How we work remotely at /Data
By Andreas Constantinou
I was reminded the other day how lucky we are at /Data to be designed as a remote-first company. The social distancing taking effect in most countries as of March 2020 and work from home policies is something that has been business as usual for us since the outset. In this post, I wanted to document openly how we work remotely at /Data, for the benefit of all business owners who are trying to figure out how to apply remote work policies.
A few weeks back when we had the office open as normal, I was showing around a group of friends (and business owners) who work in various non-tech industries - shipping, retail and food. They were amazed that there was only one person in the office at that time. Their first question was: who’s picking up all the phone calls?. As it happens, we do get phone calls, but rarely, and they are routed via a digital switchboard, not an off-the-wall phone socket. In fact, everything we do is designed to work remotely.
Our remote-first culture really emerged out of necessity because over the years we've been hiring people from pretty much all around the world - from Argentina to Greece and the UK to Ghana. As a result, we needed to adapt and we needed to be able to function, collaborate, communicate as if we were in the same office. We have an office in Athens, Greece - but even there most people will work from their home office multiple days of the week.
As a research firm, most of our clients are in North America - including 9 of the top 20 global brands - a fact we ‘re rather proud of. We help the world understand (software) developers and developers to understand the world. Our research helps tech companies answer questions like which developers to target, what features to build into their platform, and what marketing activities to invest in.
Why do companies struggle to work remotely?
Let’s start with the problem we ‘re trying to solve. Why do companies struggle to work remotely? One of the most long-standing studies is the State of Remote report 2020, which has been running for 3 years, and for their latest edition surveyed 3,500 remote workers from around the world.
According to the study, top-2 challenges for remote workers are collaboration/communication and loneliness. Most of the systems we have in place at /Data as a remote-first company is designed to address these two challenges primarily.
Remote work is made possible thanks to five pillars at /Data: transparency, online tools, goal-setting, meeting rhythms and how we connect at the human level. Every one of these pillars is equally important, but together they are more than the sum of their parts.
Transparency is one of our core values. It’s deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. Every team is transparent with what they are working on, and is proactive in communicating to everyone else. Sales, customers, goals, processes and much more is transparent from day one to a new starter, ie from the day someone joins the company.
An important tool in our strive for transparency is a single Google spreadsheet, that makes up what you could pretty much call a company X-ray. Plainly speaking, it contains a ton of information and data that’s critical to understanding how we operate.
Our purpose, vision and values
Our business model
The market that we operate in and our competition
How our seven teams are structured and how they relate to each other
Our Accountability Chart, ie who’s who and who’s responsible for what
Our company goals and strategic priorities
Our sales and costs breakdown for the last 3 years
What we achieved, on a quarter by quarter basis, for the last 3 years, including shout-outs to team members that went the extra mile.
Which customer bought what product
Video walkthroughs by CEOs: a series of videos I ‘ve been recording in 2020, one per week, where I walk through important topics such as how we run meetings, how we approach new clients, and much more.
However, that’s just a static view into the company. What’s more cardinal to transparency is communication, and information flows within and across teams. For that we use Slack.
Slack has been really a before-and-after, a defining event since we introduced it to /Data. The way we use it now has significantly evolved and matured compared with when we first started using it. The channels we use Slack, tell a story about our culture, too. Here’s our main Slack channels.
Team channels and project channels: every team at /Data - product, tech, marketing, etc - has their own channel. It’s for the team to communicate on its operations, to share information with other teams and take queries. Similarly, every project has their own channel. We have for example, an internal data dashboard tool, which has its own channel. All the events have their own channel, too.
Customer inquiries + feedback channels: We have channels for inquiries from customers and their feedback. If there's a customer inquiry or request for data, it goes into this channel. The sales team will put the inquiry to that channel and flag the request for the analyst team to deliver within the agreed time.
Fun channels. We don’t forget to play while at work, and this is what these channels are for. We have channels for places and pictures, where we post pictures when someone goes on a long weekend trip, or when someone goes for a scenic walk along the beach. We have a book club, where a team member will ask for a book voucher (yes, we offer free book vouchers), or where we share what books we love to read. We have channels for fitness talk, quote of the week, life hacks, wine club, parenting tips and the all-important music sharing channel (everyone who joins gets a Spotify or Netflix subscription). Perhaps the most quirky channel is the things-you-would-never-share-at-work. There are often things that people kind of feel a bit awkward about sharing or stuff that have nothing to do about work, like off the wall. And that channel says, "It's okay to share anything that you thought you couldn't." It’s probably one of the funniest and most popular channels we use.
Online tools are a core part of our remote working armoury. We use over 50 (yes, five zero) software as a service tools for our work, from CRM to data analysis tools, to code repos. Below is a list of some of the tools we use the most.
Email: only for external communications
Slack: all discussions
Zoom: all meetings
Monday.com: project management
Dropbox: file storage
Google docs: document collaboration
Primalogik: performance reviews and goal tracking
Staff Squared: staff directory
Zeplin: UI design reviews
Dashlane: online tool credentials
Workable: hiring staff
Upwork: hiring freelancers
Email we only use for external communication, ie with customers and suppliers. It sucks and its terribly inefficient, but we re still in 2020, and that’s what most of the world uses to communicate. We very rarely use email for internal communication - instead all discussions happen on Slack.
Zoom is a core toolset for online meetings, and 99% of our internal meetings are online. It works very well when someone is on the go (read: driving or in the back seat of a cab) and it works equally well when all 25 of us get together for our Monday all-hands sync meetings (more on that later).
When many VC-funded tech companies talk about culture, they mean pool tables, a dry cleaning service or free gourmet coffee. Yet this is only at the very top of the pyramid or hierarchy of our needs at work. At the base of that pyramid are the safety and clarity of everyone’s individual role, their shared goals, and how our role contributes to the company’s short term and long term goals. Goal setting and alignment with a team is core not just to a well functioning remote team, but also to a sense of direction and purpose for everyone in the company. It’s at the base of the hierarchy of our needs as professionals, to borrow from Maslow.
Our goal-setting process at /Data has been heavily influenced by the Entrepreneur Operating System (EOS) discussed by Gino Wickman in the seminal book Traction, one of my favourite management books of all time. Our goal-setting process starts from a three-year company vision to one-year strategic priorities and goes all the way to individual team member objectives and key results (OKRs).
We start with a 3-year company vision: a vivid vision of how the company will look like in 3 years, where our offices will be, who our clients will be, how our teams will grow in size, what products we ‘ll be selling, and what each team will have achieved by then. We then move down to the 1-year team OKRs, a detailed description of what each of the teams will have achieved at the end of the year, in the form of objectives and key results. At the end of that process, every single staff member will have 3-month OKRs, so that they know what they have to achieve by the end of the quarter.
This goal-setting process is key to remote working, as it helps every team member know what they have to deliver at the end of the three months - and also serves to hold them accountable to those goals. Every single team member has quarterly goals, no exceptions. This helps keep everyone focused.
At the leadership team level we also check on our goals weekly, using a green-yellow-red traffic light system to communicate and share how we are progressing with our quarterly goals.
Goals are necessary but not enough to keep us aligned and sync’ed as remote workers, given much of our work is dependent on each other. Our meeting rhythms help close the gap on a weekly basis, and make sure we ‘re all aligned, and communicating both effectively and efficiently. We have several types of meetings that are scheduled in regular cadence, to keep the communication flowing predictably. The key to meeting rhythms is ensuring that the meetings happen on a predictable cadence of a specific day and time, e.g. every Monday at 4pm, week in, week out.
Weekly 30 min all-hands meeting: once per week, we get together on Zoom, all 25 of us, to catch-up and have a bit of fun. We discuss team updates, and key messages from the leadership team. And we regularly share in a bit of fun - whether it’s fun facts about team members, or ice breaker opening questions (more on that later).
Weekly 30-60mins meeting by each team: this is what drives cohesion and accountability within each team, whether it’s the product, technology, partnerships or marketing team. We share updates, what we ‘re working on, and what are the priorities for the week.
Weekly 30-60mins 1-2-1s between each person and their manager: perhaps the most important, and under-rated meeting is between a manager and their reports. It is so for many many reasons. It's a check-in to see how that person is doing - not just to make sure they are accountable for their work and goals, but also to touch base from human to human - what’s top of mind, what is the person worried about, what’s blocking their way, what issues they want to bring up - to coach them and most importantly help bring their best self to work.
If you don’t work in the same space with your colleagues, you don't hear all the chatter, all the gossip, all the activity, questions, issues, conflicts, all the things that make us human. Meeting rhythms are a really core part of the remote working culture, ensuring communication flows, everyone is on the same page, conflicts are dealt with before they become issues, the team is functioning like a well-oiled machine, and everyone is supported both as a co-worker and as a human being.
Connecting at a human level
Last but certainly not least, part of the remote working culture at /Data is connecting at the deeper, human level. For addressing the human element in all of us, we use several approaches.
Video-first calls: All our online calls are video first. Which means that we don't just rely on voice but 99% of the time there’s a familiar face on the end of the line. I've been in too many meetings with big tech clients where face-to-face online conversations are either shunned or even entirely the exception.
Opening questions: During our all-hands weekly Monday calls, we start with an opening question that aims to inject a bit of fun but also get us to know each other a little better. Questions. like "When you were a child, what was one thing you did to annoy your parents?" Or, "What did you want to become when you grow up?" Or, "If you could travel anywhere without budget limitations, where would you travel?" Icebreakers are not just fun but more importantly a little revealing about what each of us is like, which creates a safe zone of vulnerability and therefore a sense of trust.
Buddy system: In the last two years, we ‘ve put together a very thoughtful onboarding process for new starters, and one we are still developing. Part of the onboarding process is the buddy system where everyone joining has a buddy allocated to them for the first six months. The buddy person is responsible for walking the new starter through how the company works, and help them navigate processes, people and priorities. Again, connecting at the deeper, more human level.
Annual retreat: Like most companies, we organise a once-a-year in-person retreat. In 2019 it was a 2-day trip to Santorini. Unlike most companies, however, during retreats we don't talk about work. Nope. Nada. We are there not to align or strategize; we do that throughout the year, practically every quarter or every week. At the team retreat we're there to connect as people and get to know about each other, and even get to know a little bit more about ourselves. What happens during those retreats is people connecting during the breaks, not during the team games or facilitated sessions. It’s the breaks that get people gelling, connecting, and forming friendships.
Perhaps the best testament of our connection at a human level while being a remote-first team, is our weekly team meetings. Here we also celebrate our wins - and of course our birthdays (not on the same day, because everyone at /Data takes a paid day off during their birthday!). Here’s how we celebrate birthdays at /Data.
Our culture has come a long way in the last 3 years, and we ‘re continuing to build, evolve and fine-tune it. I hope this article serves as a reminder to our team members of how far we ‘ve come in our culture, but also as an inspiration for other companies, to copy and remix into their own culture!
Andreas Constantinou is the CEO of /Data.