Remote team? Absolutely, as long as people come first.

Can it be done remotely? Of course! As long as you put people first.

Remote team? Absolutely, as long as people come first.

We’re applying our company principles of clarity, context and communication to build a culture that thrives in a people-first environment where being remote is second-nature, team collaboration is a priority, and being intentional is woven throughout all aspects of our work.

It’s not surprising to hear that a company has transitioned to remote work. Most traditional companies were forced into this new type of work environment in 2020, and many now permanently adopted the change. While it’s a popular work style for employees who appreciate being able to Zoom in from the kitchen table, remote work has its set of challenges for employers.

OpenContext has been a remote-first company since the beginning. The founders work in different states - Oregon, Washington, and California and from the first introductions to countless meetings later, all our interactions have been remote, and we’ve been able to build strong relationships and innovate, together. In fact, a year later, we’ve yet to all be in the same room together.

For us, remote-first is consistent with our values and mission. OpenContext is built on the premise that enabling greater visibility of the relationships at play in the organization will drive efficiency, clarity, empathy, and productivity. That same idea carries through to our remote work environment. Like so many other aspects of business, making remote work successful is all about ensuring proper communication and context. 

Being Intentional about Culture

We are small but mighty, and each team member plays a critical role in  the success of the company, and that will continue to be true as the team grows. We’ve been thinking about how to grow this team and how we will be deliberate about our culture moving forward. Far too many companies, including ones we’ve all come from, believe culture will just happen. Every company has a culture, but what does it look like and is it desirable?

We certainly don’t claim to be experts, but here are a few things we’re doing to drive open communication and context in our remote work relationships. So far, it’s working for us.

1 / Founder Meetings

Many startups have two founders with a long history and a close relationship. We have three (awesome) founders, and we don’t have long history with each other to guide and shape our relationships. Add in the fact that we’re three founders, the third wheel effect can kick in on many different topics since we all have unique specialties and backgrounds. For us, the answer is two-fold: regular 1:1 meetings with each other and a dedicated weekly founder meeting.

2 / Daily Standups

Every day, we have a standup meeting and we cover these four topics: 

  • How did you do on your goals yesterday?
  • What are your goals for today?
  • What blockers are in your way and how can we help?
  • How confident are you in your sprint goals?

Do we stick to these things? Not always. Is that OK? Absolutely. Is life great when we do? Sometimes. We recognize that we are all people and sticking to strict ceremonial rigor isn’t human. It turns out it’s a really good thing to talk about your cat sometimes. Or the random April snowstorm that broke your trees and snarled traffic all over town. Or that annoying thing on your mind. These calls are a great place to be human with your team, putting the people first always. You’d do it in an office; why not do it remote?

3 / Weekly Demos

Maybe you worked hard all week to build something. Maybe it was a nightmare to get that little detail just perfect or maybe you're super proud of some ridiculous thing you had to develop to make it work. Weekly demos are when you can take credit  and more importantly, give credit.

It makes you feel good. It makes your team feel good. It makes leadership feel good. Everyone loves to see accomplishments. It’s time to take pride in your work.

Some weeks your demo will suck, and that’s OK. Some weeks, someone else’s demo will suck. Help each other out. That's how you build the culture you want in your company.

4 / Buddy Time

Remote work can be challenging for extroverts who thrive off of consistent interaction with others. Buddy time is simply working at the same time, on the same screen, just like you’re in the office.We have a standing meeting for the team to just “hang out” while they’re working.

5 / Shared Sprint Cycles

If we’re all on the same schedule, we’re able to step in when teammates need help. We’re a small team so this is obvious to us, but in larger teams it can be difficult to see how others are doing. Agree on a team cadence - for us it’s weekly sprints. 

6 / Write it down

Keep a backlog. That great idea you’ve got – write it down. That new feature you think your product needs – write it down. If a customer suggests something – write it down. Then review the list before sprint planning. 

There are all sorts of ways to review backlogs and prioritize work - like WSJF. Some work and some don’t. We believe that a strict process of backlog curation will quickly stifle innovation but reading it is important - and it should never be a place where ideas and features go to die.

7 / Get to Know Each Other

Understanding how your team thinks can help get the right work in front of the right people and enable empathy and understanding in the team. Get to know what makes each other tick.

Patrick Lencioni’s process for discovering your “Working Genius” asserts that everyone derives satisfaction (or not) from six different talents, or “geniuses”: Wonder, Invention, Discernment, Galvanizing, Enablement, and Tenacity. Everyone has different geniuses. Everyone varies.

My cofounder and OpenContext's Head of Product, Beth Fuller shares more about how we use Working Genius:

"At OpenContext we use Working Genius. A lot of folks have strong feelings about anything that smells like a “personality test” myself included.
What I love is HOW we use it. This gives us a sense of each of our team members' strengths. What gives them energy and what takes away energy. It’s not an excuse to say, I’m just not good at that thing. Instead it’s an opportunity to say, I’m not good at that, I need help, grounding, a buddy.
It allows us to redirect folks when they are in the middle of imagining 1000 possibilities but what we need is a specific solution.
Understanding what gives each other energy is a shorthand. It’s a baseline for each of us to do the hard work of looking inward before we project outward. It’s how we each take responsibility to keep the team whole."

The point is not to hire specific people, or question intent, or use it to label people. Use it to help understand how each other thinks. Some people are wildy tenacious and can churn through an incredible to-do list. You need those people. Some people are incredibly inventive and can sit and ponder an idea for an eternity. You need them too.

8 / It’s All About Trust

Above all else, trust is the answer, which can be hard, but when it’s there, everything works better.

Shared vision

  • If there’s not a shared vision from leadership as to what your company is building, what you’re supporting, or why you’re here, then you’re likely doomed. Not only as a company, but also as a team.

Freedom to fail

  • If a person is shamed in failure, after having embraced the vision, and applied all their good intentions towards meeting a goal, you will never have the culture that allows trust. People require failure to go forward. Failure must happen in a safe environment where it can be iterated on and improved.

Disagree and commit

  • If the team makes a decision you don’t agree with, and you’re not in an authority position to change that decision… support the decision. Nothing, zero, zip, nada, will erode trust faster than undermining the work of others. There can be no trust in this environment if folks think you’re trying to undermine their efforts.

Strong opinions, weakly held

  • We love strong opinions and our team has many.. But you know what makes a great leader and human? The ability to recognize when you’re wrong. It’s wonderful to have passion around an idea, but don’t let that idea define you. We’ve seen so many people dig in on horrible ideas, even when faced with all evidence to the contrary. You’ve got a team and they’re smart people. If they make a great case for why you’re on the wrong side of an idea, give them a shot and hear them out. Consider that you may be wrong and accept it if you are.

9 / Building Something that Lasts

I do miss the office, but not for the reasons you might think. I miss being around like-minded people, developing strong friendships, and sharing a common purpose among people that I hope will not just be coworkers, but ultimately lifelong friends.

I’ve had a few opportunities recently to meet up with a couple dozen coworkers from previous companies. Some of these friendships began more than 25 years ago, and are still going strong. In fact, I count many of these amazing people as my best friends today. 

Our goal in this new venture is not only to build a successful product, but also to build an outcome like this, where a decade from now, dozens of people will still share the bonds they built as a team, and will call each other friends.

Can it be done remotely? Absolutely, as long as people come first. 

What could shared context mean for your SDLC?

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