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. - Op
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 controlling people? 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.