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How to build a long-term remote work culture in the COVID-19 era

Business Continuity Through COVID-19

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Since everyone’s looking for a (productive) distraction, allow me to regale you with a tale from another, less precarious era. 

The year is 2013. The economy is humming along nicely, rebounding from the great recession of 2008. Jobs (and toilet paper) are plentiful. Our company, Signifyd, is in its relative infancy. Our co-founders are convinced they have product-market fit and are prepared to start growing the team. But they are faced with an interesting conundrum: Our CEO, Raj, works out of our fledgling office in the San Francisco Bay Area, but our CPO, Mike, is based out of his home in a sleepy New Hampshire town.

With a pressing need for talented engineers, Mike luckily recognizes the opportunity presented by hiring a distributed team. As a remote worker himself, he knows firsthand that it does not have a negative impact on productivity or value, and predicts that we will benefit from untethering ourselves from Silicon Valley’s tight competition for tech talent. So, Signifyd’s distributed engineering team is born! 

Distributed teams are a part of Signifyd’s DNA

Why am I telling you this now?

Well, I’m guessing this isn’t the first article you’ve come across related to “WFH Tips” or “Making Remote Work, Work for You” in this crazy COVID-chaos. But at Signifyd we have a unique vantage point because we’ve been doing this distributed-team, remote-work thing forever. And in the spirit of trying to make lemonade out of lemons, we want to share with you in order to fast track your own adjustment to operating in a work-from-home world. Rather than short-term “survival” techniques, we want to give you long-term strategies to help you thrive, both during and after this crisis.

What you need to know
  • With federal guidance and local jurisdictions extending for weeks the length of stay-at-home orders and advice, this is a time establish long-term practices that nurture a remote work culture for the long haul.
  • Communication and rich interconnections are the key to fostering the feeling that everyone is on the same team. But these two things don’t happen on their own. It is the business’ job to make sure both are running full-throttle.
  • Be mindful of boundaries between work and home life and foster understanding and empathy throughout the entire organization. Employees shouldn’t feel the need to be available 24/7. Instead, performance should be judged on what an employee accomplishes while working.
  • The pandemic-inspired shelter-at-home policies will not last forever. When it is time to go back to the office, you just might find that going back itself isn’t as necessary as you once thought.

Communication and staying connected are keys to working together while apart

A great starting point is the blog post our Director of Engineering Tristan Smith wrote in 2018. Aside from the fantastic technical tips Tristan shares, I particularly love this theme: “Remote work recognizes real life.” 

We have always had a heavily distributed team (53% of our employee population is outside of our HQ, and 48% of our U.S. engineering team work remotely full time from their homes across the country). So, our culture has developed with an ingrained sensitivity towards and mindfulness of the natural tug-of-war between life and work — which, as many of you are becoming acutely aware, becomes much more obvious as we bring our work into our homes.

In our experience, the name(s) of the game are communication and interconnection. What we’ve learned after many years of this is that these two things do not happen by accident or on their own. It is a company’s responsibility and burden to provide both tools and opportunities to maximize these things. Here’s what has worked well for us to keep the flow of information unfettered and democratic and to keep our employees in sync with one another:

  • Aligned leadership: It’s incredibly important that everyone in the company is hearing the same message, at relatively the same time, in relatively similar fashion — and to avoid a bias towards those who are physically present or easier to speak to quickly or ad-hoc. This theme of consistency is woven into all of our manager meetings and roundtables. We also hold a highly valuable monthly meeting of our extended leadership team (directors and above) to ensure that they have details, full context and insight into everything going on in the business. We spend a good portion of that meeting aligning on how to best communicate important information down through the org. 
  • Strong rituals: Even pre-COVID, we’ve had a more prevalent cadence of daily and weekly virtual stand-ups at Signifyd than most companies. These are excellent for sharing updates and holding the team accountable for progress, yes, but they also force teams to interact in real time and build connections. Our years of distributed teams have helped us establish firm and non-negotiable procedures around documentation and sharing of information so that everyone who might benefit from certain knowledge has access to it. When everyone’s lives are in chaos from this global phenomenon, it is both comforting and productive to have these practices and rituals to lean on to give a semblance of normalcy and to maintain the flow of information and accountability. 
  • Boundaries: It’s tempting to always be “on” when you work from home. Since our permanently-remote workers have always coexisted with in-office folks that have more of a defined start and end time, they’ve developed habits consistent with that as well. And the bias towards a “butts in seats” mentality has already been overcome, because of how many successful remote workers we’ve had over the years. So our teams make robust use of Slack statuses, calendar blocking, and clearly articulated team communication standards so nobody feels the need to reply instantly to a non-urgent email just to prove that they are working. We endeavor to base performance evaluations on deliverables rather than proxies like hours in the office or late-night email responses. 
  • Empathy: Customer compassion is one of our core values, but it doesn’t just apply to our paying accounts — we think of our employees and candidates as our customers too and try to weave empathy into how we approach them. This has resulted in some fantastic practices pre-COVID that are playing out very nicely. We wanted to make sure our non-remote employees appreciated the “plight” of the remote workers, so many teams already had their HQ/office-based workers WFH at least one day a week to level the playing field and help them appreciate and actively combat the challenges of not being physically present with others on the team. We are also very accustomed to our employees needing flexibility in their schedule (truthfully, that’s often why our employees have gravitated towards a remote position in the first place) and so we have developed an ingrained comfort with unconventional schedules and a results-driven, rather than activity/presence-driven, performance culture. 
  • Fun: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, right? When you can’t just lean on organic, employee-driven get-togethers for building bonds, you get a lot more creative about how to keep your teams engaged and build connections among people. When planning events, we try to think “outside in,” meaning our initial goal is to serve our distributed team members and then draw our focus in towards HQ and our other major offices. And our teams have always been excellent about intentionally scheduling time for non-work banter and connections. But COVID-19 has given us renewed motivation to provide fun experiences and social interactions for our teams, since we know everybody needs the escape. We think this is an opportunity for us to emerge as an even more connected and cohesive team!

From disruption comes opportunity

We know that this is a challenging time for everyone, but we believe more than anything else that this is an opportunity to emerge stronger and smarter. We hope in the midst of this roller coaster ride many other companies will embrace the silver linings that we’ve discovered: 

  • Forcing everyone to work remotely builds empathy and compassion for all of our unique work/life situations. 
  • Working from home also exposes remote work for what it is — just as productive and valuable as in-office work, if the right tools and opportunities are provided. We can shake the stigma around remote work and cultivate genuine openness for the flexibility our employees often crave. 
  • Eliminating commutes gives all of us more time to focus on enriching activities that bring us joy (whether it is spending time playing with our children, getting some exercise, or picking up that hobby we’ve been eyeing for years). 
  • Change can breed creativity. Our new surroundings and circumstances, and removal of some of the constraints of office work, can trigger parts of our brain that we haven’t dusted off in years and allow us to explore fresh perspectives and ideas. 

Needless to say, facing a global pandemic comes with its challenges — emotional, social, financial and occupational. But disruption brings change and opportunity. Building the structures and strategies to function at the highest level as a distributed workforce is one takeaway that we can all value long after the current crisis has passed. 

Photo by Getty Images

 


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Emily Mikailli

Emily is Signifyd’s vice president of people operations and views herself as responsible for every element of the candidate and employee experience. Before arriving at Signifyd in 2016, she worked in human resources at Survey Monkey, recruited legal talent at Google and was an account executive at Robert Half. Emily holds a bachelor’s degree from Duke University and she is a licensed attorney with a law degree from the Santa Clara University School of Law.