Top 10 companies winning at remote work culture and their secrets
The workforce as a whole is moving closer to remote, distributed teams made of freelance and independent workers, as we uncovered in the top freelance trends of 2016. Whenever there’s a shift in the way we work together as a society and economy, uncertainty can create a feeling of fear or anxiousness. Fortunately, there are several companies that have embraced remote work culture and have shared their lessons along the way.
We took a look at the 10 companies that are leading the way in remote work and what we can learn from them to become better, more productive and happy remote workers. (Note: The companies below are fully remote. For 10 more companies mastering the hybrid remote and HQ setup, check out this list.)
Automattic was one of the first companies to pave the way in remote work culture. Valued at more than $1 billion, Automattic is responsible for developing WordPress.com and a range of products and services for WordPress users. The company powers 24% of all websites on the internet today with a 400-person team distributed across 40 countries who don’t share an office or use email.
According to CEO Matt Mullenweg (pictured above) in this interview with Glenn Leibowitz, “This has been amazing for the company in that we can attract and retain the best talent without them having to be in New York or San Francisco or one of the traditional tech centers.”
How have they been able to keep such a large team happy and successful from all corners of the world? By focusing on streamlined and open communications. Rather than email, the company uses chat and an internal blog called P2 that has its own version of a Google Alerts system so employees can keep up with everyone without having to read everything that goes by.
Automattic even hires without a single voice interview. Crazy, right? Well, with 100% retention in the design and growth departments according to this post on davemart.in, maybe not so much. Here’s their process:
- Matt, the CEO screens all resumes
- The hiring lead sends quality candidates a note
- The hiring lead then pings them on Skype – and has a Q&A via Skype chat
- The candidate completes a paid trial project on their own time
- Matt has a final review chat on Skype with the candidate
Other secrets to Automattic’s remote success include:
- Provide team members with the best equipment for doing their jobs
- A stipend for improving their home offices
- Allowing any team to meet wherever they want for a “hack week”
- Once a year, the entire company gets together for a “grand meetup” in a beautiful location
- Employees make their own schedules
With 42 members and growing fast, Buffer is another team distributed across the world who’s been transparent in how they experiment with remote culture to find what works for them. For Buffer, being distributed across time zones means that a team member is available to speak with customers around the clock – which is at the core of their values as a company. Being distributed benefits their business and the end result for their customers.
To keep their remote team happy and productive, they provide their team with the tools and resources they need to be successful. This of course means laptops, Kindles and software such as Speak.io for super fast video conferencing, Timezone.io for knowing when and where your team members are and Hipchat for regular communications. Keeping a remote team happy has also meant setting up their salary structure in a way that’s partially based on location. This allows team members to afford cost of living no matter where they are.
One of the many things Buffer does better than so many organizations is openly communicating how they champion a culture of mutual respect and trust and the big role remote work plays in that. Many members of the team have written about this and how working remotely with Buffer has allowed them to live much happier, more fulfilled lives.
In terms or remote work productivity, Buffer’s business development lead, Rodolphe Dutel has really paved the way. He shares his five tricks for being productive while working remotely here, but the gist is:
- Use ad blockers to reduce the noise
- Save interesting articles with Pocket instead of clicking them immediately
- Organize information with Feedly and Buffer
- Keep learning with audio books and videos on the go
- Focus with time boxing
Like Automattic, Buffer also brings the team together regularly with retreats in different locations every five months. The last one even included significant others. But with more team members with families, they’re considering spacing these out more. Learn more about how the Buffer team has made remote work for them in our #peepchat recap we had with Rodolphe.
Zapier champions remote work so much that they wrote an extensive guide on it. If you’re not familiar, Zapier connects the apps you use to automate tasks and get more out of your data. Naturally, they’re proponents of working smarter rather than harder with a focus on getting stuff done.
Danny Schreiber who’s on the marketing team at Zapier shared some insights on how they’ve mastered remote work productivity within the team. For them, streamlining communication has meant putting context and purpose behind the tools they use. When a new team member joins Zapier, they’re given a list of apps where communication occurs, sometimes with lists of their own.
The marketing team, for example, is given this guide:
- Slack for ongoing chatter in their designated channels
- Trello Editorial Calendar board for discussion around individual blog posts
- Google Docs for Weekly Marketing Meeting notes
- Google Calendar for keeping up with each others’ schedules, including out of office
- Async (their internal blog modeled after Automattic’s P2 mentioned above) for Friday Updates and Monthly Marketing Updates
- The email@example.com email for Daily Recaps (automated), hiring decisions, hiring announcements, time-sensitive news or questions
In addition to these, Danny also uses these tools for staying on track as a remote marketer:
- Zapier, of course, to pull in relevant alerts and activity into Slack, such as activity in Trello or new mentions of “Zapier” on Hacker News and Reddit
- Hackpad for documentation and notes
- RecordIt for quick GIFs to use in customer support or marketing work
- Zoom, which has impressed us as a high-quality video conferencing provider for 25+ people on the same call
- Screenflow to record high-quality screencasts
- Flux (the screen dimming software) is great for keeping my eyes from getting tired since I’m not in an office environment with great lighting to contrast bright screens
And of course the Zapier team goes on retreats together too.
We admire Groove as a company for many reasons. One is their stellar storytelling approach to content, the other is their success as a remote company. As Alex Turnbull, the CEO shares in this post, they attribute remote work success less to the tools you use and more to company culture, principles, vision and the habits you build around all three of those factors.
For them, remote success is about hiring good remote workers. Key qualities they look for when hiring include someone who:
- Has worked remotely before or ran their own small business
- Is a mature decision maker, meaning they can make the best decisions for customers and manage their energy on their own
- Who’s an extraordinary communicator
Like any successful remote team, Groove doesn’t expect team members to be strapped to their desks at all times. They want each individual team member to work when they’re most productive. That said, it’s important that they stay in synch and know who’s working on what. To do this, they have daily “standup meetings” in Slack where everyone shares what they’re working on for the day, host weekly team calls, and share quarterly and annual goals on a team and individual level.
To maintain a healthy team culture, Groove has a water cooler Slack room where the team shares non-work-related updates. Alex also has regular calls with teammates to discuss both work and any personal interests or updates they want to talk about.
Basecamp, once known as 37Signals, is pretty much the godfather of remote work, having published the books Remote and Rework. Basecamp’s success in remote work is simple – they focus on making life better through remote work rather than making work better.
Basecamp’s leaders asked people where they get the most done and found that the most common answers were either a time of day (early in the morning, late at night or on the weekends), a place, location or room (porch, kitchen, certain chair), or a moving object (plane, train – on a commute). No one said the office with their team. People get the most done when they don’t have interruptions.
In the book Remote, the company’s founders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson strongly champion routine. For example, they suggest changing out of your pajamas, even if it’s into something just as comfortable or having “work slippers” and “play slippers.” They also suggest designating a certain part of your house for work only. All with the understanding that routine will prevent overwork and burnout.
In terms of motivation, they say the key is to encourage people to work on the stuff they like and care about with the people they like and care about. They believe work should be challenging, interesting and engaging, which motivates people to focus no matter where they are.
Like Groove, Baremetrics focuses on hiring professional remote workers — people who are self-motivated or capable of major problem solving. They also look for people who are great writers, since so much communication happens via text online and for people who have non-industry hobbies, as people with a outlet are less likely to get burnt out.
Most importantly, Baremetrics encourages self-care as a priority. Their tips for self-care are:
- Have set work hours and stick to them
- Exercise every single day
- Alternate between sitting and standing
- Eat well
- Take frequent breaks
And they too have company retreats for face-to-face, get-stuff-done time.
Treehouse’s remote success is largely due to its focus on building loyalty and trust. Founder Ryan Carson believes in the power of being generous and offering shocking benefits that inspire loyalty when managing a remote team, including health benefits, retirement contributions, a four-day workweek, paid sabbaticals and a lunch stipend, just for starters. Ryan also errs on the side of transparency and gives each team member a salary range with a set quarterly increase they could get to give them a sense of progression.
For tools, Treehouse uses Automattic’s P2 blog theme for their internal blog because they found communications on other platforms to be too transient and impersonal. They use Google Drive to collaborate and Google Draw to whiteboard ideas. They manage larger company projects using Trello.
Collaborative design software company InVision is another remote team spread across the globe. Like many others on the list, Invision puts high priority on communication. Product designer Andrew Cullen says that switching to Slack improved collaboration across the company and increased transparency. The company also ensures that there’s five to six hours of cross-over time among team members in different time zones.
Each team has a short daily standup to discuss progress on current projects and any potential issues with a project. They believe that great work can be done anywhere and think that talented workers should be able to work from wherever they’re most comfortable.
9) Help Scout
Help Scout, a leader in customer support is another company known for its success in building a remote team. You should definitely check out their blog for a ton of tips and insights about being a remote team. I personally love their Friday Fika tradition – a weekly 15-30 minute break to talk with a randomly chosen person on the Help Scout team.
Gregory Ciotti on the marketing team shared another secret to the company’s remote success with us:
“We figure being new at work isn’t so far removed from being the new kid at school. Wouldn’t it be nice to make a friend on the first day? For every new Help Scout teammate, someone who’s been on board for a while steps up and becomes their go-to guy/gal who shows them the ropes. Work friends matter, and although they naturally form over time, feeling settled in shouldn’t wait.”
Some of the activities they suggest team members to do with their new buddies are:
- Check-in every couple of days to see how things are going
- Share a story from the team retreats, or what it’s like to hang out in Boston
- Share “unwritten rules,” like the subtle difference between the #general and #offtopic channels in Slack
- Have a video chat over Appear.in or Skype
- Give them the run-down on who to ask for what (ex: Nick and Justin handle questions about hipster coffee beans)
He added, “A new buddy is especially important for remote work because you’re not meeting a ton of people face-to-face your first few weeks. With so much to take in, now is not the time to let things get quiet.”
We too work as a remote, distributed team. In addition to the four of us who are based in San Francisco and Brooklyn, we work closely with several freelancers and Peeps located around the world. For us, remote work success has meant clear and concise communication and an open-door policy.
We use Github (specifically their Issues product) and Trello to manage our tech workflow and Asana to manage all of our non-tech team projects. At any given time, we can see what any team member is working on and the status of any project or task. Asana allows us to easily collaborate on projects without disrupting our flow like chat sometimes does. That said, we also use Slack for ongoing communications, to ask quick questions, for fun talk in our #random group and to share interesting articles we often discuss later in #readinglist. Each team member is also given a copy of Remote by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.
We also have a weekly standup call on Google Hangouts where we discuss overarching weekly goals and what each person is focused on for the week. For transparency and team building, we have monthly pair calls where team members pair up to share feedback with one another and determine how they can help each other. And of course, we too go on team retreats not just for some needed face time, but also to work in sprints and get big projects that require a lot of brainstorming done.
Your new favorite remote work resources
A post about remote work of course wouldn’t be complete without resources. Here’s some of our favorites!
- Outsite: Stay, work and play in beautiful locations
- Remotive: A weekly newsletter on remote tips and jobs
- Remote.co: A resource for companies that see remote work as the future
- Nomad List: The best cities to live and work remotely
- Pajamas.io: A collection of interviews with remote workers
- Remote Year: Travel and work remotely for a year
- Startup Retreats: The best remote work communities and co-living spaces for retreats
If you’re looking for a remote freelance job in content, community or marketing, visit CloudPeeps for stellar opportunities. We’d love to have you!
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