Our learnings and takeaways from 5 years of being a remote first startup.
Remote work has been a core tenant of how Visible gets work done since 2015. It is crazy to believe that five years ago working remotely was not nearly as mainstream as it is today. In that time, we’ve learned a ton, mostly through experimentation and failure. The coronavirus and pandemic in 2020 accelerated the adaption of remote work as more companies are transitioning to a remote or hybrid workplace. Being a remote-first organization, we believe that team members do their best work when, how, and where they want. Below we share our guide to getting started with and implementing remote work at your organization. By no means are we perfect or do we know all of the answers. This guide is simply our learnings and takeaways from 5 years of being remote.
Why We Became a Remote-First Startup
Rewind to 2015 and Visible looks just like any early stage startup. We had some fresh capital, early team members, and were eager to get to market with a product. There was not necessarily a hard set reason for starting remote but naturally swayed that way as we added employees across the globe.
Advantages of Remote Teams
It was clear that everyone enjoyed the remote work setting. As the team at Buffer discovered in their State of Remote Work report, 97.6% of employees would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers. As we dove into remote work, the advantages were obvious:
- Team members do their best work when, how, and where they want.
- Working primarily asynchronously allows work to get done while communication becomes the lifeblood.
- Our hypothesis is that the #1 challenge for most in-person work environments is open communication whereas we believe this is the biggest strength of all remote-first organizations,
- Team members can prioritize their personal well-being to bring the best version of themselves to work (now one of our company values: inside out).
- The talent pool for hiring is worldwide.
- No physical office and being able to hire outside of major tech hubs means a lower burn rate (you don’t have to shell out for market SF salaries). Don’t forget the ruthless competition and recruiting dynamics.
- An opportunity to learn and be at the forefront of something which has the potential to be the future of work
Since then, we have discovered many other pros and cons.
Disadvantages of Remote Teams
On the flip side, there were a few disadvantages spotted.
- Always on — When working from home, it can be difficult to shut down and feel like you are truly “off.” A routine and habits to start and end your day can help greatly when trying to manage your workday from home.
- Isolation — In an office you have countless interactions. When working from home, employees can feel isolated. A co-working spot or a visit to a local coffee shop can be a good way to combat this.
- Time Zones — Communicating across many time zones can be difficult. However, you can solve this when setting expectations and hiring within a given timezone range.
You can check out a few of the struggles with remote work from the 2021 State of Remote Work below as well:
Building a remote organization is certainly challenging, but the reward and pleasure of working remotely far outweigh the challenges (at least in our opinion).
16 Proven Strategies To Manage a Remote Team
Over our 5 years building a remote-first organization, we have stumbled upon a few strategies that we have found to be beneficial. Our 16 strategies can be broken down into a few buckets — culture tips, communication, team-building activities, hiring, and more.
Remote Work Culture Tips
Inherently, building a company culture when all team members are dispersed is more difficult than when everyone is in the same building.
For organizations exploring remote-first work, the ability and ideas behind remote work need to be rooted in the organization’s culture. At Visible, starting as a remote-first organization and having a team comfortable with remote work, our culture has naturally formed around these ideas.
In the past, people have associated startup culture with ping pong tables and a fridge full of beer. However, startup culture is not built in an office; it is built on how individuals work, collaborate, and communicate.
1. Create a Remote Work Mission Statement
If you Google “remote work culture” (or anything related) you’ll notice that most blogs mention the difficulties of building a strong culture as a remote organization. Our mission and values have naturally evolved over the course of time but our culture has always been rooted with remote work and a deep focus on each team member’s own well-being.
We have a number of core values at Visible but the two that have stood the test of time and have enabled a strong remote culture are:
- “Inside Out” — We believe that team members should take care of themselves and their family first. Remote work enables this because they can focus on their own health then bring their entire self to work.
- “Harmony” — There is no such thing as “work/life balance”. There is just life. We strive to bring harmony to all aspects of our life. As it relates to work, this means some days may require staying on to 8pm as we work through a customer issue and some days you may cut out at 2pm to get on your longboard.
Regardless of how your company culture takes form there is no denying the importance of communication, especially at a remote organization.
2. Set Clear Expectations
Just because you are not in an office, it does not mean you should have working hours and expectations. It is important to have expectations well defined and documented.
A couple of questions we suggest that you think about and answer when setting your work expectations and policies:
- What are work hours/time zone expectations?
- Can people work from anywhere?
- Which communication channels (email, Slack, Asana message, video) are used for what purpose?
- What work-from-home office equipment do employees have to buy?
3. Ensure Everyone Has the Tools They Need
Tools and software are at the core of a productive remote-work environment. We’ll dig into the software tools and apps we use below but always suggest you have great internet, a comfortable desk and chair, and a quiet room to take calls and virtual meetings from.
4. Build Trust and Watch for Stress or Burnout
As we mentioned previously, it can be difficult to shut off from work when working remotely. Leaders need to understand and keep an eye for stress and burnout from the team. In order to spot stress and burnout, there needs to be a level and trust and comfort between the team. Check out some of our tips for building trust and collaboration below:
Remote Work Communication and Collaboration Tips
If communicating as a remote team was easy, every organization would be remote. There are definitely challenges when communicating when you are a virtual team. Most people believe that communication is easier when you are all in the same building.
However, with a set of expectations and a communication system in place, remote communication can easily be heightened to match the level of being a physical office. Trust, transparency and open communication is at the core of communication; remote or not.
Trust is vital, especially to remote work, when it comes to hiring, team building, and individual growth. Many individuals may think that trust can only be built when sitting at a desk next to someone. We believe that trust is something that is built through communication, regardless of your location. Trust is just built differently when working remotely.
5. Don’t Just Mimic In-Person Meetings
Communication will naturally force different methods. Do not try to mimic an office when working remotely/from home.
As Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, writes, “This also isn’t a time to try to simulate the office. Working from home is not working from the office. Working remotely is not working locally. Don’t try to make one the other. If you have meetings all day at the office, don’t simply simulate those meetings via video. This is an opportunity not to have those meetings. Write it up instead, disseminate the information that way. Let people absorb it on their own time. Protect their time and attention.”
Written communication has become one of the most important things that we do at Visible. Remote or note, written communication is vital to just about every company. Jeff Bezos often relies on his 1997 letter to shareholders to portray company values and vision.
We are constantly tweaking our methods and finding ways to communicate using our suite of tools. At Visible, that has meant using Slack, Zoom, Notion, Jell, written notes, and our own product to facilitate communication and build trust (more on the tools we use in a later section).
6. Share Video Meeting Guidelines
As we shared in our blog post, “How We Work: Zoom Calls,” we try our best to communicate in Slack but have a series of set meetings and one-off meetings that place over video. In order to make video meetings as productive as possible, we try to make sure everyone is in a quiet place without a distracting background. Depending on the type of call, we generally like everyone to have their audio unmuted and video on to mimic an in-person meeting as much as possible.
7. Schedule a Weekly All-Hands Meeting
This gets us warmed up for the week. We’ll see how everyone’s weekend went and dig into the week ahead.
Mike (our CEO) will start by giving a quick recap of our company-wide metrics, goals, news from the previous week, and priorities for the coming week.
We will then review our current product & marketing boards to see if there are any obstacles, outstanding questions, etc. This is not a time to go in-depth but rather schedule a follow-up time to pair with your colleagues.
Related Reading: How to Build Organizational Alignment Easily
8. Use Collaboration Calls for In-Depth Work
Collaboration calls are a time for us to get together as a team and work on a larger project or idea. Generally, we will decide on our Monday kickoff call what we will discuss on a team collaboration call. Some ideas:
- Review a product cycle item — What is the status of a current product cycle item? What is needed from others here? Is there a mockup that someone would like to present? Etc.
- Play a game — Use this as a time to play a collaborative game as a team.
- Brainstorm — Working on a bigger product or marketing idea that you need input from others? Use this as a time to present and collaborate on bigger ideas that involve the entire company. Be prepared with activities to guide the brainstorm session!
Other talking points:
- Give a shout-out to a team member and thank them. Tell them why!
- Tell us a story about something Visible related! Could be a customer story, a bug you found, something you designed, etc
- What did you learn last week? (Doesn’t have to be Visible related!)
- What is something you are proud about from last week?
9. Set up Recurring One-on-One Meetings
One-on-one calls are to make sure we are identifying opportunities to serve one another better, a chance to deepen our relationship as well as uncover any challenges before they grow into something larger.
The time should also be spent talking about near terms goals & priorities but also long-term development as well.
Every one-on-one check-in is the employee’s time and the time can be used for whatever they deem most valuable (90% of the time for the employee). To make sure the time is used in a mutually beneficial way we want to make sure the employee is providing a quick update (before the call) with how everything is going, how they are feeling, and what challenges they are facing.
10. Use Show & Tells To Share and Connect
Every Thursday a team member presents a show and tell. The topic does not have to be work related. It can range from your favorite tacos to how venture capital works to budgeting apps for personal finance!
Remote Team-Building Tips
Having different opportunities for casual conversations and team building is a surefire way to improve remote work for everyone. One of our favorite ways is by playing virtual games (Jackbox Games, CodeNames, etc.) to loosen up and have fun. We have also seen success when giving individuals the opportunity to connect and work with cross-functional teammates.
11. Create a Virtual Water Cooler
The “virtual water cooler” in Slack has been a great way to connect with teammates outside of work. As we wrote in the post above,
“We do not have hard-set guidelines for what should be posted in the #watercooler channel but it generally consists of the following:
- Food/what we ate — Pictures or recipes for what we are cooking at home/eating at restaurants. We all love to eat at Visible so this is big for us.
- Random videos/pictures/stories from our day-to-day lives — For example, a current event or something big that may be happening in someone’s respective city/neighborhood/etc.
- Travel and Hobbies — Being a remote company, a lot of us spend a good amount of time in different locations. We love to share pictures and stories from our time in new places.
- Work Inspiration — This is also where we share examples and inspiration of something cool we see a different company doing. Anything from a new product feature to an intriguing marketing email.
- Fun Stories — If someone runs into a fun story, stat, or fact they run into online, we tend to share it in #watercooler.”
12. Have Fun With Regular Non-Work Activities
Bringing teammates together with non-work activities is a great way to build camaraderie and relationships. Check out our post, 34 Remote Team Building Ideas for Growing Startups, to learn about some of our favorite specific activities.
13. Plan Yearly Company Offsites To Get Together
Nothing beats the energy from getting to meet with team members in person. We relentlessly prioritize getting together two times a year as a time. Offsites serve three purposes:
- To have fun
- To give us the chance to connect in person and collaborate on big, strategic initiatives.
- To see a more human side of your team.
- To see how tall your colleagues are ;).
Offsites have become an integral part of our culture and how we work together. Over the course of a week we are able to break down big problems and initiatives then channel that into focused work when we depart back to our homes.
Over the last few years, we’ve had offsites in the following locations:
The term “offsite” gets thrown around a lot in the startup and corporate world but what does an offsite actually look like to a remote organization?
Choose a Location and Date for the Offsite
At Visible, we are spread out across the world. We have employees in North America, Europe, and Asia. With that being said, finding a location for our offsites can be tricky. A couple of things we look for in an offsite location:
- A location that everyone can get to in a reasonably timed and priced flight. We do not want someone to have to fly for 24 hours with 2+ layovers, etc.
- A location that is not too expensive once you are there. Breaking bread is a cornerstone of our offsites, so having a place where you can go out for a nice meal without breaking the bank is important to us. For example, a dollar went a long way in Lisbon compared to Copenhagen.
- A location that has a tech culture. It is fun to go somewhere with a strong tech/startup culture. In the past, we’ve been able to meet and work with our customers.
- Somewhere new. Being a small team, we are able to go to places that are new to each of us. Inevitably, this won’t always be the case but is a fun factor for now.
Once we pick a location, we will book accommodations. Our goal is to give everyone their own bedroom, have a place to work as a group, and be in a central location that is within walking distance to restaurants, bars, and transportation.
We’ve done everything from a high-end hostel, to single Airbnbs and even a houseboat on the canals of Amsterdam. Depending on the city, different options may make more or less sense. As we are all travelers ourselves, we have found Airbnbs to be the most practical for us as a group.
In order to maximize our time, we generally have to include a weekend or a weekend day (which no one ever has an issue with). This allows us to wrap the offsite around a weekend and not miss an entire week of our usual day-to-day work. We send out a Doodle which makes it incredibly easy to coordinate everyone’s availability.
Decide How You’ll Work During the Offsite
Deciding when and how to work during an offsite is something that we are constantly tweaking. While offsites are intended to strengthen personal relationships we have accomplished some awesome work.
The last few offsites we come with a big vision or theme for the week. From here, each individual (eventually may just be unit leaders/managers, etc.) is responsible for coming up with a group session related to their business unit.
For example, we kept hearing from our customers about the pain points of fundraising. This became a focal point of our fall 2019 offsite and how the “fundraising” product was born. We came back with a beta version of the product, design for future versions, our Connect database (named at the offsite), and a marketing webpage for the new Fundraising product.
Decide What Non-Work Activities You Will Do
As mentioned, everyone is responsible for coming up with a work session for the offsite. In tandem, we pair up with a different co-worker (someone we may not always work directly with) and come up with a team activity that is unrelated to work.
We are assigned a day with our partner and set out to find an activity. This has led to some of our best memories and is often what we look back on at future offsites. A couple of things we have found to work best:
- Boating/Sailing — A fan favorite has been sailing and boat cruises we’ve taken as a team. We have generally found these on Airbnb Experiences but are an awesome chance to check out a new city and relax with teammates.
- Cooking Classes — A chance to work directly with a teammate, plus eat great food. Will certainly be including more of these in the future.
- Escape Rooms — Fun way to work on team building.
- Sports/Hiking — Another chance to find a new skill and work as a team. We all learned how to longboard at our last offsite!
- Dinner — Believe it or not, coordinating dinner for a large group can be tough. We would highly encourage having reservations in advance to avoid long waiting times or eating at subpar restaurants.
We learn something new about running an offsite at each one. By no means do they go off without a hitch, but they are invaluable to us and something we relish.
Remote Hiring and Onboarding Tips
Hiring for a remote organization is a double-edged sword. You have the world as a hiring pool but… you also have the world as a hiring pool. What we mean is that you have the ability to hire anyone in the world so you don’t have to compete with tech hubs and “hot” companies for top talent. However, this means that you are likely getting a huge number of applicants and need to have a dialed system to vet and hire candidates.
14. Post Jobs on the Right Remote Boards
Leveraging job boards are a great way to get the word out about a new position. There have been countless job boards specific for remote workers as well as traditional options. Some popular options:
- We Work Remotely
15. Simulate Remote Work During the Interview Process
You likely do not have the opportunity to meet with them in person so being comfortable with video calls and evaluating work/writing is crucial.
As we previously mentioned, building trust does not need to take place in a physical office. It takes place in evaluating communication and work. This same idea is relevant when hiring.
At Visible, we are generally in search of “self-starters” and someone that is comfortable working alone/remote. Like most companies, our hiring process starts with short video calls with Visible team members. Once we have determined if they are a fit for Visible, we try to simulate remote work as much as possible.
To start, we use a paid project for the candidate. From the second we start a paid project, we are building trust with the potential candidate. Generally, the project is related to a future Visible product, marketing plan, idea, etc. To best simulate remote work, we invite the candidate to a Slack channel where they can ask questions and interact with the team.
Hiring for a remote position is challenging but rewarding. No matter how you approach hiring a remote employee, communication and trust should be front and center of the process.
16. Start Onboarding Remote Employees Before Day One
Onboarding an employee across the country or globe can feel odd. In order to make sure a remote onboarding goes smoothly, we suggest a few of the following steps:
- Timeline — Set up an agenda and expectations for the first few days/weeks for a new hire. We use a Notion doc and create a day-by-day agenda for the first week so they know exactly what to expect and what needs to be completed.
- Introductions — Give new employees an opportunity to pair with different teams and teammates. It is a great way for new employees to get a lay of the land and build relationships.
- Software — Part of our timeline/onboarding document, is setting up the software and explaining what each one does.
- Merch — Send a shipment of your merch and team gear so they feel welcome!
- Technology — Make sure your new hires have the hardware they need to get the job done.
Remote Work Tools To Level Up Your Team
As we mentioned previously, Slack and Zoom have combined to essentially become our office but we have a number of other tools we use to help communicate and facilitate remote work.
Slack for Messaging, Company Updates, and Fun
Slack is the lifeblood of our business. 95% of our communication takes place in Slack. We break our channels into different business units and try to have as much automation as possible within Slack. For example, we have a channel where we can see when a new trial is started, a channel that funnels in our Intercom conversations, etc.
We do try to keep most of our Slack conversations in public channels. As a note, we are a smaller team so most channels are not too noisy and anyone is welcome to mute a channel that they find irrelevant/distracting.
Zoom for Video Conferencing
As we mentioned earlier, we use Zoom for any necessary face-to-face meetings. As a distributed team, meetings are a crucial medium for our team to connect, share & collaborate. Here are some general guidelines for all meetings.
- Video should always be on by default (unless you have some serious connection issues).
- Your microphone should always be on and not muted. We want to feel like we are next to each other in a meeting. Visual and verbal queues & feedback are important ways we communicate.
- Try to find a quiet place with limited background noise.
- When applicable, send out an agenda, documents, etc prior to the meeting for the attendees to review.
Jell for Daily Standups
Jell — Jell is a tool we use to post personal standups on a daily basis. Each morning, every team member fills out a simple prompt that asks what they are working on that day. From here, the answers are sent to a channel in Slack where we can see where other team members may need help.
Notion for Task Management and Internal Documentation
Notion — We recently switch to Notion for (1) our task management and (2) our internal Wiki.
We use Notion to monitor our current product cycle, current marketing tasks, and customer success tasks. Each team member has full access to all boards to see the status of different projects and tasks.
We also use Notion as our internal Wiki. This is where we host everything and anything about Visible and how we work. If someone has a question about a company policy or workflow, they can check Notion. We are also diligent about documenting meetings so we this is where team members can find notes and discussions from past meetings.
HIVEGEIST for Working Remotely
The HIVEGEIST community consists of remote working professionals who share their vision of a decentralized life. With HIVEGEIST, you not only belong to the strong network of our members, you also immerse yourself in the local community. Use one-time code, VISIBLE20, for a 20% discount on the first month for your community.
Visible for Aligning Our Team
We use Visible to dogfood our own product and for our CEO to send out a weekly Update to the team. A weekly note from our CEO allows everyone to have a holistic view of what is happening with the business and where current metrics stand.
Final Thoughts on Managing Remote Teams
As technologies continue to advance so will the way we work. Remote work may not be a perfect fit for every company but we believe that it is here to stay. Each day we learn something new about working remote and the benefits that come with it.
If you’re interested in getting started with remote work or want to learn more, shoot us a message to email@example.com
Other Resources on Remote Work
Below are the blog posts, guides, and other resources that we have looked to when implementing remote work at Visible: