Tips from the trenches of three remote-friendly companies

Leaders at Automattic, Glitch and Zapier share the glue that binds their work-from-home culture

Author: Matt HaugheyMarch 20th, 2020

This story is part of an ongoing series exploring how organizations are supporting remote work during the Covid-19 crisis. We hope these stories provide actionable tips and inspiration that organizations can use to make this transition a little bit smoother.

When you’re learning a new skill, it’s natural to lean on those who’ve “been there, done that.” As many people—Slack employees included—are suddenly working from home for the first time, we’re finding that there’s an opportunity to learn from others for this too.

To help us all with the adjustment period, we reached out to three companies, Automattic, Zapier and Glitch, which have been fully remote or remote-friendly for years, with a common question: How does your team deal with the thorniest of day-to-day issues?

Stressing the everyday routine at Automattic

Automattic is the company behind one of the most popular content management systems on earth, WordPress. Automattic’s staff of around 1,800 people work remotely, from all over the globe. While the nearly 15-year-old company has always been remote-friendly, it took the decisive step of closing its San Francisco office headquarters in 2017 due to declining use.

A common challenge for people new to telecommuting is staying connected to coworkers: How can you feel like part of a team, while also feeling empowered to hunker down and get work done independently?

Josepha Haden, executive director of the WordPress project at Automattic, says establishing a strong remote culture is about reminding everyone to follow rituals and routines. She starts every day by greeting her team, and ends each day by saying goodbye and encouraging everyone else to follow suit.

“It’s important to have a routine, because if you don’t have a standard routine you can’t notice when something strange or out of the ordinary is happening.”

Josepha HadenExecutive Director of the WordPress project, Automattic

Haden stresses the importance of a personal morning routine, including eating breakfast and getting dressed for work—even when your office is a 10-foot walk from your bed. From there, your first interaction of the morning can set the tone for the rest of the day, she says. Teams at Automattic start with standup meetings run through the Slack app Geekbot. Having each teammate share their daily agenda first thing in the morning means everyone knows their priorities, and allows for managers to track the team’s progress.

How Zapier makes remote management work

One of the most common pieces of feedback you’ll hear from managers is that it’s a struggle to oversee a team that’s not physically in front of you (and possibly spread across multiple continents).

Zapier is no stranger to remote work. As an eight-year-old automation software company with about 300 employees, it’s never rented office space. So how do managers keep their eyes and ears on everyone?

“Knowledge work has ‘exhaust’ that any manager can observe without having to bother individual contributors.”

Wade FosterCEO, Zapier

Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier, says managers must really pay attention to the finer details, but it’s not rocket science. It starts with what he calls observing all the “exhaust,” or small updates and notifications sent from the apps everyone uses throughout the day.

  • For software engineers, it’s alerts when they contribute and submit code
  • For marketing writers, it might be comments and edits in Google Docs
  • For sales, it’s purchase orders and revenue generated
  • For the customer support team, customer tickets are the bread and butter

Zapier pipes most of this exhaust into Slack (much in the same way as outlined in our previous post on machine-generated channels), where managers can review ambient updates and see how their team is making progress.

Another important aspect of remote management is setting expectations in collaborative fashion. Foster says most managers sync up with their team members every Monday to plan out their week, often reviewing progress on Friday. For newer hires, managers tend to sync with them daily throughout the week until they’re comfortable.

Foster’s team relies on a few other staples to keep everyone on the same page, including:

  • Weekly 1:1 meetings between managers and contributors, via video conferencing
  • Defaulting to public channels in Slack, so that everyone can see questions, help answer them and learn from others

How Glitch mastered distributed-meeting culture

Glitch is a platform for creating web apps to be shared with a larger community, and behind it all is a 50-person team that’s made distributed work a centerpiece of how they conduct everyday functions.

With half of its workforce working remotely, Glitch has written an employee handbook on the subject and shared it online for the wider remote community. It details tips for getting to know coworkers, expectations around work hours, workspace recommendations and more.

“The only way to tell if someone is working remotely is if they say so in Slack, otherwise I can’t tell if they’re down the hall or on the other side of the country.”

Anil DashCEO, Glitch

One innovative activity Glitch does for the company as a whole is conduct remote-first meetings, taking great care not to center on the experience of workers in the main office.

Every meeting is conducted over the video service Zoom, and that includes anyone in its NYC office. But unlike typical offices, Glitch workers skip the conference room and instead are required to join from their own office or private booth so the experience is identical for all attendees.

Since Glitch is an app building and hosting service, workers also rely on several apps that run on its own platform. They’ve even curated a list of favorites on their remote resource page. Some highlights include:

  • Remote Hands, which has simple buttons to send non-verbal cues to all attendees. For example, you can raise a hand when you have a question, or give a speaker a thumbs-up, without interrupting them.
  • Meeting Roles, which assigns roles like note-taker or timekeeper to attendees at random. Using a simple number generator is fair to everyone involved and breaks the office traditions around seniority that tend to give those types of tasks to people in junior roles.

All three companies say keeping their lines of communication open makes it possible for everyone to work together in far-flung places, and Slack helps play a role at each organization.

If your team members have suddenly thrust themselves into remote work, don’t fret; here are a bunch of recent stories, with different themes, to help:

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