Creating a great working environment takes effort and a good deal of creativity. In this jam-packed interview, Ryan Chartrand, CEO of X-Team, shares his advice and first-hand experience from managing a distributed company.
A word of caution - this material might make you want to rethink your whole company culture. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Ryan, what was your journey to X-Team and remote work like?
X-Team was my first remote role. It was a bit of a terrifying move to make, coming from the corporate world in a very comfortable job and career track. Suddenly working from the beach in Santa Monica, California was a bit of a drastic transition. After four years now, it's impossible to go back to anything different.
What’s the story behind X-Team being a remote company?
X-Team has been around for a decade as of this year, and has seen many different iterations when it comes to work setup. But from day one, we've been all about distributed teams - it's core to our history and who we are. Connecting people from different cultures, countries, genders and backgrounds has, and always will be, at our core.
But we did have an office at one point in Melbourne, Australia (where we were founded). Over the course of a year, we realized we were able to have incredible in-person sessions together, but we were also becoming too unproductive to our actual goals. Offices are great for the occasional brainstorm, but that really doesn't need to happen every day. In fact, having meetings all the time ends up changing the direction of the company every week. You need time to put your head down and focus on execution, and remote allows you to do that incredibly well. Our productivity and direction has never been better since going fully remote.
You’ve touched on meetings. What is X-Team’s approach to meetings and communication in general?
X-Team's operational team went through what many remote companies go through - realizing that meetings strip away the idea of flexibility that originally sold people to join your company. When you ask people to wake up at 4 a.m. so that you can tell them things you could have told them in an e-mail or a pre-recorded video, something is wrong.
After one too many of these meetings and disrupting people's flexibility, we decided to introduce two things:
1. Journaling: by far the most important thing we ever introduced to our company was the idea of maintaining a public Slack journal of your day's progress.
You can see this in action in a video and blog post we put together here.
The concept is simple: you will never be more connected and moving forward as a team (whether remote or physical) until everyone on your team keeps a public journal of what they have been doing throughout the day, from meeting notes to new deals closed to interesting articles read to project progress updates, etc. People trust each other more because they see how you're contributing value daily, they are in-sync more, they give feedback more often, and they are more likely to help you with tasks you're working on.
Journaling, most importantly though, keeps a team so well-informed that once you try to have a meeting, you'll realize how incredibly awkward and pointless meetings are when people actually keep each other up-to-date. It's phenomenal. I will never forget until the day I die how horribly, painfully awkward our meetings were once everyone on the team was journaling. They were so pointless, we ended them within 3 minutes of starting them.
Today, journaling has been a huge contributing factor to the death of meetings for us.
2. Pre-recorded videos: The best way to not only reduce meetings and give people back the flexibility you promised them, AND also store knowledge in a repository, is to have meetings be in the form of pre-recorded videos.
For example, we used to have 12 people get together at one time (many people sacrificing flexibility in that case) to present their hackathon entries for our monthly hackathon. Now, each person submits a pre-recorded video explaining their hackathon entry, pastes a link in a Google Doc, and voila - you can watch everyone's entries and comment on them on your own time, and you can go back and re-learn any knowledge shared weeks from now (rather than hope you took notes).
Do we end up losing some of the team bonding you get from meetings? Absolutely. But you can replace it via various forms of other experiences, from happy hour Hangouts, to multiplayer Game Nights, to Travel Nights talking about places you're working from, etc. Team bonding doesn't have to die, nor does it have to be the main reason you're holding on to meetings.
I highly doubt we'll ever go back, as after a year of this, we love the concept, the flexibility we have again, and the knowledge that is accessible via our video libraries.
You guys seem to be pretty big on Slack. Can you name some of your favourite Slack tips and hacks?
Certainly journaling via Slack as mentioned in the last question, but a few others:
And a new tip, which is to start using Howdy immediately. Incredibly useful for getting a lot of feedback, or answers to a question, or organizing a trip, or anything VERY quickly from a large team on Slack.
What is your internal superhero culture all about?
The original founder, Dave Rosen, had this great belief that if you treat someone like a superhero, they'll act like one, too. And so at one of our X-Mas parties, everyone was given a superhero identity to bring that belief to life.
And an extraordinary thing happens when you recognize people's potential and help show them what it looks like. Our superhero avatars are more than just cool icons in Slack; they remind each of us every day that we all stand for unleashing the best from ourselves.
They also give us an excuse to constantly geek out and make comic books.
How does this help contribute to your remote culture?
I'm glad you brought that up, as it has (unintentionally) served the remote culture very nicely, and I think for one main reason: the concept of superheroes crosses all cultures and countries. When we all are represented as superheroes to one another, we all blend together as one team with one identity and one tied purpose (to unleash our potential as developers).
It's helped us attract some of the most extraordinary developers in the world, as they are able to connect to our mission and culture much more quickly thanks to this globally recognizable concept.
One of your most interesting internal projects is called X-outpost. Can you elaborate on that?
The X-Outpost is definitely one of the highlights of 2016 for us, and is our way of getting involved in the co-living movement (the 'next big thing' after co-working).
The concept is simple: we've chosen locations around the world as hacker houses, places for our developers to go and live and work together. The houses don't last forever (1-2 months), which allows us to constantly change the locations and keep the options open to everyone.
The next three locations booked are in Chicago, Naples (Italy) and Koh Phangan (small island in Thailand).
They've proven to be a great way to create relationships that might not have ever happened via Slack, as well as a great way for us to provide the team some co-op epic missions centered around our ongoing superhero storyline.
How do you build trust in remote teams? And how do you motivate remote employees?
I think remote teams really live and die by trust. When you're relying on people to do their parts asynchronously and without ever seeing them, if you don't trust those people 110% to pull through, you'll not only never work as a team, you'll go crazy constantly worrying.
You have to start with complete trust of your team. Some people won't live up to that expectation and you'll have to let them go, but talented, proactive people will respect that trust and live up to it every day.
I like to say you have to contribute trust in multiple ways every day. Whether it's through journaling on Slack to keep your team up to date on progress, or by always setting and resetting expectations, you have to keep finding ways to build trust with your team. The second these habits stop, your team will get anxious and concerned and you will stand out as someone whose value is questionable (not a good spot to be in).
When it comes to motivating remote teams, it still surprises me that people from offices think this is literally impossible to achieve. That culture and motivation can't happen without physical presence (or, at the very least, video conferences). But neither are necessary.
If you believe culture can't be created remotely, then Minecraft (and the myriad of other online communities) must be a myth. If motivation is impossible online, then Gary Vaynerchuk's empire of motivational content must have been a dream.
What makes motivating people remotely harder is that you have to do it more often because little things like water cooler conversations or casual walk-by's don't exist. You're left with channels on Slack which will seem like ghost towns if you don't populate them with motivation. Going back to the Gary V example, he pumps out content every single day and thanks to that momentum, he keeps his fans motivated non stop, up until the point he needs you to buy his book.
Remote team motivation can come in many forms to get people going, whether it's celebration GIFs during/before big milestones (GIPHY is cool but personal ones are better), doing employee spotlights directly in Slack, doing Town Halls at least once a month via Hangouts on Air to keep everyone connected to the main mission and initiatives, and a myriad of other options, all of which simply require you to take your culture and make it more tangible (either physically by sending out things like care packages to team members after achieving goals, or digitally by constantly reinforcing it via Slack, video, and all other mediums your team uses).
Our culture is all about motivation, which is the ultimate recipe - combine the two together. We're all about helping our developers unleash their potential, which means constantly motivating them to become better and to grow better discipline for their craft. We put out content like this internally as well to keep motivation high and momentum growing. The results have been astounding really, and it's not just the content, it's from the help of a team of people we've hired who are dedicated to motivating our developers, 1-on-1, every single day. That's how important it is to us, and anyone who says it can't be done remotely can use a tour of X-Team :)
What is your personal favourite place to work from?
I don't have a favorite place per se, as what I like to do is appoint a location for a specific type of task. For example, I always save blog post writing for cafes, creative work and meetings for home, monotonous tasks for anywhere interesting (hard not to enjoy boring tasks even here), inspiration reading for subway rides, etc. If I had to pick one though, I find myself most in the zone and knocking out goals in cafes.
What do you need in your physical workspace to be productive?
As I've been a digital nomad now for a year, the answer is: very little. A laptop is really all you need. I used to have little memories of home or of things that inspire me that I'd carry along with me to cafes, but over time, you start to discover that these physical symbols, although nice to have, are something you already carry mentally and emotionally and aren't really needed physically. Eventually, all you need is a focused mind and a laptop, and you can achieve anything from anywhere.
Remote work can get lonely sometimes. Do you have any advice to beat loneliness?
We're very aware of this at X-Team, and it's why things like the X-Outpost have come about so that people have the opportunity to work with other X-Teamers in-person (and even live with them).
Remote work, however, doesn't have to be lonely. For some people, they love the loneliness aspect of it, but for those who don't, you have to quickly realize the incredible opportunity you have to now be able to go and join up with like-minded groups of people in your local community (or abroad).
You have no commute, no set schedule (hopefully), no restraints, so go out there and start using that time to connect with groups of people who inspire you. We have one developer who was able to discover his true life's passion as a result of working remotely, because he took the time that working remotely gave back to him to go and start diving deeper into his local community.
"Remote work is lonely" is an excuse for people who are too lazy to do anything about it. You have a world of opportunity before you, not just locally but you can literally go and live anywhere in the world - that's the least lonely opportunity ever given to anyone. Go find your people and surround yourself with them.
And if all else fails, meetup.com. Done.