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10 things I learned about building a remote-working company

While I was COO at Dotscience I learned a bunch about building a remote-only company. Here’s the highlights!

  1. Embrace the high-trust culture
    In office-based jobs you may be relying on staff presence in the office as a proxy for trust. “How do you know if people are doing their work?” people would ask me. I would ask them back “How do you?”.
  2. Use video calls by default
    All our meetings were video conferences. Being able to see one another helps with connection and communication. We never made a big deal if someone wanted their camera off for any reason, but it was understood that the default was cameras on.
  3. Use real-time collaboration tools
    Mostly we used Google Docs as a scratchpad during meetings. We’d create an agenda doc ahead of time which anyone could add to, and then we’d minute/collaborate in realtime as we worked through it. All types of meeting can benefit from this approach, we seldom felt the lack of a whiteboard even though online whiteboard tools are available.
  4. Get together to build relationships
    For some very strange reason, some people think that “admitting” that in-person time is unique and valuable means that remote working is a failed experiment. We disagree! We quickly came to realise that getting together as a team in the flesh was hugely beneficial in terms of building the social elements of our working relationships. We got to the point where we agreed that the output of team days was to be closer relationships, not strategy or code.
  5. Connect frequently
    We had a full-team standup daily to ensure alignment and a chance to check in with one another. We used Slack to share work and non-work chitchat, we had open meeting invites and had a standing Google Meet URL, known affectionately as “xok” which were the last three letters of its identifier!
  6. Make space for water cooler conversation
    We had a lot of social events at our team days, and in between times we use a tool called Donut to arrange random pairings for a coffee date (in person or virtual). You could try allocating the first 5 minutes of each call to catching up and checking in with people. It’s also useful to build in fun rituals, we told jokes at the end of every standup.
  7. Model honesty about productivity and commitments
    As part of the high-trust environment we took care to share demands on our time that came from outside work. People with kids would say if they had a bad night’s sleep and hadn’t been productive, or that they needed to do less that day due to unexpected childcare. The understanding was that it would all come out in the wash.
  8. Invest in compassionate personal support
    It’s much less easy to see whether people are struggling both as a manager and a co-worker. As a line-manager, I prioritised high-quality, monthly 1:1s with a focus on the state of the employer-employee relationship, wellness and intrinsic motivation. I always took an hour and travelled to see people in person where feasible. As a co-worker, keep an eye out for when people seem different to normal and reach out to check in on them. Make sure you have up to date contact and emergency contact details for everyone — if they go offline unexpectedly for too long you’ll need a way to find out if they are OK.
  9. Support remote working fully
    You’re saving money in office expenses, sick days and staff turnover, so put your hand in your pocket to make remote working work. Give your staff high-grade equipment such as sit-stand desks and ergonomic chairs. Cover the costs of getting them out of the house and work in a social environment like a coffee shop or co-working space at least some of the time.
  10. Make work visible and visibly assigned
    It can be easy to lose track of who’s doing what when you are not co-located. As well as a daily standup, we used GitHub project (kanban) boards to make all work visible and visibly assigned. In the standup we’d sync to make sure that it was up to date and there was no treading on toes.

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