How digital product studio Pixelmatters transformed from office to remote

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that large companies like Twitter, Shopify and Slack are "going remote".

And recently, we’re hearing more and more stories about smaller companies, startups, and digital agencies doing the same.

We started to interview these companies to learn more.

The first, with André Oliveira, CEO of Pixelmatters.

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About Pixelmatters

Pixelmatters started in 2013 in Porto, Portugal. They’re a digital product design and development company with clients all over the world. Around 40 employees work for the company, with an average age of 29 years.

Working situation before COVID

The only office for Pixelmatters is in Porto and up until now they have restricted hiring to Portuguese citizens only to make it easier on the legal side (i.e. visas). All the employees were allowed to work remotely 2 days a week.

The company had announced in January 2020 that they would be moving to a new office, four times the size of the one they currently have and situated in a more desirable location in the Porto city center.

After the situation with COVID happened, they decided to conduct a survey to get the team's opinion.

Here were the main takeaways:

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Interview with André Oliveira

Why did you decide to keep the team fully remote post social isolation?

On March 12th, we were quick to adapt to the pandemic and have all our employees working remotely for public health reasons. It was a smooth transition as we were already offering the option to work remotely before lockdown.

From June 1st, the forced lockdown ended but our current office remained closed as the lease was ending and the property was handed back over to the landlord.

We have plans to move to a new office, but that won’t be before the beginning of 2021. In the new office, we’ll be offering a new policy where we are 100% flexible on location.

It can be 5 days a week at the office, fully remote or a mix of both. We sent an internal survey to all our employees to see if they would be happy to stay remote until the new office is opened and more than 85% of the employees said they were happy to do so.

What did you have to implement to make it happen?

We already had the 2 days a week remote work policy, so we already had a lot of the tools set up to make the transition. We have always been working remotely with our clients, so everything was prepared in that regard as well.

Some of the meetings & processes were rethought. We’re having more asynchronous processes and an online monthly meeting with all employees helps to keep everyone informed and up-to-date.

What challenges did you face to have all employees working remotely and how did you overcome them?

The isolation, especially during a pandemic situation and the lack of human contact were two of the challenges encountered.

Finding a good balance between personal-professional life can be hard with remote work as there’s a tendency to work more hours at home.

Pixelmatters has been sending out documentation internally to try and provide a few tips & tricks for employees to manage their work from home situations and raise awareness about the challenges they can face.

On the other hand, people are also proactively finding ways to better perform their work at home. The team leaders have set up calls with their entire teams on a regular basis and are taking the time to have “coffee table conversation” during the call, replacing the coffee chit chat that normally happens in the office.

It's time to break boundaries by celebrating love and fighting for equality, diversity, and inclusion.

The biggest challenge I can see for remote work will be for the people who have kids. The context of personal life matters a lot. I can see it myself being a father, and how the routines and personal time are a lot more reduced.

I feel that we could maybe do more, or at least there is more we would like to do, but it also depends on the individual mindset and the needs they have to be able to work well remotely.

How do you keep your team aligned, productive, motivated and continue to grow a positive company culture with the remote team?

We’re having an annual company retreat called “ Teamatters”.

Obviously this year we had to cancel it but thankfully our team already knows each other, there’s just a lack of human contact right now.

A few days before the COVID situation began we were in the process of hiring new employees who have since been on boarded and we’re still in the process of hiring 3-5 more staff members.

As they won’t be meeting their colleagues or managers face-to-face currently, we’re making sure they have a weekly one-on-one check-in.

As I like to say: “You can have a distanced relationship with someone. But nothing will replace a hug or a kiss”.

At the beginning of the year, we implemented our first organisational motto, called “Document and Share”. We have not always grown in a methodical manner and we were lacking some important documents to enable the work to be delegated.

We’ve only had a marketing team for one year and failed prior to that to share our knowledge, culture and mindset more widely.

Thanks to our new motto, we now instil that culture of documenting the work and sharing it within the company and outside (with an emphasis on the outside). With the remote team, it’s even more needed to have this documentation existing & available.

What are your favourite tools/software to help the company to work remotely?

We use Slack to communicate (as little as possible as it could be a source of interruption), Basecamp for project management, Notion for internal communication, and ToDoist for small tasks & to-do lists.

Are you inspired by other companies with remote only employees?

The companies inspiring me for remote work are: BaseCamp (as the founder wrote 3-4 books about the topic), Doist, Buffer (who has been fully remote for many years now) and of course Gitlab, who is a pioneer in terms of remote work.

According to you, what are the success factors for remote work?

You need to have the right mindset in place and people need to understand when to be synchronous & asynchronous* (*two or more people exchange information in real-time vs exchange of data between two or more parties without the requirement for all the recipients to respond immediately.).

People also need to embrace the remote reality and have the proper tools to communicate and get the work done.

The two main components I will say are the mindset + working culture and the right tools.

How do you see the future of remote work?

It will continue to work; millions of companies were forced to adapt to remote work during COVID, and while there is a portion that will go back to the office (more old schools companies), some employers will offer a possibility to work remotely 1-2 times a week or when employees aren’t feeling well.

The business world is big and not only made of tech companies where remote work is easier. For instance, remote work is not really possible for many manufacturing companies.

Remote work was growing already and it will continue to grow. I think that more companies will go fully remote, but the majority of them will offer the flexibility to choose how you work instead, especially given the uncertainty regarding how they will adjust.

For us, the key is to be transparent & proactive as much as possible with employees in order to remove as much uncertainty as we can.

Personally in my company, I will go to the office 2-3 days a week and work remotely the rest of the time, which is already what I had been doing before COVID. To summarize, remote work is great and has many advantages, especially for digital companies.

However we will never be able to replace the human contact that comes from face-to-face interactions. The key is to combine the best of both worlds.

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