divide the work into manageable chunks, and help put the right people on the right projects.

Lead and verify work. It’s simple, but every company probably has issues with this along the way. First, you’d probably have to define what it means to lead at our company. Likely, your CEO, has an idea of what that looks like — but do you know what it is? Being a leader, at least to me, means setting an example of both the behavior you’d like to reinforce and the behavior you’d like to discourage (aka the company culture). It also means nurturing the team you’re responsible for, and collaborating with your peers (other company leaders) to share advice and ideas. A leader develops the people under them both in the short-term (at your company) and the long-term (in their career).

Remote also says that leaders should “[empower] everyone to make decisions on their own,” and by doing so you are trusting your direct reports, which also means they’ll make mistakes along the way. “As a manger, you have to accept the fact that people will make mistakes, but not intentionally, and that mistakes are the price of learning and self-sufficiency.”

Verify work. As a leader, you’re working with your peers to understand which work will take the company to the next “level” per say. Your team will help the company accomplish that, so be transparent: help them first understand what you’re trying to accomplish and why it’s important. Verify the work afterward, by delegating tasks to the right people (according to strengths), and offer guidance and coaching along the way.

The only reliable way to muster motivation is by encouraging people to work on the stuff they like and care about, with people they like and care about. There are no shortcuts.

As People Operations working with hiring teams, I’ll get people who will genuinely enjoy the work here, and will be a pleasure to work with. Our managers will need to continually support them after the hire, lead them, and verify their work in relation to the company’s mission and goals. Our managers have the power to motivate or de-motivate direct reports equally.

If you’re a manager and notice that one of your employees is slacking, schedule a one-on-one and find out what’s up. 

See what you can do to get your employee back on track. The roadblock may be structural, or may be personal.

Sometimes, my coworkers will come to me when they’re feeling stuck and/or unhappy. My first question is always, have you already talk to your manager about it? If so, what solution did they propose? If not, why? Fundamentally, our managers are the only people in the company who can keep employees motivated and around, doing great work, for a long time. So, ideally, I can rely on their relationship to include trust and transparency so that they can solve issues at the source. I’m here as a resource and guide when that relationship breaks down.

All in all, Remote was as great read, and it helped clarify some ideas I already had about my role in the company, among other things. The book also had tons of great tips for people working 100% remotely, which I didn’t include in this post.

Just me, trying to make sense of this crazy world 🙂

I’d love to hear from folks working remotely today with any advice or feedback on what you think makes remote teams hum. Cheers!

Source: Medium:Remote Working
Reflections on Remote: Office Not Required (From the perspective of People Ops on a small, remote…

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