Why Remote Works
May 28, 2020 –
Working remotely is the dream, isn’t it?
Many office workers sitting in cubicles see it that way. Managers see it that way too, but also fear it is a productivity killer.
At Convert, we’ve perfected “work from home”. It works for us now, but we’ve come a long way to create a reliable system.
Four things are key to understanding why we work remotely and how we chose it. First, it works as an operating system for the company. Second, it builds a strong layer of trust in the system and the people. Third, as a company, it gives us access to the worldwide talent pool (and the rates that go with that). Fourth, it helps the environment (a cause that’s very dear to us).
Still, working remotely doesn’t always work. There are some key problems we are facing.
Ready? Let us dive in.
What is Convert?
Here are some stats on the company to put things in context:
- Team members: 35,
- Spread over 12 countries and dozens of nationalities (many have multiple passports),
- Genders: 45% male, 55% female,
- Revenue: millions,
- Websites using our tool: thousands,
- Growing team and revenue (45%-50% annually).
The stats give you an idea of the size of the company. It might be big for some, tiny for others. All in the eye of the beholder. But here we are.
We’re Convert, and we make software-as-a-service for the conversion optimization industry and A/B testing and personalization software for agencies and small enterprises. All our team members work remotely and meet once a year for a retreat in an exotic place. This all works because we built a company operating system and trust among its members.
Most businesses run based on hierarchical structures.
Smaller companies, under 10, are usually founder-led and very agile (aka do as the founder says). That is the phase where you are testing the product and market fit. It’s also when remote isn’t recommended (we were all in an office at that point of our inception).
Hierarchy after that phase allowed us to put in place a company operating system. We chose not to have managers and hierarchical layers; we picked Holacracy instead.
Holacracy gave us a constitution, framework, rules and meeting structures that we adapted to fit our needs. It’s a system we really love.
Its foundation is based on clarity, transparency, metrics and setting clear boundaries to roles by using accountabilities and domains to empower the people that fill them.
In short, we don’t have job titles (everyone can pick theirs for LinkedIn), but roles. One person usually has at least one, but often many roles to fill. We named the roles in such a way that they don’t correspond to job titles or hierarchy. Otherwise, people would identify with a title and not the work behind it. Since roles are created, changed and deleted often, one should not get married to one or draw a sense of identity from it. The roles are just entities used to define certain functions of the organization that you have control over for some time.
The whole company structures itself around a purpose (compare it to a mission). Based on that, the work is split into smaller parts to achieve the purpose. Each role gets its own purpose. If enough roles share similar purposes, they group themselves in Circles called holons. These circles might have similarities with departments in a traditional company.
All Circles get one Lead Link (assigned by the Lead Link of the circle above it), a Rep Link (an elected role representing the circle), a Facilitator (an elected role who runs the meetings according to process), and a Secretary (an elected role that schedules, captures outputs and interprets the constitution). We run regularly scheduled meetings, where agenda items are processed based on moving the work forward according to OKRs and Purpose. This removes ego and consensus from the equation. The focus is on the work.
Metrics, Goals and Async Communication
So if you cannot look over the shoulder or record the screens of your remote workers, how do you control the output?
Well, define the output.
Set clear metrics and goals and have company workers update those weekly. Roles and circles have their own metrics and dashboards to update weekly. Every Monday, everyone (whatever time zone they are in) updates their role metrics. On Tuesdays, we can all see the updates benchmarked against those from the week before, the month before, and the year before that. Combine this with the weekly update that every role placed in the project management system (we use Asana).
Everyone in the company can follow any role in Asana. Unless they are confidential, all tasks are public by default and assigned to the role in charge. This avoids silos and people holding on to information. The worst thing in a (remote) company is when someone holds power over knowledge and files (or documents) and someone else in need cannot access them because of internal politics, or in our case… different time zones. We want everyone to have access to everything in Asana and Google Drive.
Lead Links have monthly energizing calls with all roles in their circle (well, the people holding the roles) answering one main question: How can I assist you in getting unstuck? And NOT, This is what you do next, as would be the case in a traditional structure.
The Lead Link’s key role is to facilitate the flow of information and prioritization from circles above it. They set circle priorities and divide circle resources but don’t tell role holders HOW to do their work, or what to do.
For tools, we use Zoom for group video conferencing, Google Meet for individual calls and buddy calls, and Loom videos to share things that take a long time to write. As everyone is in a different time zone, it may take a couple of comments on a task to understand where things should go. If that happens, we pick up “the phone” aka Google Meet or make a screen recording to explain where words failed.
Trust and PNP
Besides the operating system we run, Holacracy, and the tools we use to facilitate metrics, goals, and communication across our time zones, we needed a second important condition to make remote work work: trust.
Trust is always needed in a company, but when someone doesn’t work in an office, does not have to show up on time, and only has online check-ins every week, you need trust more than anything. We don’t care if you work from home; we don’t care if you are on a call with colleagues while changing car tires or waiting in the hospital for an appointment. We value our flexibility so much that we actively encourage you to share where you are.
Transparency creates trust and trust creates transparency. There is no need to apologize for being a human being that may also be a dad, or a mom starting work at 10 pm when the kids are in bed, or getting your period and feeling unwell. We share all aspects of being human, including when we are sick, when we are depressed, when we are relieved that our therapist helped us move forward with a roadblock.
We are Converters, human beings that now work together, moving this project forward for the passion for personal development, money or career. Whatever the reason is… it’s all ok. Just be there as a person.
Where you are and what you do can be shared freely in our Slack channels: #all_watercooler, #all_preguntitas (for questions), #all_places where you can see pictures of people and what they did on the weekend or earlier that day.
We celebrate failures in #fail-forward (previously #fuckups) and express appreciation in #all_gratitude. We celebrate life and understand it’s all about Progress Not Perfection (PNP). We understand that things are better done than perfect and that life can be messy. We embrace just taking a step at a time in the right direction (in life and in business). We’re transparent and accepting of our team members’ personal lives, as we know this will only amplify long-term company growth.
Besides impacting the way we function as a company, being remote gives us a chance to shape the world.
Let’s talk about talent, worldwide 9-billion-people-kind-of-talent.
Worldwide Talent Pool
Hiring worldwide is a challenge. But when you have a solid vetting process to find the best fitting people for your company, it’s a massive benefit.
As a US company, they say the best engineers are in Silicon Valley. I believe that the hardest working, best talent that will go all-in, place their life on hold for equity and a huge salary, can be found there. If you are a unicorn company that grows at an insane speed, has massive funding, and leads the industry at a billion-dollar company, I believe the Valley is the place to be.
But 99.99% of the companies in the world don’t fit that profile. Most of the world’s economies are run by businesses like the one you and I run. I think remote is not for all businesses. When you need to move and iterate at high speed, having all your team in one building is better than having it spread across time zones. But when you run a stable worldwide business and want to make use of the time zones and access the best people in the world, I think remote can be amazing.
A Delicate Topic: Money
Salaries are always a delicate topic. There are two ways remote companies deal with them:
- Everyone gets the rates of the location of the founding team.
- Everyone gets the rates of the location they live in.
To start with the first, companies like Basecamp pay everyone salaries that compare to Chicago rates. They are transparent about them and only hire people with work permits in the US. This method is often used by US companies to hire remote talent. It can be a big frustration for workers from other parts of the world. This means all salaries are compared to the Chicago rate, regardless of where workers are located. This is super helpful if you are for the idea that every person, regardless of location, doing the same job, could get the same pay. It sounds like something I can subscribe to wholeheartedly.
Yet, we picked another route.
We went with the idea that our key benefit is that we are remote-first. We chose to pay great, based on the location someone lives in and if it’s within our budget.
We love getting new Converters to join us. For example, as soon as the Product & Development circle can use some extra hands and the Goal Gladiator set development or product as key goals, then we ask Daily Finance to see if we have a structural monthly recurring revenue growth (MRR). If there is a budget available, we hire within that range. So for example last time this happened, we had a $7000 budget. We then see if we can hire someone, somewhere for an hourly rate that makes them happy for the hours that fill that budget. That can be 25 or 40 hours. We always want to make sure everyone coming to Convert is happy with the hourly rate and spend the hours they want to spend in this company. Contracts can range from 5 to 40 hours and it’s all good. The amount of hours you spend with us doesn’t limit your transparency. It’s there for everyone.
The benefits of remote work for the business are also obvious. There is the benefit that someone is laughing out loud when they get a $25 hourly rate working from somewhere where their colleagues make $6 for the same amount of work, dragging themselves out of bed, putting on a suit and commuting 60+ minutes to work every day.
Geo-arbitrage might be a concept that people other than digital nomads do not yet use often, but I think it has to be discussed. It’s something that you have to decide as a business. Will you pay everyone local rates even if that is 20x their local rate? Or will you overpay the local rate and make sure everyone is happy with what they charge? There is no right answer here, it’s something you have to decide.
Our company has a competitive edge with hiring, as we are remote, give core team members a $500 perk budget per month, have paid holidays, parental leave, bereavement, voting days and many other benefits. Team members have massive autonomy and freedom, pay as much as the team member asked when they signed on, yet significantly less than most people on staff in the US.
Remote working companies are a little slower in execution, but they make up for it with hiring flexibility. If I have a $7000 budget for a developer and am stating the reward range on the job posting, I can weed out applicants from the get-go. Transparency is important. Nobody likes the silly game of “what did you make before us”! We also don’t care about your nationality, religion, language, or education. Can you do the job? Are you the best in the world “we can find” for the job? Then both sides are happy, even if it’s a controversial choice.
On top of the salary choice and anonymous hiring, we have another odd habit that often raises eyebrows: gigs. You can carve out topics in your contract for side projects and even start or continue your own business on the side. As long as you are transparent and the intellectual property split of topics is clear, we have no problem with it. Again, we are on this journey together. We love entrepreneurs and we even post business ideas in Slack, like ideas we would fund. All this to say that this is that more job security for you, more trust, more personal development and intrinsic motivation to just move your life in the direction you want to take it.
This last major benefit I want to share is another one close to my heart, the environment.
Why Remote Works for the Environment
Converters don’t need a car or transport to work. We also don’t go to conferences as a business (local conferences are promoted, but we don’t go to conferences as a business). All this saves tons of CO2 in the world.
Although this makes perfect sense to us, it also means we have to skip on some lead gen opportunities and grow at a slower pace, and that is fine. That is the choice you make when you incorporate the cost of doing business in the world.
We create an annual conscious business report. Even if we put 44.7 tons of carbon into the world by just existing as a business, we compensated 15x that using carbon offset programs in 2018 and plan to keep increasing that even as we grow. Download our 2018 report here.
Why Do I Think Remote Works?
The way I wish to be treated I try to treat others. I know that this is not the perfect way or the perfect company. We are moving along a new road where we work over multiple continents with dozens of people that often speak English as their second language. We communicate in real-time, in video and in writing. All on similar projects with full autonomy in a format not tested at this scale. It can be a mess sometimes, and I’m sure it’s not for everyone. But I’m very motivated to continue this journey to see if we can make it work. We will continue to share the mistakes and successes so you can pick up and learn from them.
If you like this article and found valuable snippets of information, please share them. If you’re familiar with remote work challenges like loneliness and isolation, connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know your tips!