Remote Work at Sanborn Media Factory
- Team Members
- New York, NY
We’re a full service digital creative agency. Our core competencies are web, mobile, social consulting and management, video (live action and motion graphics), digital strategy consulting, and experiential marketing.
We’ve been around since 2004, so we didn’t start remote. And we’ve been a company that has relied heavily on collaboration from day one. A large portion of our work is bespoke, uncharted-waters type stuff, so communication and discussion are key. When the remote work tools evolved enough to make that level of discussion and collaboration possible, we made the switch.
Remote work is key in two main ways. First, it lets us focus on the work. We’re more productive and happy, which makes our work better, and our clients happier. Second, our hiring talent pool is much bigger. It lets us find the best people for the roles we have.
Everyone seems much happier while still producing great work. It’s been a shift where work gets integrated into our everyday lives, instead of being a big chunk of time blocked off every day. It allows us all to respect each other’s personal lives and commitments, while still getting the job done.
There are a couple of reasons. First, we’ve always been about doing great work. Freeing ourselves from the office gave us more time to focus on work, and less on commuting, scheduling personal appointments, worrying about seeing our families too little, etc. Also, we have a very low turnover rate. When people did leave the company, it was often because they were moving. We didn’t want that to be a reason to part ways anymore. Remote work takes that out of the equation.
We tend to hire more experienced candidates now. Before remote, we could sit a newbie down with an expert and have them learn as much as possible. We haven’t found a way to translate that experience to remote working yet. We also like to hire experienced folks because they can appreciate the value of a remote workplace. If you’re a 20 year old developer, heading into an office and hanging out with everybody is something you look forward to. When you’re 40, with a spouse and children, you have other priorities. And remote work lets us balance all of them.
We do it in a few stages. Directors and partners vet incoming resumes. Then the respective director does a video interview, and focuses on the applicant’s competency. We follow that up with some freelance work. If the skills are there, the partners will do an interview to confirm the applicant’s heart and attitude are in the right place. Generally, if they’ve passed the other hurdles, the last interview is just a formality.
It’s interesting. I think every new person who comes on board morphs the culture a bit. So we just focus on letting them know it’s a no-BS, honest, open environment, and that they’re expected to participate. So it’s less about saying “this is the culture you have to fit into” and more about letting them shape the culture.
Every team has a quick daily standup meeting and does a status report on Slack, both of which are mandatory. We ask that people let their team know when they’ll be off the grid in their status report, which is viewable by the whole company. Otherwise you’re expected to be available during the working hours of your project.
We try to get everyone into our New York office at least once a year for a holiday party. Folks who live close often meet once a week for what we call ‘swam days’. Everyone comes in, works together, has lunch together, and gets their fill of human contact. All of this is strictly optional.
We focus on empirical deliverables. Our directors work with the teams to create a deliverables timeline and spec, signed off on by the person doing it. That person is expected to stick to the timeline or raise a flag as far in advance as possible. It’s either done or it’s not. To avoid major derailments, especially with new folks, we have frequent, quick check-ins to monitor progress.
We set clear expectations from day one. That includes expectations on everyone’s level of communication, when to ask questions (always), and when to raise a flag. Having project management tools with clear deliverables and due dates is also key.
We encourage everyone to talk about what they’re doing on Slack, and to be transparent about it. For example, a developer can stay in touch with what a producer is discussing with a client. A producer can monitor a discussion between developers on their project. The only things that warrant privacy are sensitive HR discussions. Otherwise we put it all out there for everyone, and anyone can add their voice to the conversation.
We knew that shifting to remote would mean that much of the verbal communication would have to be replaced with documented process. In an ideal world, that’s how it would always be, but in a rapid prototyping, tight deadline environment, verbal communication is key. When we went remote, we enforced the documented process, tried to keep it as lean and mean as possible, and it’s been successful. Again, it’s given us an audit trail, which is helpful for everyone.
We started organically with a few employees to test tools and processes. After that, we offered it to everyone, along with the option to keep their desk in the office. Initially a few folks kept their desks, but a year later, and no one has a desk. We converted our office spaces into shared workspaces that anyone could use, anytime.
It can. Culture is half core values, and half what everyone puts in. We keep our core values prominent and everyone gets it. We encourage connection and discussion. We created Slack channels around interests, whether they’re work related (like WordPress), or non-work related (like our Dogs and Babies channel). People connect and form relationships on the channels, and these connections often continue privately. We also try and get everyone together physically at least once a year, and the regional groups meet more often to work together, grab a beer, whatever.
Here are our core values, printed on the wall of our shared workspace:
I would do a trial with a subset of your employees. Having the right tools are key. Tools should enable the process, not hinder it. It’s hard to have a remote meeting when connections drop. For us, a combination of Slack, Trello, Google Apps for Work, and Zoom does the trick. We’re constantly trying new tools and integrating them when it makes sense.
Collaboration was a big one. We’re fans of the whiteboard, and there’s a magic that happens when a few people are in a room together on a brainstorming session. I think we’ve done reasonably well at achieving that remotely by using video conferencing, screen sharing, and tools like InVision. It works best when the participants do a bit of prep work and have items ready to share, which is a good thing for the overall process.
I can’t say enough good things about Slack. In the beginning, it’s a bit of a paradigm shift for everyone, but once everyone gets in the groove, it’s golden. Jumping on a video chat is an effective way for us to talk through more complex issues.
With remote work, there’s a lot less verbal communication than before, and a lot more written communication. This communication happens largely in our project management software and Slack. The advantage is audit trail. It’s easy for anyone coming onto the project to jump in, follow the story, and understand where the project is and why.
I keep it 100% mobile, everything I need is in my backpack. Power adapters, headphones, snacks, machine. I can setup at home, at a coffee shop, on a plane, wherever. Keep it simple.
It’s much easier to balance my work and personal life. The time I used to spend commuting to work, I can now spend with my son. When I need to put my head down, I control my “do not disturb.” No one can walk up to my desk and interrupt.
We have projects and people in multiple time zones, so I get rid of the idea of “regular business hours.” I try to be flexible enough to accommodate early or late meeting requests. I’m clear about communicating the times that I’m not available. When I am focusing on work, I isolate myself from family and distractions.
Find a coffee shop, put headphones on, and use the “do not disturb” feature on your machine and devices. It works 100% of the time for me.
Worst: any flight that I pay for WiFi on and it barely works.
Best: Any flight where the WiFi works like a charm.