Distributed teams are the future of work, but how do they actually work? Here at FirstMark, we’re proud backers of a number of companies that subscribe to that future — like InVision, Upwork, and others that use remote work as a way to unlock and accelerate their growth and success.
But why has remote work taken off? With an increasingly decentralized workforce and a plethora of remote-friendly tools enabling constant communication (Slack, Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc.), more startups are beginning to incorporate remote workers onto their teams. Being remote-friendly not only allows these companies to maintain access to the best talent regardless of their location, but it also provides employees with quality-of-life benefits like proximity to family, cost savings, and more that traditional, office-based companies can’t as easily match.
Enter Zapier, which sits at the nexus of the SaaS web and connects APIs to other APIs, helping automate a company’s workflow with an “if this, then that” logic. The company has 300+ employees, reported ARR north of $50 million, and is an obvious choice for any company that values efficiency and automation. They have no offices or WeWork spaces, and employees rely on tools like those mentioned above to communicate business objectives, project requirements, daily tasks, and company values.
Doug Gaff is Zapier’s vice president of engineering. This isn’t his first time leading a remote team. Prior to Zapier, he worked at FirstMark-backed InVision as vice president of product engineering. Earlier this year, at our Annual Tech Summit, Doug joined FirstMark’s Dan Kozikowski in a fireside chat on the future of remote work.
Below are several of Doug’s most salient tips from that discussion on how to successfully run remote teams.
1. Retool your hiring process to focus on company values
Though not specific to remote employees, hiring for a cultural fit becomes even more important when the structure and accountability of an office drops out. That’s why Zapier uses questions about its five values as the basis for interviews.
“We make sure to hire as best as we possibly can against our cultural values,” explains Gaff. “We have a cultural interview conducted by someone outside of the department, and they try to score a candidate based on how well they’ll embrace and exemplify our values.”
2. Give them a take-home assignment
In order to determine if the candidate has the technical skills necessary to be successful at your company, ask them to complete a timed, take-home assignment. Then have them present their assignment to the hiring team. It will give you a good sense of how the person thinks, manages their time, and finds creative solutions.
On Leadership and Culture
3. Make sure distributed employees feel like they’re part of something bigger
Face-to-face communication is vital for the long-term success of any team, so it’s key to schedule regular video conferences for your organization and the occasional in-person retreat. Zapier hosts weekly company video hangouts, during which leadership can share company information and open up the floor for Q&A. They also host in-person, full-company retreats twice a year and departmental off-sites once a year.
4. Promote emotional sharing
Even with video conferencing, it can be hard to really get to know the personalities you’re working with. So Zapier has not only opened up a number of fun Slack channels that cover hobbies and interests, but they also have a channel called #fun-mentalhealth.
“It sounds a little like an oxymoron,” says Gaff. “But people go in there when they’re having a rough day and say, ‘I’m having trouble getting started today. I’m feeling overwhelmed by my to-do list.’ Then other people in the chat will talk to them about it. It’s been a really great tool for our employees.”
He also emphasized that leadership needs to take part in these channels to encourage and normalize talking about these issues.
5. Create water-cooler moments through Slack
When your team is distributed, you often lose the wonderful, spontaneous water-cooler moments. Slack channels provide some room for these conversations, but Gaff encourages leadership to actually structure and schedule those moments of organic conversation.
“I personally schedule skip levels with all the teams on a weekly basis,” explains Gaff. “All members of the leadership team have their own ways of creating these moments. But the reality is, there’s always a certain amount of structure to it because it requires someone to either reach out on Slack or schedule something.”
On Career Growth
6. Establish clear career paths
Any organization will benefit from creating and distributing clear career paths, but this becomes even more imperative when working with remote employees who’ll feel static more easily. Even if career trajectories change over time, it’s good to give employees a starting point and help them understand where they’re at when hierarchies aren’t as visible as they might be for onsite employees.
7. Digitize performance check-ins
Regular stand-up meetings are just as important for remote employees as they are for onsite employees. But if you’re working with employees in different time zones, it may be difficult to find a time — or even a few times — that work for everyone.
This was the case for Zapier, so teams created stand-up Slack channels, and individuals added their updates to the channel whenever they logged on for the day. Leadership can then scroll through to get an idea of what’s being worked on and what blockers currently exist.
8. Rely on managers to keep their finger on the pulse of their team
When you have a company the size of Zapier, it’s impossible for the leadership team to digitally check in with every member of the organization. So they trust managers to do that since they’re ultimately responsible for the success or failure of team execution.
“The unfortunate truth about leadership is that it doesn’t matter how good you are as a leader — it matters whether you get stuff done,” states Gaff. “Part of a manager’s job is to reach out to the people struggling and ask how they can assist in getting the job done.”
9. Encourage people to step away from work
One of the biggest traps of working remotely is the temptation to work 24/7, which ultimately becomes an unhealthy thing. In the same way that distributed workers need the self-discipline to get their work done, they also need the discipline to walk away and take care of themselves. Leadership should respect those boundaries and encourage people to power down by doing it themselves.
10. Define organizational productivity metrics
With a fully distributed team, it’s vital to develop and communicate the right productivity metrics for your staff. Gaff notes that Zapier focuses primarily on three metrics: flow rate, waterline, and the Kaplan-Meier estimator.
- The flow rate helps managers identify team capacity
- The waterline shows the epics in your backlog and the items you’re handling at any given moment in time
“When stakeholders come in and say, ‘Why isn’t x being working on?’, you can bring up the waterline chart and say, ‘This is what’s currently being working on based on the capacity of the team. Are our tasks prioritized correctly?’” comments Gaff. “If not, you flip something up and you drop something else below the waterline.”
- The Kaplan-Meier Estimator is a survivability metric that tells you the probability of a ticket closing in a certain amount of time. Through this metric, you’re able to see how well teams are at closing out tasks when they get things done and who’s letting stuff languish.
On Feedback and One-on-Ones
11. Actively ask for feedback, and be direct with your feedback
In order for a company to grow, you need to establish a constant feedback loop with your teams. And because remote employees have fewer opportunities for organic conversations, management needs to actively ask for feedback and provide it to subordinates. Gaff encourages managers to skip the sandwich model in favor of being direct. Though more difficult, it promotes a culture of transparency and honesty.
12. Host weekly one-on-ones—no excuses
Many organizations are familiar with the concept of regular one-on-ones to check in with employees and monitor performance. But these meetings are often the first to go when time is of the essence. Gaff not only hosts one-on-ones weekly, but he makes them top priority.
“You have to do one-on-ones every week and schedule everything else around that,” claims Gaff. “At Zapier, you don’t get a pass unless you’re traveling or on vacation.”
13. Create and track coding standards
Zapier has people of varying experience levels creating code around the world, so leadership created coding standards for all employees. They run a bot to make sure the standards are being followed. If they’re not, the product won’t be approved.
14. Specify roles on every project, no matter how small
Since all communication lives on Slack, Zapier uses the DACI framework to decide who’s driving and who’s contributing to a project. DACI stands for Driver, Approver, Contributors, Informed. Not only does it help employees understand who’s taking the lead on a project, but it gives employees permission to ignore project updates if they’re not assigned to any role.
15. Hire a coach
It can be challenging to deal with disagreements that arise when you can’t get the two parties together in a room to hash things out. Whether the issues are happening on the executive team or among entry-level employees, it can be helpful to have an on-staff or outsourced coach or mediator that can step in and resolve the issue.