Remote Work At Hanno
* As of January 2016
Hanno Remote Company Q&A
Jon Lay, Founder - Interview with Remote.co
We’re a team of UX designers that design and build digital products for startups and enterprises.
We did–we’ve been 100% remote right from the start (although we considered being non-remote at one point in our history). I’m eternally thankful that we didn’t make that mistake–if we had, I’ve no doubt that myself and my whole team would have far less job satisfaction and the company would be much weaker.
It’s absolutely crucial. We’ve always been remote and consider our being remote to be one of our greatest strengths, both in terms of building a great team and also in doing great work for our clients.
People assume that timezones might be a major problem for a remote team, but we actually find them to be a huge advantage. When we work with a client, we’re able to build teams of designers who leverage timezones to give more coverage on projects and actually achieve more. But the biggest advantage of all is that we’re able to build a company which works around the lifestyles that our team wants to create. The flexibility and freedom that comes with being a remote team is incredibly desirable to potential new teammates and gives us a huge advantage when it comes to finding great talent in a very competitive industry.
Right from the start as a small team, we found ourselves working remotely as we were split between London and Russia. It wasn’t our intention to be quite so committed to being remote (we originally harbored intentions of opening up a ‘proper’ office in London), but remote ended up being a core part of what we do. For us, it just works, and we can’t see any other way of doing things. With an international team, many of whom don’t want to be tied to a single country or location, remote is the only way we can build a company that delivers what every team member is looking for.
We’ve had great success with looking for people who’ve worked as freelancers in the past. Working remotely is not necessarily for everyone and some people find the experience to be very isolating. Former freelancers tend to deal with this experience better and we’ve found that they are also likely to be quite good at self-management and prioritisation (which is important for remote work, but isn’t necessarily the case with many people who’ve only ever worked as employees). Being disciplined and proactive are two traits we value very highly when looking for new team members.
Most of our team has approached us directly to ask if we’ve been hiring. That’s one of the advantages of being a relatively well-known remote team. The ‘remote’ aspect of what we do is very appealing and attracts great people to us. Our top priority is culture fit and we usually introduce the new hire to the wider team as early as possible, if we feel they’ll be a good fit. We also rarely hire directly–we use contract-to-hire methods usually, and look to find a project where we can have a trial-run, before actually committing to hire a full-time employee.
We’ve gradually improved the way we onboard new employees–it used to be quite weak. We have a very thorough process documentation; an onboarding ‘track’ in Asana (which contains a whole series of tasks for them to complete, exposing them to many different areas of the company) and also try to pair this up with in-person mentoring and support. That mentoring component has been really important–those first weeks of joining a remote team as a new employee can be a real challenge, so having a buddy to help you out and guide you through all the things you can’t necessarily see, is really handy.
We have a couple of defined norms:
1) Default to transparency: if a conversation is happening in private, ask yourself why that’s the case, and whether you can open it up to the wider team. That’s crucial for smoothing communication.
2) Over communicate: Communication is especially crucial in a remote team and if you’re not doing enough of it, it causes no end of problems. We don’t set a specific rule for response times, but we do encourage people to Skype and message as much as possible, especially when working on projects together.
The biggest thing is to understand what you want to get from the trip. On some trips, we’ve focused more on team-bonding and relaxing together, but on others, we’ve had a much more deliberate approach to learning a specific new skill together. On one recent trip, we spent an intense week in Buenos Aires with a design thinking coach, determined to end the retreat with a crucial new skill embedded in the whole team (which we successfully managed).
We’ve found that either approach has its merits, but the key was deciding on the purpose of the trip beforehand and making sure that everyone is on board with that and mentally and emotionally prepared for it!
When we were a little smaller, it was several years before we got around to meeting up in person. Nowadays, we couldn’t imagine doing it any differently. We have many small localised and more informal meet-ups (perhaps 2 or 3 people travelling to meet up), which happen quite often, perhaps even every couple of weeks. Then we also have a much more major team-wide meetup, at least once a year, which we vote on and plan in much more detail. Meetups in the past have happened in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Argentina, Brazil and Croatia, and we like to make a big deal and organise an amazing trip. It’s fantastic for team morale and every time we’ve met up, we’ve found ourselves that much closer by the end of the trip.
We focus on output and results rather than trying to track input hours. Many companies go remote and then focus fanatically on tracking how long everyone is working, to try and keep control of their teams when they can no longer ‘watch the desks’. That’s just a recipe for frustration, both with managers and also their teams. We’re a digital company so it’s easy to measure output: code commits, blog posts, leads generated and work completed. But we also find tools like WeekDone to be handy. They help us to cut through the ‘noise’ and see a really concise summary of what everyone else on the team is up to that day or week.
Trust is perhaps the biggest. Trying to control or command people remotely simply never works, and if you don’t trust the people you’re working with, it’s hard to overcome the inevitable miscommunications and tensions that come up when you’re not in the same place to resolve them. The absence of trust blows things up to become a bigger issue than they otherwise would be.
To me, the hardest part is not ‘managing’, because if you try to manage and control people, you’ll inevitably fail to build a strong remote team. The hardest part is trying to empower people to manage themselves, and also give them a sense of unity and connection to the team as a whole. When people are feeling positive and excited, things tend to take care of themselves. But in stressful, tougher times, the hardest thing is trying to keep up morale and avoid the onset of loneliness and isolation, which is a particular struggle in a remote team.
A great remote team depends on a very strong culture to bind everyone together and make sure they don’t feel isolated and disconnected. Sometimes, that feeling of connection comes from a motivational leadership message, an inspiring call-to-action, or simply a weekly roundup message where the whole team chimes in and catches up. Just as with a non-remote company, setting a clear vision is really crucial so that everyone knows the direction the team is heading in.
But you can’t create a culture solely by leading. A very part of employee engagement comes from other employees. Those little initiatives here and there which bind people together and the small teams which form around causes and side-projects are really important. We’ve tried to shift the leadership of Hanno away from coming from ‘the top’ and instead, to distribute decision-making and responsibility right across the team so that everyone feels empowered and engaged with where the company is headed. Again, that’s not a technique that’s exclusive to remote teams, but I feel that the ideas behind ‘responsive organizations’ can be particularly valuable when implemented in a remote team.
We don’t track time off with much attention, other than to make sure that people are taking enough of it! We have self-set salaries, which means that we leave it up to employees to decide how they want to balance work and personal life. Some favour a higher salary and feel like taking less holiday. Others feel that salary is less of a priority and that they’d rather have much more time off. Either way is fine–the key thing for us is to make sure that employees are looking after themselves well enough and taking enough time away from screens and projects to recharge properly. That’s easy to neglect when you’re a remote team, but it’s something that’s very important to us.
When we started out, especially when we had to grow and hire new people, my biggest fear was that they’d not work hard and would be looking to take advantage of us. That classic fear when you can’t see what people are doing. That they might not be doing anything at all! That couldn’t have been further from the truth, but I think what was key to making that happen was telling myself to stop worrying about holding people accountable and pushing them to be more productive, and instead to focus on the flip side of that: motivating people, supporting them and trying to make sure they’re as happy as possible. With those factors taken care of, productivity has been an almost inevitable side-effect.
At the beginning our approach to remote working was pretty ad-hoc. But as the years have gone by, we’ve begun to understand more about how to do remote work well and we’ve actually started to document our processes and policies in much more detail. As a natively 100% remote company though, we don’t have to wrestle with the same struggles that many newcomers to remote work might need to handle. That makes things a lot easier for us and means that we don’t really have to impose rigid rules to protect our team members who might be working remotely.
Absolutely! But as with any culture, you have to put a lot of effort into building it in order to have a strong one. Since culture is all about little interactions between team members and how daily life at the company feels, you have to find ways to get those interactions even if you’re not in the same place. Team hangouts and even in-person meetups help a lot (we make sure we do this at least once a year in a chosen destination). But we think you also have to make sure that there’s a genuine sense of fun and caring within a remote team, in order for a strong culture to emerge. Working without physical interaction can be draining, so it’s really important to build a culture that’s extremely supportive and ensures that no team member feels neglected or lonely. That’s a challenge, but it’s certainly possible!
Do it, but if you do, make sure you commit to it. You don’t need to go 100% remote, but you need to be prepared to make a major commitment to this new way of working. The financial costs of remote work are minimal, but in terms of time and effort, it can be very demanding. Many companies see the benefits of remote work and think they might give it a try, but then when they hit those initial struggles that come with transitioning to remote work (laggy internet connections, scheduling complications, communication struggles) they write off remote work as ‘not for us’ and go back to their old ways.
I think that if you do try remote work, you have to be absolutely determined to give it a fair shot, because many of the biggest challenges come in the first few weeks and months of trying it out, especially if one of the people involved is going to be 100% remote. Expect challenges, and be prepared to work through them. If you do, you’ll reap the benefits after 6 months or so and you’ll have no regrets about making the commitment. Your team will thank you!
We detest emails. That means that the vast majority of our communication falls into 3 channels: Slack, Asana and Skype. We communicate a lot though, both in text and also via video calls. In fact, we started to realise that while we might naturally be inclined to avoid video calls, they’re actually one of the most valuable tools we have. It’s hard to substitute text for voice and video communication and making sure you keep that up (even with great text-based tools like Slack available) is really key to making sure that communication stays strong, and also fun!
I tend to change things up a little bit throughout the day and I try not to be totally rigid about how I split my time. It’s great to have the freedom and flexibility to lifehack around a routine a bit. Being able to start work at home, then relocate to a coffee shop for a few hours of writing, before heading to the office after lunch, has been fantastic for me. If I’m travelling, inevitably that routine looks very different, but one of the best things about working remotely is that you don’t have to go to a single office and work to someone else’s routine and demands. That’s massively helpful for my own productivity and motivation at work.
It can be really, really hard to build a company culture where you encourage people to switch off after work. When you work remotely, it’s easy to pick up your laptop and take care of a few tasks at any time of the day. It’s not that you feel obliged to: you simply want to do it! Especially if you care about the company you’re a part of, and your teammates. I know this from personal experience and I used to be incredibly bad at it, especially when I worked from home. The most positive change I made was to find myself a good, comfortable office, and tell myself that working in the evenings once I wrap up at the office should be the absolute exception, not the norm. That’s been crucial for my mental well-being!
Back in those days when I used to work almost 24/7? Trains, buses, planes, hotel rooms, and hostel rooms. There’s nothing quite like taking an amazing trip through the length of Vietnam and almost ruining your thumbs by running your business in a series of huge emails instructing people to do things back at home. The best place? Well, it varies, but those moments where you’re sitting somewhere different, doing a few hours of your workday, and you catch yourself thinking “man, this is really something special”. There’s no feeling quite like working from the middle of a jungle and knowing that once you shut your laptop, you’ll be done for the day and ready to take a dip in the pool!