CEO of Toptal, Taso Du Val, shares his insights and knowledge from managing a remote company for over 10 years. Learn how he’s built a successful remote workplace that prioritizes culture and accountability.
When companies of all shapes and sizes scrambled to make the transition to a remote working environment in March 2020, certain companies weren’t fazed one bit.
One of these companies was Toptal: an elite network of the world’s top talent in business design and technology, enabling companies to scale their teams on demand. Toptal has been remote since the beginning, so CEO Taso Du Val was already well-prepared.
Du Val is here to share his perspective and tips for organizations struggling with finding success in a remote world.
How Toptal decided on a remote workplace
Choosing the remote life came naturally for Toptal. Du Val shares, “We’ve been remote since day one, all the way back in 2010. It was an easy decision since I was in Palo Alto, CA, and a lot of the people working with me were in different countries.”
Like many savvy companies, Toptal realized that remote work gave them access to talent across the globe rather than limiting themselves to a specific city.
Remote work challenges
When asked about remote work challenges, Du Val said, “Most of the challenges we had from 10 years ago–which were mainly around organization and communication–have been alleviated, and the processes have become more fluid.”
He shared how they’ve stayed ahead of the curve by leveraging the latest technologies for remote teams.
“For instance, we used to use Skype and tools like that, which are a bit old fashioned. Now we use Slack. We’ve built our own tools on top of Slack that have integrated with Zoom in a compelling way. Now everything is more fluid, more organized, and we’re able to flourish.”
Choosing the right tools
At Toptal, the right tools increased productivity and allowed them to create a workflow that made everyday tasks simple. New tools can make the transition to remote work more accessible for many organizations, but it’s all about choosing wisely.
“When it comes to decisions around tools, a lot rides on the organization. Many companies already have deals with Microsoft or Google, so it depends. The choice of tools will be based on the business as it currently stands. Often, the decision-making is more political than it is practical. And the decisions on which tools you use have sweeping ramifications affecting remote work. If you’re between two tools, and one has fewer features or is inferior to the other, don’t go with the lesser choice. Otherwise, you’re going to have an inferior work experience, and therefore an inferior company.”
Culture must be a top priority for remote workplaces
For many organizations that were forced to shift to remote work, it was a stress test on their corporate culture. They had to move fast to get infrastructure in place and accommodate the changing landscape. In the initial scramble, culture was the last priority for many.
Fast forward to 2022, and it’s a stress test for different reasons. Du Val explains, “Now, organizations are faced with asking questions like ‘Are we going to lose our best people? Should we continue with remote work?’ But to put it simply, everyone knows people want a remote workplace.”
So why are companies debating if they should continue remote work? According to Du Val, the answer is simple:
Allow your employees to work remotely because it’s effective and it works. Everyone recognizes that around the world.
He continues, “Companies who say differently should remember that they’re on the world stage, and everyone’s a jury. It’s simply an absurd statement at this point. To me, remote working is more effective and more desirable than working in an office.
I’ve also found, sometimes it’s more political than anything. Let’s say you have a CEO in their 60s and 70s who doesn’t believe this is true of remote work. And then suddenly, they find their employees want to leave the company. It’s putting more political pressure on them than business pressure. But it is starting to meld because your internal strength, of course, is representative of your business strength and the ability for any company to compete in their market.”
After over a year and a half of successful remote working, you can see that productivity has actually increased. It’s challenging to justify that your team should be in the office 5 days a week.
Building remote company culture
Just because your organization is remote doesn’t mean you have to throw corporate culture out the window. A remote workforce puts its own positive spin on the possibilities for culture.
Building culture in a remote space requires leadership to be more intentional than simply setting up a team lunch or breakroom meetup. However, remote workplaces aren’t limited by office space. Remote company culture can be built through technology and tools, along with virtual team events.
A consistent challenge that organizations face is onboarding new employees. At Toptal, a significant element of their corporate culture is their onboarding and how they introduce new employees to the company — even when they’re not physically present.
“At Toptal, we have exceptional onboarding, and I know that because we have senior folks from Microsoft, Google, and Facebook who have all said it’s the best onboarding experience they’ve ever had. We do this by capturing how the organization operates and communicating through video, almost like a learning and development process.
We make it very intentionally relative to the role at hand. Everything is tailored to the exact role with personalized onboarding programs per role,” shares Du Val.
Onboarding is not one size fits all. By tailoring the experience to specific roles, it can be much more effective.
Challenges of a hybrid workplace
A recent trend is that many organizations are trying to please their employees by offering the compromise of a hybrid working environment. While some CEOs or C-suite executives may think this is a good halfway point, hybrid offices can be a challenge too.
Du Val explains, “Hybrid work is a challenge unto itself because you have the disconnect problem. You miss the conversation when you have someone in a conference room, and you’re at home. Or, if someone is talking to others in the room, the person online can’t hear properly. In the room there may be camaraderie, but holistically there’s not.
This disconnect only exists in hybrid work, and unfortunately, there’s not a lot of great solutions to deal with this sort of problem. However, in the remote work environment, it’s much more straightforward. I think the remote work environment works exceptionally well.”
Hybrid workplaces create more opportunities for employees to be left out, while remote workplaces allow everyone to be on the same playing field as they connect digitally.
How to keep remote workers accountable
Some organizations may argue that it’s harder to keep remote workers accountable and aligned with a company’s vision, mission, and goals. But for those at Toptal, that simply isn’t the case.
“Like many companies, we have created our own version of what works. We use specific OKRs, org charts, and different elements that pertain to how we operate at an organizational level. We also have yearly and quarterly planning to review what has been done and then plan what we’re going to do for the future.
In terms of the basic tools we probably use what most companies use, though we’ve perfected it by developing software that allows each person to know who’s responsible for what within the organization, and then we tie these initiatives to goals.
Anyone joining Toptal can very clearly see how our goals are formulated, who owns what goal, how the initiatives relate to a given set of goals, who owns those, and what teams they’re running as a byproduct of owning these specific initiatives or projects, or sub-projects at hand. It all comes down to technology, and companies are investing way more in technology than they were before because COVID put the pressure on them to do so.“
The best course of action in a remote workplace is to test different systems to see what resonates with employees.
Advice for organizations considering remote work
For companies still on the fence about whether to stick with remote work in the future, Du Val makes it exceptionally simple:
Do it. That’s it. Sell your office, start working from home. And if you have any challenges, at least you can go to bed knowing that you’re saving a lot of money on real estate expenses.
Remote work is the future. There’s no doubt about that. That is the truth, and the talent themselves will speak for that. They will leave their companies if a company makes them go into an office. It is as simple as that.
Du Val goes on to state, “Over the next ten years, companies that don’t go remote will disappear and be replaced. New companies will compete by having the most competent people all work from home, and the other companies won’t attract them anymore.”
Is your company planning to embrace remote work or head back to the office? Let us know in the comments below.
Learn how Modern Tribe has thrived as a remote company since 2006. CEO Shane Pearlman shares how they built a flexible, fully-remote culture that allows them to tap into top remote talent around the world.
For many companies, the shift to remote or hybrid work was a quick and stressful transition due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for some, remote work wasn’t a transition at all.
Modern Tribe, a digital agency, has been remote since it was founded in 2006. The Modern Tribe team has a remote-first mindset when it comes to their company. In fact, their CEO is running the company from the Canary Islands—no formal office needed.
Shane Pearlman, CEO of Modern Tribe, joined Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, to chat about how Modern Tribe has thrived, attracted top remote talent, and tackled challenges while being 100% remote.
The remote-first mindset
Shane Pearlman started Modern Tribe in 2006 as a fully remote company and never looked back.
For Shane and his team, what matters most is the results that his employees produce, not where their offices are. By removing the barrier of having to be in-office, Modern Tribe has access to a global talent pool — which really increases their opportunity of attracting top remote talent. “We made a decision really early on that it didn’t really matter where you worked. We were willing to pay for results, and so we set a benchmark that was location independent,” said Pearlman.
In addition to the top talent from around the world that they have access to, they’ve also given themselves an advantage when it comes to retention. When it doesn’t matter where you live, what time zone you work in, or what hours you choose to be online, you allow your employees to design their own workdays in ways that work best for them. This means they’re more likely to be happy at work and stay with your company.
“It allowed us to design a work style around flexibility. There’s a lot of people who believe work is 9-5, but when you don’t care about time zones, it frees you up to design your work around your best life.”
Tackling challenges with remote-first work
There are many benefits to remote-first work, but it comes with its own set of challenges as well.
One key challenge faced by Shane and his team is fostering empathy between people at work. When you’re not face-to-face, it’s harder to create close connections with your coworkers and even harder for companies to create opportunities for coworkers to connect.
As a remote-first company, Modern Tribe leaders spend nearly as much time and money on building culture as a fully in-person company would. They’re able to go on retreats and host company and team activities. They’ve even built their own internal system for people to highlight one another’s achievements.
Another key challenge of remote work is accountability. A common misconception is that if you can’t see your employees and you don’t know what they’re doing, they must not be getting their jobs done. This is not true for the team at Modern Tribe.
The leaders at Modern Tribe hold their employees accountable for getting their own work done, on their own time, within the proper timelines. Not everyone is built to work at a fully remote company, but at the end of the day, accountability and self-management are the keys to success in a remote environment.
“I have a lot of people ask me, ‘Can anybody work remote?’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, but not necessarily well or happily.’ It takes a certain amount of self-management,” shared Pearlman.
Although Modern Tribe has been remote for over a decade, now that more companies are moving to fully remote or hybrid work, they have more competition for remote talent.
Today, there are more opportunities than ever to join a fully remote company and work from wherever you’re happiest. Luckily, the Modern Tribe team was able to make lemonade out of lemons and turn the challenge of competition into a positive.
“We never fished in the same ponds until suddenly… we did. And that’s genuinely created a business challenge for me organizationally. What it did though, was force us to get more creative as a result. We have a much more diverse applicant pool because we’ve had to go fishing in places we originally didn’t.”
Maintaining a fully remote culture
Building and maintaining a remote culture isn’t just about happy hours and Zoom meetings. For Shane and his team, building a fully remote culture around the idea of flexibility is an obsession. For Shane himself, he prioritizes his best life around work. He blocks off his calendar to focus on family and to make sure he gets to surf every morning, and he encourages his team to do the same.
“I have other things. And these are things that I make sure to block in first, because the urgent will always fill the rest of my calendar. I have to put the important in before the urgent just goes over it like a tsunami.”
To make their remote culture sticky, they look for people who are happy, helpful, curious, and accountable, so that they can build a healthy environment for their team. Finding top remote talent is crucial to their culture.
While they’re working, they set rules for communication by creating team charters. Figuring out how to communicate with one another, when things can be escalated, who they go to, and how fast you’re expected to respond to a message is critical for team success. If these boundaries aren’t clear, there can be a lot of friction across a team. So, Shane and his team suggest that each team sets clear workflows and expectations for communicating.
“In our case, we allow our teams to work differently. It’s fine if one team wants to communicate in a way, take time off in a different way, that’s fine, as long as it’s well-coordinated,” shared Pearlman. “And so that practice talks about things like, ‘If I have a question, how do I ask it? How long do I need to wait until I know that it’s okay to ask again?’”
Tips and tricks for being remote
As someone who has been fully remote for a long time, Shane Pearlman knows how to build a remote company. He shares great advice for those who are looking to build or improve upon a remote environment.
First and foremost, be clear about outcomes. “Be really clear about outcomes, then get your management and your leadership aligned. I know a lot of companies where the leadership has given one set, but the management is trying to run it with a different set of tools or practices. And that conflict causes harm everywhere.”
When you’re building your culture, be intentional. “Consider that whatever culture you have now probably has about an 18-month to two-year shelf life. You can probably run on that. At that point, there’ll be enough churn that you’re going to have to intentionally design whatever’s next. And don’t assume that the culture you design for a presential organization should be one-to-one with a remote organization. There are tweaks you’re going to want to make. Think about those ahead of time, rather than trying to react and change something that isn’t working.”
If you’re a split organization, create a level playing field for all of your employees. “Those fully remote people always feel ostracized, always miss out on key conversations, rarely get access to raises and promotions. And it doesn’t work. So if you’re going to create some kind of split org, even if you do have access to an office space, you need to behave remote-first. All meetings have to be online, even if person A sits at this desk and person B sits at that desk. You have to create a level playing field for everybody.”
The future of remote work
What’s the future of remote work? Well, for the Modern Tribe team, it’s just work. As priorities are shifting and there is more focus on flexibility and work-life balance, we will likely see a dynamic shift in what work looks like.
Finding the best remote talent will continue to be more and more competitive, but companies can use Shane’s tips to create an outstanding culture that stands out from the rest.
Shane Pearlman’s advice for the future of work? Think like a retiree.
“A friend of mine and I often say, ‘If you want to see what remote workers do, look at what retirees do.’ If your income was not tied to where you are, what would you do?”
Remote work has become the new normal for many companies. While many thought it seemed like a simple shift to make, not every company was originally on board with the switch to remote work.
Collage Group, a consumer research and advisory company, is a company that never planned to go remote. The leaders at Collage Group were under the impression that in order to retain talent and build a strong culture, employees needed in-office perks and group lunches every day. But then something shifted within their mindset.
By chance, before the start of the pandemic in 2020, Collage decided to do a trial of hybrid work—they let their employees work from home every Thursday. Although this was an internal debate for a while, it actually worked in their favor because three months later, they had no choice but to go fully remote.
What started as a trial run turned into a forced, fully remote work environment for the Collage Group. However, it turned out to be positive for their workforce, company culture, and hiring trends. David Wellisch, CEO of Collage Group, joined Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, to discuss the transition from hesitancy toward remote work to embracing the change over the last few years.
Navigating the balancing act
David Wellisch describes the hybrid work model as a balancing act. Trying to retain talent, build a strong company culture, see results, and promote a flexible work environment is all a balancing act that CEOs of hybrid and remote companies need to navigate.
Many employees, especially of younger generations, are ecstatic about remote work. People love the opportunity to have boundaries, privacy, and work on their own schedule. The only downside is that companies need to work harder to foster connections amongst employees.
Enter the balancing act.
“Gen-Zers and Millennials, they discovered flexibility. And so the question is, how do you balance that with culture, community, and sense of belonging? And how do you not get into a transactional world?”
Employees are embracing remote work, but still, the missing link for a long time was fostering an authentic community and building relationships with coworkers. As humans, we aren’t meant to only be transactional — especially with our colleagues. Companies need to put an emphasis on connection and community, which David and his team continue to work toward.
“How do you respect the found priority for flexibility? And yet, at the same time, how do you continue to deepen the sense of belonging, community, that as humans, we all strive to have?”
Keeping culture authentic
As a company that once believed you have to be in the office to have a strong culture and retain top talent, they have now found new ways to build company culture. For both work and cultural purposes, the Collage Group has found new ways to keep its employees connected.
To ensure their employees are still spending time with one another, they have organized monthly coffee chats and bi-weekly happy hours. On the weeks where they don’t have happy hours, they’ve upped the cadence of their company-wide meetings from monthly to bi-weekly. With the mix of fun and serious meetings, their employees are connecting at least once a week to build both interpersonal and professional relationships.
“Authenticity is at the center of our culture… being authentic, being caring, while ambitious and driven, is really at the center of it, especially in this remote context.”
In addition to their monthly coffee chats and bi-weekly happy hours, Collage has also launched a monthly Collage Academy curriculum. This helps employees focus on the soft skills that are often overlooked, but often drive the most results.
By focusing on what matters most to the Collage team and offering flexible options for connection amongst employees, Collage is able to foster an authentic culture that aligns with their core values.
The great Zoom camera debate
One value that is incredibly important to David and his team is the art of connection, especially when it comes to connecting via Zoom. A great debate amongst leaders and remote employees today is which meetings are camera-on and which are camera-off? And, on top of that, how do you decide which meetings call for which protocol?
For David, he thrives on the connection created by being face-to-face with coworkers, even virtually.
“So listen; I’m from Latin America. I love people, and I derive energy from people, and I care about our people,” said Wellisch. “And so, when we’re on Zoom, I want to see them. I want to interact. I want to generate energy, get energy.“
Although it’s important for David to see who he’s interacting with via Zoom, there is no real mandate for the employees at Collage.
“It’s interesting; when we were discussing policy, we said, ‘In our company, community has meant a lot, and interactions have meant a lot. And we’re not just meant to be producers. And we’re not just meant to transact. We’re meant to connect.’”
They put an emphasis on building connections, not just having transactions. At the end of the day, employees can choose to have their camera on or off, whichever makes them most comfortable.
The future of work for Collage Group
Nobody expected the pandemic or remote work to last as long as they have. When companies explored going back to the office with a hybrid approach, the idea of a two-tiered system was discussed—that those who were in the office had an advantage of having access to leadership, when those who remained at home were at a disadvantage. Thanks to the technology that can be leveraged, the two-tier system may not be a reality for most companies — but it’s all about trial and error.
Wellisch is doing a great job building an authentic, intentional community at Collage Group. While right now they are fully remote, Wellisch believes that they will move forward to being a hybrid company, giving employees the option to work in an office or work from anywhere.
Truthfully, remote work isn’t going anywhere, and it has turned out to be a benefit for the Collage team. Over the last year alone, Collage increased its headcount by 30% and was able to hire outside of their office location.
“Every time we hired, not only did we expect people to be in office, but it was always very much DC Metro and Bethesda,” said Wellisch. “We now have people all over the country.”
Advice for companies embracing hybrid work
There is no perfect approach to embracing remote work or hybrid work. If you’re a company like Collage Group that is going to be embracing hybrid work in the future, David Wellisch has some excellent advice for you.
“Trust, measure, listen, and be open-minded because things are changing so much. We don’t know the truth; truth is sort of moving around; there are many flavors. And so, be open-minded, learn a lot, talk to people, and lead.“
The COVID-19 pandemic came quickly, and the safety of employees needed to come first before any business outcome. Many businesses were left with no choice but to go remote in March 2020. So businesses switched to fully remote work, leaving a lot up in the air regarding timelines, expectations, and what will happen next.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, Suzy, a consumer intelligence company, decided to close its office for the rest of 2020. Suzy CEO, Matt Britton, shared that Suzy was one of the first New York tech startups to announce their closure for the entirety of 2020. Not long after, many of the big tech players such as Facebook and Google announced similar news.
More and more companies remained remote as the pandemic charged on. Although productivity wasn’t being impacted, many companies were facing similar cultural challenges. Plus, not everyone is well equipped to be fully remote or knows how to navigate a remote work lifestyle.
“As the year went on, we continued to be quite productive and efficient, but not without a cost,” shared Matt Britton. “There’s definitely a lot of cultural downsides to being a remote office.”
Matt Britton joined Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence. He shared his insights on embracing a digitally native mindset, retaining company culture, managing employee expectations, and how Suzy helped its local community during the pandemic.
Embracing the digitally native mindset
What is a digital native? This might be your first time hearing the term, but you’re likely no stranger to the concept. Many people in today’s workforce are digital natives. They’re individuals who grew up native to a digital world. They grew up with technology as a significant component of their lives.
“When I think of the word digital-native, I think of Millennials,” shared Britton. “Millennials are the first generation that grew up with the internet in the household. Gen Z is the first generation that grew up with the mobile phone in their household.”
As companies shift to remote work, they need to embrace digitally-native employees and align their workflows with that upbringing and mindset.
“I think an organization that aligns around those principles are ones that use tools like Slack to communicate, and they’re ones that understand that you need to move at the speed of culture, at the speed of business, and deploy the right amount of training and tools to your teams so they can act accordingly and really thrive,” shared Britton.
“You need to move at the speed of culture, at the speed of business, and deploy the right amount of training and tools to your teams so they can act accordingly and really thrive.”
Reframing workplace expectations for a digital world
As the world shifted to working remotely, many employees didn’t know what expectations were for working fully remote.
“What we found is that a lot of our employees didn’t know what was expected of them in a remote environment. How late should they be expected to answer emails? What are the response times expected? How do they treat different channels, text messaging versus Slack versus email, et cetera?” said Britton.
To help combat some of that confusion and set clear expectations with their employees early on, Suzy reframed their operating manual to align with their new way of work.
“We essentially rolled out a completely new remote operating system to our employees, so they understood how we use different tools and what was expected of our team,” said Britton.
“That was incredibly impactful, getting people to reset to this new world and not making the assumption that they would just figure it out.”
This built a strong foundation for the Suzy team to thrive in a remote world. It also built trust between the Suzy leadership team and the rest of the team, which positively impacted the business.
Increased productivity for the Suzy team
With the new expectations in place and new technology leveraged, the Suzy team was well on its way to being successful in a remote world. In fact, their sales team was performing better than ever before with this new work model.
Pre-Covid, their sales team was only connecting with one prospect per day. They would fly to meet a prospect in person, have one meeting, then fly back—consuming their entire workday. Now that everyone is remote, in-person sales meetings are a thing of the past. The Suzy sales team can meet with more prospects in one day than ever before.
“I think the biggest benefits have just been productivity and efficiency. I think that our sales team can speak to a significantly higher quantity of prospects than they were prior,” notes Britton.
Suzy enables everyone to thrive
Suzy took all the proper steps in ensuring their employees were set up for success when they switched to remote work —but it didn’t happen overnight.
Now, more than ever, companies need to listen to their employees to keep business running smoothly, keep morale high, and combat burnout. So the Suzy team listens to their employees and solicits feedback on a weekly cadence using a tool called Peakon.
“We have an amazing chief people officer named Anthony Onesto, who really is a pioneer in this space at making sure that our employees not only feel heard, but we’re extracting data from that feedback to benchmark in a variety of different categories across departments, across employee cohorts, and then we can act on that data,” shared Britton. “If the engagement is low from a certain cohort in our organization, how do we over-index in that to make sure that we level it off the next time?”
To grow as a company, Suzy relies on the data and feedback from their employees, especially now with the loss of office camaraderie. The team knows that if they didn’t solicit this feedback from their employees, employee dissatisfaction could fly under the radar and negatively impact culture and, ultimately, business outcomes.
By checking in with their employees, they ensure that employee voices are heard and remain part of their foundation.
Giving back to the community
Not only is Suzy aligning their internal strategy to allow their employees to succeed in a remote environment, but they’re also ensuring their local community is able to maintain a sense of normalcy during these hard times.
While every office went remote during the pandemic, schools also had to switch to a remote model. Remote learning, much like remote work, wasn’t an easy adjustment for everyone. Not every child had access to the technology needed to attend their classes virtually. So, the Suzy team wanted to do something about it.
In collaboration with a New York tech association, Suzy led the charge in collecting unused laptops and donating them to children in need. There were many unused laptops across New York City offices that the Suzy team put to good use, helping underprivileged students continue their education.
Matt Britton and the Suzy team have built a strong business model and uphold core values that they love to impart to their local community.
Advice for companies embracing hybrid and remote work
As Britton mentioned, there are high cultural and emotional costs to working remotely. It’s the responsibility of the leaders to help employees fight burnout and keep the business running as normal as possible.
For example, in an office, all of your coworkers are just a few steps away, so it’s easier to make connections. But now, you have to be more intentional about how you interact with coworkers, and for junior-level employees, it might not be as easy to get in front of the c-suite as it once was.
“I think people who are embracing remote work have to be really intentional about having an ongoing curriculum of in-person meetups, especially for the more junior people in your organization who have never had the ability to build close personal relationships and are at a disadvantage.”
At the end of the day, success in a remote world comes from listening to your employees, building trust, reinventing a healthy culture, and embracing the mindset of a digital native.
“I think everything is going to be more digitally native, and I think it’s going to continue to become more and more globalized over time. I think your ability to have a global outlook is going to be increasingly important for companies to be able to succeed moving forward.”
The emergence of Covid-19 in March 2020 changed the workforce seemingly overnight. Companies with policies stating employees need to be in the office five days a week were scrambling to develop a plan where business could carry on while their employees worked from home.
But not every business had to face this hurdle. One business that didn’t think anything of this change was Sketch, a fully featured collaborative platform for designers. For CEO Pieter Omvlee, working remotely has been the normal routine since they were founded in 2010.
Omvlee is here to share his perspective on remote work, what he’s learned along the way, and how to apply a remote-first methodology to your business — before you lose your top talent.
How Sketch went remote
In 2010, Peiter Omvlee was living in London, and his partner and co-founder, Emanuel Sá, lived in Portugal. From day one, their goal wasn’t necessarily to start a big business, they simply had the goal to build an app.
And build an app they did, by communicating mostly via iChat. Omvlee explains, “As we released the product and it became clear that it was a bigger success than we had initially planned for, we started looking for people to join us. We found that it worked out great for us being remote. We work well together, but being remote also meant finding talent in places where companies traditionally weren’t looking. And that’s been a great thing for us.”
Being remote from the get-go allowed Omvlee and Sá to expand their hiring scope, allowing them to hire the best of the best, no matter where they were located.
How working remote can build culture
Some organizations worry that working remotely will mean company culture will suffer, but Omvlee believes that isn’t the case. Being fully remote can help to build a culture that is centered around trust.
According to Omvlee, not having all of your employees gathered and working in one large office means you have to trust one another to get the job done. “I believe that trust is the key element upon which working remotely is built. You need to trust people to employ the right initiatives because you can’t be there all the time, holding their hands,” he explains.
Another way working remotely has helped Sketch build a strong workplace culture is they take the time to write down all information, processes, and procedures. He elaborates to say, “We do have calls from time to time, but we put everything in writing so the people in different time zones or who have other appointments that conflict can always read back on things. You don’t need to be in a certain meeting to know what is going on, and I think that really helps keep communication strong.”
How Sketch makes onboarding work
A challenge that many companies faced as they transitioned to working fully remote was how to onboard new employees. While the foundation of Sketch is built on trust, it can be difficult for organizations to trust a brand new team member on day one.
For Omvlee and his team, they’ve found that specific tactics work for them to ensure onboarding is as seamless as possible. For starters, Sketch keeps a repository that is constantly being updated with the projects they’re working on and specific guidelines so that every detail can be looked up when there’s a question or if a detail needs to be double-checked. Also, when a new hire is joining the team, the information surrounding their onboarding is prepared ahead of time, so nothing’s left to the last minute.
And even if it’s challenging at times, the team at Sketch knows that trust is a necessary building block to make this work. “Trust is something that people respond well to if you give it to them. If in the first days you are too much on top of things, it can backfire on you,” Omvlee explains.
Another strategy Sketch uses during onboarding is that every new hire is assigned a seasoned employee to help them through specific procedures and get them familiar and acclimated with the culture.
Challenges Sketch has overcome
In addition to onboarding, there are some remote-first challenges organizations may be faced with.
Sketch has found that management needs to remember to lead by example and have exceptional communication as companies oversee a remote team. A company’s efforts to have excellent communication can help keep a robust written record of as much information as you can that is constantly being updated and checked for accuracy.
“When you communicate something in person, it’s easy to add gestures and emphasis and clarify or soften things up with body language. And, it can be tempting not to say details as clearly as you want to because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. There’s so much room for misunderstanding in the written word, which is why clarity of communication is really important,” explains Omvlee.
Another challenge of working remotely Sketch has overcome is feeling like coworkers don’t have a bond or relationship. A strategy that has worked for them is to incorporate talking about hobbies, shared interests, and life outside of work over Slack to form bonds while building a gateway to trust. They also organize casual sessions where the team can learn skills that aren’t centered around work.
“We had a summer photography contest, a cooking session, and a storytelling share, which were not related to work at all. It was simply a nice way for people to socialize and get to know each other.”
Before the pandemic, Sketch also orchestrated a yearly meet-up where the team could participate in social activities, team-building exercises, and get dinner as a group, all to help reinforce culture, values, and foster relationships.
Giving the team a strong work-life balance
One challenge specifically was the issue of having a healthy work-life balance, which became especially difficult during the height of Covid. It became difficult to balance personal and professional lives because they were all suddenly the same.
Sketch tackled this by giving their team enough time to recharge and avoid burnout. “It’s important to make sure employees don’t over- or under-commit to work. You always find out when someone isn’t really working. One benefit Sketch offers is unlimited holiday paid time off so employees can make time for themselves and recharge. We also offer flexible work hours.”
Measuring the health of remote work
On top of implementing a work-life balance centered around allowing the team to rest and recharge, Sketch takes it one step further to measure the health of the remote-first workplace.
In addition to managers checking in with their team to ensure they’re taking enough time off, Sketch also sends out surveys asking employees how they’re feeling, if they’re happy in their role, and whether they need something else to succeed. Answers to these surveys remain anonymous.
Sketch also provides employees with a mental health program, where anyone within the company can seek the help they need.
Advice from Sketch on transitioning to remote or hybrid offices
For those unsure if they should remain remote or transition to a hybrid office, Sketch recommends being 100% remote, because it’s all about staying consistent.
Omvlee shared a helpful example to explain why he feels like this. “If you have a team in the office and a team not in the office, I fear that it would lead to sort of two groups of people, where if you’re in the office, you do get more information than if you’re working from home. We experienced this in a very, very small way here at Sketch when I rented a small office in a coworking space together with someone else who happened to live in the same city. And even just us two, you could notice that we were discussing things that we then forgot to relay back to the rest of the team. And I can only imagine it gets worse if you have a large group of people in the office and a large group of people out.
“I think the consistency of just having everybody remote really helps. Everybody has to work in the same way.”
What the future of remote looks like
How the future of remote work looks will depend on details like geography, industry, leadership, the company’s size, and more. No matter how your company makes a remote-first workplace a success for them, it’s important when it comes to retention.
“In our situation, we’ve been able to hire amazing people, and people have come to Sketch specifically because they like remote work. They have the right experience, and they don’t want to go back to working in an office. And I think we’ve all read stories from small to large companies, where they want the people back in the office, but the employees simply didn’t want to.
I think talent retention is the biggest problem for many companies out there, and just adding the unnecessary limit of location into the mix really doesn’t help. I think working remotely is here to stay, and I think it’ll be a shame for a company not to invest in flexibility,” shares Omvlee.
At the end of the day, no matter the organization, if you want to remain competitive, attract top talent, and keep your best employees around for the long haul, a remote workforce is the way to go.
“We’ve hired many people who are married, have children, their entire life is where they are. Why on earth would they move to the other side of the world just to work at your company?”
As hard as making the shift to remote work was during the pandemic, remote is here to stay. But making remote-first a reality isn’t as easy as it sounds.
While some companies didn’t miss a beat, others believe the increase in productivity was fear-induced and cannot be sustained.
Do the pros of working remotely outweigh the possible cons? Is remote better? And why do some companies fail?
Prezly – PR software that helps companies connect their content with their contacts and stakeholders – has spent a while figuring it out. Prezly has been remote since the beginning, with employees from 13 different countries.
Here to discuss his perspective on remote work, culture building remotely, why face time is still essential, and advice for other companies planning to go remote, is Jesse Wynants, CEO and Co-Founder of Prezly, who had a chat with Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence.
Going remote: A practical decision to end stressful commutes
From its inception, Prezly decided to go remote.
“It was a pretty pragmatic decision. We simply couldn’t find people in the city that had an office. And, we couldn’t find people to commute to the city because it was an hour. Even if you lived on the other side of the country, or just maybe 50 kilometers away, it was a hassle to get there,” shares Wynants.
This was at a time when remote work was being bashed online. Few companies were remote, and Yahoo had even banned working from home.
But when faced with commuter hell, Wynants said:
“Well, let’s just widen our range, and let’s start hiring remotely.”
Prezly made its first remote hire from Ukraine, who’s still at the company.
Hiring exclusively outside Belgium: A new filter for the talent pool
After the first successful remote hire, Prezly decided not to look for talent in Belgium anymore.
“It was more of a negative or a downside that they were in Belgium then it was an upside,” shares Wynants.
When you’ve got companies like Apple insisting that employees work out of their offices at least three days a week, this might seem like a strange move by Prezly.
Wynants explains the reason. We said, “Let the banks of Belgium and the big corporations fish in that pond of Belgium. Talent trumps everything, so that was the initial reason why we started doing that.”
Leading a distributed workforce: The highs, the lows, and everything in between
Going remote for companies means low overhead costs, increased productivity, and revenue growth.
Employees sign up for remote work to experience freedom and flexibility, financial stability, and location independence.
Wynants also adds, “Sometimes [remote] is better.”
But getting here isn’t a cakewalk.
Get things right, early on: Document everything + Tech stack
Wynants explains, “You need to get your shit together earlier in the company, even if you’re small. You need to make sure stuff is documented. You need to make sure that people are involved. You need to have processes in place, regular catch-ups, all hands, stand-ups. You need to get them under control really quickly because otherwise there is zero communication.”
When you examine why remote work fails at some companies, a lack of solid infrastructure is one reason that emerges.
Prezly has a great project management tool to ensure communication and an internal blog so information flows both ways.
Other tools used include Slack, Linear, Figma, Prezly, Zoom, Github, Productboard to create a virtual office.
“Prezly also invites feedback from the team, and that’s been a benefit because it prepares you to scale later,” shares Wynants.
The introvert vs. extrovert debate
A recent BBC Worklife article stated that introverts are more likely to thrive in remote settings while extroverts prefer in-office or hybrid.
Neuroscience studies back this up. Extroverts are less sensitive to dopamine and require constant interaction, while introverts are more sensitive and over-stimulation tires them.
Is that true at Prezly? Do only introverted people want to work remotely?
Well, it depends.
“I’m not sure if it works like that because if you’re an introvert that wants to become extroverted, you might prefer to work in-office. It is also dependent on the role you’re hiring for. We’ve had highly extroverted people who have always been remote. And, we have highly introverted people who have always been in the office, and it’s their first remote role,” explains Wynants.
But one thing is clear. People that want to work at Prezly are looking for remote roles and aren’t considering in-office roles.
Remote is the new perk
Employees would rather quit than return to office. A Bloomberg survey of 1,000 workers found that 39% of workers would quit their role if their employer didn’t allow remote work.
And with the Great Resignation in full swing, some employers are finally listening.
Hiring has gotten a lot more competitive since lots of companies are going remote. What used to be an advantage for Prezly is now a perk that most companies offer.
“We used to be one of the few companies that offered these fully remote roles, and good pay, and benefits. There weren’t that many before COVID hit, and now, almost all are doing it. That’s a little bit of a challenge that came with that, but at the same time, we do feel that we’ve got some experience under our belt on how to build cultures remotely, and how to deal with that. There’s still a little bit of an advantage for us,” explains Wynants.
P.S. You can experience the advantage for yourself because Prezly is hiring! Check out open roles here.
Culture-building remotely can feel constructed
Water cooler moments, lunch with your colleague, or a team outing aren’t always possible when working remotely. Teams can use a tool like Airspeed to recreate these moments virtually.
Some things Wynants personally misses the most.
“The drawback for me as an extroverted person is that you can’t go out for lunch together. In Belgium and other European countries, especially in summer, you go out, have something nice to eat, and then you go back [to work]. And during those informal conversations, actual things are decided.”
These organic moments when you’re building and sharing culture have many benefits on the work floor.
When employees have the space to blow off some steam, bounce off ideas and connect with colleagues, it leads to innovation, collaboration, and cross-team networking.
In remote settings, these don’t happen spontaneously and can feel constructed before they start to feel routine.
At Prezly, an open Slack channel called Water Cooler is connected to an always-open Zoom. When someone joins, others can see that and join in too.
Culture starts at the top and it’s a continuous exercise
Culture always starts at the top and trickles down.
Wynants agrees, “You cannot change the people in the founder team and their personalities. It’s always seeding through in the culture.”
Prezly’s culture started with a handbook with roughly thought out company values. But culture building is a continuous exercise.
“We’ve made tons of mistakes there,” shares Wynants. For example, a team member once asked, “How the hell does this thing in the project management tool apply to these company values?” and Prezly realized that it didn’t.
Companies need to rephrase certain things in their handbook and constantly ask themselves if their values are things they still stand behind or if it needs changing.
Thinking of culture like lego blocks helps.
“I think the big building blocks pretty much still stand, and probably will remain, but it needs to evolve in how you apply them. That’s where we started, and that’s also where we constantly make tweaks to sentences in how the value is described, or how we can improve, or bring better examples in how to live by that value,” explains Wynants.
Remote Onboarding: Values in action
Remote onboarding is equal parts art and science. You need a sound onboarding plan backed by a robust tech stack and demonstrate your values in action.
Prezly’s onboarding has that covered. Wynants shares his perspective with new hires and takes them through onboarding.
There’s also a mentor-like program where employees take new hires through onboarding in a practical way.
New hires are invited to an internal forum where they can see the company values in action.
“We have some interesting threads where we talk about diversity, and how we have different discussions about that, and we link to them. The thread can be two years old, but it’s still a very good application of how we apply a certain value,” shares Wynants.
Reading a company’s values is one thing but seeing them in action is when it starts to click for most.
Most employees look for a person-organization fit – a company that echoes their personal values. Onboarding is a crucial time because it assures new hires they’ve made the right choice.
Meeting 1x a year to improve employee retention
A study of over 2,000 employees and managers by Virgin Pulse and Workplace Trends revealed a troubling statistic. ⅔ of remote workers are disengaged, and ⅓ never get any facetime.
Disengagement leads to poor retention rates. Something Prezly knows all too well.
“We’ve had a set of people who weren’t able to join [our annual retreat]. There is a bigger chance that they’re not going to end the year with us. That’s been something that we’ve been noticing, so we work really hard to get them there,” explains Wynants.
Wynants promotes annual events and gatherings because there’s a clear correlation between face time and retention.
“You get to connect on a deeper level on the retreat,” says Wynants.
Other remote-first companies like Buffer and Zapier do the same. They hold company retreats at least once a year and have witnessed similar benefits.
Fun activities, dinners, games, and a few team-building sessions let people across teams connect and have fun together.
The energy that people leave the retreats with has them buzzing for days. “That kind of energy pushes them forward in their job, and new connections exist between different teams that weren’t there. There automatically will be conversations going on that will benefit Prezly in the end,” explains Wynants.
These retreats have another benefit – making those dreaded Zoom calls better thanks to newfound camaraderie.
Prezly has an all-company retreat once a year and flies in the team twice a year. Before the pandemic, the team met up 2-3 times a year.
And these aren’t always employer-led initiatives. Employees often drive these meet-ups.
But what about companies that never meet up?
Wynants doesn’t believe that for a company to create collective memories meeting in-person is necessary but it is better.
“In-person just allows you to really focus on [the moment] or creating [moments] in a more natural way than you can do remotely. We do fun things remotely as well and create memorable experiences.
But, there is something different about being in the same place for four days in a row and spending a lot of time together that’s, for me, irreplaceable by something virtual.”
Holding remote workers accountable and aligning them with the company’s goals
A common myth about remote workers is that they’re unproductive and out of sync with the company’s mission and goals.
One way Prezly gets employees excited about the long-term vision is, of course, the retreats. But there’s a whole system at work too.
Celebrating wins and owning up to mistakes on the internal blog
Apart from facilitating information flow, Prezly’s internal blog serves to improve transparency.
“We are very transparent in where we’re going, what the revenue is, what went well, what went bad, the mistakes we made. I think that’s something that’s in every modern leadership book, as well.”
Wynants is right. Transparency is a top priority for companies trying to gain trust and establish psychological safety.
When companies own their mistakes, it encourages employees to feel safe at work and share risky ideas.
“I think you really need to be open in saying, “Listen, we messed up here. We messed up there.” I basically say this, probably, once a quarter, once a month. I don’t mind saying I’m still figuring these things out. Just help me. Just give feedback. Be open. Be honest,” shares Wynants.
Creating a culture where feedback is appreciated
Prezly pushes people to give written feedback to each other.
Not surprising since feedback is critical for growth. Being able to give and receive feedback is what helps teams avoid repeating the same mistakes and optimize processes.
“We’re a small company, so there’s not a lot of hierarchy in any role. You can’t become a VP. We don’t have titles, so the only way that we can push people to become better is that we are expecting a lot from each other,” shares Wynants.
Feedback culture encourages learning
Apply the growth mindset to feedback, and you put yourself in a constant state of learning.
“Where we say, “Listen, this was great, but I think we can do X, Y, Z to do it even better.” Then, you’re growing, because you say, “Okay. He’s actually right. I could actually do that better,” shares Wynants.
Creating a culture of recognition and openness
New hires are encouraged to share positive messages for the person that helped them with onboarding.
“That makes someone’s day, and I think that’s something powerful that people sometimes miss,” shares Wynants.
Wynants is right. A lack of recognition is among the top reasons employees quit or feel disengaged at work.
“If you’re happy with someone, share it. If you’re not happy with someone, you need to share it. Basically, we tell you it’s your obligation because otherwise, you’re not working at the company. You’re just doing your own thing, if you hold back,” explains Wynants.
Pro Tip from Wynants: Encouraging introverts to share feedback can take a lot of work, but if you give them anonymous tools and examples of how to do it, you’ll be able to push them out of their comfort zone.
Work-life balance: A constant balancing act
Companies that hadn’t figured out remote work before the pandemic ended up setting unrealistic expectations inevitably letting work bleed into personal life.
So does being remote from the start give you an advantage?
When Prezly was formed, both founders had young children, and the company was bootstrapped with no VC funding to fall back on.
It was vital for the founders to develop a plan to avoid burning out.
“I’m not saying that this is easy. It’s actually hard, and during COVID when they were home, during the lockdown, it was really hard. But you need to be understanding of that, as well,” shares Wynants.
Just like Prezly’s culture trickles from the top, Wynants welcomed the occasional kid or pet on Zoom calls as an example to the team that this was okay. But juggling parenthood and your job can get very messy and leave you feeling like you’re failing at both.
“As a company, you need to empathize and understand that this is the situation and give people some time off if you see that they’re struggling with that. And, be very conscious of these things happening.”
Is work-life balance possible at the top?
On average, an employee’s mental health is better than a CEO’s.
A CEO has to worry about way more, and when you mix parenting with managing a remote company during a pandemic, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Understandably, last year was the hardest year for leaders. So, reaching out, practicing empathy, and connecting is critical to maintaining work-life balance.
Advice: What should other companies trying remote work know?
For companies trying to increase their chance of successfully supporting remote work, Wynants has 3 strategies –
Become a better writer
Talk to the stakeholders
Learn to communicate in different formats
BTW, if you’re interested in taking your PR team remote, check out Prezly’s PR Roundtable here.
Become a better writer
Writing makes you a better thinker. And going remote requires a lot of conscious thought.
Wynants suggests, “Write enough about it, even if you don’t publish the writing.”
Don’t attempt to approach remote work by examining how things were before or how other companies did it.
“Keep asking yourself the question, “Where did we go wrong? How could we communicate better?” implores Wynants. Wynants recommends signing up for a writing course, and here’s why:
“If you’re good at writing, at bringing over ideas in a short way during these weekly updates, that really helps. If people like reading what you write, and the message that you bring, that does help. I think that’s just a very powerful tool, which is much more powerful.”
Talk to the stakeholders
While convincing someone by talking is easy for an extrovert like Wynants, writing can help you share more concise and less convoluted thoughts.
But before taking the plunge, make sure you talk to your co-founders, leadership team, investors, and employees.
Because sometimes, words can be misinterpreted and lead to non-constructive discussions. Wynants recommends jumping on a call is better than trying to Slack the team. “It feels like those written communications don’t give all the signals that you need or the wrong signals,” explains Wynants.
The bottom line is you need to over-communicate.
Learn to communicate in different formats
There’s different etiquette at play depending on the medium you choose – Slack, email, text, or your internal blog.
Learning to communicate in different formats and revving up the writing engine is essential to making sure remote processes stick.
What is the future of remote or hybrid work?
“I think it’s only going to grow. We had to figure everything out ourselves, so it wasn’t that easy. Now, there are a lot more tools coming for remote people as well, and they’re doing really well.”
Take Zoom, for example. Prezly tried five other tools before landing on Zoom because the audio quality was paramount.
But look up video conferencing tools now and you’ll find a whole host of options. Setting up the right infrastructure to support remote work is only getting easier.
Even something like a home office budget that was uncommon is now a perk most companies offer.
At Prezly, the concept of office budgets started over two years ago. Borrowed from Zapier, the goal was to create a suitable environment for work.
Remote isn’t about cutting costs for most companies, and it’s the same for Prezly.
“For us, it has never been about cost-cutting. People need to have a good place to type. We don’t like seeing people with bad cameras, or when they’re working from a couch constantly,” explains Wynants.
For work to happen, you need to create the right environment for it.
“You need a good camera. You need a good microphone. You need a good internet connection. I do think it’s important to create that environment where you can relax and get some work done.”
With remote becoming the norm and most office spaces going away for good, we’re witnessing a disbursement of offices.
That’s why home offices have to be equipped with the right facilities and tech to make the future of work more collaborative and equal.
Let’s think back to March 2020, a time that showed the world just how unpredictable the state of work really was, as companies all over the world shifted to being fully remote with very little time to prepare. Most of them weren’t ready to do so. They didn’t have the right tools, communication strategies, or processes in place to handle such a radical change.
One company that was more than ready? Articulate, an organization that builds creative platforms for online training, has been fully remote since it was founded by Adam Schwartz in 2002. In fact, it was one of the first fully remote companies in the United States.
Here to share her perspective of hybrid work, how they’ve thrived in a fully remote workplace for so long, as well as tips for companies who are still struggling with the initiative, is CEO of Articulate Lucy Suros, who sat down with Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence.
How Articulate went remote
While many companies had remote work forced onto them at the height of the pandemic, Articulate has always been remote and chose to do so out of necessity. When Schwartz put his entire life savings into Articulate, he was based in New York City. He quickly realized he needed to hire experts, and he did — one in India and one in Missouri.
For those of us who remember 2002, there was no Skype, Zoom, or Slack. Schwartz and the first two hires made it work through phone calls, email, and yes, even fax machines. While the move to be remote was out of necessity, Schwartz wanted to hire experts in the field, and it didn’t matter where they were. What did matter was the type of people a remote-first job attracts: people who are self-starters, who are self-motivated, and who are highly productive workers.
“Adam found that this was a great way to run a company and build a culture focused on doing work that tangibly moves a business forward,” shares Suros. “He also quickly realized that remote work attracted an excellent caliber of employee: people who were uniquely self-motivated and self-directed.
It’s all about removing the stigma behind the remote worker and realizing that people want to be remote
Remote first should also be people first
While some organizations questioned if remote work was going to, well, work, Articulate has been reaping the benefits of being a remote-first organization for about 20 years. For Suros, it’s all about creating an environment where people – both employees and customers – can grow and flourish in more ways than one.
“A lot of companies are always chasing the next quarter. One of the reasons we are highly productive and highly successful is we put our people first; we make the effort to see them as individuals and understand what makes them go the extra mile. When our customers interact with us, they see that we really care about what they’re doing and what they’re trying to accomplish. We focus on helping people flourish as human beings, not just workers in a machine, and supporting them through their journeys,” shares Suros.
Overcoming remote obstacles
That said, being fully remote does come with its own share of obstacles. It can be challenging to build a human-centered organization without face time and being in an office environment.
“Leaders need to think carefully about the tools and technologies they use to communicate and collaborate. Then, ensure everyone has complete clarity on how to effectively use them,” explains Suros.
While Articulate started over the phone, email, and fax machine in its nascent years, it eventually turned to the tried-and-true tools we know today — Zoom, Slack, and Trello. And while these software choices can increase productivity, there’s some fun involved, too. Suros shares, “We have more than 500 Slack channels, and many of them help our teams connect socially so that we can all stay connected as humans.”
Hiring and onboarding
In addition to overcoming the communication aspect of being remote, there was also the hurdle of hiring and onboarding remote workers in the midst of Covid. At Articulate, leadership is very intentional about how they hire and onboard, with a 3-day “ramp camp” focused on Rise courses, comprehensive Trello boards, and Zoom meetings.
When you’re remote, it’s actually a great opportunity to think about things intentionally, like how you communicate, how you collaborate, that if you’re in person you might not be as intentional about.
Articulate took a similar approach to hiring remote employees, as their primary focus was finding thoughtful and trustworthy doers. To do this, they took a look at their star performers in the company, all in different departments, with varying roles and seniority levels. “
My advice to leaders? Look at who have been your star performers over the last 18 months and find the commonalities between them – and search for candidates who share them.
We hire based on these attributes, we fire based on these attributes, and we aim to cultivate these attributes through our training.”
The company also pays special attention to how they celebrate their employees who go above and beyond and display the company’s core values. For Articulate, it’s all about continuous feedback and acknowledging those who have gone the extra mile. “We have a Slack channel called ‘props’, where people are constantly high fiving each other and recognizing others who have helped on projects and products,” explains Suros.
Finally, it’s common for organizations to be unsure of how to make training effective when working remotely. “Pre-pandemic, company training meant you’d have someone standing in front of a PowerPoint with folks you’ve brought into the room, flying in from all over the place. It was pretty passive,” shares Suros.
To avoid this, companies need to take the time to rethink their training programs, sorting out how to make online training work while still building a culture of learning. “Companies need to democratize training development so that folks can share what they know, and do it in an environment that recognizes the whole human. You want your people to have this growth mindset, this self-perpetuating learning culture. Give people the technological tools needed to easily create training, and do it in a way that’s designed for online training. You want to make sure that you’re creating an environment of learning and supporting people with the right creator platforms for training so that anyone in your organization can share what they know,“ explains Suros.
The business benefit of a human-centric approach
It may feel unusual to have a business approach centered around building a trustworthy connection with your team, but this approach offers real benefits.
It’s important for all organizations, especially remote ones, to see people as whole humans so that they feel they can bring their whole selves to work. “When people feel seen and when they feel they can be their whole selves at work, they’re not spending any energy hiding pieces of themselves. What they’re doing is spending all of their energy growing and flourishing as human beings in the work that they’re doing,” shares Suros.
When you do this, your business sees the benefit of getting the most out of its employees. As they grow, they have the potential to do things that they may not have ever thought they could do because they now feel seen by their coworkers and by leadership. Suros explains, “Companies that put this focus on their people will see that it drives real business benefits. And if you’re not doing that, you’re already missing the mark.”
She adds, “Our secret sauce is to create a human-centered environment where you’re paying attention to how people interact and to how you can help them grow. We all have so much in us that is just waiting to blossom, and if you create the right environment, you’ll bring all that potential to life.”
How do you know it’s working?
Once you have these processes and initiatives in place, how can any organization know it’s working? At Articulate, they do this in three key ways.
First, they conduct an annual anonymous engagement survey. The survey provides a pulse check on how their team is feeling and doing, which they then use to develop their roadmap for the following year.
Second, they look at Glassdoor reviews and feedback given by employees. “97% of people say Articulate is a great place to work, and we have a CEO rating of 99%. This lets us know that we’re doing something right,” elaborates Suros.
The third tactic the company uses is paying close attention to inbound messages, which allows them to listen to employees in real-time.
Advice for companies
No matter your industry or the size of your company, it’s possible to make remote or hybrid work styles work if you take the right approach. It’s all about creating an even playing field, no matter where your employees are.
“I recommend thinking about being remote first. Even if you’re hybrid, you want to organize operations as if you’re remote. Think about how you structure your operations, your communications, and your collaboration approach to be remote. Then, if you move to a hybrid environment, you don’t have an uneven playing field and everyone will feel as if they can collaborate and share ideas equally,” Suros explains.
Another key point is that companies need to take the time to listen to what their team actually wants and which work style they prefer. “
Your employees don’t want to commute two hours to work. They want that time back. They want to live more balanced lives.
I’ve been talking to other leaders and they are flabbergasted that people want to work remotely. They’re also flabbergasted when they learn that Articulate has been doing this for nearly 20 years. Before the pandemic, people couldn’t believe that we were so successful from both a business perspective and a human perspective – all while being fully remote.
I think hybrid is here to stay, and the most competitive companies are going to be those companies who take that seriously,” Suros emphasizes.
Transitioning to a remote or hybrid remote workstyle can be met with many hesitations. Traditionally, most businesses have worked 40-hour weeks in an office, with very few opportunities to work from home. However, we’ve seen a rise in flexible work styles in recent years, most recently due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
While many companies were forced to embrace remote work, many also quickly realized that working from home doesn’t decrease productivity as they previously thought. Now that many companies are returning to work, organizations are weighing their options of different work models—fully remote, hybrid, or back to the office full time.
One company that has always understood the benefit of having a hybrid work model is PandaDoc. In fact, PandaDoc has always been a hybrid company, mainly through circumstance. Eight years ago, Mikita Mikado, CEO of PandaDoc, moved from Belarus to Silicon Valley while his business partner remained in Belarus. As a result, Mikado and his co-founder had to navigate working remotely and collaborating across time zones, all while scaling PandaDoc from the ground up.
Now, many companies are voluntarily switching to a remote-first work structure, based on what we’ve all learned throughout the pandemic, and PandaDoc was eager to join in on that. As a result, PandaDoc was able to make the switch from a partially remote workplace to a fully remote workplace in early 2020.
Mikita Mikado sat down with Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, to discuss how the PandaDoc team went from partially remote to fully remote—while prioritizing their employees’ physical and mental health.
How the pandemic impacted PandaDoc
The PandaDoc team was no stranger to remote work. Although many companies were initially hesitant to switch to remote work when the pandemic hit, Mikado and his team took a different approach.
Since Mikado and his co-founder were successfully navigating partial remote work for so long, when the pandemic hit in early 2020, they weren’t hesitant to switch to a fully remote work model. But first, they turned to their employees for feedback on remote work.
“Early on in the pandemic, we ran a survey among our employees to see how they felt about he switch to remote and found out that most supported going remote,” shared Mikado. They realized that it was the right time to pull the trigger and move to a fully remote work model.
Navigating the switch
Switching to a fully remote work model can sometimes be tough, but add a global pandemic on top of that, and you’ve got an entirely new obstacle to navigate.
Luckily, the switch to remote work didn’t largely impact the workflows of PandaDoc employees. Since the PandaDoc team was already working with multiple offices across the United States, as well as the office in Belarus, they were well equipped for remote workdays. They were leveraging tools such as Slack and Zoom to keep up efficiency and work collaboratively across their offices.
From the time the PandaDoc team originally asked employees about remote work to when they were asked during the pandemic, interest in remote work had shifted. “The first few surveys were showing that most people, 70-75%, were supportive of the move. Then, it started to slide down as people began to feel isolated”, said Mikado. “Loneliness is hard. We’re social animals.”
Since the team was set up for successful remote work, the biggest obstacle for the PandaDoc team wasn’t due to the work itself, but rather due to this new fully remote lifestyle and fighting the increased lack of social interaction.
Re-creating the water cooler conversation
Long gone are the days of the water cooler conversation when your whole team is working remote. Having casual conversations through chat is fun, but it’s not the same as physically pausing from work, walking away from your desk, and getting to know your coworkers. But, that doesn’t mean your company can’t recreate that experience with its own fun spin. That’s exactly what the PandaDoc team did.
Rather than simply encourage casual conversion, PandaDoc encouraged their employees to step away from the “office” by creating a competition.
Whether you’re going for a run, going surfing, or simply heading out for a hike—all you need to do is post a picture to Slack, and your team gets points. “There’s been a competition over Slack, where the team was divided into small groups, and we counted the number of exercises that each team posted within the Slack channel.”
The team that exercised the most won. Easy enough, right? Well, if your team lost, you had to run a 5K! So, the PandaDoc team got very competitive and had a lot of fun along the way.
“It’s a way to do something that’s not work, do something social, and to see each other as human beings outside of work,” shared Mikado.
For those who weren’t keen on getting competitive with their workouts, they came up with other creative ways to connect outside of work.
“Some teams organized whiskey nights during the pandemic where they had drinks over Zoom. Other teams organized gaming nights where they played some games with each other online; There were cooking classes! Basically, we were trying to organize different social events that were still remote and brought people together out of the context of work.”
While this started as an initiative to keep the team engaged throughout the pandemic, it’s still part of PandaDoc culture today.
Investing in employee mental health
Of course, encouraging employees to invest in their own physical health is a great initiative. But, the PandaDoc team took investing in employee health even further when they made moves to invest in the mental health of their employees. “We instrumented a mental health budget that allowed everyone to have a budget for things like therapy or coaching,” said Mikado. “It’s been very impactful, and we’ve heard a lot of good feedback on that.”
PandaDoc company values
As many successful companies do, PandaDoc has a core set of values that they strive to live up to and encourage all employees to embody.
The foundational value for PandaDoc is transparency. According to Mikado, it fosters trust. In addition, PandaDoc focuses on four core values, including learning, making a positive impact on the people around you, having fun, and being empathetic—to everyone, especially customers.
“When it comes to each of those, we try to build different programs and invest in ensuring that we live up to those values. I think that’s how we’re different. Because we’re very, very particular about what we want to invest in and how we want to do it.”
These core values haven’t shifted or become complicated with the shift to remote work. Thanks to the many tools available online, the PandaDoc team is still able to invest in their core values and incorporate them into their daily lives, both work and personal. “While you may not get the level of connection you get to with in-person meetings, events, and support, you can do a lot of different things that could be done remotely or over the internet.”
The future of work for PandaDoc
Although the PandaDoc team saw a decreased interest in working remote throughout the pandemic, the investment PandaDoc made in their employees’ physical and mental well-being positively impacted their employees’ views on remote work.
“Now, we’ve got a third of folks that want to be completely remote and remain remote indefinitely. We have about a third that do want to go back to the office. And about a third that advocate for the hybrid approach, where they want to go back to the office maybe once or twice a week, but not every day,” Mikado shares. Research from Workplace Intelligence supports these findings, too.
With the way all companies are doing work, it’s no surprise that the future of work for PandaDoc doesn’t look like it did two years ago. Remote work is on the rise more than ever before, so when PandaDoc does return to work in the office, it will likely be on an even smaller scale.
Now, offices aren’t needed for peak productivity. We’ve all experienced being productive working from home. Truly, the missing piece is the social element of connecting with your coworkers in real-time, in real life, which can be accomplished with flexible time in the office.
“I’m thinking our office strategy is going to be built around that. Around ensuring that people can get together, share their ideas, spend time together, and just become friends,” says Mikado. “Once that’s done, they can continue getting the work done over the internet.”
Parting advice from Mikita Mikado
Over the last few years, most companies, if not all, have transitioned to some sort of remote workstyle. For some companies, this transition has been painful and challenging, but the team at PandaDoc hasn’t experienced the same level of obstacles. They have set expectations, fostered community, and invested in their employees both at work and in their personal lives.
“I think the number one reason why this transition hasn’t been painful for our company is that we embraced transparency, and we tried our best.”
The PandaDoc team ensured that their employees were set up for success, having written plans for not only the current year but the future. They enforced their culture code and provided clarity on the progress made toward KPIs and goals.
“I believe that having all of that ready and internalized before you go remote creates this kind of safety net to fall back on once the in-person interaction is gone. It’s not unique to PandaDoc; I think it’s pretty universal across the board.”
Mikado believes remote work is positive not only for the PandaDoc team but for everyone.
“If you think about it, it helps humanity in general because it lowers our carbon footprint, and it increases some people’s happiness,” says Mikado. “I think that humanity is only going to win, and I hope that we’ll embrace it and continue to grow.”
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