Making ‘remote’ work

Lessons learnt from 8 years worth of working across the pacific

Here at Chroma we’re a remote team. Dominic and I are based in San Francisco and Oakland respectively. We rarely work from the same office because of the painful commute across the Bay Bridge. Tom is half a world away in Melbourne, meaning we have to contend with the timezone challenge on top of being physically separated. After 8+ years of working like this I’m here to share the tools and processes that actually work.

Working remote doesn’t have to be lonely

Cities are getting more crowded and expensive. Knowledge work is becoming the driver of post-manufacturing economies. Technology is making it easier than ever to approximate the physical office.

It’s not hard to imagine a future where most people work remotely. There are already plenty of remote work articles about trying to replicate aspects of the physical office virtually. This is not one of those articles.

Let’s instead consider a world where remote companies have a competitive edge. What are the competitive advantages of going all-in on remote? Will face-to-face meetings become obsolete?

100% Remote

Google’s self driving cars have no steering wheel. The computer never relinquishes control to the human in the driver’s seat. Their argument is that this makes technology safer because the onboard computer must handle any scenario it encounters without having an escape hatch in the form of a human backup. Studies from the aviation industry show that disorientation caused by a sudden and unexpected handover from the computer back to the pilot may cause more accidents than it prevents.

I see an analogy with companies that work remotely but don’t commit to it in totality. Strong process around documentation and communication is essential to making remote function. When part of the team works from the same office and is able to sidestep these processes, there is less incentive to make them better —thereby missing out on process improvements that reap continued dividends down the road. More importantly however, remote employees feel like second class citizens both in terms of having an impact on the company culture and when attending to their regular duties. I’ve seen this break in cohesion limit the human potential of organizations dipping their toes into the water of remote work. If you’re thinking about going remote for key roles at your company, consider ditching the office altogether.

Write it down

The biggest lesson from 8 years of working remote is: write things down. The earliest historians understood that if events weren’t recorded they never happened. Initially we documented conversations out of necessity. Over time, it has become a powerful habit and an edge for our team.

When working remote, factors like timezone differences, holidays, and individual schedules inevitably result in team members not being able to attend meetings. Writing things down allows the entire team to “be there” and retroactively learn how product and business decisions were made.

Writing encourages you to think deeply and organize your thoughts clearly. When communication is asynchronous, there is time to let your ideas percolate and go back for additional revisions later. By the time the words reach your teammates, they’re cohesive, digestible, and easy to action.

Being forced to write things down is one of those aspects of remote work that has the potential to make remote companies more efficient than traditional companies.

Plan well, use process

The easiest thing to do in a remote company, perhaps at any company, is to get down to business by creating deliverables. I’ll call this the production phase and everything before it the planning phase. Remote companies can be especially outstanding at the production phase because workers are able to create their own ideal distraction-free workplace.

Folks are most productive when they have crisp well-defined tasks. However, when given ill-defined tasks or a dwindling task queue it’s incredibly easy as a remote worker to walk away from your desk and find other tasks that sneakily feel like work but aren’t — washing the dishes, paying bills, cleaning the car, doing taxes, picking up groceries, and more.

To fix this we have to make sure the planning phase goes smoothly and is done well in advance. At Chroma, we turn the planning process into a production process, i.e task based. We define and document all the steps it takes to go from idea to a granular list of tasks that in turn results in deliverables. Further, we try to make sure everything we do at the company from payroll to issue triage is surfaced as a task. This visibility helps us learn how to update our processes to be more efficient. By defining much of what we do as clear actionable tasks, we remain focused and productive.

The side benefit of strong processes is that it’s incredibly easy to onboard new employees and contractors.

Work is culture

Companies often think it’s difficult or impossible to cultivate culture when it comes to remote teams. Remote employees miss out on regular company outings, can’t spontaneously grab drinks after work, and don’t get access to on-site perks (baristas anyone?). These social interactions sometimes lead to good vibes and fun professional relationships but they are not why people primarily go to work.

We work to create things and make the world better. Co-workers give us the ability to create bigger more-powerful things together than we could ever do alone. As you’ve probably experienced, achieving a shared goal is incredibly rewarding. Research suggests that strong interpersonal bonds are formed from cooperation and mutual accomplishment. These fundamentals of workplace culture are all present in a remote company.

We’ve found that focusing on creating better together naturally leads to a culture built on trust, mutual respect and self-actualization. People get immense satisfaction from being on a well-oiled team no matter if it’s at work, on the soccer pitch, or at home. So when our team gets together in real life it feels more akin to old friends sharing tales than relative strangers just getting to know each other.

Use collaborative tools

Remote workers rely entirely on software to collaborate. When comparing similar tools, favor those that have better collaborative features. For instance, these days we rely more and more heavily on commenting systems built into products used to create artifacts (e.g Google Docs, Medium, etc). Being able to @mention a colleague to get their attention, work through a question or comment together, resolve the comment and later see this history alongside changes to the document leads to a powerful asynchronous workflow.

There are also tools that foster team cohesion and culture. An example from recent times is Geekbot, a daily standup tool that integrates with Slack. We initially just wanted a lightweight way to keep track of what folks on the team were working on. We quickly found that using Geekbot to tell each other at the beginning of day what we were working on and what our challenges were created a sense of togetherness we didn’t even realize was missing. This ties back into my point about culture. Tools that make you feel like a vital piece of a team building something together go a long way towards eliminating the feeling of isolation that can be a challenge for remote teams. I’m planning a follow up post on which tools we rely on at Chroma and why.

Final words

I truly believe going all in on remote unlocks capabilities that can make an organization operate more efficiently. It’s all too easy to use physical presence as a crutch, thereby preventing teams from exploring the limits of what they’re capable of given the best tools and robust processes.

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