Remote Work At TNTP
* As of June 2015
TNTP Remote Company Q&A
Karolyn Belcher, President - Interview with Remote.co
TNTP is a national nonprofit that is inspired by the life-changing power of great teaching. We were founded in 1997 by teachers who believed that all students – especially poor and minority students – deserved great teaching. Today, we are partners for change in public education, working to create engaging classrooms, focused schools, and strategic systems to help public school systems achieve their goals for students.
We’re a diverse team from many fields and backgrounds, united by a fierce commitment to our mission: ending educational inequality by providing excellent teachers to the students who need them most and by advancing policies and practices that ensure effective teaching in every classroom.
I was one of TNTP’s first employees after its founding in 1997. We were virtual for some roles from the get-go, with CEO Michelle Rhee living in Ohio and other staff based in New York City, Maryland and Massachusetts. While I loved working from our central office in New York (both as an escape from my small city apartment and because it was fun to interact with all the staff who would come into town for meetings), I was also grateful for the flexibility that our virtual culture gave me when I decided I wanted to move closer to family. I now work from a home office in Cape Cod, where I can see the ocean every day and still make a difference for kids in cities across the country.
Remote working is critical to TNTP’s business model and impact. We choose projects and partnerships based on where we see the greatest opportunities and needs. This model allows us to quickly respond to these new opportunities – whether helping a new superintendent in a city on the east coast or jumping in to address a teacher shortage in a city on the west coast – rather than restricting our work to a single location. Today we have over 50 active partnerships in more than 25 cities. With staff on the ground or within travel distance of each other, we’re able to work alongside our clients in schools and districts to ensure strong implementation of good ideas designed to help more students learn.
We’re able to expand the impact of our work – and improve the lives of thousands of kids – by working on the ground in districts all across the country. We’re also able to attract and retain incredibly talented staff for years because of the flexibility that a virtual role offers, even after their lives change with marriage, children, and moves.
Many of our staff – including leadership – have young kids. While it’s never easy to juggle parenting and a demanding work environment, our parents have flexibility most others don’t (for example, stepping out for a couple hours in the middle of the day to volunteer in their child’s classroom), and a supportive network of peers in the same boat. Child-free staff benefit from this flexibility as well; I love that I can schedule appointments with the hair salon and doctor’s office between meetings, during off-peak hours.
TNTP has always had a central office, but we’ve also always been primarily virtual. From the very beginning, we knew our people were our biggest asset, and we wanted to be able to hire the most talented people we could find – regardless of where they called home. On top of that, from a strictly practical perspective, office space was a big expenditure, which made remote working an attractive option.
Over time, our virtual structure has driven growth. It’s far easier to expand seamlessly to new locations when we don’t need to set up offices. And it provides for a much greater talent pool, as we can recruit applicants from distant cities without asking them to move.
Our interview process for most roles consists of a hiring exercise, one or several phone interviews, and in-person component. We always discuss team and organizational culture in the interview process, whether for remote or site-based positions. We look to see that candidates are engaged, and ask questions related to culture, training and work that may be unique to working remotely. The interview process helps us assess whether a candidate demonstrates the communication skills, high levels of intrinsic motivation, and results-oriented mindset that are vital in a virtual workplace, and simultaneously helps candidates assess whether TNTP and our virtual environment are a good fit for them.
As an organization, we hire really driven people, set clear and ambitious goals, and check in on them regularly throughout the year, both formally and informally. We treat our people like adults, and we expect results. Our focus on outcomes gives us all a strong vision of what success looks like, and our focus on regular communications between managers and team members ensures that we can quickly see if a project is off-track or needs more resources or support.
Working from home can be isolating, especially for staff who have never worked remotely or for TNTP before. You have to be proactive about building relationships and friendships across the organization. It can sometimes take longer than we’d like for a manager to realize that someone is doing something inefficiently if you’re not in the same space. And it’s easy for the hours to get long when you don’t have to formally pack up and go home at the end of the day.
These challenges have forced us to get really intentional about building a shared culture for everyone at TNTP, which we reinforce through virtual team-building (see more above), our annual in-person conference, site visits for staff to see what different teams across the organization are doing, and our signature experience for staff – Leadership Lab – a series of trainings to develop leaders at all levels across TNTP.
We make a call about whether a position is virtual as we shape the job description. While the majority of our jobs are flexible location, meaning staff can work from a home office every day, anywhere in the United States, we do require certain staff work on-site: some central staff who need to interact face-to-face in our central office (such as our office manager and software developers), and some program staff, who work from client offices. Having staff embedded in district offices helps us better understand the challenges our clients face and provides us with real-time insights into how our work is playing out on the ground.
We expect all staff – virtual or on-site – to follow the personnel policies outlined in our employee handbook, which outlines our typical work hours, computer policies, and so on. Yet we generally approach working from home flexibly, providing advice and resources but giving staff the leeway to figure out what works best for them. To help new staff adjust to that flexibility, we provide guidance to ensure that staff who work from home have the support they need to excel (from practical considerations, like a home office budget, to opportunities for connection, like our Work from Home Affinity Group).
As we’ve grown, we’ve evolved our systems to better support our virtual employees. For instance, when we became too large for everyone to stay connected via email and phone on a regular basis, we invested in an interactive intranet – our wiki – for folks to share news and updates on their work, find resources, connect and collaborate.
We recommend going all in. Being virtual works for us because it’s embraced by a significant portion of our team – including top leadership. It’s when everyone else is face-to-face and you are the lone person calling into a meeting that it gets messy: you miss visual cues, you can’t get a word in edgewise, and there’s usually someone rustling their papers right into the phone speaker. When everyone’s virtual, you learn to build around those needs. You recognize people on calls by their voices, you can hear the small tells when people want to chime in and speak, you know to call on silent participants, and you all rely on the internal blog to keep up to date. To help build this familiarity, we invest in face-to-face meetings with new staff so managers can get to know their people really well and learn early on to recognize the cues when a specific staff member is stressed out or something is wrong.
Second, build a strong culture. As in a traditional office, culture is the glue that holds us together; we just have to be a little more intentional about it. So we define the core tenets of TNTP’s culture for new staff and reinforce them at every opportunity. For example, one of our culture elements is candor: we embrace direct and timely feedback – because in a virtual environment you can’t trust that someone can see your expression and ask if you have a concern. We offer trainings on delivering feedback, and encourage staff and managers to make time for it in weekly check-ins.
Finally, set clear goals and regularly check in on progress. We set goals at every level – for the organization, for teams, and for individual team members – so we can measure how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Our focus as an organization on outcomes gives us all a strong vision of what success looks like, but the individual flexibility to figure out how we want to get there.
- Our internal wiki is at the top of the list. We use it as a virtual watercooler (think sports smack talk and podcast reviews) and to share news and updates about our work.
- We love email. And we’re not overly formal with it, which allows us to stay pretty efficient (we basically use it like chat). There’s always active debate about emoticons – some of us are staunchly opposed, but many of us embrace the occasional smiley face as a necessary evil in a virtual environment.
- We rely heavily on conference calls (phone, Skype, and the occasional video call for content-heavy meetings where we need everyone deeply focused and engaged). We all have our own conference line so scheduling is never an issue. And we don’t just jump into work when we start a meeting – we take five minutes at the top of calls to chat about our lives, since that’s the kind of thing you otherwise miss if you’re not sitting side-by-side in an office.
- We do things like take organization-wide coffee breaks where we ask staff to go buy a coffee and ponder a specific question; we hold online book clubs and create communities of shared interests that range from using data tools to vegetarian cooking to working parents; around the holidays we host regional holiday parties and virtual “Holi-DJ” listening parties, where team members swap playlists of their favorite music.
Boundaries are important. Over the years I’ve learned that to do my best work tomorrow, I need to close down my laptop at a reasonable time tonight, so that I’m rested and ready to do my “deep thinking” work (writing and reviewing) in the morning before my meetings start. I savor my weekends with friends, family, and pursuing interests outside of work and education. And when I take vacation I sign offline completely so I can truly recharge.
If you see something, say something. One of the most important things you can do as a manager, especially in a virtual environment, is to offer honest, direct feedback. If you notice a problem, raise it. If you have a question, ask it. There’s no better way to keep the work moving and your people growing.
I also believe in having the most important management conversations face-to-face. I have flown to a staff member’s city for an important performance evaluation or major work milestone to send a clear message about the importance of a conversation.