Rhys Davies, October 16, 2020
In early 2020, just before the UK started to lock-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Appvia was a team of 20 people based in Barbican, London.
Over the last six months, we have more than doubled our team and now have over 40 Appvians, all working remotely. All 20+ new hires that we’ve welcomed since March have gone through interviews, and subsequent onboarding, from the ‘comfort’ of their own offices, bedrooms, kitchens etc… Part-time home working has long been a ‘perk’ of working at Appvia, but it’s now become a necessity.
As we’ve continued to grow during these wild times, every function across the business has learned a thing or two about what it takes to successfully scale and maintain a newly remote team. The cornerstone of it all has been our company culture, rooted in communication, trust and flexibility. We know that building culture, attracting new hires and keeping current employees inspired doesn’t require a ping-pong table in the office or a fridge full of brews (although we have those too).
A successful remote culture, especially with welcoming so many new-starters, is centred around a sense of unity.
We’re not all physically together in a shared space these days, so we’ve had to get a little creative to remain unified. Here’s how we’ve put the pillars of Appvia company culture in action to keep connected (and continue growing) in a remote environment:
Early on in Appvia’s existence, we determined that candid communication is essential. Transparency flows from the top-level of leadership downward, so that the entire team can stay on the same page.
Even with a culture of transparency, distance can pose a threat to good communication practices. These are the three different dimensions of distance that we’ve become more aware of in the face of remote working:
Physical Distance: Place and time
Operational Distance: Size and skills of the team
Affinity Distance: Values and interdependency
While we don’t have complete control over how we’re currently affected by the physical or operational aspects of distance, there’s been an increased focus on how to reduce affinity distance to create a strong sense of unity. We’ve implemented (and continue to implement) several tools to open communication barriers and connect teams.
Tools of the trade
We all have jobs to carry on with and, with the right tools, we’ve been able to do what needs to be done. Thankfully, digital communication tools have come a long way in recent years to provide solutions of all sorts.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that we live on Slack. There’s even an emoji of our CEO, Jon Shanks, that gets a fair bit of use. Slack is our go-to for regular communication — it’s the norm for quick questions, making decisions and knowledge sharing. For wider project planning, teams communicate through project management boards (i.e: Asana) and other tools.
There are times, though, when Slack just doesn’t cut it, and it’s better to connect face-to-face (it’s just good for the soul from time to time). We encourage teams to have regular Google Hangouts or Zoom catch-ups for wider planning, and for catch-ups with their respective line-managers and teams.
When a new employee starts, they’ll kick off their first week with a series of scheduled video calls to connect with various people throughout the organisation to start to put faces and voices to the names and pictures that exist behind screens.
Even with the power of technology, there’s no doubt that building relationships with colleagues is more challenging remotely than in-person. Especially if half of them have never met in the flesh before, which is the situation we’re in now with our rapid growth over the past few months.
Pre-COVID, social events were a much loved aspect of our work life … so we decided not to stop doing them. If anything, we’re now hosting even more social events than we did in person, just a little bit differently. Over the last 6 months, from behind screens we’ve enjoyed:
Craft Cocktail Making
Wine and Cheese Tasting
Virtual Escape Room
Every Friday we also encourage employees to put ‘pencils’ down and join in on a virtual happy hour. And every-other week, those happy hours involve hosted pub quizzes.
Each and every Tuesday we have a come-and-go ‘Appvia Coffee Morning’ over Hangouts, where you can join in for a brief chat over your morning brew.
A move to remote working was jarring for organisations that were thrown into it without experience, causing some leaders to become uncertain about what their teams are doing and how they can maintain ‘control’ when teams are out of sight. At Appvia, we believe that trust is the absence of that control.
Trust: A psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another.Source: Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt and Camerer 1998
From day 1, remote-working was distilled into the fabric of Appvia culture, so there was already a clear level of established trust that’s carried on as an integral part of our operations.
Engaging employees with engaged managers
While we want to ensure we’re flexible and understanding, we know we all need to stay on the same page to be productive.
A lot of this responsibility is given to our managers, to be clear with their teams and set objectives and performance expectations from the get-go. According to Gallup, 70% of an individual’s engagement is driven by their manager. And at Appvia, 94% of the company say their managers inspire them to do their best work (according to our September 2020 company poll).
A lot of remote management has become centred around communication, as we mentioned, and energising teams. Even as much as we’re growing, we want to know our teams: how they work, how they’re motivated, what they need from leadership.
Prioritising mental health and wellness
The current landscape has been a catalyst for conversations centred around mental health and providing employees freedom to care for themselves. In this situation especially, we understood straight away that people would likely be under additional stress, if for nothing more than being stripped of a normal, everyday routine.
According to a recent survey, the average age of career burnout is 32. Ouch. We try really hard to foster a culture where Appvia employees know: ‘your mental health is a priority’. Start the day a bit later. Take walks during lunch. Do that workout class. Pick up your kids from school. Do the things you need to do, and take care of yourself. And, while you’re at it, share your thoughts and tips with the rest of us! It’s not uncommon for the ‘Random’ and ‘General’ Slack channels to contain podcast recommendations, cycling chats (SO many cycling chats) and other wellness-related conversations.
Last but not least, every start-up’s mantra: Stay flexible. Flexibility has a whole new meaning in this environment; it might look a whole lot less like ‘late nights at the office’ and more like ‘adjusted work hours to look after the kids’.
This is a big one, not only for our current team but the new hires we’ve welcomed during lockdown. It became immediately obvious that there were new ‘roadblocks’ for people being accessible during the normal 9-5 workday. Real, valid roadblocks involving health and family commitments.
We had already established flexible working hours, allowing everyone on the team to choose their own schedules as long as they’re working during the ‘core’ hours of 10:00 – 4:00. Now more than ever, managers are in-tune with what their teams have going on in peoples’ lives and how it affects working schedules. It’s part of practicing compassion and understanding that our company is made up of teams of …. people.
While embracing flexibility, we’ve also placed a huge amount of value on efficiency.
Effective productivity is not necessarily getting a lot done, but getting the right things done. We set up OKRs in early 2020 and have continued learning from and refining them each quarter since. An OKR structure has allowed us to streamline goals across the entire organisation and serve as the building blocks of what each team focuses on. On a more granular level, there is structure around how often teams meet, how they check in with each-other and the expectations around delivering work.
Most organisations have had to make changes during these unprecedented times in order to stay afloat, keep delivering results and take care of their people. Beyond the base level, we want to continue cultivating our culture of happy, healthy and inspired Appvians.
Our growth journey is far from over yet. We’re still working (mostly) from home, we’re still learning, and we’re still hiring! Check out Appvia’s open roles and follow us on LinkedIn for up to date opportunities.