The Secret to Making Remote Work a Success

Shawn Sullivan

Cofounder & CTO at Phase Genomics


Remote Work Fails When Culture Doesn’t Facilitate Communication

The Covid-era has marked a significant shift towards remote work culture. We were partially remote before that, having only a few remote employees. For the most part, everyone came to the office, but as the pandemic hit, we started noticing that people were feeling disconnected from each other due to remote work. We were having small hiccups in terms of communications. Nothing major, but it created a lot of friction, both practically and personally. It was somewhat challenging to get information to flow through the organization, and on top of that, a feeling of isolation crept in. Although we scaled our business and the team doubled in size during the pandemic, with many employees hired as full-time remote workers, we struggled to integrate everyone and maintain that “team” feeling. Making sure that everyone was comfortable and working collaboratively presented a whole new challenge.

Communication Is the Key to Overcome All Obstacles

One of the first actions that helped us step towards collaboration was doubling down on Slack communication. Even before the pandemic, Slack was a common communication tool, but as remote work became the norm, Slack quickly became our primary mode of communication. No longer could someone pop into someone else’s office for a quick conversation, and so we chatted via Slack.

One important shift we made was to stop using DMs to talk about work-related topics. While DMs are great for interpersonal communication 一 talking to people about their hobby or meeting out for socially distanced coffee 一 chatting about work in DMs forever traps all that context in private messages. By making sure all work conversations happen in public channels, all those discussions are stored in a place where future hires or people who otherwise join those channels can find them with search. It’s actually something that’s superior to in-person communication because conversational context becomes part of the permanent, searchable record of company communications.

Even though we had already implemented some of these things before the pandemic era, we made sure to create channels as spaces for talking about stuff besides work. Whether it was channels for sharing memes, hobbies, or social media accounts, we wanted Slack to be where people could have regular, human interactions with each other, and not just work-related communications.

Most recently, we have used Slack’s Huddle feature as a virtual room presence. We don’t use Huddles for intentional meetings with a specific agenda, but more like a virtual presence in an office. If someone were just working and available to chat if anyone needed them, they would switch on their Huddle in an appropriate channel. This lets other Slack users pop in to say hello and ask a question or two, much as if they were in a physical office together. Aside from recreating some of the efficiency of the “pop-in meeting,” Huddles also let people get to know each other a bit more personally by chatting.

A second similar action was installing a “hot wall,” which other companies have also been experimenting with. We set up a monitor and a webcam on a wall in our office kitchen for those working in-office, and those working remotely could join in a Slack meeting hosted by the hot wall. The hot wall created the “go out for a coffee break” kind of experience that would take place naturally on normal office days. It might have been awkward to talk to people in that way, but it was better than not talking to people at all.

Outside of Slack, we encourage people to become more open and communicative about their status generally. We had people spread across different time zones, as well as having flexible working hours, so we grew into a culture where people would update their day-to-day priorities as they went, with zero stigmas. If somebody had a doctor’s appointment, and they’d be away for an hour or two, they’d send a message to a status channel for everyone to know. If someone just wanted to take a walk or lie down for a bit, they’d tell everyone via Slack too. Having no stigma about this was important, to make sure people knew it was OK to take a break. Managers did this too, to show that it was not a big deal and demonstrate we want people to take breaks when needed. The goal was just to have a sense of predictability for what your coworkers were available for when.

Apart from work culture, there is also interpersonal culture, where we want to get to know our co-workers, or at least be friendly with them. We organized online happy hours, which is not a new idea, and like many others, we discovered it was super awkward to create the contrived “let’s have a beer together” over Zoom experiences.

Instead, we combined happy hour with our sprint exit meeting. Meetings, where people shared some of their achievements during a sprint, were ideal for social interactions too. We even sent our workers a $10 gift card that could be used to buy food or beverage of their choice for these meetings.

Last but not least, we have tried to get people to get together in real life. Prior to Covid, our remote employees would come together in our HQ based in Seattle at least once per quarter. Usually, we would have a couple of strategy meetings, morale events, etc. We were unable to do that during Covid for a while, but last summer, in August, when the situation was in better shape, we got everyone together in Seattle. By that point, many of our team members had worked together for over a year but never met in real life. By coming back together in person when it was safe to do so, we found ways to make genuine connections and give people the opportunity to look forward to such gatherings is very helpful in bonding.

Never Underestimate the Value of Social Interactions

  • As human beings, we still value social interactions and relationships. When you do not get that for free because people are sharing physical space, you have to create that intentionally. As a manager, you should be thinking about: how I can facilitate my team’s interpersonal relationships?
  • Identify the highest value activities you had in the office and figure out a way to map those into the remote work culture to avoid losing those valuable activities.
  • Be open and willing to try new tools and experiments. If you are trying something new, tell your team members that it is an experiment and that you are working on a problem.

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Shawn Sullivan

Cofounder & CTO at Phase Genomics

CommunicationCulture Development

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