How Policygenius Created a Remote Engineering Culture Overnight

Sunny Mistry
May 12 · 9 min read
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Photo by Goran Ivos on Unsplash

Two hallmarks of Policygenius’ agile culture are communication and collaboration. Working from the office and being physically present has been very effective for us because it shortens feedback loops and improves our ability to solve problems quickly.

On the engineering team, even under normal circumstances, people have been able to work from home as needed, but the infrastructure to truly support remote work has historically been lacking. However, as we continue to fill in our second headquarters in Durham, NC, building a foundation for a better remote work experience is becoming increasingly paramount.

Not surprisingly, our engineering team culture did a complete 180 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. We were truly stress-tested as we went from having no remote work culture to every single employee at the company working remotely. Thankfully, our business is resilient to a recession and we don’t expect to slow down growth. This means that we can focus on continuing to improve our products and our remote work experience. Over the past few weeks we’ve learned quite a bit about how to best work in this new environment.

Learn and Adapt Quickly Through Retrospectives

One of the most important things we did early on was hold retrospective meetings for the entire product organization. At the end of our first full remote work day, we immediately held a retro. This meeting gave everyone the opportunity to reflect on how their work from home situation was going. We gained insights into what went well and what went poorly. We created recurring weekly retros and then eventually bi-weekly as we started to improve our remote work culture.

At Policygenius, we usually conduct retros using the Lean Coffee framework. We found this framework to be particularly useful because it allows all thoughts and concerns to be documented and it provides everyone with an equal opportunity for speaking. Lean Coffee prioritizes discussing the most important issues democratically through votes, and includes discussion time limits to ensure that no single topic dominates a conversation.

Using Trello, people can add cards to thematic lists, like “what went well” and “what went poorly”, and vote on cards using voting power-ups. In just one hour, we immediately knew areas for improvement and action items we needed to take.

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Trello board at the end of one of our remote collaboration retros
  • Over communicate. When you’re in the office it’s easy to see when people are present or away from their desks. Being overly communicative of your current status (whether you’re grabbing lunch or taking a quick break) or using tools like the Google Calendar Slack integration, which automatically sets a status for you when you’re in a meeting, lets people know when they can reach you. We created a standardized guide to Slack statuses to help us know where people are.
  • Default to video meetings. We don’t notice it, but a lot of human communication occurs through vocal inflection, posture and gestures — so when it’s possible, we prefer video meetings over Slack discussion. The Slack Zoom integration makes it easy to start calls by using the `/zoom` command.
  • Document everything. We learned to document everything that happens. Whenever you can, write down meeting notes and action items in tools like Slack or Jira. This enables people who weren’t able to attend to still be aware of what’s going on.
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Our guide of example Slack statuses so we can communicate out what we’re up to
  • Configure Zoom properly. In an effort to not waste the first few minutes of a meeting making sure everyone can see and hear each other, it was important that people test out their setups beforehand. Testing that the audio works, performing mic checks, and enabling useful settings, such as allowing meetings to start before the host joins, were simple things that we did to improve remote meetings.
  • Wait before speaking. Internet delays and missed social cues make it very likely multiple people will talk at the same time. Pausing and allowing an extra few moments to pass before speaking can reduce the number of times people talk over each other.
  • Use mute effectively. Holding down the spacebar to unmute is a small but very effective feature if used correctly. If you don’t use the spacebar feature, paying attention to whether you are muted is very important because it can reduce the number of disruptions. Even though people are muted throughout the meeting, meeting moderators can pick on those who raise their hands to ensure everyone gets their turn without interrupting others.
  • Leverage white-boarding tools. The Policygenius engineering team is very collaborative. People frequently get into a room together to draw out problems, discuss solutions, explain their thoughts and get feedback from others. We found that the online whiteboard Miro makes it much easier to collaborate with others.

Solutions for Improving our Work Culture

At the end of our first full week working remotely we held another retro. This time we learned that there were significantly fewer issues with processes, technical mishaps, and working collaboratively. Instead, the focus was on improving social interactions.

One of the best things about working at Policygenius is just how easy it is to create meaningful connections with your colleagues. Company events during the day and after work, eating lunch together in the cafeteria, and casually talking to people as you’re making coffee are a few ways we’ve gotten to know each other. These physical connections were really hard to recreate in the remote work environment.

  • Recreate ad hoc conversations. We created a dedicated non-work related Slack channel, #southside-water-cooler, to be used for all non-work conversations that would otherwise happen casually throughout the office.
  • Casual hangouts. We began posting Zoom meetings throughout the day to simply hang out with each other. Early in the morning it is a great time to chat with people while brewing coffee, reading the news, or doing a crossword. In the middle of the day it’s a nice break from work and having a conversation over coffee. The great thing about this is anyone can pop in and leave whenever they want to.
  • Online lunch tables. Every day in the office people let each other know when they’ll be eating lunch so they can eat together in the cafeteria. This has been an incredible way to make better connections with your coworkers. To simulate the culture we’ve built up, people began creating Zoom meetings in the afternoon where people can hop in and eat lunch together. Similarly, we started having more happy hours over Zooms to grab a drink and just hang out like we normally would.
  • Getting to know the new hires. We’ve had several new hires join the team while working completely remote. Newbies attend a ton of different meetings throughout their first few weeks which immerses them in how Policygenius works. They attend cameo meetings where each engineering team presents who they are and what their team works on. We set up coffee breaks and group lunches so they can get to know people outside of their immediate team.
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Virtual water cooler chats

Aside from improving our work productivity and social interactions, one of the most important things top of mind for everyone was maintaining a healthy mental and physical state.

Staying at home for long periods of time and staring at a screen for hours can be stressful. Our engineering team is aware that this is not like normal work from home or remote situations. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic people are spending a lot more time at home than they normally would and are limiting their time spent outside. Policygenius created a #mentalhealth Slack channel to be a place where people can find and share resources about mental health.

  • Maintain your routine. It’s very important to give yourself time to wake up and get ready for the day, instead of going directly from your bed to your computer.
  • Designated work zones. It’s easy to let work and life blend together now that they are in the same place. Creating a place that is just for work helps your brain know when to start and stop being in work-mode.
  • Have set working hours. Similar to the previous point, having set working hours can help prevent you from continuing to work past what you normally would because you are already home. There are no more trains to catch or rush hour commutes to avoid. Make sure to leave time and space for yourself to decompress and turn off work-mode.
  • Take breaks. Actually take a break for lunch and don’t eat while working. Walk away from the screen for a few minutes every couple of hours.
  • Shorten meetings. Now that all of our meetings are over Zoom, back to back meetings can cause you to stare at your screen for hours on end. In the office, you get to break after each meeting to walk to the next conference room. Reducing meeting length by 5 or 10 minutes gives everyone a chance to look away from their screen or get up and stretch.

Policygenius engineering has a great culture around pair programming. Frequently pairing with one another helps us solve problems quickly, learn from each other and provides mentoring opportunities. Whether it’s coding or white-boarding, we are always willing to work together to accomplish our goals. We tried a few tools for remote pairing and decided that Zoom, Miro and Visual Studio Code are currently the most effective for our needs.

Zoom makes it easy to quickly jump on a call, see the other person, and have a discussion. With the ability to record sessions and screen share it’s easy to refer back to a previous pairing session. Visual Studio Code has a Live Share extension that makes it possible for remote collaborators to edit files at the same time. Sometimes it’s much easier to explain your thoughts by writing a few lines of code than it is to say what you mean.

By the end of 2020 we are expecting to double our engineering team. To stay on track, we needed to quickly adapt our interview process to the current situation. Normally, candidates who are invited to come on site for an interview expect to be in the office for roughly 5 hours to participate in pair programming exercises, whiteboard problem solving, and cross-functional discussions over lunch. Codeinterview.io has helped us conduct remote programming interviews by letting us collaborate on code together.

Since our candidates remain in the same Zoom meeting throughout the duration of the interview, one thing we learned very quickly was that it was easy for an interviewer to accidentally hop in on an interview before it was finished. We solved this by announcing to the rest of the interviewers via Slack whenever we are done with our sessions. Oftentimes it’s the little things like this that really improve workflows.

We also understand that it’s a terrible candidate experience to stare at a screen for hours, so we encourage our candidates to let us know whenever they need additional breaks apart from the ones we’ve already scheduled for them.

Our team loves using Zoom backgrounds. In these uncertain times, fun and creative things like this truly motivate us.

Getting creative with Zoom backgrounds by making it pictures of the team
Getting creative with Zoom backgrounds by making it pictures of the team
Getting creative with Zoom backgrounds by making it a picture of yourself
Getting creative with Zoom backgrounds by making it a picture of yourself

We even got the chance to meet future Policygenius employees!

Meeting future Policygenius employees
Meeting future Policygenius employees

We have had to make a huge shift in our work culture over the past few weeks and have learned a lot about how to make the best out of this situation. Remote work and collaboration is definitely a challenge, but by reflecting on and tweaking our processes, we have been able to quickly learn and adapt. From being better Zoomers, to figuring out virtual social interaction to improving our interviewing and on-boarding processes, our team has kept morale high and improved productivity.

We’re growing!

At Policygenius Engineering, we work on solving challenging problems with innovative approaches. If you are interested in the type of work we do and wish to experience our highly collaborative culture, check out our careers page!

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