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A few years before most people had ever heard of the word ‘Coronavirus’, Storyblok was founded as one of Europe’s few fully remote startups. The rationale was simple - why limit the talent pool to build your business to one country? Why not hire the best people from all over the world and also give them the freedom to choose how and where they worked? After all, our founders, Alex and Dominik, worked from Brazil and Austria respectively. Since that time, Storyblok has grown to over 200 team members spanning dozens of countries and timezones. Thanks to the pandemic, a huge number of companies have followed suit embracing fully remote, hybrid or flexible working models. However, as we quickly learnt at Storyblok, and many companies are finding out now - building a high functioning business with a remote team requires a unique approach.
One of the biggest challenges when transitioning to a remote work setup is maintaining company culture. How is it possible to recreate those casual conversations, work socials or impromptu catch ups? These natural interactions are key for relationship building and also the basis for innovation and problem solving.
The answer is to not bend or impose your existing culture — create a new one.
Fully remote or hybrid working requires a level playing field where everyone feels like they are equally involved and engaged. This means your main drivers of culture must be able to be delivered at a distance and equally distributed. You cannot favour people in the office over everyone else. Instead, culture should revolve around self-empowerment and autonomy.
At Storyblok we decided to base our culture around our diversity. Team projects include creating a cookbook or restaurant guide that covers food and locations all over the world, where our team is based. Similarly, everyone is encouraged to share their cultural traditions and holidays so we can celebrate them all together. We also try to help people interact on a more personal and individual level. We organise randomised ‘coffee chats' where people speak for 30 minutes to their colleagues in different teams and do exercise events where team members lead work outs and talk about the sports they enjoy. This enables people to break the ice with people they may not get the chance to regularly interact with.
Of course culture isn’t just built around socialising, it is heavily influenced by the management and policies a business uses. For most companies, transitioning to a hybrid or fully remote office requires a revamp of this structure. You cannot create a level playing field and fair environment if you seek to manage and measure remote workers in the same way as ‘in-house’ team members.
The biggest challenge is balancing monitoring with micromanagement. In my opinion, relying on monitoring technology is incredibly counterproductive - it signals to your team that you do not trust them. Instead, build a structure of regular meetings, stand ups and clear goals that covers every team member. Good managers will know who is performing as they focus on the result. They will communicate and set clear goals and allow different paths to achieve them - a process that is built on trust. Everything will be documented to ensure a common understanding between the team members and managers.
Making more data-driven assessments of performance can help to take human bias out of the equation. For example, some managers may subconsciously favour in-house team members they talk to face-to-face and reward them accordingly. Relying more on the hard facts can remove this danger and also help with diversity and inclusion.
Alongside this it’s important to create a systematic approach to checking in on your team’s health and wellbeing. You do not want anyone falling through the cracks and it is very easy for a remote worker to suffer in silence. Vigilance is key. We provide regular check-ins for employees, very quick one to two question surveys to see how people are feeling, discourage overtime and encourage taking all paid time off.
Technology has a huge role to play in enabling your hybrid or remote startup to work efficiently and productively. From day one, we invested in Notion, Slack, top end IT equipment such as webcams, microphones, headphones, G-Suite, Salesforce and simple time savers such as DocuSign. Tools for transparent documentation and collaboration are essential investments to set up a sustainable remote environment.
We developed policies and training to ensure they were used how we intended. It’s easy enough to buy a shiny new platform but actually getting people to adopt and embrace it requires discipline and diligence. The leadership team needs to set the example by being consistent, and onboarding processes for new arrivals need to provide plenty of training so people understand not just how to use collaboration tools but why they are used.
We use Zavvy to support onboarding and learning journeys. One week before joining staff receive all their equipment, an intro to the team and a tutorial on the tools we use. Then, for one month, they go through a general onboarding process to meet everyone, learn processes and get to grips with their job. We also assign a “buddy” and an onboarding manager to help support new hires and quickly answer any questions they have.
We also utilise bambooHR for performance reviews. Although we are still defining this process, we will look at what the team member and manager says based on a set of well-defined questions about work and competence. We can also include other team members to get a full assessment. This enables a well-rounded approach which is fair and unbiased.
Increased diversity. Internationalisation. Better access to talent. It’s no surprise to see more startups are making the permanent move to the remote model. Although this may initially require extra work and resources, in an emerging digital world where the traditional office’s lifespan looks limited, it's an important step change which will help companies stay future-fit.