Startup Life/Opinion/

How do you build a fully remote startup?

Building a fully remote startup is no easy feat. Here's how to get it right

Lydia Kothmeier
Lydia Kothmeier

By Lydia Kothmeier

Many startups adopted flexible remote working as a short term necessity during the pandemic — and as a result, those who’ve maintained hybrid or remote work practices may not be properly set up to thrive. 

Storyblok is fairly unusual in that it has been fully remote since it was founded in 2017. We’ve grown to a team of 175 people in 38 countries, spanning dozens of timezones. This has meant we’ve had to spend a lot of time developing processes and policies that fit remote work, and employing technology to create a happy and productive team. 

Here’s how to build a fully remote startup.

Remote startup work culture

Don’t try to bend or impose your existing culture — create a new one. Fully remote or hybrid working requires a level playing field where everyone feels like they are equally involved and engaged. This means your main drivers of culture can’t be work socials, ad hoc stand ups or table tennis at lunch. You cannot favour people in the office over everyone else. Instead, culture should revolve around self empowerment and autonomy. 

At Storyblok our diversity helps define our culture. Team projects include creating a cookbook or restaurant guide that covers food and locations all over the world, where our team is based. Similarly, everyone is encouraged to share their cultural traditions and holidays so we can celebrate them all together. We also try to help people interact on a more personal and individual level. We organise randomised “coffee chats” where people speak for 30 minutes to their colleagues in different teams. This enables people to break the ice with people they may not get the chance to regularly interact with. 

Many of our activities — such as blood donations and tree planting — are created and driven by team members at all levels. This is because people need to feel that they are trusted and have their own voice — to do their job and engage socially in the manner they see fit. 

Management

One of the biggest challenges of managing a remote startup is balancing monitoring with micromanagement. Using software to monitor staff is an absolute no go. There is no faster way to undermine trust. Instead, build a structure of regular meetings, stand ups and clear goals that covers every team member. At Storyblok, people have weekly stand ups with line managers, a weekly team meeting and a monthly all hands meeting. 

👉Read: How to run an offsite

Good managers will know who is performing no matter where they are. Communicating this clearly and transparently across the business ensures everyone knows the rules of the game. Making more data-driven assessments of performance can help to take human bias out of the equation. For example, some managers may subconsciously favour in-house team members they talk to face-to-face and reward them accordingly. Relying more on the hard facts can remove this danger and also help with diversity and inclusion. 

Building a remote startup team

Not everyone can be a remote worker — in the same way not everyone works best in an office. So you need to think about specific personality traits when you are building a startup team that can operate in both a virtual and in-person environment. We favour people who are particularly self-motivated, open minded and, importantly, have a clear understanding of the reality of  remote working life. After all, switching on your computer alone on a dark January 4th morning and getting motivated to work can be tough and needs to be acknowledged.  

Similarly, how are your pay and promotion or annual reviews set up? Are there criteria that favour one group over the other? Does a one size fits all approach actually work? Reviewing all of these processes is incredibly important to ensure fairness and create the culture of trust that enables remote working to work. 

👉Read: How to compensate remote workers fairly

Often criteria around whether someone is a team player can manifest in odd metrics like how enthusiastically they speak at team meetings or how much they engage in social activities. Not only does this obviously favour in-office workers, it is also biased towards extroverts. 

We are very careful to remove these flawed information points during annual performance reviews. We look at what the data on Notion tells us, what other team members say based on a set of well defined questions and, crucially, the views of the individual being assessed. The experience is tailored to the individual but the way we structure assessments is consistent right across the team. 

There’s still more work to do, which is why we are making the process more quantifiable and transparent by getting a “HRIS” system up and running. This will mean that performance, achievements and future goals are all fully defined, measurable and accountable. 

Tech stack

Technology has a huge role to play in enabling your hybrid or remote startup to work efficiently and productively. From day one, we invested in Notion, Slack, top end IT equipment such as webcams, microphones, headphones, G-Suite, Salesforce and simple time savers such as DocuSign. 

We developed policies and training to ensure they were used how we intended. It’s easy enough to buy a shiny new platform but actually getting people to adopt and embrace it requires discipline and diligence. The leadership team needs to set the example by being consistent, and onboarding processes for new arrivals need to provide plenty of training so people understand not just how to use collaboration tools but why they are used. 

We use Zavvy to support onboarding. One week before joining staff receive all their equipment, an intro to the team and a tutorial on the tools we use. Then, for one month, they go through a general onboarding process to meet everyone, learn processes and get to grips with their job. We also assign a “buddy” and an onboarding manager to help support new hires and quickly answer any questions they have. 

The risks of fully remote startup teams

Giving people more flexibility in how and when they work alongside free flowing communication also comes with the risk of burnout and a lack of boundaries. It’s very easy for working time to bleed into leisure time and for remote workers to fear taking breaks or pushing back on deadlines. Leaders play an important role in setting this example. 

Be clear that you don’t expect immediate responses or weekend working and encourage people to take holidays. Create a systematic approach to checking in on your team’s mental wellbeing and employ both mental health tools and health and wellbeing perks and benefits. You do not want anyone falling through the cracks and it is very easy for a remote worker to suffer in silence. Vigilance is key. We provide regular check-ins for employees, very quick one to two question surveys to see how people are feeling, discourage overtime and encourage taking all paid time off. 

There is no one size fits all remote worker and as a result, there is no one size fits all approach to remote or hybrid working. Everything I’ve listed really comes down to creating environments where your startup can trust and be trusted by its team. Trust is built on fairness, honesty and confidence. It’s when the entire team feels they are treated equally — they have access to the same tools, benefits, flexibility, engagement and opportunities. 

Building a remote startup culture will not happen overnight, which is why it’s essential to listen to your team — What do they want? What works well for them? — and then be willing to change your approach. Simply adding “working from home” as a benefit on a job description is not nearly enough and will ultimately lead to trouble. The world of work has changed — your startup needs to too. 

Lydia Kothmeier is vice president of operations at Storyblok.

Join the conversation

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of