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What Makes a Remote Company Successful: Interview with Laurel Farrer

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July 21, 2020
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We discovered Laurel's strong voice in the remote work realm, and we simply needed to approach her. Laurel Farrer is a Distributed Operations Consultant that collaborates with the world's top remote-friendly companies to strengthen virtual communication, streamline digital processes, and develop long-distance management strategies. Her clients are often big companies like Upwork, Microsoft, etc.

Before she became a consultant, she was working in the service sector, far away from the remote work "trend". She was attracted by the idea of it, even though the terms like a distributed team, agility, etc. were still tech industry exclusive. She interviewed companies like Buffer, and Flexjobs, looking for patterns of success that could be replicated.

There are a lot of companies that are considering shifting to remote working, like Stripe for example. What are the most common challenges companies who transition face?

The biggest issue from a physical co-located space to a virtual one is updating the management strategies. There are a lot of infrastructural changes that need to happen, like digitizing all the tools, updating communication channels, ensuring everyone has access to all the information, etc. Those are luckily very easy, one-time changes.

Is there something that happens only in an office environment and cannot be replicated virtually?

There are definitely some things like brainstorming sessions and creative processes when you just feel the energy in the room and bounce off it. Those things can surely be done virtually, but they are different. I consult my clients to gather the team in person once or twice a year. There is just something about developing interpersonal trust that is in human nature. You connect with another person on a much deeper level when you are in person.

A part of my job is figuring out how to convert all these processes into virtual space. If there isn't a physical break room, how do you transform it in a virtual space? I like to dissect the experience of those physical events, think about what makes them valuable, and recreate it in a virtual space.

Do you see common challenges across different industries when it comes to working remotely?

Yes absolutely! The formula is always the same, regardless of the industry. Remote working is more present in tech with many successful examples, but the process is the same for any company. It's a one size fits all solution that needs to be customized to each individual company to suit their industry.

When it comes to challenges, it always boils down to three things: trust, culture, and communication. It often happens that a company has strong communication or trust, but lacks culture or vice versa. To be successful, a company needs to be balanced in all three pillars.

Company culture seems the hardest to develop in a virtual space. What do you think?

It's tricky, and that's why team retreats are so important. If we define culture as the personality of a team, it can be conveyed easily into virtual space. If we spend time together and know each other on a deep level, we are creating that personality together. It's a matter of creating the right communication channels and identifying and articulating that team personality. Culture development in a physical site is about which resources you have on site, the tools, decor and now we are changing that to what kind of communication tools you have, rituals, interactions, and language, etc. It's an updated mindset for sure.

But there is more to that. It's about who you are hiring as well, right?

Yes, people are hiring for soft skills way more than they were traditionally, because of the culture match. A set of developed soft skills is so powerful because it compensates for so much, non-verbal communication, for example. If you are similar to someone, have the same personality, and have someone enjoy that same team personality, it's great. It's their individual personality that's compatible with the team and the virtual space.

However, to make remote and virtual collaboration model work long term, the mindset of the management and the culture really need to change. Trust, communication, and similar soft skills are not just "nice to have", they are absolutely essential. The mindset shift needs to start with the management, so Laurel usually advises companies to take proper leadership training. It will be helpful when it comes to so many things, starting with knowing what "a busy day" means when you cannot see it.

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