Long before moving to California, I was a producer in a 100-people newsroom that was based in Moscow. I also worked with over 40 remote editors and journalists from 17 different countries on a daily basis. Back then, it never crossed my mind that it was somehow harder than just having everyone in one place. I was used to Skyping for 5 hours a day. During our team retreats I would hear people speak in Italian, German, French, English, Japanese, Cantonese, Arabic. Seriously, what else could I wish for as a 20-year old? These fond memories of people from all over the world making cool stuff together in a remote work environment drove me to build Wunderdogs as a fully remote company.
However, working in a half-remote company and building a fully remote one from scratch turned out to be two completely different things (sigh). Given the hype around the topic, I thought it would be useful to share my key takeaways from building a remote work environment over the last 2 years. Like, when you have a remote company, your employees can actually just hang up on you.
Tools that help us with remote work
When people hear about our remote work environment, they are immediately curious about the tools we use. Really, we’re not that different from any other company that needs to set tasks, track progress and engage with employees. At the end of the day, tools are just tools, there are no tricks here.
We love using Trello for task management, Slack and Telegram work well for messaging and quick team check-ins. We use Google Hangouts or Zoom for meetings and G Suite for documentation. Figma is a go-to tool for tracking progress for our engineering and web design teams.
The most dramatic difference between a traditional and a distributed company lies in the inability to be face to face with your people. This means that you need to use your tools rigorously, with no exceptions. You also can’t bridge this gap with tools alone - that’s when it really becomes all about culture.
Culture that brings us together
Here’s a nightmare I sometimes have. One day, I wake up, check my phone and see that no one responded to my emails. Our Telegram channel is completely silent. No one read my Slack messages. I stare into the darkness of an empty Google Hangouts window. Yesterday, I was the founder of a successful distributed company. Today, I am just a person in an empty room. All I can do to get my team back, is to write them an email. Then I cry and eat cake, all alone.
Indeed, I am a big drama queen (ask my co-founder). But nevertheless, in order to keep your distributed team intact, the relationships you build with your remote employees have to be stronger than the relationships with people in the same room as you. Otherwise, they are just a bunch of freelancers with no strings attached.
To create and maintain culture in a remote company, you have to go above and beyond. And you have to do it from day one. Everything is trickier: hiring, on-boarding, firing, even celebrating birthdays - you name it. Things you’ve never thought were important can be suddenly blown out of proportion. Sometimes, it’s because a conflict brews and is never solved face-to-face. And sometimes the problem is just a weak WiFi connection.
The best solution to these problems is obviously prevention. But new and unpredictable things come up, and then you just have to deal with them on emergency calls in the middle of the night. To prevent and alleviate as many interpersonal challenges as we could, we’ve built our company on “Burning Man-esque” principles of radical transparency, self-reliance, trust, and impulsive gifts. Seriously, never underestimate the impact of receiving something from the other end of the world in a cute glitter box.
Building a remote structure is not the solution for every company; but I believe that not forcing creative teams into an office allows you to nurture highly autonomous, self-organized and loyal employees. We work and travel, live wherever we want and choose a schedule that helps us maximize productivity.
Operations that keep our feet on the ground
Every day I start working at 6 AM. My co-founder, though also in San Francisco, has a different schedule as she wants to spend more time with her little daughter during the day. She is responsible for our operations and production; so she has to engage with all of our production teams every day, setting them tasks late in the evening. Our rule of thumb is to have at least 4 hours of cross-over with all of our teams’ work schedules.
Our developers are the first to start working every day. Then go creative teams - client-facing sales and account managers are the last. This structure allows us to save almost an entire workday on top of every project timeline. By the time most of our clients wake up, everything is ready. Having someone on every continent also helps our team serve and meet clients anywhere without breaking the bank of getting all of us in one location.
My little gross underestimations about remote work
“Listener fatigue” is a real thing - the feeling when your ear is about to fall off and your phone is hotter than McDonald’s coffee. Seriously, I’ve never really carefully thought through the experience of spending most of my days talking on the phone. Did you know your over-the-ear headphones can mold your ears into a brand new, more rounded shape (quite an upside for me)?
The trade-off for working at a remote agency is fighting a desire to become a complete hermit, never leave your house and avoid any real-world interactions. We do our best to solve it for our teams through encouraging them to travel, meet each other, work together whenever they can and to represent our company as ambassadors at their local events, no matter their position. This comes at a price of rigorous training, but also brings great returns.
As I’ve mentioned before, someone can literally hang up on you - it’s way easier than storming off from the meeting. Conflict resolution becomes x10 more complicated when you can’t deal with it face-to-face. Think of those multiple petty arguments you’ve had with people over text that just blew way, way out of proportion.
As an agency, we are often expected to have a fancy office with gigantic pop-art images on the walls and a bearded receptionist wearing a red beanie. Even in forward-thinking Silicon Valley, the overall concept of a creative agency is still deeply rooted in people’s memory of Don Draper and Mad Men.
It is hard to shift this mindset and break the baseline perception of us being a bunch of freelancers; especially for potential clients from the baby boomer generation. With some of them we are simply not a good fit and we’ve learned to accept that. Many companies and organizations value quality and speed of remote work beyond a fancy office; especially those familiar with distributed models (yes, anonymous Blockchain founder, I am looking at you). But our ability to build trust through digital efforts is crucial to our success no matter the target audience.
Early bird gets to explain to everyone that it is indeed, an actual bird
The concept of a remote company is fairly novel to the world; whether we think talent, clients, partners or even governments and laws. As an entity, we have fewer business perks compared to traditional companies and we have to fight a little harder in order to be treated on par with them. Working across borders makes it tricky to streamline things like payrolls, health insurance, and filing taxes. Being overly cautious and up-to-date about the ever-changing laws around remote workers helps prevent major accidents.
I love my remote work. But more than that, I love my team. I strongly believe that if not for the remote structure, we would not be able to gather such an incredibly diverse, interesting and open-minded crew under one digital roof. In this sense, Wunderdogs is fulfilling my dream from back when I was 20: to have your team tight, while your business - truly global.