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Creating a remote-first culture is hard but worthwhile

Lillian Grace, Guest post. 31 March 2016, 8:06 am
Creating a remote-first culture is hard but worthwhile

"Do we want a team made up of people who can make it into the same office at the same time, or do we want to be able to hire the best person regardless of where they are and when they can work?"

This was a question our Chief Technology Officer at Figure.NZ, Rob Isaac asked me, followed with "we can do either, but knowing which one we want will have big implications on the tools we use, so we do need to decide."

Given the unlikelihood of the best people for Figure.NZ living within daily-travel distance of each other and being most productive at the same time of day, I opted for the latter and unknowingly took the first step down a path that would challenge everything I knew about running a team.

I assumed working with people spread around meant we would behave and operate the same as when in person, but online. Then Nat Dudley, our Head of Design, sent me an article on Remote-first vs. Remote-friendly.

We started to adopt the remote-first approach, which meant designing the way we communicate and work to embrace remote working, rather than just adding the ability for remote workers to join in on how things are currently done.

Here are some of the specifics we are working towards:

  • Slack and Trello are our main tools for communicating and workflow
  • Almost all communication is done through Slack, and in as few channels as possible 
  • Summarise meetings and list their actions in a post in Slack - whether formal/informal or internal/external 
  • Never email unless an external person is included, if you want to share an email with the team, post it in Slack
  • Anyone can raise a paddle at any time if they are concerned about the direction of something, regardless of if it's in their domain area or not and everyone available will stop and address the problem (we've had about three of these to date)
  • Check-in at the start of the day with what you're going to be doing and where you'll be
  • Use Slack reactions such as 'eyes on' when you've seen something but don't have time to respond

The list of things we try and do is long, and we'll publish it publicly when it's ready.

Some of these we still really suck at. Remote-first is hard; it is time-consuming and requires ongoing attention and thought, and we sometimes get speed-wobbles during crunch-times.

But there are surprising outcomes that are making the investment of time and pushing through the hard parts well worthwhile. Here are some observations so far:

  • Everyone in the team is able to operate with deep contextual knowledge. With most communication occurring in front of everyone, the ambient awareness of what's going on enables everyone to make better decisions for our overall goals, not just for their own domain.
  • There is greater respect for different disciplines by seeing the thought and logic behind decisions that would otherwise be jarring.
  • Observing conversations happening in other domains gives the opportunity for people to jump in with a solution that no one knew to ask for - i.e. a developer seeing the data team discussing an issue and being able to jump in with a quick-fix.
  • Everyone can share their thoughts despite not being the fastest or loudest.
  • And personally I have found that knowing what I say will be read by everyone makes me far more conscious about what I'm saying and how I'm saying it. It doesn't prevent me from sharing my thoughts at all, rather it means I go an additional loop in my mind to see how what I'm saying would be received by a bunch of different people not just the one person I'm talking to. It means making less wild assumptions or assertions, and that I work to be clearer in my thinking, expression and rationale.

Until the last decade or two the ways we could communicate were pretty limited and defined. As we've moved into a more online world we've been using tools to replicate many of the ways we previously communicated. But now, the tools of today are enabling as to work differently than is even possible in person.

I thought we'd nailed remote-first as a working principle a few months in, but that was wrong. The implications of being able to organise ourselves and communicate differently are huge, but they're also pretty unknown. There's a whole new world ahead of us to explore, and we're only just scratching the surface now. 

Lillian Grace is CEO and Founder of Figure.NZ. She is also on the Data Futures Partnership Working Group, and on the boards of the NZ Innovation Partnership and CoRE Te P┼źnaha Matatini.


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