Remote work has been the talk of the town for over two years. Now that going back to the streets is having a comeback, founders are faced with the dilemma: should my work model be fully remote, fully in-person, or right in between?
The only problem is that they're thinking about this the wrong way. The question founders like you should be asking themselves before that is: will my startup be async or sync? As in: will we respect each other's own schedules, or will we all be working at the same time, around the same hours?
Only by answering that can you decide what is better for your startup: remote or in-person. And then, put in the work to have great processes and become a great manager for them.
This advice comes from someone who knows pretty well how tech companies work: Jonathan Gheller. Back in the day, Jonathan sold his startups to Google and Facebook. Now, he runs Matilda Explorations, a movement that connects remote engineers in LatAm with full-time opportunities in Silicon Valley.
On to the decision – Jonathan's take is straightforward enough:
Does your business call for real-time work a lot? In person is much better.
Can all the work be done async? Then remote should be a no-brainer.
Founders are more and more open to hiring employees that are a perfect match, but live in other states or countries – Matilda Explorations can attest to that.
"Your goal is to find someone incredibly talented, with the skills that you need, who cares about what you're building, at the stage that you're in", says Jonathan. "The first thing that is a big cost when you decide to not go remote is that you're deciding to just fish in a specific pond. And I think that, if you start adding more constraints, you're shooting yourself in the foot."
Then let's fish in a big lake. Here are some steps to build a startup that will thrive in the remote work model – which is, first and foremost, an async startup.
Have you ever been a part of a company that went like "yes, we're remote, but let's all be together virtually"? If you have, you know that means a bunch of meetings. And, depending on your time zone, a bunch of meetings at the worst time possible. But how to make it work?
First, ditch any Zoom calls that aren't absolutely necessary and try to make that real-time interaction very high-quality – whether those are virtual or in-person.
Remember: things that appeal to emotions are very hard to communicate async, so take that as an opportunity to get together IRL. Think urgent tasks, or even celebrations: "I think you get people together for that. I mean, you can write something and it can communicate what you want. But when you wanna give that person a hug, and thank them, and celebrate them, and toast to them, it's just a little bit different", says Jonathan.
Second, make all the other communications happen async. That means everyone will be forced to write documents and have people comment on them. That's effectively taking advantage of the remote setup, with everyone on their own computers and their own time zones. Make the best out of it.
Writing documentation generates a third step: make your thinking clearer, so it can come out in words. "If you think you know what you're thinking, and then you sit down to write and it doesn't come out, what happens is that you haven't thought about it clearly enough. So you have the specter, the silhouette of an idea. You think you have an idea, but you don't have it", says Jonathan. Async forces you to be clear in your mind and, after that, to be a clear communicator.
The fourth step is to give people time to actually read the documentation – and have them feel free to disagree with what's written in it. Give them hours to read it dispassionately, find holes, and ask questions. "Generally, that time upfront that you paid deciding what to do, you get paid back amply by just getting done the thing you have to get done."
The fifth and last step is to remember that you can't make exceptions. If you're running an organization async, you have to run the whole organization async. If some stuff happens async, and some stuff happens through word-of-mouth or through tapping on someone's shoulder, you don't know what truth is in terms of information. And then, all the last steps go to hell.
Let's start with a statement from Jonathan: the basics of remote managing are harder than the basics of in-person management. And that's because there's a very low cost to a marginal piece of in-person communication. We'll explain.
When you're in the office, you can just walk two steps (or roll your chair) and ask them to make something clear. If you still didn't get it, it's ok: you can just grab a yogurt in the kitchen, go back and ask them to say it one more time. And things get done.
"You can not be a great communicator, not be a great manager, and kinda somewhat hobble along because there are infinite micro-interactions, right? But if you are a shitty manager in a remote setting, I think you ruin the company. Nothing will get done", says Jonathan. "I do think there's a higher bar for minimally acceptable managerial competence, whatever you wanna call it."
So, going back to being a great remote manager. You've already jotted down that you need to develop your thinking and writing skills. If you'll be getting comments on the documentation that you've written, you also need to be open to criticism, and be prepared to read comments that you maybe wouldn't hear in an in-person meeting.
But that's not all. A remote organization can only work if you also have full trust in your colleagues. Trust is what generates velocity, as Brian says. And he says velocity and not speed because it's not just about going faster, but also having a direction. But how do you build a deeper connection with people when you're all async?
Everyone has their own opinion on what is needed to trust someone. For Jonathan, trust is a function of clarity. "If your expectations are crystal clear of what needs to be built, by when, by whom, what good looks like, and so forth, then either things happen or they don't. Your trust grows, or goes down."
The consequences of not having trust are catastrophic in remote work. Think about what the status quo was four, five years ago: core things were built in-house, and the small stuff that companies didn't really care about were sent out to remote teams. Even today, some people are trapped in this second realm – and it's a very unproductive one.
"You have to think about these people as team members. Otherwise, it's not gonna work. And that means a high level of trust, that means access to the Bithub repository, you know? You have to give them the opportunity to make mistakes", says Jonathan.
"When you start gating someone for a month before they can get full access to the repository – because you don't trust someone in Colombia to be as trustworthy as someone in Austin, Texas –, then you already kind of screwed that up."