Photo: Pavan Trikutam

Building a team that just happens to be remote

How we approach hiring, benefits, and growth

When I tell people that we’re a remote team, people usually say, “Oh, that’s awesome!” Then I elaborate: “Yeah, it is! There are a couple of us in New York and then we have a developer in Romania and a designer in Latvia and until recently a developer in England.”

When confronted with the reality of the distances and time zones we bridge, people usually pause, “…How does that even work?” Quickly followed by something along the lines of “Was it planned or was it an accident?”

We just hire the best applicant. Sometimes they’re local to New York, but often they’re not.

Planetary has been a remote company from the outset. When our founders first went into business together, Josh lived in NYC and Matt lived in St. Louis. After a year or so, Matt moved to New York.

When it came time for Matt and Josh to hire Planetary’s first employee — a front-end developer — they put a job listing on the Internet, talked to a bunch of people, did the standard phone interviews, video interviews, and sample project. The best of the bunch was a guy named Ben who lived in England.

Time for a back end developer? Our job posting found Radu Dan in Romania.

Design intern? First Taher in India, then Valdis in Spain (who has since moved to Latvia and joined the team full time).

Ba da bing ba da boom: Planetary was a distributed company.

Those of us in New York also work remotely as occasions arise. I worked from San Diego for a 2-week stint (goodbye, New York winter) and I work from my apartment in Brooklyn one day a week to focus on writing. On those days I collaborate on Slack and Google Hangouts, the same way we do every day.

New York Headquarters

While we are a distributed team, we also have a physical office in NYC. Most of our clients have offices in the New York area, and those in-person relationships are really valuable.

We get together for kick off meetings, workshops, demos, and after-work drinks. While the nature of our work makes it possible for the Planetary team to collaborate from far flung corners of the globe, nothing beats face-to-face conversations when it comes to understanding clients’ needs.

Employee Benefits

Since 401Ks and health benefits aren’t equally valuable, relevant, or available worldwide, we had to re-think the “standard” offering.

We want our benefits to encourage work-life balance and be adaptable to unique situations: we emphasize the freedom to work where and how you like, and give our employees the resources to find the balance that works for them.

If we offered catered meals, a monthly gym membership, and Friday happy hours in our New York office, our remote employees might feel like they’re being penalized for being remote, second class citizens at their own company.

Vacation time, however, is location agnostic. We also provide a “quality of life” stipend: a set amount to use as you please. Our thinking is that the relatively open-ended stipend will afford you with the unique set of resources you need to be a happier and healthier person and employee.

If top-of-the-line tech is important to you, use the stipend to upgrade your equipment. Health and fitness your thing? Get a Blue Apron subscription and a gym membership. Me? I’m taking a trip to Japan later this year.

The benefits we don’t offer says just as much about our values as the benefits that we do offer.

Prime example: We don’t cover the cost of mobile devices or phone plans. A “company phone” comes with the expectation that you’ll always be available; we want you to be at work when you’re at work, and off when you’re off.

The Next Step

It takes effort to make remote the norm, especially when part of the team works from a physical office in New York. We’re taking tips from larger distributed companies like Buffer, Basecamp, Github, and 18F who are farther along in the journey.

Now that we’re growing, we want to bring the whole team together to meet in person.

I’ve thought about all of the places we could go: exotic or mundane, urban or rural, Northern Hemisphere or Southern. The place where we get together isn’t terribly important — as long as it isn’t in NYC.

At first, NYC seems ideal: three of us already live here, so we could save money on those plane tickets and accommodations. We already have an office space to work from. Plus, it would give the remote team members an idea of the place we’re video chatting from and where we meet with clients.

The drawback of meeting in New York is that the differences between local team members and remote team members will be highlighted, rather than minimized. Three of us work out of the same office every day and so we have rhythms, systems, and inside jokes. No matter how inclusive or assertive every member of the team tries to be, you can’t void/nullify/neutralize home field advantage.

It’s only fair to level the playing field somewhat by all being equally uncomfortable in our surroundings. In fact, I’d go so far as to advocate meeting some place where we won’t necessarily be able to navigate the country in our first languages. By that criterion, every future team member will bring new constraints to our offsites. Constraints are what make problem solving fun.

All in all

There wasn’t any particular moment when we decided to be remote instead of co-located. By prioritizing hiring the best candidates instead of hiring the convenient candidates, we have a top notch team that happens to be distributed. We have a solid team and we will be intentional and thoughtful as we proceed.

Planetary is currently hiring for two new roles: a Lead Designer and a Front End Engineer.