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7 tips for building a remote-first culture

After over ten years of working and managing remote teams full time, I wanted to take a moment and share some of the things I have found to work well, as well as a few points I felt like “remote” fell flat on its face. While this post will focus on the management/team-building perspective, I also plan to follow up with a post specifically for employees.

To start with, I want to outline my base thinking on remote work, and then ill share the seven fundamental principles I have found to have the most impactful difference when making “remote” work for your company and team.

1. “Remote” is not another term for “work from home”

Remote is a cultural shift, not merely an extension of an office-based work-force that connects via chat rather than sits in cubical. Put more succinctly, “remote” means not in the office, and predominantly a-sync. Whereas “work from home” is a policy requiring a higher amount of synchronicity for employees working away from the company office.

So is one better than the other? I would say yes. Remote allows employees to be more productive by empowering them to give the company their best while recharging faster, and overall living happier lives. But beyond that, forcing more a-sync work pushes a company to maintain better workflows and habits (but I will get into this more in future points).

Yes, this takes a lot of getting used to and is, in some ways, harder for managers to get right. But at the end of the day, so much more value is unlocked when you focus on your team’s productivity and work products rather than micro-managing your team’s time. You are, after all, employing adults that you should be able to trust, so trust them. I promise they will return that trust with vastly improved productivity.

2. Use asynchronicity to improve rather than hurt collaboration

One of the things I hear so often as a blocker to companies embracing a truly remote culture is that they assume it means giving up all ability to truly collaborate.

And yes, if all you do is communicate synchronously less and email more, your collaboration efforts will take a hit.

However, asynchronous collaboration can also be better thought out and more informed by real data rather than instinct and assumptions.

It does, however, require the right tools for the job. Tools that will allow you to seamlessly transition from synchronous meetings to asynchronous workflows without shifting gears. Tools like:

  • https://miro.com/ This is an amazing whiteboard tool that allows for really fast throwing out of ideas, commenting on those ideas, and enriching them with additional content and imagery that both persist async, but also allow for real-time collaboration as well. And yes, this means remote employees should be issued iPads with apple pencil alongside their laptops to make the best use of this app.
  • https://www.productboard.com The best tool I have found for gathering input on a product or feature and organizing/discussing it to distill the information to its most actionable form before grabbing a team’s synchronous time.
  • https://asana.com Tracking and assigning work can be done in many ways, but I have found Asana to be indispensable due to the number and quality of the integrations it supports, and that other support of it.

3. Communication — async by default

The number one tool right now for remote and sometimes even in-office teams is undoubtedly Slack. It is the go-to. But I would argue that the reason for this is out of a desire from many to re-create the office, in particular, an open office virtually.

Honestly, this is a mistake. I am yet to meet hardly a single person outside of a management role that would give Slack a passing grade. The reason is that Slack and other instant chat applications are designed for synchronous, attention-grabbing communication. While just like everything else, there is a time for this, when it becomes your go-to way to reach people, you are breaking up productivity in a significant way.

Instead, if possible, try writing an email, or filing an issue/ticket first. Better yet, consider swapping Slack for a tool like https://twist.com that focuses on async yet still highly organized conversations. Such tools can often function in real-time as well; without enforcing the dangerous burn-out inducing device addiction, social media has already inflicted on our society.

4. Document everything, and not just the conclusion

One of the first things newly remote teams find is that the need to write decisions down becomes many times more important the moment the team becomes asynchronous. This is, however, not a bug but a feature.

  1. It helps resolve the “hit by a bus problem” because now Jimmy is not the only one who knows how to spin up a new VM for the production system. If something is needed and not documented, document it. Google Docs is fine; however, https://slite.com or https://www.notion.so are also well worth considering.
  2. Things discussed last week, month, or year are now ensured to be recorded when someone inevitably asks why we are doing “X” and not “Y” or “Z”. But if you take things a step further and capture the reasoning behind the decision, not just the outcome, it will help the team to evaluate failure better.

5. Reach out often, over-communicate

Remember that one of the real losses of being remote is the ability to clearly and accurately read persons you are not physically with.

When you are doing this, be sure to provide positive encouragement and commendation, not just correction and constructive criticism, as again reading a person or situation when remote can be harder for some.

Even beyond this, engage in comradery with your team.

6. Actually meet together

I can’t stress this one enough — meeting in-person does matter. Bi-annual company meetups provide an essential space for meaningful team bonding and a framework for collaboration in the long-term.

Another great way to do this can be by allowing team members who are closer to each other to expense travel and lunch while working, or even for them and their families to grab dinner together.

7. Don’t just allow for a good work/life balance, enforce it

It comes down to refining your own skills as a manager. Use a combination of 1-on-1’s and direct feedback to make sure your remote workers feel supported and happy.

Check whether they are taking time off they are entitled to, whether they are healthy mentally and physically, and encourage them to talk about their wellbeing. Take an active interest and create opportunities to listen. In addition, the line between work and life can often blur for persons working from a home office. Make sure they don’t lose themselves in work, or they will burn out

Written by

I am a sr software engineer / team lead and remote work veteran. Formerly @elastic, @appersonlabs & @hatchback. Doing my best as husband and father. JW

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