We Have Trust As the Default, As a Way of Working
Interview with the Head of Brand at Over, Matt Riley
Matt Riley, Head of Brand at Over, US company, with offices in Cape Town and London, and 104 employees dotted around the globe: South Africa, the United Kingdom, USA, India, Netherlands, Argentina, Indonesia, Bulgaria.
Over has grown from humble beginnings in 2012 as a simple “text over photos” app for sharing goals and inspirational quotes, into a multifaceted tool for businesses and individuals, used around the world. The product has evolved, but the vision is the same: to inspire the world to create.
Hey Matt! Nice to see you!
Hey! Nice to see you, too.
I see it’s daytime now. Are you in Cape Town?
I’m in Cape Town. Yeah, I’m actually working from home. It’s a lovely summer’s day. The kid’s off and it’s quiet. So I’m getting some stuff done.
So, give me some background?
We are the 6nomads team, a fully remote startup, where we help remote companies that need to hire engineers. We keep in consideration their time zones, salary expectations, etc. We have a whole platform solely focused on hiring and we’re doing research now. So, we’re researching how established remote companies hire. And, actually, that’s the point of today’s talk with you. I’m interested in how you hire within Over and everything about you.
I’d like to start with how did you come up with the idea of hiring remotely? How did it begin?
Well, I think that the whole idea is driven from our belief that it is the most scalable model in terms of wanting to work with the best people in the world, you should be able to access those people. Your physical location is just a restriction to that.
And what we’re finding is the best people in the world deserve to work on their own terms. That tends to be what they structure their lives around, a work-life balance and remote working tends to deliver that balance. Remote culture is basically a really great tool for attracting talent. To be honest, It’s a very friendly and welcoming approach for great talent.
And then as a business, one of our ambitions is to be represented across all the key creative hubs in the world. Remote hiring allows us to achieve that as well.
I researched your company profile and I found that you have around 60 people from South Africa and 30 from the UK, USA, India, the Netherlands, like everywhere. And now you have decided to open some offices. So, do people visit them often or not?
Yeah. At the moment we have two kinds of physical spaces. We have the one in Cape Town (with beautiful views of the mountain) and the one in the UK, which is more of a remote kind of hot-desking environment that we set up within a shared space.
But very recently, what we’ve decided to do is distribute any core functions to fully remote. Things like town halls, (company-wide, all-hands meetings), which used to have a physical presence in the Cape Town office, are now fully remote. So there will be no physical gathering of people because what that can do is reinforce a sense of disconnection for the remote workers. Even though we have a majority of people in Cape Town, South Africa, we never want that majority to swing the culture. And that’s carried through to some very simple behavioral principles around respect for remote workers.
So if, for example, we have a meeting and there’s eight of us in a physical Cape Town location and one person’s remote, we will all break out and dial into the meeting remotely so that everyone has the same context and experience of that meeting. And I think the idea is that the physical locations create a workspace environment and a networking space for those who want to use it. But nothing in the organization forces you to use that physical location.
I know that combining remote and local teams is almost impossible. Somebody will feel left out in any way. So, yeah, even when I’m coming to Moscow, where two other founders are, we just split the room, when we’re having calls, we just go to different locations, stick to continue being remote.
That’s exactly what we did. What we find more is the physical location provides a very productive work environment. We’ll have healthy food, juice bars, and other things that make it possible for you to come to the place to get more done. But you don’t really have to come to work with others. And I think it’s realising what the physical space is. It’s not a place to get your work done with others, it’s a place where you can be more productive, because you have more kinds of support around you.
Why Cape Town, why South Africa?
So the founders of the business are American, they were traveling and they were actually working remotely themselves. Aaron fell in love with the place and realized it had great talent. There is a great technology scene going on and a very strong creative scene. So, it was a good place to settle down and start building a core team.
But then from a very early stage, they realised that we need diverse input into the business from the best minds. So it was becoming more and more remote-friendly. Cape Town is very much a combination of lifestyle and talent coming together quite well. There’s a very robust community of engineers, but there are also wonderful things like hiking, surfing…lots of natural beauty.
Great! I have never thought of Cape Town as a place with engineers.
You said that you are working on making your team fully distributed. Is Miro helping you somehow to do that? What’s your toolset? Tell me about it.
Tools like JIRA, etc. for project management, I don’t think that’s new. But I think what is interesting is a tool like Miro specifically as being very powerful for us because it allows people to ideate together and work out ideas live.
It allows multiple groups to come together. So we’ve been having company wide sessions. I think we’ve had the largest group with sixty five people on a single Miro board planning our company strategy together.
And what’s incredible is Miro as a tool allows both: in real time to see these visual kinds of artifacts coming to life; it’s tangible and you can interact with them, but then it also has collaboration functions for really great asynchronous work as well. Once the artifact is created, you can come back to it. And obviously people that couldn’t be there for whatever reason can continue to contribute as if they were there.
We found that pairing Miro with Zoom, in particular, has been very powerful. So we’ve been utilizing Zoom’s breakout room functionality with Miro, so the individual teams might break out and have an individual board or a section of the board, where they can contribute and collaborate together and then the whole company comes back.
Miro is like an old school kind of workshop. It works really well. We very rarely use any of the default templates anymore. We’ve actually started building our own.
Sounds cool! We’re talking about asynchronous work. And now many people who work remotely, are having arguments for and against asynchronous work. What do you think about it? Why have you chosen it?
I think this works for when you’ve got a very well defined artifact. You’ve got a piece of code, it’s put down, someone can pick up and interrogate it, add, etc. But I think there’s nuance, live collaboration moments are very important to actually interact with the humans on the other side of the ideas. So I think it’s really about choosing the function in the business and then assigning the type of collaboration that is best suited for that function.
For example, strategy or campaign development — is great in person. When I say in person, I mean live. And then production work is better asynchronously, because what tends to happen is that you need to do a deep dive into details and come back. People need to go do investigations, find facts, and come back.
I’ve seen that you’ve been working in Over for a year now. Did you work remotely before or not?
Most of my career — no. My background is with big advertising firms and when you come from an industry that is built around this mentality of billing clients per hour…not much remote. They tend to put a huge amount of emphasis on face-to-face meetings and presence in meetings. It seems to quantify the value of the contract instead of the quality of the outputs. In the last two years, I’ve been working for more product-centric companies, startups, and so remote working is quite new to me, a revelation in terms of productivity and also the work-life balance that it provides.
It’s been interesting for me in terms of finding everyone has different moments in the day where they are more energized and more productive. Being able to plan your working day around them is incredible. Also, in creative businesses, it’s incredibly important to constantly gather new stimuli and the ability to do something as simple as just go for a walk somewhere and stop and work when the moment takes you.
And what about hiring people? What’s most important here? Soft skills or hard skills?
Would you hire someone who was not so good at hard skills, but a really good communicator, with a collaborative spirit or vice versa?
I think being fully remote places more emphasis on the soft skills.
We hire very much for culture, because particularly when you are running a fully remote business that is critical to keep the culture healthy. When you place a huge amount of trust on everyone, culture fit is critical. So one of our values we are refer to as “Is takes a village”. We give everyone a huge amount of freedom and equal responsibility. We trust everyone to go off and do what they need to do, but equally, they’re responsible for delivering what they’re going to do.
You absolutely have to be world-class at your skillset, but how you conduct yourself and how you fit into your culture is critical. When you don’t have physical space you can’t read the nuances of tone on someone’s face, you have to be clear communicators.
We place a huge amount of emphasis on a direct feedback culture as well. We give a lot of feedback constantly to each other. Being able to do that in a very respectful, open, honest, candid, and caring way is critical. So we think about all these things in the context of having a remote culture.
So how do you can identify culture while being remote, never seeing, for example, some of your coworkers in real life?
Well, my colleague Shawn referenced this the other day, the idea that culture, is your six week average of your behavior.
How you identify a culture in businesses is through the acts that we take.
It was easier for us to just sit in a room and talk, but that excludes an individual’s contribution. So we’re not going to do that. We all act if we are all fully remote.
So it’s small little things like that.
In terms of identifying cultural fit within people, we just have a robust interview process. We have a technical skills assessment and then we can have up to three or four culture interviews, where you would meet diverse people from cross-functional positions of the business. We probe and really try to get to know the person and see if there is a values connection.
I feel like the interview process takes quite long with all of these steps.
Yes, it is quite long. We know that, but it’s so critical to get the right people. Not only because of being remote, but we also have this trust as the default, as a way of working.
Basically, that’s all from my questions.
I saw you’ve got a great e-book on the site now. So you’re essentially producing another one. On what exact focus areas?
The exact area right now is how remote established companies hire. We want to show the success story of where they hire, how they hire, how much do they pay, etc. This has been a huge investment to analyze.
We’d love to be a showcase for remote companies. We’re very open and transparent! So we’re happy to help you with whatever.