Remote Work At Big Universe, Inc.
* As of December 2019
Big Universe, Inc. Remote Company Q&A
Anil Hemrajani, CEO - Interview with Remote.co
What does your remote-friendly company do?
Big Universe was founded in 2007 with the mission of improving the world through education. We prepare students for college and career using digital solutions for K-12 that accelerate literacy by inspiring students and empowering teachers. The Big Universe platform delivers a one stop literacy solution using a readymade library of thousands of leveled eBooks from well-known publishers, with integrated tools for writing, listening, speaking, assessment, sharing, language use, and student management — think of Big Universe as a Netflix for eBook for K-12 schools. As of Oct 2015, Big Universe is used by almost 1 million students and 50,000 teachers worldwide.
Did you switch to remote or start out that way?
We started out working from home in our initial years, then got an office for just over a year but weren’t really using it much. In 2011, we made a decision to go 100% virtual. However, just before committing to it, I consulted with some folks at Automattic and other startups, read up on companies such as MySQL and others, on how they were operating remotely. After this, I knew we could scale the company as a 100% virtual company and have never looked back since.
What traits do you look for in candidates for a remote job?
Candidates must treat the job seriously, like any other job. We emphasize that many times our staff actually works harder than people that go into a non-remote work since they have 24/7 access to work. We also expect professionalism during interviews, not necessarily a tie/suit type professionalism but how well they are prepared (e.g. having researched our company, dress, background noise).
How do you conduct interviews for remote jobs?
We first advertise on sites such as Craigslist and FlexJobs with very specific details of the job. We interview all candidates over Skype (or Hangouts) video. We use shared Google Docs to take notes when interviewing as a team (e.g. one person takes notes on mute while the other asks questions). We do between 2 to 4 interviews with each candidate with a pre-screening questionnaire and email exchange before these interviews. Each of our interviews is extremely involved and typically goes for an hour each time. After the interviews, we do three professional reference checks and background checks using a 3rd party service (e.g. criminal, education, employment), before extending a formal offer.
How do you convey your remote culture in the recruiting process?
Part of this is visible in the 1-to-1 or group video interviews. We often provide an overview of our tools, processes, work schedules, etc. to candidates; sometimes, we also show them actual examples of our tools and/or photos via screen-share.
Do you use third party testing or evaluation services when hiring remote workers?
Yes, we use a third party for background checks including criminal, education and employment verification. We also check at least three professional references.
Do your remote team members meet in person?
Currently, we meet on an as-needed basis (e.g. once/twice per year), However, similar to Automattic (the WordPress folks), we would like to meet much more often and also have a regular annual gathering.
How do you measure the productivity of remote workers?
It varies based on the jobs but in general, we try to be results oriented. For example, for sales reps, it’s pretty cut-and-dried, in that, they need to meet quota. For product, support and other departments, it’s based on completing projects in a timely fashion. We discuss weekly plans in depth in our 45-60 minute weekly meetings at 10am ET and check in daily, also at 10am ET, in a quick 5 to 10 minute “stand-up” meeting (based on Agile methodology but applied to all departments in our company).
What elements are key to successful working relationships with remote teams?
For us, it’s the use of video and platform agnostic systems. We require our employees have a modern computer, hi-speed Internet and a HD webcam. In our job ads, we convey a subtle message that if you don’t have a HD webcam, you need not apply; we believe video is critical since 80-90% of communications is often nonverbal (i.e. gestures). We also use platform-agnostic online services, so they can be accessed via modern desktop browsers and mobile devices.
What is the hardest part about managing a remote workforce?
I’m not sure the challenges are that much different. For example, you can have productive and unproductive employees in both, remote and non-remote, environments. One hard part is the inability to have a quick gathering such as a lunch out, picnic, happy hours, etc. However, we try to simulate this by having a “Fun Friday” gathering over video at 4pm ET weekly, where people can drink whatever they like (alcohol, coffee, etc.) — it’s sort of our attempt at a “virtual happy hour”.
What is your BYOD policy for remote workers?
We only require our employees to have a modern computer with a HD webcam and high-speed Internet – we see this as being analogous to owning a car and putting gas in it to get to work. We provide all other apps, which are typically 100% web-based (platform agnostic), so they can be accessed on most modern devices. For products such as Photoshop for our creative staff, we pay for the subscription.
What is your time off policy for remote workers?
Currently, we provide a typical 2-week off with 11 paid holidays (including 2 floating holidays). However, we are seriously considering moving to an unlimited PTO model as many small and large companies (e.g. Netflix, Virgin) have.
Can a remote-friendly company have a healthy culture?
Yes. While our employees work in different states and alone from home, no one feels like they are working alone because they see each other daily on video.
What challenges have you encountered building a remote team?
Inside sales is one of the things we have struggled with, but it’s finally beginning to work well. I believe representatives feed off each other (e.g. in physical call center type environments) by learning from each other on what’s working or not but also the ability to socialize at work or outside. However, now we are finding mature sales people who thrive on working from home since they weren’t the water-cooler and/or happy-hour type employees, but more heads-down, get the job done, type personalities. Furthermore, we are still able to provide a sales team like environment through video meetings, CRM based dashboards and regular email/text communications.
What are the most effective tools for remote team communication?
We use video for daily and weekly team meetings, 1-to-1 meetings, interviews, and more. We also use Trello to manage to-do lists for all departments that are visible to everyone in the company, so everyone knows what everyone else is doing. We also almost exclusively use cloud-based systems (e.g. Google Apps versus Microsoft Office, CRM, project management, support, office automation), so everything is accessible from any device.
What is your personal remote work environment?
I often tell people, my 3 pound MacBook Air and iPhone is my office. However, below is a photo of my home office. I also work out of Starbucks and other coffee shops a few hours each week and have worked in scenic locations whenever I don’t have a lot of meetings.
How do you personally manage work-life balance?
By being disciplined about work such as starting and stopping at regular hours (e.g. 8am to 6pm). I also work out of coffee shops at least a couple of days every week for a change of pace. On occasions, I’ll also work out of a scenic location (e.g. waterfront) using my iPhone tethering for Internet access. Since we are 99% paperless, almost all our employees (except sales & support) can work from anywhere, anytime as long as they have a laptop and Internet access. I’m also increasingly surprised on how much I can do on my smartphone (e.g. email, calendar, Google Drive, Trello, Salesforce, Slack, and Skype).