Embracing remote employment has increased SemanticBits’ hiring potential and helped us attract top talent to many positions. Without the barrier of location (or the concern about relocation costs), we are free to focus on hiring the best candidates for the job. However, the challenge that comes with hiring remote employees is that of creating a strong workplace culture. Despite being dispersed throughout the US, our employees still hope to feel like they belong. With over half of our employees working remotely, SemanticBits strives to create a workplace culture that includes both on-site employees and those employees tuning in from their home offices. This is no easy feat considering the different time zones, the limited travel required for the job, and the tendency for engineers to be “heads down” on occasion. To tweak the age-old expression of a common social problem, our challenge became one of “putting a face to the name”. In order to create a strong workplace culture, we needed to find ways to get to know one another, build trust, and work together to define what it means to be a SemanticBits employee.
How do we do that?
Predictable Work Schedule
SemanticBits has an established policy that all employees be working and available from 10-4pm EST Monday through Friday. Not only does this policy create accountability, it also ensures that our entire team is accessible for collaborative work. The clearly defined hours ensure that nobody feels intrusive when calling up that colleague on the west coast or reaching out to people on different project teams for support. We also adhere to a well-defined work process. By using Agile methodology, our workflow follows predictable schedules with regular meetings. These consistent and brief meetings help team members maintain contact and familiarity with their colleagues.
A strong remote work culture would not be possible without the right tools. At SemanticBits we use tools like GSuite and Atlassian Confluence/Jira for collaborative work and planning. In addition, we rely heavily on Slack for those quick chats, calls, or screen sharing needs. An added bonus to Slack is that it allows for fun “water cooler” talk, emoji/video/image responses, and the creation of multiple channels that can serve both professional and not-so-professional needs (ranging from a group that discusses UX design to a group that discusses the latest Childish Gambino album). We also really love Slack’s praise feature of Small Improvements for the ability it gives us to brag about our colleagues and make sure everyone on the SemanticBits team knows what great stuff we are doing.
No matter the collaboration tool, the purpose is the same: to get everyone involved. Most important, we make every effort to swap out those stock profile buttons with real pictures and use video calls whenever possible so that we start to associate faces with names. It never hurts to have a little fun too—sharing pictures of fancy home office setups, newborns, storm damage, jokes, etc. Anything we can do to increase communication and strengthen work relationships helps improve that feeling of being a part of the team.
Our human resources team makes a significant effort to touch base with new hires. For remote employees, this type of frequent contact can mean a great deal. In the first six months of an employee’s career at SemanticBits, the HR team will reach out a minimum of four times for scheduled one-on-one meetings. These meetings are twofold; they help us learn more about the employee and improve our onboarding process but they also help the employee feel more grounded in SemanticBits culture. Employees have a chance to ask about policies and procedures, voice any concerns, and sing the praises of their teams.
There is no substitute for meeting someone face-to-face. Once you are able to put a face to that name you see in your inbox, suddenly everything seems more human—their humor, their sense of dedication, their passions, etc. When possible, it is important to bring the team together in person. At SemanticBits, we have occasional project meetings where we will fly everyone in to meet with a client or work on planning. We make sure to include downtime where teams can have fun and get to know each other. The same goes for our annual all-staff retreat. While the multi-day retreat is meant for team building and gathering to discuss the company vision and mission, we set aside ample time for socializing and healthy chatting. These meetings help serve as building blocks for the sort of friendships that form so easily in a typical office setting.
Perhaps the best way to create an inclusive workplace culture for remote employees is to be in the majority. When your colleagues are also predominantly remote, suddenly the tables get turned. With so many people working from their home offices, communication online seems to accelerate. Unlike certain physical office environments, we know when people are available and can most always get responses to our questions within minutes. Another bonus is that some of our remote employees are members of the executive team. The fact that remote work is encouraged at all levels serves to solidify the feeling that remote employees are just as valued as locals. There are no lone-wolf employees in our company; rather, we are all working collaboratively and are all aware of the complexities of our work environment.
How do our employees benefit?
While there are clearly some challenges involved in creating a supportive remote workplace culture, the benefits to employees are obvious. Our employees get to live where they want—near family, close to spouse’s careers, in an environment that suits them, etc. Our remote employees also enjoy flexibility in time and work schedule. In some areas of the US, people spend an average of 3 hours a day just getting to and from work. When working remotely, we can cut down those commute times to a matter of seconds! Above all, employees get to find a job that suits their skills and their passions rather than their location. The pathways to opportunities are so much broader when you can expand your search beyond your doorstep and find the perfect career fit.