Delusions of Culture: Making Remote Work as a Small Team

Since working at HelpDocs the past few months, I’ve become a pro at explaining what remote work is and how it works. So much so, I’m thinking of adding it to my CV under “additional skills”.

Of course, there are a few who get it straight away.

These people are unicorns 🦄 When you find one, talking about remote becomes a joy. At least for a moment.

To them, being a remote worker is like you’ve found Shangri-La, or uncovered the answer to the meaning of life.

You take on the persona of a mysterious, world-travelling wanderer, freed from the shackles of the traditional workplace. Free to do as you please, when you please.

Their eyes light up. Hope reignites that they too can one day find their freedom and jet set across the world, without a care. 🏝✈️

Not to burst anyone’s bubble here, but while there are some who do take the nomad route—HelpDocs founders notwithstanding—the vast majority of remote workers tend to stay in once place. Their home.

It’s at this point I’m usually met with a barrage of questions, ranging from “Do you get lonely?” to “How do you avoid spending the entire day watching Netflix in your underwear?”

Pro tip: spend one entire day watching Netflix in your underwear, and then take a look at your workload. I guarantee you won’t do it again!

With questions spewing out faster than they can think, these once majestic unicorns usually start stumbling like a newborn foal, crashing over issues of their own making.

The conversation killer usually comes in the form of a phrase like: “I wouldn’t be able to go remote because it’s too much freedom. I would just spend the entire day watching Netflix in my underwear!”

So I usually shrug, say something insightful like "yeah, I guess it's not for everyone", and walk away.

Thinking about it, people must completely misunderstand what happens to your workload when you work remotely. Do they think it magically disappears? Like sitting around binge watching The Wire is really an option?

'Cause honestly, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

The truth is, as a remote worker, your workload goes with you… everywhere! 💼🏋️‍♂️🛫🚎🛳 🚽

There is no escape.

This got me thinking about other common misconceptions about remote work, which led me to a bunch of articles answering a list of questions on this exact thing.

Rather than rehash the same tired content yet another time, I wanted to take a moment to share some candid observations of things I wish I knew about remote culture before I started.

Async Communication Rules

Communication can be one of the biggest hurdles for remote workers to overcome. It’s one of the main reasons apps like Slack do so well.

It's true, you don’t experience the serendipitous collisions at the watercooler, or the incidental disturbances at your desk.

But is that such a bad thing?

Not being able to jump up and visit Jenny the programmer’s desk because you need to ask her a question about a bug she’s probably not even working on right now is a blessing for Jenny.

Your likely not-so-urgent question is hindering her productivity. By waltzing on over unannounced, you, my friend, become a pain-in-the-ass distraction.

Instead, let’s say you fire off a message on Slack. Or an email or text. If you work for the government, maybe a carrier pigeon 🐦.

If Jenny is working, it’s all good. She’ll pick up the message when she get’s around to it. Right now, she can keep working and will fix the other bug that’s been plaguing her for hours.

Let's face it, 99% of the questions you have for Jenny will wait. The world will still turn. Nobody will perish.

In traditional offices, regular communication becomes a distraction. In remote teams, asynchronous communication means productivity wins.

You can't hide from culture fit

Culture as a fully remote company has been on my mind a lot. Not least because culture fit is one of the most important aspects the team considers as we grow.

What I've come to understand—as a veritable layman of company culture—is that really, listing down a bunch of inspiring words and trying to shoehorn a culture around them just doesn't work.

At HelpDocs, the culture isn't just an extension of the founders. Instead, we seem to be developing our culture organically, as a team. Collaboratively.

As a result, it's becoming increasingly easy to see how a new hire might impact on the culture. Since the culture is us.

In a traditional office, this is much less obvious. It's easier to act a certain way in a face-to-face environment. It's easier to "fake it", when you have a bunch of reference points around you that you can more or less imitate.

In a remote team, that just isn't possible. Everything becomes scrutinised. Word choice becomes crucial, the way you type is like a fingerprint, and changes to the team dynamic are much easier to identify.

There is greatness in over-communication

When I talk about over-communication, I mean every conversation, no matter how inane, takes place via your chosen async communication channel.

That means everything.

It could be those missing watercooler conversations like
A: “have you watched the latest thing on Netflix”
B: “No, are you crazy, my workload is phenomenal…you’re just wearing your underpants again aren’t you”

Or it could be super-important conversations that are necessary to progress a project.

At HelpDocs, this is taken to the extreme—which is surprising when you consider two of the three of us work in the same place.

We are in constant communication on our own terms. We share everything from random gifs—at the irritation of Jake—to important conversations about projects.

Being in constant over-communication is the perfect antidote to the supposed issues of loneliness, and helps me feel like a valued member of the team, despite being on the other side of the world—often literally.

What's most obvious, though, is that building an inclusive, flourishing culture is no more difficult in a remote team than it would be in a traditional office.

Some CEOs take take an opinion that culture is harder to build as a remote team, because you don’t have the incidental in-between moments of team bonding.

On the contrary, in my experience remote cultures are easier, because they can occur organically. This often results in a better defined culture that reflects the people instead of just the decision makers.