6 Remote Work Culture Lessons from Successful Startups

I had been waiting for 30 minutes on my final bus transfer, in one maddening morning commute combo. Fidgeting my fingers, I would stress about how I could be pushing our company forward, or getting more sleep – but instead 3 to 4 hours a day were wasted – on nothing. My co-founder, Peter – moving at snail speed every day in his car – didn’t have it that much easier.

Something had to change. As a team of three, 20-something, recent graduates, starting a company, we moved back in with our parents to work remotely. Revenue grew, and now we have the flexibility to work from anywhere – including rock climbing and beach towns.

A few employees working remotely might be a good idea for a large company with a central office and an established culture. But is working remotely a good idea for a small startup?

Looking at the philosophies that the CEOs and founders of Zapier, BaseCamp, GrooveHQ and iDoneThis have shared is a great place to go for advice. All four companies embraced the flexibility and advantages of working remotely early on, and now, they are leaders in establishing remote work culture.

Here are their main lessons:

Lesson 1: Create a remote working culture from day one

Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier, said the challenges of working remotely were minimal. Wade, Mike, and Bryan (co-founders of Zapier) lived in the same city, but started working remotely by necessity from day one. They were working and studying, while bootstrapping their startup on the side. Now, their whole team works remotely and they even published everything they learned in a handy remote working guide.

The best time to setup a remote team is on day one because you don’t have to unlearn any old behaviors. Instead you just start working like you naturally would in that environment.

The larger your team gets, the harder it will be to convince everyone to work remotely.

Lesson 2: It’s not all or nothing

Creating a remote working culture from day one doesn’t mean everyone has to work remotely, at all times. The most important part of the remote working culture is giving your employees the freedom to choose where and how they work. You can still have a small central office, with some employees commuting to work. Your team can decide to work from home everyday or just a couple of days a week.

Jason and David, the Founders of BaseCamp, explain:

Embracing remote work doesn’t mean you can’t have an office, just that it’s not required. It doesn’t mean that all your employees can’t live in the same city, just that they don’t have to. Remote work is about setting your team free to be the best it can be, wherever that might be.

BaseCamp started in a traditional office. The rent was too high and the space was too big, so they decided to rent a few desks and hire remote workers instead. Now they have 36 employees – most work remotely – and shared all of the highs and lows in a book dedicated to remote working teams.

Lesson 3: Great employees are not always great remote working employees

For his first company, Alex did exactly what all other startups do – rented a fancy office for his employees to sit in one position all day, sipping coffee. When he started Groove, a simple help desk software, he decided to create a completely remote team from day one.

Alex writes that you will have access to talent from all over the globe. However, not everyone can adjust to working alone from home, especially extroverts.

Remote work isn’t just a fact of your company, it’s a very specific skill set that you need to hire for. Great employees don’t necessarily make great remote employees, and not everyone has that fire to be productive without being surrounded by co-workers. – Alex, CEO of Groove

As a solution, Alex only hires employees that have worked remotely before or that have ran their own business.

Lesson 4: Shape your culture with actions, not a mission statement

One of the greatest arguments against working remotely is the disappearance of culture. Corporate management will tell you if people are not physically together, the identity of the company will fade.

BaseCamp founders highlight that culture isn’t formed through social gatherings and nosy co-workers who want to know everything about your life. Culture is shaped by actions. When you work remotely, the way the decisions are made, the type of communication that happens within a team and even the tone of voice team members use all add up. As a remote working employee you can’t default to “but the people are super fun to be around”, and you focus on the important parts of the company instead – like the team’s ability to get stuff done.

The best cultures derive from actions people actually take, not the ones they write about in a mission statement. – BaseCamp

Lesson 5: Encourage “water cooler” conversations

While some employees find Friday beers daunting and water-cooler conversations an unnecessary productivity killer, light-hearted chats are still essential to cultivating transparency and closeness within a team.

Walter Chan, CEO of productivity app iDoneThis, shares that using tools like Slack, HipChat, GoogleHangouts, Skype, and ScreenShare is just the beginning. His team started working on iDoneThis as a weekend project that quickly grew to a small full-time distributed team, with one central office in New York.

It’s important to open up communication channels dedicated to that water cooler type of conversation. We have a channel in Slack labeled ‘random’ where the team can feel free to tell jokes or share things from their personal lives. We also have a tag #personal in iDoneThis where the team can celebrate Dones outside of their work life.

Lesson 6: Practice the art of time-zone syncing

The best part of working remotely is the fact that you can work from anywhere – the beach, the mountains, a cozy European city . With your team spread out across the globe, working the same hours can prove challenging.

Your team just needs to make sure that everyone is available to do a quick update call for at least 1 hour a day.

Walter, CEO of iDoneThis shares:

We have two employees working in Europe. So the time zone difference was a challenge. They’re finishing up their day just a few hours after we’re getting started. We overcame this by practicing ‘timezone syncing,’ which is essentially ensuring that certain working hours overlap and that we’re doing the bulk of our communication in that brief window of time.

BaseCamp’s founders add:

We need a good four hour of overlap to avoid collaboration delays and feel like a team.

Ask yourself – does everyone on your team want to work remotely? And more importantly, can everyone really pull it off.

Image Credit: Flickr/krzyzanowskim

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Written by:
Angelina Fomina is a co-founder of ParseHub, a visual data extraction tool that anyone can use (with technical skills or not) to get data from the web. She is working remotely, traveling and philosophizing about life.
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