INSIDE MAPLIGHT

Six Steps to Building a Strong Remote Team

March 28, 2019

MapLight is lucky to have a team of employees whose talents and passions go beyond their geographic boundaries. Although our main office is in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have worked with both colleagues and contractors from at least ten states and three different countries throughout our 14-year history as an organization. Currently, our team is split just about evenly between employees based in our Berkeley office and employees based in other cities across the US.

After some experimentation, lots of research, and thorough feedback from all employees, we've implemented a number of practices to support a culture that works for both our remote and our in-office staff. Below is a summary of those practices that we hope will be helpful for other organizations looking to build a strong work culture with remote employees.

1) Use the same communication tools. People should be able to reach one another easily and reliably across a single platform, no matter where they're located. At MapLight, this meant ditching HipChat and Google Hangouts for Slack -- our employees found the latter to be much smoother, more functional, and better integrated with our existing tools. Something as simple as agreeing on the main way to reach each other when someone has a quick question for a colleague can make all the difference in team responsiveness and accountability.

2) Ensure universal adoption of a single calendaring system, and make it clear when we’re not available. It's easier to reach one another and work collaboratively if everyone knows when we can (or can't!) be reached. We set general “all hands on deck” hours, and now expect everyone to note on their calendar if they’re otherwise occupied during that period -- that way, we’ll know when not to expect an immediate response. When we can’t just walk over to someone’s desk to see whether or not they’re busy, it’s critical to broadcast our availability in a way that’s visible to all colleagues.

3) Privilege face-to-face communication when possible, and provide opportunities for “watercooler” chat. Not seeing each other in person on a regular basis can have two main drawbacks: many remote employees miss out on the professional bonding and relationship-building that occurs between colleagues who casually converse in a shared physical space, and the risk for miscommunication is higher when we can’t read each other’s facial expressions, body language, etc. during conversations.

At MapLight, we make it a point to hop on Zoom for video chats as frequently as possible -- it’s really helpful to feel like you’re actually in the room with someone during a meeting. We also have “all-staff” weeks two to three times a year where we fly all remote staff into our Berkeley headquarters. We try to facilitate opportunities for both productive collaboration and times to socialize during those visits. Moreover, we have designated Slack channels for conversation outside of work topics so that we can communicate with one another in a less structured and more personal way, ensuring that team members get a chance to bond outside of their normal projects.

Additionally, our onboarding procedures dictate that within the first two weeks of a new person’s hire date, they should have a 15-minute “getting to know you” meeting with each of their colleagues. This eliminates the issue of remote staff in different departments never crossing paths with one another. Ensuring that everyone gets acquainted right away, regardless of their location or projects, results in a more cohesive and productive team down the line.

4) Ensure everyone has access to the same perks and opportunities. We’re not just talking about the big things (insurance, PTO, retirement contributions), because those should already be scaled in a way that is equitable and clearly defined. We’re thinking in terms of the everyday opportunities that make or break someone’s experience in the workplace -- organizational culture is built on a foundation of those small things!

Some examples: Remote folks can’t be here to enjoy our biweekly team lunches, so we make sure to send them a variety of tasty snacks each month (we use an online snack service call Graze). In the office, we celebrate people’s birthdays with treats and a card -- so when it’s a remote employee’s birthday, we take the time to send a card in the mail so they know we’re thinking of them even when they’re not here. Overall, we try to remain intentional about giving remote and local employees the same access to professional development opportunities (such as classes and conferences), equitable quality of life perks, and similar flexibility in their schedules. Just because someone’s not in the room doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider them when we think about ways to demonstrate gratitude and recognition for our colleagues.

5) Acknowledge the differences between remote work and local work. Given that the concept of remote work is so new to much of the labor market, it’s understandable that some people are hesitant when it comes to adopting this trend. Questions around whether you can trust someone to work when you can’t see them, how remote employees can respectfully indicate when they’re not reachable, and how to avoid burnout when there’s decreased separation between their work life and personal life can, understandably, give managers pause.

At a nonprofit like MapLight, we know everyone works here because they care about our mission -- and accordingly, regardless of how much we actually witness each other working in-person, we know that we’re all doing our best. Just as in a traditional office, key contributions to a shared mission can be both visible and invisible; it’s critical to recognize both kinds of work equally. We know that just because someone’s not physically at our headquarters doesn’t mean they’re not working just as hard.

Moreover, when transitioning from an open office to one split between remote and local work, we initially struggled with communicating intermittent availability to one another -- the visual cues that usually tell us someone can’t be interrupted just aren’t available when a colleague is hundreds of miles away. In response, we made it clear that people should feel comfortable declaring that they need “heads down” focus time -- by setting away messages on Slack, blocking out time on their calendars to focus, or simply telling someone that they’re currently in the middle of something but can respond to them later. It can be difficult to set boundaries when the impression is that remote colleagues are always ready to take a call at their desk, but we’ve found that people are generally grateful when priorities and capacity get communicated in advance of any confusion.

Relatedly, MapLight ensures that remote employees are offered the same technological and ergonomic office equipment that we enjoy here in Berkeley -- the more a workspace at home feels like the real thing, the easier it is to slip off the couch and into work-mode. Making sure that one’s home office is tidy (much in the same way that you’d keep your desk organized and presentable in a regular office) can also help with clearing one’s head and ensuring you can actually focus at home.

Lastly, when it comes to making one’s home feel like the office, but not too much, It’s important for an organization to cultivate a culture of self-care. Encouraging remote employees to take breaks (both physically and mentally) in the same way they would at the office can help reduce remote employees feeling like they’re at work even when they’re technically at home, and may assist in making the divide between personal time and professional time more pronounced. (Also, if they prefer to work from a cafe or a coworking space, see if it’s in your budget to help facilitate that for them.)

6) Support everyone to follow the same structured communication approaches. At MapLight, we expect all employees to have weekly one-on-ones with their direct manager to check in about project progress, surface any red flags, and generally touch base in an intentional way. Remote employees also have structured check-ins with HR once every six months to ensure that their working arrangement is going smoothly -- and if it’s not, then we can talk about what they need and troubleshoot it together.

Moreover, all of our organizational policies and procedures live in our shared knowledge base (we use an internal wiki tool called Atlassian Confluence).  It provides a single source for people to reference our protocols and best practices regardless of where they are.

Before undergoing the substantial organizational undertaking that is a move toward remote work, be sure to consult your employees. Their understanding and feedback are critical to creating a functional asynchronous and dispersed workforce that still allows your organization to reach its goals. Permanent organizational change can only come with employee buy-in at every level, and it will need careful attention and tweaking in almost every corner of your organization. Ensure you’ve opened up honest lines of communication to those leading the change, and be open to modifying your practices as you learn what does and doesn’t work for your team.

Over the years, we’ve learned that being more intentional and thoughtful about the way we approach remote arrangements has greatly improved our organizational culture -- and its positive effect on MapLight’s actual work can’t be understated, either. We wish you the same luck in implementing these best practices with your team as well!

For questions or comments on building a successful remote work culture, feel free to contact MapLight HR & Operations Manager Chelsea Whitman at cwhitman@maplight.org.