A remote-first guide to remote culture

When I started working at Ad Hoc in 2018, I had come from an in-person corporate job and was worried about transitioning to working from home and feeling lonely in a remote-first company. But I was soon excitedly telling people about my new job, noting that “even though it’s remote, I never feel alone!”

Four years ago, we had about 150 employees. Today, we have more than 600, and retaining the ethos of inclusivity has taken intentionality. As many organizations have learned over the last couple of years, it isn’t easy. Many headlines report on the challenges of working remotely, ranging from productive interactions to lack of mentoring. And although a recent Pew study reported that a high percentage of American workers want to be remote, much of this preference has to do with work/life balance rather than the experience of the work.

Remote first is much more than making video conferencing links available. While technology makes it possible, ultimately it is the practices and behaviors that create a welcoming remote environment. This is particularly important to us as a contractor, since many of our employees spend most of their time inside customer and prime contractor spaces, so we want to ensure they also feel fully a part of the Ad Hoc team. Here are some of the practices we’ve adopted to make that happen.

Creating relationships

New employees have video conferences with their managers as well as with departments like HR and IT during their first few days, so that onboarding includes meeting the people they will be working with. While there are nuts and bolts like 401k forms to work through, these meetings include personal introductions and opportunities for more connections.

When I welcome people onto my team, I take the opportunity to learn about them and their goals. I recommend Slack channels to them based on their personal and professional interests. One channel I recommend to everyone is #hey-buddy. It uses a plug-in called Donut that randomly pairs people every week. Folks can then chat over Slack or meet up for a virtual coffee. It’s a great chance to get to know coworkers who you might not otherwise encounter.

Managers continue to maintain regular 1:1 video meetings, and most practitioners have a “practice manager” who also meets with them regularly to provide guidance and mentoring in their area of technology expertise. Team check-ins and meetings generally begin with a little social time. No one wants to spend their entire life in meetings, but we’ve also learned that maintaining the catch-up and conversation side of our time together is beneficial.

Additionally, while not required, the fact that most of our staff defaults to cameras on encourages the practice for those who are comfortable with it. Seeing faces and getting to know coworkers’ environments (complete with children, pets, and decor) adds to the feeling of connectedness.

Maintaining relationships

Ad Hoc may be a little on the extreme in terms of Slack channels – there were over 1,000 when I last checked – but we’ve found it’s a great way to both organize work and connect to people with shared interests. There are channels to discuss cooking, books, favorite TV shows, crafts, and even birds. While the program-oriented channels are primarily work-based, they can also be places where people share significant events with their day-to-day teammates. Wedding pictures are welcome!

Remote doesn’t mean we never see each other in person. In addition to some official Ad Hoc in-person meetings, people find ways to get together, organizing coworking sessions at coffee houses or backyards, and letting folks know when they may be traveling through the area (yes we have geography-based Slack channels too).

Practicing inclusivity

Being inclusive means being aware of individual preferences as well as accessibility. While many Ad Hoc team members default to cameras on, no one is ever told to turn a camera on or called out for not being visible.

Slack is our most common communication channel, but it can pose challenges for those who use screen readers, especially if raw links are posted or if alt text is not provided for images. I admit to being guilty of quickly posting without the care needed and appreciate that I have colleagues who regularly post gentle reminders to practice inclusive Slack communications. Some have even built in automated messaging to keep accessibility practices top of mind.

We also try to make it standard practice to enable captioning and transcriptions for video meetings. For example, we end each of our weekly All-Hands meetings with a song and accompanying video. Staff add captions for both the lyrics and non-speech audio information needed to understand the content. This conveys a dedication to ensure all team members are a part of the experience.

Connecting when (and how) it’s needed

I’ve talked a lot about meetings, but that term covers more than scheduled times with set agendas. As many people know, not every meeting needs to be a traditional meeting. Sometimes we replace a stand-up meant to report status with a “Slack-up” that enables everyone to stay informed without taking the time.

But “meeting” is also when people get together to collaboratively get work done. While I can’t walk down the hall to see if someone is available, I can DM them to see if they have a few minutes, and if so, we can immediately hop into an audio huddle or video meeting to tackle a point-in-time task, on demand.

Managing hybrid

We are a remote-first company, but we do have lovely offices in Washington, DC, which means we sometimes hold hybrid meetings. This can often be more challenging than remote-only, though, as it’s easy to focus on the people who are in-person, creating an unbalanced environment. But we’ve learned some practices that help the remote participants feel like they’re more a part of the in-room activity:

  • Invest in high-quality office technology – both audio and video – to ensure meeting experiences are as seamless as possible for everyone.
  • Open the video conferencing in the room early, and ensure camera and sound are on before the meeting starts so that remote participants can join in-room chatter.
  • Keep the camera and sound on during breaks.
  • Show the videos of remote participants in the room so they are visible.
  • Clearly call out what is happening (“We are taking a 15-minute break now”), and add that information into chat, as remote participants may not pick up non-verbal signals.
  • Work with remote participants to understand where the audio and visual challenges are, and adapt in-room behavior to accommodate–this may mean that people need to move seats to be seen or heard.

Always learning

In April 2020, a friend of mine worked at a long-established, traditional company that was still reeling from the sudden lockdown. They asked me how remote worked and wondered if I just kept a Zoom window open all the time. I explained our practices around connecting when and how it’s needed and the affordances of Slack and other direct messaging tools. This question highlights how remote-first is often misunderstood and the challenges companies can face in making the transition.

By now, every organization has had to learn the basic technical components of enabling work from many different places. Remote first means using the technology instead of an office, rather than as a substitute for an office, and that leads to subtle but significant differences in how we interact. As Ad Hoc grows and scales, we adapt and shift to accommodate new team members and new practices. This flexibility will help us continue to incorporate best practices, support our culture, and ensure we create a successful, productive environment for all team members.