Remote Life: Building Startups Through Remote Work Culture

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For startups, many factors argue against a traditional office-based work structure. At “Remote Life: Building Startups Through Remote Work Culture,” Tuesday morning’s Denver Startup Week panel at Galvanize Golden Triangle, four experts talked about how virtual teams work in their organizations.

It’s important, they agreed, to use the right tools and sharpen management strategies to ensure success in a distributed environment. Matt Zwiebel, Member Sucess Manager for Galvanize in Denver, learned from his boss, Adam Griffin, that you have to put in the time to get to know people who don’t sit near you every day. “He really works his ass off” to dig deeper and make connections with people who work in other cities, Zwiebel said.

Don’t people need to sit shoulder to shoulder in order to bond as a team?

Not at all, according to Andrew Berkowitz, CCO of TeamSnap. “It comes down to a question of ownership,” he said. In a traditional employment relationship, “the company owns you,” and workers have to request permission for everything.

“You’re treated like you’re 10 years old. You have to ask permission to have a life.” In a distributed culture, team members “feel like it’s their choice to build something. They want to feel close because they want to be there. End of rant.”

Regular face-to-face meetings, including annual company retreats, regular team get-togethers, and casual lunches when someone visits another team member’s city, help reinforce culture. So does an understanding that flexible scheduling and telecommuting are not the same thing.

How do you handle workers who just want to put their heads down and code or write, and not make small talk in Hangouts or on Slack?

It can be a challenge to stay connected with people “in the dev cage,” said Chris Arnold, partner in Authentic Form and Function. Lunch-and-learn sessions over video chat gives developers an opportunity to talk about something that interests them, bringing them out of their shells.

Using Gallup’s StrengthsFinder tool helps managers learn individual strengths, said FlexJobs CEO Sara Sutton Fell. She added that her director of people and culture is an introvert, sensitive to the work styles of the less outgoing.

The beauty of a co-working environment, Zwiebel said, is that solo workers still have people around them. “The line between personal and professional is very blurry,” he said. Galvanize members who don’t work together nevertheless celebrate wins together and offer hugs when things don’t go well.

When you know a remote situation is not working, what do you do?

It’s important, Fell said, to determine whether the problem originates with the worker or that person’s manager. “Usually it’s the manager,” she said.

Anticipate worst-case situations, Arnold said. Acknowledge that they’ll happen and figure out in advance what to do. “Have the awkward conversation before you have to,” he said.

Fell added that remote work arrangements force managers away from evaluating their team members based on surface judgments – how they dress, whether they’re smiling, how talkative they feel on any given day. Managers of virtual teams have to delve deeper into each person’s measureable performance, Fell said – the KPIs that really matter.

Rather than work/life balance, Berkowitz said, he aims for work/life autonomy at TeamSnap. “What people really crave is the autonomy to decide when they work and when they live their life,” he said.

Check out the full Denver Startup Week schedule and register for events here!