Virtual – But Not Distant

I wanted to share some more insights about life at Frontastic, but I’ll start with some basics about remote working as well as explaining how Frontastic decided to become a Remote Native company.

I originally wrote this as a lecture but I think it also works as a blog post.

HomeOffice During Corona Lockdown != HomeOffice

Firstly, I have to say that the situation of isolation that many of us are currently experiencing or have experienced has nothing to do with remote work. Many people who, like me, work exclusively from the home office say that they’ve never been so lonely and isolated as they have right now.

Physical Loneliness vs. Perceived Closeness

Even before the Corona crisis, I heard from skeptics that they needed personal contact with colleagues in the office and that they’d miss this contact in a remote organization.

I’d like to compare two quotes for these people to start: a young employee, who’s working from home for the first time in his life, said to me: “At Frontastic, you never feel alone. There’s always someone to talk to, someone to help you.” An older employee, like me in my 50s, said that he had never had as much intimate contact with other employees across departments at any of his previous employers than he’s had here at Frontastic. So there’s no sign of loneliness.

But let’s take a step back: What’s remote work for me, what’s the essential thing?

The Core of Remote Work

For me, it means freedom. I have the possibility to adjust my working style and my needs perfectly with my life. More than that, I can arrange my work in such a way that I can perform at my best without having to actually get to work.

I have worked with other people in offices for over 20 years. Those who know me know that people are very important to me. But if I’m completely honest, there’s very little time for a more intensive social exchange in my daily work – even when looking at the whole week. So why put up with all the disadvantages of an office every day? That’s exactly the question we asked ourselves when we founded Frontastic almost two and a half years ago.

What Do I Mean When I talk About Remote Native?

Remote Native is a form of organization where there’s no shared office and never has been. All employees are distributed in their home office or co-working spaces. This means that communication between everyone is completely equal. There are no locations, no floors, no offices that can represent communication barriers.

Why Remote?

We’re convinced that Remote Native is the easier way to work – in terms of communication. Because even if at least one employee works remotely, you have to change all your communication to avoid excluding that person.

Everyone has probably experienced a meeting where everyone sat at the table and one person was added via video or simply via the telephone spider on the table. Who can remember that this communication worked well? For me, never.

It’s exactly this effect – extended to all communications – when some of the employees are sitting in the office and some in their home offices.

If everyone works remotely, then these communication channels are the same for everyone. No one is excluded and everyone stays in the loop.

Since everyone has more bandwidth available at home today than proportionally in the office, this technical requirement is easy to meet. Even when you’re on the move, you’ll be well connected via LTE almost everywhere. A notebook, a good webcam and a headset complete the basic equipment for a remote setup.

Today, software is consumed from the cloud. If you use Google’s G Suite, all you need is a simple browser and you can work. With Microsoft, this looks similar in theory, but is much more complex in practice. All the other tools that you need as a software producer can also be consumed as a cloud service.

Disadvantages of the Common Office

Besides the already mentioned trip into work (the statistics of how much time people spend commuting are frightening) there are some other significant disadvantages of the classic office:

  • It’s loud
  • You get distracted quickly
  • There aren’t a lot of meeting rooms
  • There’s not enough room
  • The Internet is too slow for video conferencing
  • External employees, but also other locations or often already other floors are excluded

I’m sure you can think of other disadvantages too.

Agile Methodology for Remote Work

A few basic rules can easily be taken from the agile methodology and its artifacts. And that’s it. Finished?

No, the technique or methodology is just the beginning. No company can be successful without social exchange between employees. What happens more or less well and often accidentally in the office in some companies, must be organized in a remote company: You have to put a focus on social exchange and make it clear to every member of the company that this is a critical factor for success.

Frontastic Promotes Social Exchange

Below are a few examples of what we do at Frontastic to promote social exchange among our employees.

Let’s start on Monday morning. What usually happens in the office? You chat with colleagues about what you did at the weekend. That’s exactly what we do, only asynchronously, via a bot. It isn’t obligatory but often the little stories or photos result in nice little threads and every participant or reader knows a bit more about each other.

Every Wednesday the bot asks a similar question: tell us a bit more about yourself. Concretely, this is a pool of many different questions which is chosen randomly for the week: what’s your next destination, do you have a book recommendation, how many instruments do you play, what talent do you want to acquire, and so on.

Again, it’s great to see how a written, asynchronous exchange also makes it possible to discover common ground and establish personal closeness.

Personal Retrospective

Then on Friday, each employee takes a small retrospective for themselves, based on four of our core values:

  • “Make an Impact”: Is there something you’d like to highlight? Or does someone deserve special recognition for what they’ve done this week?
  • “We’re in this Together”: What else went well at Frontastic? Any other successes you’d like to share? Or any help you were happy to get?
  • “Thirst for Learning”: What have you learned? What was the biggest fuck-up and what will you take away from it? Any innovations that you want to share?
  • “Transparency First”: Anything else you want to share about your week? It doesn’t have to be Frontastic related.

Finally, you rate the week from 1-5 and briefly write what your main goals for the coming week are. All the answers are shared with all employees. And of course all employees, including the Leadership Team, take part.

There are also two questions that should be answered every day: in the morning, the question of what you have planned for the day and in the evening, whether there were any highlights or lowlights and – as in the retrospective – the request to rate the day in a number. Here you also have the opportunity to explain the number so that colleagues can understand it better.

More Bots

Two other bots shape our corporate culture: the Kudos Bot and the Donut Bot. The first offers the opportunity to highlight the achievements of others in the team that links to our values. This is used very regularly. The second one creates random meetings between employees, so-called Donut Talks. For us, this exchange across departmental boundaries is very important.

Personally via Video

In addition, planned one-on-ones play an important role: Each People Lead conducts these conversations via video every 4-6 weeks with all employees that they support. In my role as COO and Integrator, I also have a “casual talk” with each member of Frontastic once a quarter.

In summary, technology helps us to maintain the necessary social exchange.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

Besides social exchange, a healthy balance between synchronous communication via video and asynchronous communication via Slack plays a key role in the productivity of our company.

We use the times of asynchronous communication, for example, for focused work or for communication with customers and partners. The highlight is that we have organized the times for synchronous communication.

Enable Efficient Working

In order to make video meetings as efficient as possible, we’ve decided to use a special tool: Meetter.

When you talk about meetings, you have a certain image in mind that’s shaped by the old world: too few rooms, trying to find the location of the room in a large organization, waiting for all participants to arrive, …

As a remote organization, of course, things look different: the number of meeting rooms is practically unlimited, participation or finding one is only a click away. Logically, this must have consequences for the type and duration of meetings.

Online Goes at a Faster Pace

Instead of long meetings with many participants, there are short coordination meetings with the relevant people. Meetter is at home in an asynchronous, written world. By default, all meetings are recorded and a large editor below the video images invites you to record the essential points of the meeting. Both, the recording and the notes, are written back to Slack in the corresponding thread. This ensures transparency.

Another exciting point is that meetings are not planned for a fixed time, but the other way round, the team determine in which time frame they’re generally ready for synchronous communication. To make sure that the probability of joint appointment slots is as high as possible, we’ve set specific times throughout the company. For example, 8-9 AM and 11 AM -12 PM for the European time zone and 3-4 PM for the US East Coast.

As I said before, I don’t set up a new meeting at a fixed time, I simply define the topic, the people and the priority. Based on this criteria the next possible free slot is determined. There are some additional settings, so that you can cover practically any requirements.

Three Advantages of Synchronized Meeting Times

For us, this approach has three main advantages:

  1. The day is better structured, there are times for synchronous communication and times to focus on more complex topics. This is particularly important for us as a company that derives much of its added value from the knowledge work of its employees.
  2. The transfer of the synchronous meeting into our asynchronous working world by transcribing the results and publishing the recording (by the way, it also comes with a transcription of the meeting).
  3. The situational planning of meetings based on the current availability of participants and the priority of the topic.

Here’s a brief explanation: If shifts occur in classic planning via Outlook or Google Calendar – for example, due to new, urgent topics or participants who are no longer able to attend due to a customer appointment – these must be laboriously moved and rearranged by hand. With Meetter this happens completely automatically. The downside, however, is that you have to get involved in this dynamic planning, since theoretically shifts can still occur shortly before the start of the meeting slot.

The Continuous Improvement Process

Another important aspect of our culture is the retrospectives. We express this in our value “Thirst for Learning”. Retrospectives are important for constant reflection and improvement.

Although we meet personally four times a year, that isn’t enough for this process. So all teams regularly conduct online retrospectives which another tool helps us with: Echometer. Essentially, Echometer supports the work of the moderator, helps the team to structure itself and regularly records a few key metrics to get a feeling for the state of the company.

In this way, we can address conflicts at a very early stage and constantly work on improving the company at all levels. The action items flow back into our company-wide Kanban Board or into the personal task lists of the individual employees.

Asynchrony Supports the Personal Rhythm of Life

I’m often asked by job applicants whether there are fixed working hours. My answer isn’t “yes” or “no”, but “it depends”. Every team has to find out for itself how it works best. Geographically, we operate in three time zones so far. Due to the different habits of life, some of them are added: surprisingly many start very early, sometimes even before 6 AM.

Our Understanding of Leadership

Which brings me to something very important: The Frontastic understanding of leadership. On various occasions, it’s been said that we see a lot of responsibility in our employees. We have no superiors to report to. But we do have a leadership team that develops corporate goals and also defines the other parameters of the company. These include our values, our constitution and guidelines, and the annual objectives – “the most important things right now”. This Leadership Team is part of the “Empowerment Area”. I think that the name of this division reflects our self-image very well: holding a leadership position means taking responsibility. It also means taking responsibility for putting employees in the best possible position to work.

In doing so, we follow the principle of subsidiarity. This means that decisions are taken where they are necessary. In accordance with the working hours topic above, this means that the team first tries to manage this itself. Only if this doesn’t succeed or if there are any overriding requirements do other areas intervene.

Performance or Pressure?

Is performance possible without pressure and targets? For one thing: Frontastic has clear targets. Although we have not yet introduced an OKR, we do have ambitious annual company goals that we carry into the teams and pursue as an internal team goal.

Whether pressure actually helps with knowledge work is a controversial issue. The nice saying “grass doesn’t grow any faster when you pull on it” is perhaps also applicable here. We’re much more concerned with creating a positive working atmosphere in which each individual pursues the self-defined goals with passion. This isn’t always easy and sometimes requires patience and confidence.

And ultimately, it also requires the willingness of the leadership team to make uncomfortable decisions. After all, the success of the company must come first.

Open-mindedness and Critical Faculties

Last but not least, I’d like to mention a point that isn’t specific to a remote organization, but which is very important to me: openness and critical faculties. Our value “Thirst for Learning” expresses it in part: we want to learn. Learning means allowing mistakes to happen. This applies to all employees of the company, including the leadership team. It’s important that there’s a living feedback culture: Not talking about the problem but with the supposed problem.

Of course, this isn’t always easy either, because going into a conflict is uncomfortable. And it’s very important to show willingness to listen to criticism. This doesn’t mean accepting every suggestion. But usually something good comes out of an open exchange of ideas.

What in Retrospect Impresses Me

When I look back on the past two and a half years, I’m impressed by how quickly and smoothly our growth has been achieved. This includes many different aspects:

  1. Finding candidates
  2. Integrating employees into the team
  3. Scaling processes etc.

It usually takes us three weeks from the time a job advertisement is placed until the new employee is hired. And this for positions which – as we hear from classic companies – are often very difficult to fill. Only when it comes to hiring people with regional ties (e.g. sales for Germany) do we also find it more difficult to find them.

Whether we have succeeded in integrating the new team members, I can best see from the figures: We regularly measure the satisfaction of our people anonymously in various categories. Over the last twelve months, satisfaction has actually increased overall. Of course there are also areas that have deteriorated and which we need to improve.

Through our retrospectives, we’ve been quite successful in regularly reviewing our processes and tools. For example, we’ve just completely revised the way we use Slack. Of course, it makes a huge difference whether you communicate with five people or 30.

Completely Uncoupled

The writing of the communication helps to work asynchronously. What we didn’t expect before is that it also helps us to become independent of being at one location. Let me give you an example: in a traditional company, you’re excluded from communication as soon as you leave the office building. This isn’t the case with us and it feels very good. Especially for people who are often on the road, for example in Sales, it’s an opportunity to remain highly integrated in the company. Another example is vacation: when you come back from vacation, you can get a pretty good feeling for what happened by browsing the weekly retrospectives, looking at the worklog (mini blog posts on important work results or decisions), and company announcements.

Culture Without Table Tennis Tables

But most of all, I’m thrilled by how much we have succeeded in creating culture. Frontastic isn’t just a bunch of people who get paid from one place, but we have a real sense of we. Our employees care about each other and there are many personal relationships. Of course, I have personally done everything I can to make it happen – but still it exceeds my expectations. And all that without table tennis tables.

Search for Office Space

By the way, one issue that logically we’ve been completely spared is the search for new office space. As a fast growing company with 30 employees, we would have had to search at least twice by now.

But, I Still Have Respect For…

Of course I have respect for further growth in general. What continues to worry me is the recruitment of new employees in other countries. By hiring I mean the process of hiring them as actual employees (in legal terms).

Country Specific Legal Requirements

To do this, you have to register as an employer in the respective country and find a way to pay the wages and, above all, the wage taxes. This is completely different in every country and just registering as an employer takes several weeks to months. There are essentially two alternatives: firstly, to employ employees as freelancers, which may not be subject to legal requirements (bogus self-employment), or secondly, to employ employees via so-called proxy employers (these companies have branches in many countries and hire the employees. But this way is relatively cost-intensive – from 1000 € to 20 % of the salary)

The small problems almost have an entertaining character: it’s surprisingly expensive to get a MacBook for an employee in Croatia – at least if you aren’t willing to pay the VAT and have some time pressure. Because – so I had to learn – you can’t just send a notebook with DHL Express, because it’s a dangerous good. A special sticker must adorn the package, only then can it be transported.

Modern Organization Structure

What I really respect is building an agile, self-responsible organization. From my point of view, there’s no alternative in today’s world and in the world we move in as Frontastic. Because the world is far too dynamic and far too complex for a classic management structure. Nevertheless: such an organization is anything but a self-runner and you have to invest a lot to steer all people in this direction. A self-managing organization is also not the panacea for every situation. If very quick or comprehensive decisions have to be made, the company must also be able to cope with the fact that decisions are made from “above” without destroying all the independence that has been learned.

What Everyone Can Try Out

Every company that has more than one location or that employs external staff or – to put it bluntly – has more than one floor should think about internal communication. Writing and asynchronicity are two keywords that every company to which this applies should consider. Which communication really needs to be synchronous? Which decisions must be recorded in writing?

Asynchronous Working

Asynchronous working can create a lot of freedom. But it also needs clear rules. Therefore, every company and every team can consider introducing days in which asynchronous working is used to a high degree. Accordingly, there are very low demands on response times on these days. Only when there’s something very urgent may the phone be picked up. I’m sure that many knowledge workers would appreciate this – because they would finally have time to work on topics in a focused manner. And then the place of work no longer plays a role – it should also be a pleasant environment. Because who says that work always has to take place in an office? I dictate this text – as usual – during a walk. Even a nice bench in a park, a café or a place by a lake can have a very inspiring effect on productivity.

Freedom

One more personal impulse to finish: I’m happy when I can do things easily, when I don’t have dependencies on other people (as much as I like to work with others), but when I can do things myself and the software I use helps me to do so. That’s why I’m so happy about Zapier (makes me happier). Here, all APIs of common cloud software are integrated in a way that I can easily automate processes even as a non-programmer.

By the way, Frontastic works on the same principle: we also have integrated the APIs (in this case eCommerce and CMS) and they’re available to online managers in such a way that they can easily act and offer their customers the best experience every day – without being dependent on developers.

To build IT and processes so that users can work independently and create a perfect environment for themselves without having to wait for others – at least from my point of view this is a very important possibility that modern cloud software should offer.

Henning Emmrich

Henning is a Software Expert with strong enterprise skills. He’s worked in many management positions like Product Management, Marketing, Business Development and Digitalization. He’s one of the Co-Founders of Frontastic and works as Integrator and COO.

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