What if your team was working remote?


Companies with an intrinsic remote culture benefit from something most of us can only dream of. And no, it’s not about working from home wearing PJs, although that sounds pretty comfortable.

When asked about her work-from-home ban, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said “People are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”

Such arguments win when leadership believes more in the process and tools than in the people on their team.

Well executed ideas come from an alignment around an ambitious problem, open communication, genuine trust and empowerment to push things through. Hoping to fix Yahoo’s lack of innovation by putting people in the same room is like upgrading everyone’s hard-drive to SSD hoping it will foster better communication between people.

It’s the difficult questions that deserve the attention. People working together at the same location are not exempt from these questions.

Remote companies indeed face harder challenges with fostering solid communication and trust. As such, these companies deal with these questions early-on because they don’t take communication and trust as if they were a given. They don’t rely solely on face-to-face peer pressure. These companies keep coming back to these questions and re-check their core assumptions and beliefs.

We can learn a lot asking these questions, regardless of our sitting arrangement.

What do you hate about today’s world?

Dropbox’s Drew Houston replied to investors who questioned him about the numerous cloud-based storage solutions around with “Do you use any of them?”. Invariably they would say “no”. Drew hated the way current cloud-based storage solutions worked, so he decided to fix that. 

You don’t need some grandiose mission statement to create a strong alignment around an ambitious problem.
Just fill-in the blanks: I hate the way _____, this is why we are going to _____.

Is it an ambitious problem to the people in our team?

While we’re quick to fall in-love with our immediate solutions, the real challenge is to hire people who can emotionally connect to the problem we are truly eager to fix. Many early engineers who joined Dropbox felt the same pains as Drew did.

The real question then is – do you have the right people for the job? Are they excited about the company’s mission?

If not, it doesn’t really matter if they’re a unique mix of 25% ninja, 15% rockstar and 60% hacker. While losing talent is painful, it sends the right signal to the team: this mission is too important to stop here. We cannot fuck it up, and we can only do that having people with shared desire to go on this journey together.

How do we know if stuff gets done or who’s working on what?

Scott Hanselman shares that in order to be effective working as a remote employee at Microsoft, he “needs to make it easy for folks to answer the question “What is that person working on?” This is somewhat of a double standard, since they may have no idea what the person in the next office is working on, but that woman shows up every day, so she must be productive, right?”

Every time someone needs to ask someone else “where are you at with this task?”or “what are you working on now?” there is a mental tax that both sides need to pay. The person who asks needs to pull the information, which doesn’t build trust in one’s ability to deliver on time. For the other person, this question feels like micro-management at its “finest”.

This is how broken communication sounds like. Instead, focus on setting a very clear expectation about being open and communicative.

How will we know if people are happy & engaged with their work?

This is probably the hardest question of all. Collaboration and innovation can only come from people who are engaged with what they do.

Hubspot, having teams both in Boston and Dublin, kept track on it by using employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS), where every quarter they’d ask each member of the team the following simple question: “On a scale from 0 to 10, would you recommend HubSpot as a place to work?” Reaching an eNPS score peak of 79 at 2014, Elias Torres wrote “It wasn’t the work of just one person, and it certainly didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it was a deliberate effort on the part of our entire team to turn things around.”

Asking this one short anonymous question time after time is a great Culture KPI you can track. It’s the stamina to keep asking this question and keep looking for ways to improve that makes good companies great.

So what if…
I’ve got no doubt that future employment will have less to do with where geographically you want to work and more on why you decided to join the team and work on that specific project. In the past 7 years we’ve:

  • Made infrastructure a commodity – aka PaaS, SaaS, IaaS and other *aaS you can think of. I still remember we bought servers for nearly $250K in early 2007, argh.
  • Made it easy to work from pretty much everywhere – aka Mobile All The Things.

Yet, we’ve seen almost no change in the local talent pool (read “crap, hiring is impossible these days”). When technology changes are so radical yet our ability to cultivate talent cannot catch up, people will naturally seek for talent and opportunities elsewhere.

In other words, our talent pool is being globalized.

This, I believe, can be a great leverage to our industry as it will force us to think again on the big questions and the type of teams and companies we want to build.

So, what if your team was working & learning remote?
What if you had to write down the answers to the questions above?
What if you had to share it with your team?

Go ahead, do it.

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Further reading

Many remote companies are sharing their struggles, and it’s a fascinating read we can all learn from. Here are some stories I found interesting:

Lastly, if you haven’t seen Paul Adams talk on Why does your company exist other than to make money, you should absolutely check it out.

Photo credit: Alper Çuğun