Remote working is a hot topic 🔥
We’re seeing more and more studies highlighting its benefits - increased productivity, greater employee engagement, less stress, reduced overhead costs, etc. Top tech companies, like, Basecamp, InVision, Zapier, Buffer and Doist are paving the way and showing others what’s possible.
However, many curious companies are still fearful of embracing a remote-first culture. We get it. There’s no “roadmap” for effectively communicating across different time zones or for hiring, onboarding and retaining remote talent.
Fancy an inside peek into what it’s really like to manage a remote-first team? We chatted to Kevan Lee (VP of Marketing at Buffer), Lucile Foroni (Head of Growth at Doist), Chris (Slite’s CEO), Mike (Slite’s VP of Product) and Pierre (Slite’s CTO).
Here are their personal views on the highs and lows of remote management, along with the steps they’ve taken so far to overcome key challenges 👇
At Slite, we’re a remote-first company, but we have a physical office in Paris too. Buffer and Doist have fully remote cultures, with zero offices. Regardless of how each of our companies are set up, we’ve all experienced the unique benefits of remote management.
In a traditional office, the person who clocks in more hours might be perceived as a “hard worker.” In reality, they could be catching up on the latest cat memes on social media. Similarly, the person who shouts the loudest in a physical meeting room often wins the argument.
With remote management, the emphasis is placed on every employee’s output, rather than their perceived abilities or characteristics. This can lead to less bias towards those who ‘show up’ or ‘show off’ and favor those who simply do great work.
“One of the things we love about remote teams is that the emphasis is on doing the work, not on showing up. We don't time track or prioritize synchronous communication, like video or Slack responsiveness.’” —Kevan Lee, VP of Marketing at Buffer
Plus, not being able to see what your employees are doing can help squash out micromanager tendencies.
“As a remote manager, I like that you can’t see what employees do. To be honest, when I work in the office, I sometimes have a tendency to micromanage. I’m working on that. Being a remote manager makes me less of a micromanager.’” —Pierre Renaudin, CTO at Slite
There’s this stereotype that people who “work from home” are just looking for an excuse to “take it easy.” If you’re honest, you fear your employees might indulge in frequent naps or daytime TV binges.
In reality, most remote workers are carving out focus time to do work they’re proud of. You feel bad now, right? 😉
Doist’s Head of Growth, Lucile Foroni, praises her autonomous teammates for kick-starting many powerful initiatives. Contrary to popular belief, remote working provides long, uninterrupted periods of focus time, which can enhance productivity.
“Remote work’s biggest advantage is the ability to focus. You can focus when you want to do deep work, and check messages or plan a meeting when you need to communicate. No one taps on your shoulder, constantly DMs you because your online indicator is green or calls you at whichever time of the day or night. You’re in control of your attention.” —Lucile Foroni, Head of Growth at Doist
It’s true that one of the biggest challenges of a remote-first culture is communicating across different time zones. But, there are big benefits too.
At Slite, our headquarters are in Paris but that doesn't mean we're limited to the local talent pool. We’ve found outstanding talent as far away as South Korea and Brazil. This really benefits our culture.
Buffer’s VP of Marketing, Kevan, says that having teammates dispersed across different time zones leads to a more harmonious workflow. For example, a teammate in East Coast, USA can work all day on their part of a project, then hand it off to their teammate in Sydney, Australia. Once the teammate in Sydney Australia finishes their part, they can hand it back to the teammate in East Coast, USA.
Kevan calls this, “round-the-clock, round-the-world efficiency.”
At Slite, we give employees (including our leaders) the freedom to work from anywhere in the world. We believe that this can dramatically improve our team’s quality of life.
Even though Chris and Pierre are both based in the Paris office, they occasionally work remotely too. This gives them the flexibility they desire.
Plus, working remotely helps them spot potential problems that need to be addressed. For example, if they notice that communication isn’t consistent or clear enough, they can come up with a plan to fix that.
Of course, each of the leaders at Slite, Buffer and Doist have their fair share of challenges. Here are the hard lessons they’ve learned so far:
If all you do is give people a laptop and let them work from home, you’re setting your team up for failure.
At Slite, we’ve learned the hard way that we need to set expectations with new employees early on. One of the ways we do this is to share a remote handbook that outlines our remote working philosophies and policies. For example, we make a deal that remote employees will visit the office frequently - 2 days a month for locals and once every 2 months for those further afield. These real-life bonding experiences help people build deep relationships and get to know each other personally.
One of the most challenging aspects of managing a remote-first team is the fact that you can’t always be on the same time zone as each employee. If your communication is real-time only, people who are asleep could miss out on important updates.
One way to solve this is to create a thoughtful, asynchronous writing culture. For example, at Slite, we plan our weekly focus and KPIs using a Slite note that we share with the team. This forces us to think about what’s important. Then, at the end of the week, we can clearly see and share the progress we’ve made.
One of the key attributes we look for in a new Slite employee is the ability to write clearly and succinctly. These skills are vital for helping us preserve our remote-first culture.
“In an office you rely more on written communication and a lot of people are heavily out of practice. They probably haven’t done it that well since school. You have to be clear and concise to avoid being overly wordy or overly ambiguous.” —Mike Bartlett, VP Product at Slite
“You have to rely on being asynchronous. This means not pinging people all the time, but taking the time to write thoughtful content.” —Christophe Pasquier, CEO at Slite
He continues: “It’s important to give employees time to think and reply to messages. This forces you to think deeply about things too - for example, how you feel about a specific feature, and why. It forces your team to make well-thought out decisions, which leads to thoughtful outcomes.”
When a teammate is working remotely, you can’t just pull up a seat beside them to see how they’re feeling. That’s obviously a big downside of remote working.
Sometimes the webcam poses a physical barrier that prevents people from being fully vulnerable. It’s a challenge, but we try to remedy it by creating a safe space where employees can be open.
At Slite, we don’t talk about work during one-to-ones. Instead, we focus on the employee and their feelings. The default is for employees to say they’re “fine.” But, it’s important to watch out for verbal and non-verbal signals that indicate otherwise.
For example, Chris asks deep, specific questions, like, “I noticed that you did x. What’s the thinking behind that?”
Of all of the leaders we spoke to, each agreed that building trust is one of the most important things you can do as a remote leader. Trust is key for keeping your employees happy and invested in your company.
For your employees to trust you, you’ll need to trust them first. You’ll also need to communicate consistently, transparently and create an all-round positive environment, just like you would in a real-life office.
At Slite, we try to motivate people by being joyful with them and speaking openly about their achievements. In a traditional office, when you see people every day, it’s easy to congratulate them face to face. This becomes harder with a remote team, so it’s something you need to proactively work on and make time for.
There are a multitude of different ways you can communicate when you’re remote. You’ve got real-time messaging, video and voice calls, asynchronous video and voice calls, documentation - the list goes on.
At Slite, we work hard to ensure our communication is inclusive to both our office-based and remote employees. This means communicating remote-first, always. For example, if there’s a team meeting and one person isn’t physically present, everyone takes the meeting as if they’re remote by virtually joining the meeting on Zoom.
Sometimes Mike gets back to basics when he’s communicating visually with his team.
“In an office environment you can have a conversation with someone in a meeting over a whiteboard. With software development, a lot of what you create is visual or tactile. That can get lost in just words, whether written or spoken. And so, I find myself drawing quite a lot and holding something up to the webcam.” says Mike Bartlett, VP of Product at Slite.
And, for high priority projects, Pierre loves working closely with one employee at a time, as though their desks were side by side: “For a recent launch, I worked on mobile with one of our Engineers. Then, the following week, I worked with our Editor Engineer in Brazil. We took one or 2 calls a day together. This is a great feeling - that you can be super close with people, regardless of whether they’re remote.”
As Chris says at the end of our conversation, “Communication is still an ongoing problem to solve. It’s something we’re still trying to figure out.”
A remote-first culture isn’t just something you create once and then forget about. At Slite, we’ll continue to try out new processes, learn from our teammates and - hopefully - continue to improve and get better.
As we try out new ways of working remote-first, we’ll write about them and let you know how we get on 🙌