Building a Remote-First Team: Why It Matters
Resistance toward operating in a remote environment is more about maintaining old structures of power and control than it is about maintaining productivity and creativity.
This recent New York Times article is one of many on a topic that’s front of mind for a broad audience. Some takeaways:
The belief that working together in a physical space makes work more innovative, creative, and productive isn't backed by data.
Underrepresented groups are most negatively affected by the power dynamic of "in" groups in physical workspaces.
Hybrid (in-office+remote blend) environments could increase a power dynamic’s negative impact.
The choice to build a remote-first team and company isn’t a new concept. We’ve had years to watch many companies model the highs and lows of such an effort and are weaving those learnings into our approach. At Pagos, we know that a remote working environment isn’t without its challenges. This post is the first in a series that will address our thoughts and intentions throughout our journey to reduce payments complexity and foster a community of learning and growth across the industry.
Why Remote Matters
I enjoy being around and working alongside people. And yet the past year has put into perspective just how much energy gets allocated to simply existing in the same space as lots of other people—let alone attending to socio-political, neuro/physical, and interpersonal needs and challenges. Over the past 16+ months of mandatory remote work during a pandemic, I see some notable benefits:
People can work from where they need to be. As a person with invisible disabilities, this matters a lot to me. I have chronic pain and can manage commuting to an office and back most days, but it’s draining. Today I save that time and energy commuting and put it toward things which boost my spirits: taking a nap, gardening, or walking in the park.
This approach to hiring and working also improves regional and ethnic diversity on our teams and reduces space for inequitable and abusive behavior toward underrepresented groups (e.g. Black, Latinx, trans, and non-binary folks). That said, not everyone has an environment supportive of working from home. We need to consider what tools and resources we offer by default to ensure a more equitable working environment. This could be access to coworking space if desired, providing required computer/tech, and more. And we need to be clear and aligned—in words and actions—that our working environment is a space for everyone to learn, grow, and succeed.
If you’re able to do most of your work asynchronously, you can work when it’s best for you. This could look like:
Creating cards or issues for work to be done by yourself and others
Documenting processes, procedures, and progress so teammates can gather context on their own
Using commenting functionality to collaborate on the review and revision of plans and knowledge
As a result, I can arrange my work around family and personal needs without it impacting my quality of work or its timely delivery.
Communicating thoughtfully and deliberately is challenging and essential, particularly in a remote-first environment. We need to set clear expectations on what each party handles, when that work is due, and what the consequences of inaction will be. It’s easier to cut corners in a physical workspace: you can walk to someone’s desk and ask them to do something for you when it comes to mind, or assemble the team for an impromptu meeting. This is convenient for the requestor—often a manager—yet these actions chip away at the time individuals have to focus on their actual work and reduce visibility for anyone not present.
If you don't proactively define and communicate expectations as part of a global team, things won’t progress at the pace you intend. Or you'll end up with burnt-out employees who work around the clock to compensate for your lack of planning, which isn’t respectful or sustainable. When building a company, team, or product it’s important to determine upfront:
What are we trying to achieve?
How will we do that?
Why does it matter?
Who will be affected?
If you’re in a leadership position and this feels daunting, boring, or inconvenient, consider the costs of:
Time required to resolve issues related to lack of clarity in goals and mission
Declining team morale
Cost of attrition
Trends in employee resignations are increasing. Every new person you hire to replace someone who's left takes focused time away from existing employees who help train them. Without adjustments in timelines and priorities, you risk creating a vicious cycle of burnout leading to attrition at increasing volumes. You also lose the context of the people who leave which may be irreplaceable.
A diverse representation of identities, abilities, experiences, and locations enables us to better understand and deliver meaningful solutions to those we serve. It also makes us more resilient. If you’re all in the same office and the power goes out, it impacts working operations more significantly than if you’re distributed across many different locations. If the power or internet go out across all sites at once, there are more pressing matters at hand.
Time and space need to be made within a diverse team for teammates to learn about differences in their perspectives and experiences. I've seen two recent examples of this in conceptual and organizational styles.
Some team members are comfortable talking about what we’re building and how in abstract terms while others crave specificity. Both perspectives are useful, and bridging them ensures everyone feels confident they're working toward the same goal. An abstract thinker might come up with the overarching vision. Concrete thinkers could then partner with them to define tasks and the sequence of work to deliver on that goal.
Another variance in experience is that of hierarchical versus flat organizational thinking, or mechanistic versus organic structure. Some folks are more comfortable having a centralized group of leaders who make decisions and delegate tasks. Others are more accustomed to operating in a decentralized and cross-functional capacity.
Everyone needs to have access to knowledge and context to do their work well. A big challenge in a blended organization is finding a balance between not enough (stuck in silos) and too much (free for all) information. I don't have a clear cut solution for this other than to ask teams often if they have what they need to be successful. Then, adjust your approach based on their responses.
Each structure also operates differently: flat teams move and adapt quickly while hierarchical teams are more rigid and consistent. The former is ideal in dynamic environments and the latter’s better in stable ones. It isn’t impossible to have both structures operating in tandem (think Alphabet). Success in a diverse working environment will be determined by how you build and maintain trust. Namely:
How you communicate
Whether you create space for people to share authentic feedback
How you hold yourself and your organization accountable to adapting to the organization’s needs as it evolves
Pagos has opted to go remote-first as a company because it allows us to build a more inclusive, adaptable, and diverse team of talented people, wherever they live. This isn’t without its challenges, and we’ll share our learnings with you as we go. In the next post, I’ll talk more specifically about how we’re building our team. Have suggestions or feedback on what we’ve shared or should consider? Send us a message!