Why company culture makes or breaks remote work

“Remote working” courtesy of @digitaldouchebag

I spent the last six months working six time zones ahead of the six people on my team. I’ve always put travel as a top priority so I took advantage of my travel-friendly work setup to spend time in Asia.

D4 Software, the company I work for, isn’t a large or fully-remote company like Buffer or Automattic. Out of a team of seven I’m the only one who regularly works remotely for months on end. But we are a remote-first company with a flexible working policy. This is important and why it’s so easy being fully remote at D4.

I define ‘remote-first’ as everyone working remotely as the default regardless of where they spend most of their time working. As a result a company’s effectiveness and individual’s capacity to do their work isn’t affected by physical location. D4 has an office but if it was abandoned tomorrow nothing would change.

But how do you achieve a remote-first culture?

Practicalities

Let’s start with some practical things that I take for granted. Without these practicalities taken care of it doesn’t matter if D4 has a remote-first culture: it’d be physically impossible for remote work to happen.

Laptops

Everyone at D4 has a laptop. You’ll find screens, keyboards, and laptop stands in the office but no desktops. Plug in or unplug as necessary and get to work.

Morning coffee and work session in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Clouds

Everything is cloud-based and managed online. Hosting, tools, data — everything lives on servers somewhere that isn’t our office. None of our products run on any servers of our own. Services like AWS, Jira, BitBucket, GitHub, Slack, Google Drive, and Trello mean we can pick up work wherever there’s an internet connection.

Cloud computing Dilbert-style, Dilbert.com

A laptop and cloud-based working are two simple things but essential for any kind of long-term remote work. Once you’re setup to work remotely a supportive culture is needed.

Remote-first culture

I’ve often read that fully remote only works if everyone is remote. That’s just not true. But culture plays a huge role in how successful remote-only is. If certain practices are followed then achieving a remote-first culture is easy. At D4 the following ‘official’ agreements lay the groundwork for a remote-first culture.

Communication

All work communication goes through Slack or email with no expectation of instant responses — everyone is busy working and we know we’ll respond when we hit a natural break. We build software: nothing is that important that it can’t wait an hour or two.

It’s not all easy though. When you don’t see people in the flesh it’s harder to build relationships. Those little in-person chats throughout the course of the day really do add up. Oftentimes I look forward to the weekly catch up and marketing meetings because it’s a chance to connect with people more naturally. I’ve worked at fully remote companies that barely did video calls and I always felt disconnected. So video plays an important role.

(Video) Meetings

Things out of your control in the background of your video calls become a normal occurrence

Every planned ‘face-to-face’ meeting has a Google Hangouts link attached to it so people not around in person can attend without prior organisation. It’s fine to decline meeting invitations but if you’ve said you’ll attend a meeting, you attend it in person or via video. And any documents that need to be shared are done so through Google Drive and not printed out (do people still do this?).

Overlap

One way that some companies try to ensure cohesive remote work is mandating certain work hours in a specific time zone. ‘Core hours’ is what they’re normally called and it’s not just remote companies that do this. For example, “everyone needs to work 10am-3pm GMT”. In some situations it can work — like stacking all meetings between certain time periods, giving people the flexibility to work earlier/later hours.

But this goes against the whole idea of remote, flexible work. So at D4 people in vastly different time zones (for now, just me) work a couple of hours that overlap UK working hours a couple days a week. This is more flexible and still means we get overlapping time should we need it, which is rarely the case outside of planned meetings. It’s still nice to chat over Slack though.

It needs to be said that it’s much easier travelling and working remotely when your company is based in Europe. No matter where you go in the world you can design overlap into your life without too much effort.

Anywhere in Europe there’s no need to worry. In Asia I can work the morning and leave a couple hours early evening for crossover.

A handy time zone visualisation tool, worldtimebuddy.com

In the Americas my mornings become the time of overlap.

Ahhh, Medellin!

I feel for those poor remoters who work for US-based companies and need to have overlap (or worse, need to work US hours!) in Europe or Asia.

The unsaid things

Underlying these official practices is a flexible, trusting, collaborative work culture driven by the two Directors. I’d argue this is essential for successful full-time remote working. At D4 there are some unsaid things that foster this culture…

  • People are trusted to do their work: there’s no micromanaging.
  • The whole team expects everyone to take ownership of their tasks.
  • We’re all genuinely judged by our output rather than input. For example, no one consciously tracks what time people start and end their days — there’s no ‘hellos’ or ‘goodbyes’ in Slack as a means of clocking in and out.
  • Flexible working is just that: flexible. Need to get your dogs washed on a Friday morning? No problem — drop em off, grab a coffee, and do some work while you wait for your clean pooches. The head into the office or work from home. Whatever.

Lots of people I speak to are worried about remoters not working, which is evidence of a culture that doesn’t trust its people. But honestly, it’s easy to tell if remote people aren’t working because tasks don’t get completed. If I didn’t work there’d be no marketing, no content, no social activity, and I wouldn’t hit my targets.

Remote work in practice

So what do these practices look like when I’m sat in a Vietnamese coffee shop or co working space, finishing up for the day and everyone else is just trickling into Slack? Let’s go through my typical fully remote Monday.

As mentioned before, each Monday at 10am UK-time D4 has an hour-long catch-up meeting. This is our only company-wide meeting of the week unless there’s something else scheduled. We go over the last week, plans for the coming week, and chat about anything personal/work/product/tech related.

Because of this meeting and time lag I usually have Mondays as a day when I overlap working hours with people in the UK. I tend to write for around four hours in the morning and then head out for the afternoon. As it approaches 9am UK time (3pm in Vietnam) I set myself up in a coffee shop or head back to my apartment for another couple hours work.

Setting up shop in a garden co working space in Hoi An, Vietnam

I’m never alone on video on a Monday: one of the D4 Directors works from home each Monday. And it’s not unusual for all of us to be at home on Mondays. But if the rest of the team are in the office they set us up on the big screen (I know some people would prefer being on everyone’s individual monitor but this doesn’t bother me). After the call I round my day off while the others get stuck in to theirs.

And that’s a remote work day done.

Over the course of the week I’ll have another 30-minute video call on Thursday to review the week’s marketing efforts, publish and promote content, and do anything else that needs doing for our current marketing priorities. This often means sharing some Google Docs for feedback and spitballing ideas in Slack.

“Work from home!!”

It’s easy for companies to say they offer remote working but another thing for it to actually mean what it should. Sure, it’s possible to work from home a day or two here and there in most places but do it a lot and you quickly fall out of the work loop. The sad fact is not many companies — big or small — are structured in a way that supports long-term remote work.

By putting in place some basic infrastructure (laptops, cloud-based working) and trusting people to do the job they’ve been given, remote work works. I know for a fact that I’m more productive and happier when I’m remote. And it’s not only because I’m curbing my wanderlust.