“Yesterday, we moved our company to a fully remote team in response to the COVID-19 threat. Now I’m the CEO of a company where I see zero people on my team. Every single day. ”
Those are the words of one leader who is taking action and doing what’s best for employees.
I have run companies with distributed teams for 20 years. We pioneered the model at MySQL with 350 employees of 500 working from home in 110 major cities in 32 countries across 16 time zones. Today at HackerOne, we employ a hybrid model where about a third of employees work from home all the time and another third work from home a few days each week. And we are surrounded by a hacker community 2,000 times larger. All 600,000 people work from home all over the world.
Here is my advice to those who are making the jump right now amidst the outbreak of coronavirus.
Start from the top
The CEO must be present in online tools and channels, communicating proactively and engaging in timely conversations where they are happening and knowing when to bring things to video chats. Available, approachable, personable, showing their personal side and not just their professional side, showing vulnerability and not just strength, listening more than pontificating. Encouraging, praising, and high-fiving people across the company. When the organization sees that the CEO has gone completely remote and digital, they will be ready to follow.
A risk with remote work is that people start spending too much time online without natural transitions throughout the day, working unhealthily long hours. It’s important for the CEO to set an example of going offline for the time when work isn’t being done.
Reinforce the company’s mission, purpose, and values
Start there. Make sure you can explain in plain writing why the company exists and what it is trying to accomplish. From there, develop goals and objectives, as deep and detailed as possible. When employees have a vision that they can rally behind as a group, alignment becomes easier across time zones.
Be open and authentic
Culture begins at the top, and any successful team begins with trust. To foster this trust, executives must be open and authentic across channels. When sensitive topics arise, run to the fire, not away from it. Deal with the issues raised by employees, don’t hide from them. Secrecy, intrigue, or hidden agendas will kill any effort to build internal digital trust, which all executives need in return. Learn to be courteous, diplomatic, and compassionate online, and the same ideals will manifest within your team.
Promote a digital company culture
In an office-based company, culture and interpersonal relationships happen spontaneously in the physical space while decisions and business happen in the digital space. When you go all digital and all remote, you must find online expressions for your culture. Jokes, high-fives, celebrations, gossip, community, family, personal interests, attention to the humans behind the professional persona—all these things need to be brought over to the digital world and given a worthy place and channel that allows for spontaneous and randomized encounters. You must create a virtual water cooler where employees can run into each other and play out their personal and human sides.
Use the right tools, and use them all the time
Use every digital tool you have available to facilitate communication. Connect over text messaging, Slack, email, wikis, hangouts and video conferences. Use group chats as the backchannel during online meetings. Let people use what they are comfortable with to ease discussion. Copy and paste content if needed.
At the same time, I must recognize that there are other successful distributed organizations that do the exact opposite. They choose a minimal set of online tools and are highly prescriptive as to which tool to use for which purpose. In my own experiences, being flexible has been most beneficial.
Create remote-first experiences
In Slack or a similar tool, create a channel where employees can spontaneously issue high-fives to each other. Celebrate every high-five and add many happy emojis. You could also create a Confessions channel where employees can confess things to each other. And a Milestones channel to celebrate birthdays and promotions, but also announce departures. You can take it one step further and implement a discretionary bonus program, where bonuses are only nominated for exemplifying values. Not sales, not revenue, not “working late.” Values. That’s how GitLab does it.
If you have meetings with people in the room and others remote, always stop to let the remote attendees speak first. If you are planning an event or meeting or some project work, start by considering the needs of the most remote attendees. From there, it is easy to accommodate everyone else, but the other way around would be much more difficult.
Be creative when handling conflicts and problems
In the case of individual underperforming or problems with teamwork, in an office setting, you can call the person or people into a room to face the situation and deal with it. How do you do this if you can’t bring people into the same room? How do you fire someone remotely? How do you take disciplinary action?
It is difficult, but it is not impossible. It just takes more communication and more time. You will need to write a detailed script for your call, thinking of all the possible interpretations and misunderstandings that your statements may cause, preemptively dealing with them. Your script should address the intent of those involved, talk about values and guidelines, and logically proceed to the conclusion that you have arrived at.
In an office setting, people will find numerous ways to display their compassion for each other. They show they are caring by buying lunch for a colleague or cleaning up after someone. But in an all-remote environment, those mechanisms don’t exist. So you must look for other ways to care and show compassion. Learn to send caring emails or chat messages. Have flowers or a gift card to be sent to someone who needs or deserves it. Consider sharing photos of the gifts online for all to see.
The fishing village
I use an ancient fishing village as a metaphor for the virtual organization. In the evenings, the fishermen get together to be social and have fun. But every morning before dawn, they each head out to sea alone in their individual small fishing boats. They can stay in radio contact with each other, but each fisherman is on his own. There is little direct help they can offer each other. There is no coming back until enough fish have been caught. But once they get back, they are together having fun again.
The all-remote organization is like this. Each employee is alone in their boat, working until the work is done. Every now and then, the company brings everyone together to one place and there is time to be social and share fishing stories.
There are many other metaphors for this working environment. They could be goat herders alone with the goats in the mountains, hunters away for days on end, or lumberjacks working in the forest. Being alone with your most immediate job yet being connected with others who are doing the same is nothing new for mankind. It has been like this for tens of thousands of years.
The Industrial Revolution brought us the idea that work is a place different from home and that work is done in physical proximity of many other people. It is the idea of the joint workplace that is the anomaly. Working from home is natural.
As you apply these guidelines, you will see that remote work is not a challenge to overcome. It’s a business advantage to achieve. The whole world is online. Our human civilization is digital. We will have distributed and remote organizations long after the coronavirus outbreak recedes. By not tying work or collaboration to any particular physical location or synchronous moment, we democratize opportunity and open up a world of new possibilities.
Marten Mickos is the CEO of HackerOne.