Building a Remote Culture: 5 Lessons Learned
If You Want People to Care, You Need to Give Them Something to Care About
The LaterPay team is distributed across Europe and the Americas and they love being a remote team. Of course, there are also challenges that come along with that; hiring is one of them. LaterPay’s solution: all recruitment is digital and optimized for a remote hiring team.
However, it’s not just about hiring, there are much more subtle topics in this issue, which are being raised more and more often these days. So we asked Kaylie, as a person who built the culture on a team of a distributed company, to talk about what she learned in the process, so that you can avoid the same mistakes (those that can be avoided of course).
Go ahead and check out the recording of Kaylie’s presentation at our Remote-First Conference here.
Before I jump into the remote team, remote culture, let me start by telling you a little bit about what we do at LaterPay. Our main job is to convert users of digital content and digital services into happy customers. We do this by giving users a frictionless way to read, use, watch or play now and leave the frustrating stuff that people don’t want to deal with, like registering a new account or paying until later after they’ve consumed content worth $5 or €5. That combined with the possibility to aggregate or collect content over different websites, is what makes our product pretty cool.
We’re 50 people distributed over 13 countries right now, across different cities in Germany, Denmark, France, Poland, Italy. We have people in Canada, Brazil, the US, we have quite a big range.
We went remote pretty much from day one. Our two co-founders started off in Munich and they pretty quickly started working with an engineer who would later turn out to be our CTO. And he is working from the UK. That’s kind of how it started.
So let’s talk about what it means to go remote.
These days, you hear, see, and read a lot about how it’s so popular to let your team members work from home. They say that remote is the future. And yet I hear a lot of resistance and maybe also fear about going remote as a company.
The main concern is that managers will lose control: you won’t know what your team is working on, if they’re working on the right thing, or even if they’re working at all. That’s just because you can’t check on your team members just by walking by their desk or their workstation. So other things management teams worry about are that distractions at home will result in lower levels of productivity, worry that people will disconnect from the team, and won’t have good collaboration with the rest of the team. And they worry that they won’t be able to build or maintain a proper culture.
These fears may seem reasonable at first, but there are a lot of strong reasons to at least consider going remote and they’re definitely worth it.
I think we know most of these already, so basically through hiring remotely, you access a wider talent pool as well as a more diverse talent pool. The added flexibility attracts highly talented people. You have reduced office and commuting costs as well as commuting time, avoid office restriction. It’s been proven that people working remotely actually have higher productivity levels than people working in a traditional office setting. That added flexibility often combined with a better work-life balance also reduces employee turnover. Sounds pretty great, right?
So with those amazing benefits in mind, what should you take into consideration when you’re building a remote team and thus a remote culture? I’ve got 5 key learnings that I’d love to share with you.
The first one is to define your values and establish your culture.
So if you want to build a strong company culture or even team culture, your values will serve as the foundation of that culture. You can go remote, build a team and hope for the best. And it might turn out well, if you’re lucky. But if you want to build a culture, or perhaps even keep a culture that’s grown to live organically, it’s time to define your values.
Once you’ve established those values, you need to talk about them, repeatedly, and most importantly, you need to actually live by your values.
LaterPay is the first distributed company that I’ve worked for. But it’s also the company that has the most defined culture that I’ve experienced. So defining our values was quite a big project. It took surveys, a lot of analysis of the responses to those surveys, multiple conversations with team members and also with the management team. And today, our values live on our website, on our internal wiki, they’re part of our onboarding processes, as well as our feedback processes. We take them to our team events, and we do our very best to lead by example. And whenever we fail to lead by example, you can be sure that at least one of our team members will flag it to me or the management team so that we know we have something to improve.
If we’re being real, setting values, living those values, and thus building your culture is actually not only for remote teams, but it’s crucial for any team in any company.
On to my second learning, going remote requires a bit of a brain shift. If you don’t deliberately make that shift, the chances that you’ll have a healthy and successful remote culture are quite slim.
Have you ever been in a meeting where most people were physically in the meeting room, but one or two people called in remotely? If so, you probably know that it often feels like those colleagues calling in remotely aren’t really there. And that’s how it feels for them as well. It’s much harder to participate. So what do you do in that case?
It might seem a bit ridiculous at first, but if anyone’s calling in remotely, have everybody call in remotely. Don’t even book a meeting room or even better, have everybody call in remotely by default. That was something that we had to learn as well, more by trial and error than anything else. And today we’ll still sometimes have two people sharing one laptop to call into a meeting, but that’s generally the limit.
It’s important that you create an environment that’s inclusive to your remote colleagues. And the only way to do that is to think remote-first.
So how does that work in principle? Well, say you happen to bump into a colleague or you have a call and you start talking about a specific project and you start discussing the next steps on that specific project. At LaterPay, we expect you, after that call or after that encounter, to write down those next steps and share it with the rest of the team.
Did a slight discussion get really, really long and wasn’t getting solved? That’s fine. Hop on a call. Get it sorted. Figure it out. But don’t forget to document the outcome and share it with the rest of the team afterward. You’ve got a decision to make, but you need input from the team? Make sure that you leave enough time for your team members from other time zones to give their input as well. To summarize, the documentation and this type of asynchronous communication go a long way.
It’s important to inspire and motivate your team members and the whole team. And to be transparent about your goals, your strategy, your values, etc. That’s the case, whether you’re remote or not, but I think it requires a little bit more effort when you have a remote team.
So when you hire remote team members, you want to look for people who are self-motivated, who can keep up their energy levels even if they don’t have regular in-person contact with the rest of their team. But the thing is, you can hire the perfect people for remote work, but if you don’t involve them and include them in what’s going on, it won’t matter. If you want people to care, you need to give them something to care about. Be clear, open and empathetic about what’s going on within the company, what’s going on within the team. And also be clear and open about the context behind certain decisions. Make sure that you are involving people and you’re basically allowing them to care.
This is important in a company at the very top, but also on other levels. So also within teams or departments, as well as across teams and departments. So remember to share what the sales team is doing with the engineering team and vice versa. Or even better, let them do it themselves.
One way to promote transparency is by communicating in public by default. In our case, at LaterPay, that means encouraging people to have discussions and to ask their questions in public Slack channels by default.
Why? The first reason is that communication in private channels cannot be corrected, or elaborated on, if it’s incorrect. And the second reason is that someone you may not have considered might really benefit from the information that you’re sharing.
We also put a premium on documenting everything. We know that documentation is a lot easier to create and that it’s a lot harder to actually keep it up to date. But we do encourage people to help update documentation when they see that it’s no longer accurate.
We have channels specifically for updates where different teams provide weekly updates on the status of their projects. By documenting and sharing what we do like that consistently, we avoid building knowledge silos as much as possible.
Another practice that we have adopted is to hold company-wide calls every week to update the team on what’s going on, present special topics and much more. For example, right before the holidays, our management team presented the plans and top-level goals for the first quarter of 2020. So they had previously held an onsite planning meeting with the entire management team. And then less than one week later, they were able to share with the entire company what the outcome of that planning week was. And that made it so that we could all go into our holidays knowing what to expect when we were going to come back after.
When you’re building and developing a remote culture, you can’t count on people building relationships simply by running into each other at the coffee machine, in the kitchen, during lunch, etc. You have to make a deliberate effort to help people connect and build relationships. You have to support your team and give them opportunities to connect with each other while also making clear that it’s actually part of their job to connect with each other, build those relationships. And that’s in order to build a solid foundation for good collaboration.
We encourage people to schedule time just to catch up with each other. I used to end those catch-ups by saying, “All right, gotta get back to work now.” That was until a colleague of mine actually told me that these catch-ups, where we check in with each other, are our work and very important work at that. And that colleague was so right.
So for LaterPay, this means that we are encouraging people to check in with each other regularly, also during onboardings. At the start of their career with us, I help new team members to set up a bunch of meetings with different key people in the team, not only to have an overview of the different projects that are going on or to get an introduction to the product. But, well, it’s still a big part of the onboarding, of course. But to meet these people outside of their direct team and to build a foundation for that relationship, that way is much easier to reach out to them after.
We also have a Slackbot called Donut. This Slackbot pairs up people randomly every two weeks in our case, it nudges people to catch up with each other. We also have a bunch of social channels in Slack, that are for non-work related chatter, like pets, which is my all time favorite. It’s the first channel that I check after I come back from holiday. Also channels about art, music, wellness, etc.
We also organize an AllHands twice a year. An AllHands is a company-wide team event where we bring the whole team together in one location for five days. There we do update presentations, workshops and we give different teams also time to do their own thing. And of course, there’s a lot of food and drinks, which is a great connection maker as well.
Meeting these two times a year is really a lot of fun, but it’s not that much time to actually spend time together. And we do realize and we have seen this as well within our team that people really love spending time with each other at LaterPay. So we recently also decided to let our team members use part of their personal development budget to travel and meet with and work alongside their colleagues.
Fifth learning, the last one is to focus on the people. So when you don’t regularly get to see your colleagues in person, you mostly see them as avatars within Slack or within a video meeting, it’s very easy to forget that you’re dealing with actual people and not avatars or Yoda-like smurf creatures. No kidding, this is our CEO’s profile picture.
Even though you’re not all at the same office, you don’t run into each other when you’re getting water or a coffee and you can’t go out for dinner together or get drinks afterward. You’re still a team, you’re still there to build amazing things, support each other doing that. You can still make time to share experiences, whether they’re work experiences or private experiences, brainstorm or just talk things through.
It’s incredibly important to actively remind yourself that you’re working with people, to be empathetic towards them and be there to support and celebrate with them. At the end, you get back what you put in when it comes to collaboration, support, trust, and respect.
So before I wrap up, I’ll just reiterate those five lessons:
- Define your values, put in that effort, live by your values and establish your culture that way.
- Think and react remote-first to be inclusive to your remote employees if you’re not 100% remote.
- You’re probably not being transparent enough.
- Making a connection and building a relationship between people has to be a deliberate effort.
- Make sure that you keep the focus on the people.
We can talk endlessly about remote work because we practice it ourselves and believe in it. But, the words of СEO’s and СТО’s of other startups with teams distributed around the world will sound much more convincing. Go ahead and check out the recording of Kaylie’s “Building a Remote Culture: 5 Lessons Learned” presentation at our Remote-First Conference here.