Remote Work At AirTreks
* As of December 2019
AirTreks Remote Company Q&A
Sara Tiffany, VP of Product - Interview with Remote.co
What does your remote-friendly company do?
AirTreks helps people travel the world by providing travel planning services for multi-stop international airfare. AirTreks also supports companies wishing to outsource their airfare management. AirTreks also owns bootsnall.com and whygo.com.
Did you switch to remote or start out that way?
AirTreks is a 30-year-old company that at one time received Silicon Valley funding and had a big office in downtown San Francisco. We worked from an expensive office for 25 years. Our sales team always had some remote workers.
We got to see how remote working technology has improved from the “front lines”—I’m remembering days circa 2005 configuring servers and setting up VPNs to link our remote team into our phone and customer management systems. Now, it’s easier than it ever has been to work from anywhere.
We made the switch to 100 percent remote work with a formal transition plan for closing our office.
How important is remote work to your business model?
Remote work is important to us. It allows us to easily hire colleagues that serve travelers around the world.
What do you consider the biggest benefits of a remote workforce?
Better quality of life. Lower cost structure.
What were the main reasons to integrate remote work into your workforce?
Quality of life and the only way to bring together talent from different areas.
How do you conduct interviews for remote jobs?
We use Zoom.us to have video meetings with potential new hires.
How do you convey your remote culture in the recruiting process?
Our interview process is long. People usually meet with us 3-4 times, so they get to meet and hear from many different colleagues during the process.
Additionally, we hire and fire based on our company’s core values. We have a core values panel as part of the interview process, where the potential new hire meets with four of our colleagues to just talk and get to know each other. Colleagues ask specific questions to see how well the new hire fits with the company’s core values.
What is your hiring process for remote workers?
We have a multi-stage process that includes screening, compatibility, skills, core values, and career history. The biggest difference from on-site workers is that we have become very shy to hire anyone who does not have experience accomplishing something hard working with others (like an office job).
We have found that people learn a lot in jobs about how to collaborate. If they have not learned these things, then a remote job can be a hard place to learn them.
One more thing might be that we are very cautious about hiring anyone who does not have a strong enough job coach to guide them. We can identify people better now who have a high risk of just not being able to make it in our company and we stop ourselves from hiring them if they don’t have someone capable to guide them.
How do you conduct onboarding for remote workers?
We use a Company Orientation Checklist, which we manage with process.st. Additionally, every new colleague has a job coach and an orientation leader. During their first few weeks, they have daily meetings with their orientation leader and regular check-ins with their job coach to make sure they have the resources they need to learn.
Do you have remote communication protocols for your remote workers?
Yes, but they are different. We have regular meetings where we expect people to do their synchronous work.
We also promote “core hours” 7-10 a.m. PST Monday through Friday where everyone should be available if needed for meetings, regardless of the time zone you happen to be living in.
I think everyone is conscious of staying focused on our goals so we don’t overload each other with too much need for collaboration and decrease our ability to be available to each other quickly.
We also expect meetings to be efficient and start and end on time. People are welcome to leave if they need to.
Do you organize remote team retreats?
TIP 1: think about the most important thing you want to accomplish and let that lead your decisions about who attends, what you talk about, etc.
TIP 2: a big value of retreats is that they give a boost to the long-term teamwork of the people at the retreat.
TIP 3: handle people’s sleep and food so they can concentrate; then choose a place that inspires.
TIP 4: traveling west seems to generate less jet lag than east.
TIP 5: Two and a half days seem to be our ideal time for programming.
Do your remote team members meet in person?
Yes. Our leadership team plus a few select people meet yearly for strategic planning in person and sometimes more often as needed.
We have also gotten opportunistic in the past and have clumps of people in a geographic area meet. We’re trying to get smarter about this. Even though we work in airfare, it still can feel expensive to fly those last 10 percent of people to a meeting when they are far away.
I’d say 20-30 percent of our colleagues also meet on their own each year because they like each other. We don’t track this.
How do you measure the productivity of remote workers?
We try not to measure productivity. Instead we value working with passion. If someone is not working with passion then we want to know why. We try to get to the root cause and address it. We are always doing this.
Measuring a person can be dehumanizing and demotivating so we are thoughtful about how we do it.
We work closely and we care about each other. Maybe we are just nosey, but we know what’s going on with each other. If productivity is down due to a new baby, we try to help. If a person is bummed out about their job, we want to know why.
I’ve noticed a phenomenon in our company: if one person is not doing well, others will swarm in to help them. This is great, but can also cause trouble if it keeps happening to the same person or the person is not acting within the core values.
What elements are key to successful working relationships with remote teams?
Establishing and sticking to a regular meeting rhythm is the most important thing. Meetings should have an agenda and start and end on time.
Emphasizing relationships in our interactions and daily work is also important. We dedicate time to sharing stories and getting vulnerable with each other. We also have job coaches for everyone.
What is the hardest part about managing a remote workforce?
Growing larger than 50 people seems hard. It’s hard because you need a layer of managers in there if everyone is going to get individual attention. It gets harder to keep core values and the individual attention you had before.
How do you keep remote employees engaged and feeling part of the bigger picture?
One of our company core values is to make meaningful relationships, and another is to own your own experience. This means everyone in the company already values taking the initiative to be engaged and will reach out to others to make it so.
We collectively set company goals on a quarterly rhythm and use 7geese.com to connect individual goals to company goals. We use weekly meetings and job coaching one-on-ones to stay on track.
We recently started a company Readme with one-sentence updates from each group. We’ll see how that goes.
What is your time off policy for remote workers?
It varies according to the country you were hired in to match the norms and laws of that country.
We also enjoy unlimited unpaid time off.
What were your biggest fears in managing remote workers?
I used to worry about things not getting done or people not feeling responsible. But so far, our people care and everything gets done.
How did you implement a remote work policy?
Some of both. Many people wanted some remote work. We formalized it. A recent acquisition only worked well because the acquired colleagues all went remote.
Can a remote-friendly company have a healthy culture?
We have a strong company culture, and we are 100 percent remote. We do this by making sure our company core values are not aspirational, but instead descriptive of who we already are. Then we promote them various ways.
We hire and fire based on values. We tell stories to define our core values. Our leadership team is always talking about them and hopefully living them.
We meet yearly in person. Not everyone can meet due to cost, but we try. At our yearly meeting, we take the time to rate our core values and make any changes.
What advice would you give to a team considering to go remote?
First, we’ve learned that a company that works 100 percent remotely is probably easier to navigate than a company that works partially remotely. We don’t have to create different guidelines for communication for remote and local folks: everyone is always remote.
Second, you need someone in the company who cares about people and process to implement a company operating system like Rockefeller Habits, which is supported by Gazelles or Traction by EOS.
Third, you need great collaboration. People have to want to work together to do hard things and invest daily in building the relationships that allow collaboration to happen. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of AirTreks’ core value is “make meaningful relationships.”
What challenges have you encountered building a remote team?
Hiring is hard. All the job boards from Monster to LinkedIn did not conceive of remote work, making it impossible to advertise job openings efficiently in small towns or faraway places where we want to be hiring. New options are now available to us.
Cultures and compensation can be different for different locations. This makes it hard to be “open book.”
What are the most effective tools for remote team communication?
I think using tools in a smart way has helped our company a lot.
For teams working asynchronously, Trello for project management and Slack for everything else has helped get conversations outside of inboxes and into the open. Google Apps helps us work together with shared documents and comments back and forth.
Zoom video meetings help us understand how others are feeling because we can see their faces.
What has changed about how your remote team operates?
We developed a concept of core hours and started to avoid hiring from locations where the core hours are during the nighttime. We did this because we noticed that nobody wanted to ask a colleague to wake up from sleeping to have a meeting, and as a result, important meetings were not happening.
We added more steps to our hiring process to try to protect against hires that didn’t work out in the past. We added core value panels, reference checks for specific people, and questions to screen for harmony-breakers.
Meetings are more sophisticated: we have colleague-led fitness breaks, custom ice-breaker questions, and a “hive mind” like collaborative style that makes meetings feel efficient while still covering contentious topics.
What is your personal remote work environment?
Most of the time I work from an office in my house in Arizona. This is a picture of that office. When I feel like traveling, my work environment is a comfortable place where I can have video meetings.
How do you personally manage work-life balance?
This is a lifetime endeavor. I believe my strategy is to not take on too much at once (diluting my focus), but also making incremental improvements all the time.
Do you have a favorite quote or bit of business wisdom?
Who maintains the initiative forces others to react.