Every day hundreds of agreements are made at Clearbit. These agreements are a key part of what makes Clearbit work. Agreements are made between two people (e.g., “I agree to complete project X by date Y”) or with yourself (e.g., “I'm going to exercise three days a week”).
It's important that we can trust each other to keep to our agreements. Imagine what would happen if we only kept to 80% of our agreements. You could safely assume that two out of ten agreements wouldn't be kept, but which two? You'd have to continually follow up and check on each agreement to see whether it had been missed or forgotten.
There's an automatic price you pay when you break an agreement: you disintegrate trust. The more agreements you break, the more you gain a reputation as someone who's unreliable. And unreliable people aren't trusted with important work.
This goes for agreements with others, but also for agreements with yourself. Think about the last agreement you broke with yourself. How does that make you feel? Anger? Shame? The story you should want to believe about yourself is that you are a reliable person who can achieve anything you set your mind to.
So, what's the solution? Impeccable agreements.
What is an “impeccable agreement”?
Every agreement between people at Clearbit should be impeccable. An impeccable agreement has the following properties:
- It is recorded (we use Asana).
- It is precisely defined (i.e., it has a comprehensive description, such that a third party could adjudicate if it was finished).
- It has a specific due date.
- It has a specific owner (or DRI - directly responsible individual). It’s important that there’s just one owner; tasks owned by multiple people are owned by nobody.
An example of an impeccable agreement would be the following task in Asana.
Keeping an impeccable agreement means that we do everything we say we are going to do or we renegotiate the agreement if we no longer want to keep it.
Since we are now committed to keeping our agreements, it's now important to be careful about the things we say “yes” to. Don't agree to too many things, stretching yourself in a way that will result in broken agreements.
Life happens, priorities change, and sometimes agreements can't be kept. That's okay. The key is to renegotiate agreements as soon as you know you can't keep them. Contact the person you made the agreement with and explain the situation. Either push back the due date or cancel the agreement completely.
When and how you try to renegotiate an agreement can make a big difference (e.g., realizing the day before the due date that a big project isn't going to make it on time versus being able to spot this coming in advance).
What happens when agreements are broken
If an impeccable agreement has been broken without being renegotiated, there must be consequences.
“The first time someone doesn’t meet an agreement, you point it out to them immediately. If they apologize, you respond that apologies are not needed, and all that is required is that they only make agreements that they can commit to and that they meet all the agreements they make. If the person continues to fail at these, there is only one consequence that makes sense: they can no longer be part of the company.”
- Matt Mochary, The Great CEO Within
Usually, when agreements are broken, there is a root cause, like poor prioritization. In these cases, we suggest creating a habit to make sure it never happens again; for example, adding a Top Task calendar event for an hour every day to ensure that important things get done. Another option is making this calendar event task specific, which is especially relevant for longer tasks.
Creating an accountability cadence
A great place to get people into the habit of keeping to their agreements is during their scheduled one-on-one. Run through their agreements (tasks assigned to them in Asana) and ensure that they've been kept.
Agreements with yourself
Keeping agreements with yourself is just as important as keeping agreements with others. Otherwise, how are you going to achieve your dreams and reach your potential? These tasks may seem small and insignificant, but every great journey starts with a single step.
By making small agreements with yourself, achieving them, and then making larger ones, you will start to develop a mindset that you can achieve anything you set your mind to. You will find that this is an incredibly powerful story to believe about yourself, and this will lead to greater success and personal happiness.
You can keep personal agreements either in Asana or in a personal to-do list like Things.
Managing our time is one of the few truly zero-sum games we play. Since our minds are single-threaded and our lifespan limited, spending time on one thing necessitates not spending time on other things. In other words, there is an opportunity cost.
Meetings use time, ergo they are zero-sum too. For one meeting to exist, something else (usually another meeting) must be replaced. Therefore, two things are critical:
- Meetings must be kept to an absolute minimum.
- Any meeting that does happen must be rigorously managed to make optimal use of time.
We can't stress how important it is to get a handle on meetings. Whenever we see team burn-out, it is invariably due to an avalanche of meetings. Luckily, as with almost everything, we can use systems to save us.
- Every meeting must have an owner (designated in the calendar invite).
- Only precisely the number of people who need to attend are invited.
- Clarify what kind of meeting it is before you start.
- The meeting owner must assign a note taker.
- Leave a meeting if you are giving or receiving no value.
Should we have a meeting?
There is a simple formula to determine how much a meeting costs:
number of participants * duration in hours * 200
The 200 represents someone’s hourly salary. For example, a five-person meeting lasting an hour would cost the company $1,000. This is the minimum cost, as the true cost will be much higher once you factor in opportunity cost.
Meetings are therefore incredibly expensive and should be avoided unless the return on investment is positive. Before creating a meeting, ask yourself whether a Slack message or a Google Doc will suffice instead.
You might ask yourself, if meetings are so expensive, why not ban them altogether? Unfortunately, this is not possible for the following reasons:
- Broadcast meetings are necessary because people don’t read or notice everything.
- Some conversations need to be high bandwidth, so doing those asynchronously is inefficient.
- Brainstorming is facilitated by in-person riffing.
- Lastly, this is not a great reason, but meetings can force action.
There are a few different types of internal meetings:
- One-on-one meetings
- Staff meetings (recurring status updates, department sync, etc.)
- Decision meetings (one-off)
- All hands (information sharing and celebration)
Clarify what type of meeting you are having when it is created. Since we are going to tackle how to run a one-on-one meeting, here we are going to focus on staff meetings and decision meetings. These are the two that tend to run amok anyhow.
Only precisely the right people who need to attend the meeting should be at the meeting. For a staff meeting, this is usually only key decision makers and the people who are providing updates.
If you need a specific person to attend a specific meeting, then don't add them to the recurring meeting. Just add them to the one they need to attend. Add them to the start of the agenda, so they can give or get value from that part of the meeting and then exit if the rest of the meeting doesn't give or get value from them.
If you are not adding or receiving any value from a meeting, simply state, "Hey all, not sure I'm providing much value in this meeting. I'm going to step out." If someone does this in your meeting, don't read anything into it—it's Clearbit policy.
The golden rule to meetings is that they must have an owner. This is a person who will emcee the meeting and be responsible for preparing for the meeting agenda, assigning a note taker, distributing notes post-meeting, and keeping everyone accountable for follow-up actions.
Meeting owners are expected to guide the conversation, cut off conversations that are spiraling out of control, postpone conversations that need more information, and ensure that people aren’t distracting themselves with phones and email, while strictly keeping to the schedule.
It’s important that everyone arrives on time for the meeting; otherwise, punctual people are left in limbo. As an owner, if you find that people are consistently late, create a task in the meeting’s Asana project, recording who was on time and who wasn’t.
The meeting owner must be specified in the meeting invite.
Note taking and recording
Why do people like being in meetings? Well, one reason is that it's only by being in the meeting that they are kept “in the loop.” Thus they waste time going to a meeting when reading about the outcomes asynchronously could have sufficed.
Note taking solves that problem. Effective meeting notes summarize what was discussed in the meeting and what was decided. Notes can then be distributed to your team and read by anyone who wishes to so they don't feel left out. It's far more efficient for people to read a meeting summary than to sit through the meeting in person.
Distributing notes has the additional advantage of not rewarding managers with special information that individual contributors don't have access to. Information asymmetry is a hidden form of compensation and can make ICs want to become managers just to be “in the know.”
It is difficult for most people to simultaneously think deeply and take notes. Therefore, at the start of the meeting, the meeting owner must designate a note taker for the meeting. This role should be rotated between meetings.
Notes are stored as comments on a dedicated “note” task in the Meetings project. Note takers are also responsible for recording any next-actions that the meeting owner wants to create in Asana. Every next action must be an impeccable agreement.
Almost every meeting at Clearbit is automatically recorded, transcribed, and available in Chorus for the same reasons.
Every meeting is born with an invite. Even at this early stage, things can start to go wrong.
First, ask yourself, “Is this meeting actually required?” because it's the first question that people you invite to the meeting will ask you. Can the meeting be replaced with a Slack message, email, or Google Doc that the team can asynchronously collaborate on?
Then gain express permission from everyone you intend on inviting. Do not send people random meeting invites. Conflict-avoidant people will just show up at your meeting (rather than decline the invite) and silently resent you for wasting precious hours of their lives.
Definitely do not send out an invite to a meeting you are not attending.
A good meeting invite must:
- Invite precisely the right people. When in doubt, mark people as “optional.” Inexperienced managers will tend to over-invite people to meetings in an effort to make people feel included. There are better ways of achieving that.
- Clarify what kind of meeting this is (e.g., staff meeting, decision-making meeting, etc.).
- Have a comprehensive description that details the purpose of the meeting, expected outcomes, and the meeting owner who will run the proceedings. This should include a meeting agenda, with time allotted to the various discussion topics.
- Be the right length. Meetings are often too long or too short, leaving dead space throughout the day that isn't long enough for focused IC work.
- Include a Zoom link; this is just common courtesy to remote folks.
One way to decide who are the right people is to identify how a person will contribute to the meeting. There are three ways in which participants can contribute to a meeting: 1) input, 2) decision, 3) commitment. If a person cannot make any of these three contributions, don't invite the person because this person just needs to be informed by broadcasting the meeting notes.
If you receive a meeting invite or request
Don't be afraid to decline meetings or request for their duration to be shortened. If you think the topic could be better handled in another format (e.g., asynchronously via Google Doc comments), then suggest it.
Decision-making meetings are one-off events designed to gather information and key stakeholders in one place to—you guessed it—make a decision.
Most decisions will not need meetings. They can either happen asynchronously in an issue and proposed solution document or in staff meetings. Every now and again, a decision big enough will crop up to warrant its own meeting.
Just because you are meeting in person does not excuse preparation! Every decision-making meeting should include an issue or proposed-solution document linked to in the calendar invite.
The meeting should start with the owner assigning a note taker and then distributing the prepared document. Everyone reads it in silence to get in sync. Then the document is discussed and commented on.
There are two outcomes of a decision-making meeting. Either a decision is made, or it is noted that more information is required to make the decision.
Any next-actions made should be impeccable agreements. That means they are recorded in Asana, have an owner, a due date, and a good description.
Once the meeting is over, the meeting owner should distribute the notes to the relevant places, such as appended to the issue document and posted in team Slack channels.
Staff meetings are recurring meetings for status updates, decision making, and action assignments. They are generally related to collaboration within a team, or between teams.
Staff meetings easily derail because they don't have a clear goal. Therefore, it's important for these meetings to have an owner who is ruthlessly managing them.
Every recurring meeting must have a corresponding Asana project that it is run out of. The format looks like this:
Every key stakeholder must prepare an update prior to the meeting.
At the start of the meeting, everyone silently reads the updates. This is a huge amount of information transfer in the first ten minutes of the meeting, and it ensures that everyone is on the same page.
Issues (+ proposed solutions)
Prior to the meeting, issues are created. Each issue must have an owner, a good description, and ideally a proposed solution. If this is too long for an Asana comment, link to an external Google Doc.
Time-box each issue, and use a timer to ensure that you spend no more than five minutes per issue (Google “three-minute timer”). The idea is to get issues out of the way to spend more time on free-form discussion.
These are general topics of discussion that aren't necessarily actionable. We find having some open-ended topics to be the most fruitful strategy when it comes to coming up with new ideas.
Examples of these might be a pre-mortem around an upcoming launch, a discussion on how to avoid partner channel conflicts, or debugging a team’s performance issues.
Any work to be done must be recorded in Asana; otherwise, it'll just be lost. We use impeccable agreements for this. Every task must have an owner, a due date, and a good description.
The worst reason for a meeting
Most meetings are created in good faith by people who believe they are acting in the best interest of the company. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
If your company starts rewarding people on relationships rather than outcomes, you will start building a toxic culture where junior people book meetings with senior people just to get “face time” and advance their careers.
The simple solution to this is not to reward “face time,” and cancel meetings you think were created for this purpose. The only way to get promoted is via our objective leveling system, not who you suck up to.
Writing vs. talking
Matt Mochary, in The Great CEO Within, has excellent advice on writing vs talking during decision making. We have reprinted it in full below.
When two people are discussing an issue, the need to be efficient is important. When a team is discussing an issue, the need to be efficient is paramount, because each inefficient minute is multiplied by the number of people in the discussion.
If you want the most effective and efficient decision-making process, require that anyone who wants to discuss an issue write it up, along with the desired solution, ahead of time. The goal of this write-up is to be thorough enough that at the time of the decision meeting, there are few or no questions. This can be achieved in one of two ways:
- The hard way: Write an extraordinarily thorough analysis from the get-go.
- The easy way: Write a draft, circulate it to the meeting participants before the meeting, and invite comments and questions. Then write out responses to all of these comments and questions prior to the meeting.
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is famous for using this written method. He requires that anyone who wants to bring up an issue or proposal must write up the item fully prior to the decision meeting (with someone else writing up a counterproposal if necessary). The meeting is then spent reading the write-ups. Once the decision-making team has read them all, a decision is made. If consensus is not reached, an appointed decision maker makes the call. If there are still open questions, then the decision maker assigns one or more people to research and, of course, write the needed follow-up. At the end of the next meeting, the decision is made.
This method, although time-consuming for the sponsor, yields extraordinarily thoughtful decisions in a very short amount of time. The extra effort and work by one person creates net savings in time and energy across the whole group.
Imposing this process on a group is daunting. Here is a way to ease a group into it.
- Reserve the first 15 minutes of the meeting for all participants to write out their updates and issues. Then use another 10 minutes of the meeting for all participants to read each other’s updates and issues. Then discuss and decide. Use this method for 2–3 meetings, then ...
- Require that all participants write their updates and issues prior to the meeting. Do not allow people to bring up an issue that they have not already written up. Use the first 10 minutes of the meeting for all participants to read each other’s updates and issues. Use this method for 1–2 meetings, then …
- Require that all participants write their updates and issues by a certain time prior to the meeting (e.g., 6 p.m. the evening before). Require that all participants read and comment on each other’s updates and issues prior to the meeting. People can prove that they have read the docs by adding their comments in the docs themselves. Do not allow people to make comments in the meeting if they haven't already commented on the docs themselves. This will make your meetings much more efficient and ensure that meeting time is spent effectively.
Type 1 vs Type 2 decisions
In his iconic 2015 Shareholder Letter, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos introduced us to lightweight, distributed decision making. He wrote:
“Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible—one-way doors—and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that—they are changeable, reversible—they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.
“Each time there is a decision to be made, rate it as Type 1 or Type 2. If Type 2, allow one of your reports to be the decision maker. The decision will be made faster, your report will get the chance to exercise their decision-making muscles, and you will have the chance to gain confidence in your report’s ability to make decisions well."
Matt Mochary, in The Great CEO Within, has excellent advice on getting buy-in. We have reprinted it in full below.
One of the core challenges in leadership is how to get your team to buy into a decision. It’s often easy to make a decision, but it can be much harder to get your team to invest emotionally in that decision.
You create buy-in when you make people feel that they are part of the decision and that their input contributes to the final outcome. The more influence they feel they have on the outcome, the more they’ll be invested in the final result.
Broadly, there are three ways to make a decision. Each has a different time requirement and creates a different level of buy-in. There are no free lunches here, unfortunately—the method that creates the most buy-in also takes the most time.
The methods are:
- Manager makes the decision, announces it to the team, and answers questions. Pro: Takes very little time. Cons: Creates very little buy-in from the team. Gets no benefit from their collective knowledge and experience.
- Manager creates (or assigns someone to create) a written straw man (a hypothetical answer designed to inspire discussion), shares it with the team, invites the team to give feedback (written and verbal), facilitates group discussion, and determines the final answer. Pros: Creates more buy-in. Gets some small benefit from the collective wisdom of the team. Con: Takes more time.
- Manager invites the team to a meeting where the dilemma is discussed from scratch with no straw man. Manager and team equally share ideas. Final decision is determined by consensus if possible. Pros: Creates the most buy-in. Gets a lot of benefit from the collective wisdom of the team. Con: Takes the most time.
Not surprisingly, the greatest benefits require the most work. If you want more buy-in and a better decision, you need to take more time in making the decision.
So, which method should you use? It depends on how significant the decision is and how important buy-in is. For everyday, low-impact issues (e.g., the venue for the holiday party), Method 1 is sufficient. For major, core issues (e.g., the company’s 10-Year Vision), Method 3 is necessary. For everything in between (the vast majority of important decisions), Method 2 is optimal.
Disagree and commit
The dark side of consensus is that it can lead to inaction. “Disagree and commit” is a method of avoiding this trap. Jeff Bezos describes how he uses this at Amazon:
"Use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.
This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.
Note what this example is not: it’s not me thinking to myself “well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.” It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way. And given that this team has already brought home 11 Emmys, 6 Golden Globes, and 3 Oscars, I’m just glad they let me in the room at all!"
- Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO
Look around you and you will see distributed teams popping up everywhere. Companies like Zapier, Invision, and GitLab have paved the way, proving that it's entirely possible to build a thousand-plus team that is completely distributed. However, while remote teams have their advantages, they also come with their own challenges. It's important to go in with your eyes wide open, tackling these head-on.
Our team is 40% remote, with people living across the US, Europe, and even as far away as Israel. The rest of us are in San Francisco. We are a distributed company, rather than a remote one. The difference is that in a distributed company, you combine a central hub with remote employees, whereas a remote company is entirely virtual with no office. This structure can pose even more challenges than distributed companies, so it's important that we put a real effort into making our remote colleagues feel supported and included.
Why did we make the decision to hire remotely? Well, remote working offers some distinct advantages. First, it lets us hire the best people in the world—we're no longer limited to San Francisco's great but limited talent pool. Second, the flexibility it offers allows us to live richer lives. No longer are we limited to a 9–5 schedule, worried about making the school run, or fitting in that mid-day gym session.
"Prior to working at Clearbit, Rob, one of our co-founders, had a two-hour commute to London every day and back. Not only was this exhausting, but he barely got to see his two daughters. Today, he works from home and gets to spend the rest of his time with his family. That extra time is priceless."
- Alex MacCaw, CEO at Clearbit
You might ask yourself, if remote working is such a great thing, why haven't companies offered it in the past? For starters, the technology wasn’t there. Only in the last few years has video conferencing gotten to a level where it's fairly seamless and remote collaboration tools have become effective (e.g., Slack, Google Docs).
The other reason (which accounts for why most companies don't do it today) is control. Most companies are scared of losing control by offering their employees the flexibility of working from home. They're worried that the work isn't going to get done.
Our response to that is, who cares about control? We treat people like adults by setting mutual goals and letting you decide how to hit them.
Remote working also changes how we do planning, decision making, and hiring. We will explore how we go about solving for these next.
The issues with remote
While the benefits clearly outweigh the costs, remote working does come with its own set of challenges. Most of these are deeply rooted in the human psyche. For example, we are hardwired to trust people we meet in person more than relative strangers. Video conference technology (in its current form) hasn't yet advanced enough to trick our monkey brains into thinking we're in the same room. We have so much nonverbal communication that the fidelity of conference just doesn't convey.
Latency is an issue too. If half a meeting joins from a room in San Francisco and the other half joins remotely, it's hard for people dialing in to interject themselves into flowing conversations.
Spontaneous conversations don't generally happen with remote teams. Whenever you call someone, it's for a specific meeting or request, not to ask them how their day went or to play with their dog. Again, this leads back to trust. To trust someone's intentions, you have to believe they have your best interests at heart. It's hard to do that without spending some quality time together.
We are social creatures. Working long hours, never leaving the house and rarely interacting with others, is a recipe for loneliness. Since there's no clear distinction between when your workday starts and ends, it can be difficult to set boundaries. We have heard from our remote team that their work tends to spill into their personal life.
So there's a combination of trust issues, practical collaboration issues, and lastly, loneliness. Some of these things can be solved with internal company policies, while others are up to the individual to manage. Before we discuss our approach to solving these issues, let’s focus on the fundamentals: hiring people who like working remotely.
Hiring for remote
It's key that we identify and hire people that are happy working remotely. Even if we have the dopest office in San Francisco, in and of itself, an office can be a growth limiter. In order for Clearbit to scale successfully, we need to be a remote company that happens to have the dopest office in San Francisco.
The simplest hack is to hire people who've done remote work before. Quite frankly, the tradeoffs in remote work aren't for everyone. Remote work requires discipline, not only in actually sitting down and focusing, but also in taking the time for yourself to go outside and socialize. If someone has demonstrated they’ve been happy doing this in the past, we can assume they'll be happy doing it in the future.
If we do a good job hiring to our company values, then most folks are going to be successful in our organization, even if there is some turbulence along the way. When team members operate according to our values, they are force multipliers. Teams with common values have lower barriers for trust, they get along better with each other, and they align toward common goals more easily. Our people need to live and breathe Team, Care, Craft, Truth, Initiative and Fun.
Helpful interview questions
Tell me about your experience working outside of an office.
If they have no remote experience, it's not a deal-breaker, but it's much easier to bring in total newbs if we have a strong remote culture. If we haven't developed that yet, consider remote folks with more experience doing that so that they can help us build it.
What’s your favorite remote working hack?
This is the organic part. We want to identify people who will be active participants in our remote culture and will bring great ideas to our organization. We want to avoid candidates who have a high risk of groupthink and social loafing.
Tell me about the space where you will be working.
If they don't have at least an idea of where they will be working, there will be other things they’ll be clueless about. During remote interviews, take note of the candidates’ location or office space. If it looks like it is a dedicated space and well put together, +1.
Have you worked on teams that spanned time zones? If so, how did you overcome those challenges?
Having to wait three hours to get a response from a West Coast team member sucks, but it's how the earth works. We want candidates that have initiative and manage their day and their work in a self-directed manner.
How do you initiate collaboration remotely? How do you force yourself to think outside your own perspective?
Candidates have to be self-starters and proactive in developing relationships with each other. If you think you will have to spend extra time and effort to get a remote candidate to interact with the greater organization, that’s time and effort you will be taking away from your other top goals.
What company culture ideas would you like to bring over from your previous roles?
Can you buy in? Do you want to help us build a better machine? What does that machine look like to you? Can you say nice things about your previous companies?
Have a great 30/60/90-day plan
If you can't tell someone what you expect out of them in their first 90 days, you shouldn't hire them. If we hire to our values and we can clearly articulate a new hire's role and our definition of success, it makes their initial experience with Clearbit great. If we can't do that, then problems can be amplified when working remotely (i.e., paranoia that you aren't doing a good job, you don't want to ask dumb questions, misalignment on goals, etc.).
Fly them into the office for the first week
You want your team to develop trust and buy into the common company vision as quickly as possible. If remote teammates don't buy into the culture, company, and mission, they will churn. Without buy-in, working remotely for us becomes just like working for anyone else. We need them to fall in love with Clearbit, and we should give them a reason to. This is why we bring all remotes on-site for their first 1–2 weeks so they get a heavy dose of the Clearbit hotness to start them off right.
Pair them with a buddy for the first 90 days
The worst thing you can do for a new remote employee is to make them feel like they are alone. You should pair new hires with someone on their team for the first 90 days. Be deliberate who you pair together; ensure that they have enough time to dedicate to your new hire.
Make sure you do plenty of check-ins, and encourage folks on your team and other teams to reach out to new hires and welcome them to Clearbit. All new hires should have casual one-on-one hangouts within their first month.
Managing remote teams
Meet physically at least four times a year
It's just not possible to get around in-person meetings; our brains just aren't wired that way. Humans still struggle to trust each other without hanging out together and having some shared experiences. Even the most effective distributed companies still make a point to get everyone together once a year.
Think of having in-person interactions as charging a battery. Working from home slowly drains the battery, while visiting your team replenishes it. It's possible to get work done with a depleted battery, but it's less efficient. A good rule of thumb is that you need that battery recharged at least four times a year.
Team off-sites, company off-sites, and visits to our office in San Francisco are all great ways to recharge that battery and build trust between people. Humans bond over shared experiences, especially overcoming some type of adversary together. As a manager, you should be making space for these experiences with your team.
Clearbit will pay for the travel and accommodation costs of anyone visiting the office and will cover four such trips a year. We also have annual company and team off-sites.
One of the issues working remotely is missing the random social interactions and “water-cooler chat” that can often spark new ideas or, at the very least, introduce you to people in the company you would otherwise not have much interaction with.
We use the Slack Donut bot to simulate this for remote workers. Every two weeks, this bot randomly pairs two people together, encouraging them to either hang out in person or over a Zoom call. These aren't structured conversations, so feel free to talk about whatever you'd like.
It's highly encouraged that everyone signs up, as we've found it to be a really effective way of building trust and helping our remote team feel included.
We're hardwired from birth to play games. They're an integral part of the human condition. Observe any two children left to their own devices; their imagination lights up and the games begin.
As we grow into adults, it can be easy to dismiss games as childish, but they're an important part of bonding and trust building.
Some of our best remote teams play games together weekly. These can be anything from simple word-play games to Mario Kart on the Nintendo Switch. We also organize a monthly whole company Counterstrike “LAN” party.
It's easy to feel excluded in a meeting when you're dialing in and all the other participants are physically in the same room. Speed-of-light limitations mean that you're always going to be at a latency disadvantage. When the conversation is flowing, it can be hard to get a word in edgewise.
There is a simple solution to this: if anyone attending a meeting is remote, then everyone is remote. It can feel silly dialing into the same Zoom call as the person in the adjacent call box, but it's an important part of remote collaboration.
We have found that, due to the size constraints of our office, sometimes there aren’t enough call booths to have everyone join remotely. In this case, the meeting owner becomes the remote advocate, responsible for prompting remote attendees to give their opinion throughout the meeting.
Manage time zones
Remote is hard to pull off successfully as it is, but having people in widely disparate time zones makes things even more difficult! The worst is when someone is in a time zone all by themselves with nobody to chat with.
It’s important to consider time zones when hiring and try to cluster people into similar time zones so they have some interaction. If you have to hire someone in a really remote time zone, make sure you are prepared to go the extra mile in making them feel included.
Have plenty of video touchpoints
Trust is a key indicator of success within remote organizations, but it's almost impossible to develop real trust with any other person if you never see them. Master efficient daily video stand-ups. Adopt talking over typing for simple asks. Promote the use of video collaboration across your team. If done correctly, your team should be able to name details of their teammates’ remote locations (i.e., art on the office wall, books, etc.). It's those kinds of details that endear us to each other and foster trust.
"Let's remember that pairing isn’t just for engineers. One of my favorite things to do is spend 30–60 minutes with someone on my team just helping each other work on whatever is currently on their Asana tasks list. We come up with some of our best ideas this way. So if you’re remote and feeling isolated, try asking a few coworkers to schedule a 30–60 minute working session every two weeks."
— Matt Sornson, Clearbit CMO
The love has to be organic
You can't force culture on any group of people. The team dynamic needs to be organic. Encourage members to team up to take on projects or tasks and bring innovation to the team. Try to arrange trips or situations where the team can meet and socialize in person. You can usually tell the happiness of a team by the number of inside jokes they can tell.
Develop a routine
Working remotely can't be a big free-for-all. We find the best results come from working within an established routine. For example, here's one of our engineering lead's morning work framework:
"My morning routine typically looks like this:
- Take 15 mins to plan out top goals for the day
- Work on the hardest thing(s) on the list for 2 hours
- Take a break and walk the dogs for 30 mins. If I'm blocked, I'm usually thinking of solutions
- Re-group list and work for another hour before lunch"
- Jason Dodds, Engineer at Clearbit
There will be different routines that work better for others, but overall, you should look to balance the freedom you get with remote work with the rigor of a daily framework of execution.
Be you everywhere, with your camera on
Always have your camera on for meetings and touchpoints. Please ask others to do so as well. This is non-negotiable. There should be no state in which you are working where your camera can't be turned on. If you look like ass, own the fact that you look like ass and understand that at some point the people you are talking to will look like ass too. If you don't want to turn the camera on because you are sitting in bed and it's all messed up, then get out of the bed and go sit at a table or something. This isn't rocket science. Be 100% of yourself at all times, but be professional.
Just because it is your home doesn't mean it's not your office
When you work at the office, you probably have a desk and chair and a dope monitor and all this good stuff to work with. You should have all that at home too. Make a point to have a dedicated place where you can work in peace. That place is not your bed. Know that you will be on video calls and that your surroundings need to be presentable. Be able to take a call without kids, roommates, or animals starting something in the background. We have a generous headphone allowance. Use it. You should be able to always have your mic on during a meeting. Don’t be a Mutey Marvin.
Be available, but know when to turn it off
Develop a set of working hours during which your team members know they can count on you being available and communicate those hours with your team. Time zone deltas can make it extremely difficult for teams to collaborate, so make sure all team members are cognizant of their geographical differences.
When you’re heads down trying to focus, set your Slack status to away. You can also use Slack’s Google Calendar integration to automatically set your status when you’re in a meeting.
Within your communicated hours, when a team member pings you on Slack, please respond as expediently as possible. Treat the request as if they are standing next to you. Conversely, you have to be very aware to turn your job off when it's time. It's really easy to jump back into work if you like doing it and it is always available. This can be a major source of friction with families and significant others. Make sure you disconnect during off-hours; most tools allow you to set this clearly, such as status in Slack, office hours in Google Calendar, etc. Please learn to use them, and use them effectively.
Lastly, take responsibility
Clearbit isn’t responsible for our happiness. Nobody aside from you can take responsibility for that. Clearbit’s commitment is to be a vehicle for our own self-growth. That means giving us the space, materials, and safety we need to grow. The rest is on us.
If your meetings aren’t working for you remotely, take charge. For example, say, “hey guys, for our next team meeting can we try having everyone join via Zoom from their desks?”
If you’re lonely, get a co-working space (we cover it) and be social with humans. Ask for help from your team (they love you and will jump at the chance to help).
If you feel like you’re overworked and working until all hours of the night for people in other time zones, fix it. Set boundaries or change your working hours (if that fits your lifestyle). Being remote can be hard, but we’re all here to support you in whatever you need to make it the best working experience possible.
Measuring managers' performance
If you have a goal you're working toward, the most effective way of making progress is to measure that goal and track your progress over time. When it comes to something as amorphous as management, though, how do you quantify it?
It turns out that you can track the level of employee engagement with 12 questions, and these questions work across any company and any industry. These questions are called the Gallup 12, created by the same company that does election polling, and have been tried and tested across thousands of businesses.
Now, are the results of this survey directly correlated with managers’ performance? No, there are lots of other variables (like the output of their team) that are very important to a manager's performance. That said, employee engagement is directly related to retention and productivity. Determining engagement across your team is a great way of seeing areas where you could improve.
The 12 questions are split into two parts, the first (esteem-needs) being the most important. Each question is scored 1 to 5, from strongly disagree to strongly agree, respectively.
The esteem-needs questions
- Do I know what’s expected of me at work?
- Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
- Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
- In the last week, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
- Does my supervisor or someone at work care about me as a person?
- Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
The self-actualization questions
- At work, do my opinions seem to count?
- Does the mission or purpose of the company make me feel like my job is important?
- Are my coworkers committed to doing quality work?
- Do I have a best friend at work?
- In the last six months, has someone talked to me about my progress?
- This last year, have I had the opportunity at work to learn and grow?
How we survey
We ask everyone in the company to fill out an anonymous survey to provide answers to the above questions twice a year. Then we share the raw, anonymized results with each manager and discuss areas of improvement. Note that for smaller teams, anonymity is hard to accomplish.
Below is an example of a table pivoted off each manager. The score represents the mean result across their reports.
What to do with the results
An effective way of understanding how to improve the scores is to reverse the questions.
Esteem-needs questions reversed
- Do my team members have clear job descriptions and clarity around projects, tasks, and expectations?
- Does your team have the resources they need to succeed in their roles?
- Do you have the right people in the right jobs, where they can use and build their strengths? Learn what people do best, and how their passions are different.
- When was the last time you gave praise to the individuals on your team? If it wasn’t in the last week, it’s not regular enough. People crave recognition—your role as a manager is to encourage and cheer-lead your team.
- Do you know who your team members are as people, not as employees?
- Do you provide opportunities for your team to learn new skills and feel like they are moving forward?
Self-actualization questions reversed
- What structure do you have in place for your team members to provide their feedback? Do you listen when it’s given?
- Do your team members know how their role fits into the bigger picture?
- Are you letting poor performers set the standard, or are you encouraging people to lift the bar? Good performers can be demoralized if poor standards are accepted by others.
- Are you providing opportunities for your team to grow supportive relationships at work? Work is a big part of their lives, so it’s vital for people to have fun and friendship.
- Are you providing regular reviews and feedback to help people with a sense of direction at work?
- Are you providing opportunities for advancement?
How to improve
The most useful tool in your management arsenal is a one-on-one. Ask yourself the questions above, and then see how you can provide the support your team needs during their one-on-ones.
Are you setting clear expectations? Are you giving effective positive and critical feedback? Are you discussing wider career growth opportunities with your team and providing a clear path to advancement? Most importantly, have you really gotten to know your team on a deep and personal level?