Manage remote teams with a transparent culture

'In a remote environment, you eliminate harmful things,' says Reedsy's Emmanuel Nataf

Many companies have been designed to optimize productivity when everybody is in the office. As offices close due to the coronavirus outbreak, many people are experimenting with remote work at scale for the first time.

Employees have to learn what it means to work remotely — but managers also have to learn how to keep their teams on track. That’s why it’s interesting to talk about what it’s like to manage a remote team.

Some companies have chosen to give up on the office and work completely remotely. I interviewed Reedsy’s co-founder and CEO Emmanuel Nataf (pictured above, right) about the company’s current work culture. Reedsy operates a marketplace of professionals in the publishing industries: If you’re a writer, you can find editors, designers, marketing experts and more. And if you’re a freelancer in one of those fields, you can find clients.

The short answer: Managing a remote team takes discipline. The long answer is much more interesting as Reedsy has implemented many different processes to foster information transparency. The interview was translated from French and edited for clarity and brevity.

TechCrunch: What does it mean to have a remote culture?

Emmanuel Nataf: I think our case is quite specific. We’re 30 people and what we do cannot necessarily work for a bigger team. It works for smaller teams but maybe not above 50 people.

The first 20 people in your company define the culture of your company. So if the first 20 employees are remote-first, I think people you recruit after that will be able to work remotely more easily. I know that a company that isn’t remote already will have a hard time changing its culture overnight.

Tell me about the structure of Reedsy. How many employees do you have, how many managers do you have and what’s the employees-to-manager ratio?

We’re around 30 spread around four different teams. There’s the product team, which is slightly different from the other teams. I think developers are more used to remote work because of the nature of their job. We have six developers, a designer and me who basically acts as the product manager.

You can say that I’m the manager, but this team doesn’t really need a manager. We have enough products so that each developer owns their product. The only management that I have to do is that I check Basecamp, I look at todos, I change due dates, I reorganize them, I delete, add and merge some todos. It’s light work for the product team.

There are a dozen people in the marketing team. It’s a bit different for the marketing team, as there are different levels of seniority. And I think you can’t work completely on your own in a marketing job. There’s a human aspect that is much more present.

Is there intense collaboration between employees, for instance?

Yes, indeed. There are quite a few marketing projects that require several people. For example, we have a writing contest every week and we get around 500 submissions per week. There is more structure — there are two or three people who manage a team of 13. There are content writers, people who handle SEO, a YouTuber…

There are six or seven people in the support team. I find it fairly hard to build this team. Responding uniformly requires a very specific set of skills.

The last team we have is a team that acquires freelancers for our marketplace. It is a small independent team of three or four people.

The product team is only in Europe. We have a daily stand-up meeting every day at 9 a.m. The marketing team is spread around Europe, the U.S. and Canada. And the support team is all around the world, as we have customers all around the world.

As you were talking about daily stand-up meetings, is it important to put everyone in the same “room” in some way?

Once every two weeks, we put together a team meeting with everyone. In 45 minutes, we cover everything the company does.

Do you write the agenda in advance to know who is going to say what?

Yes. We start with product updates, we say what we did for each product, what we are currently doing and what has been pushed into production. Then I have a kind of roadmap with the big features — it’s a very high-level overview so that the whole team knows what we will develop in the future.

How far in the future?

It may be new features for the next two years — it’s very, very high-level. Then we move on to marketing. There is a general target for what we are trying to do for the current month and then we go over everything: marketing, content, SEO, what we do in terms of acquisition…

Each team updates the document before the meeting and makes charts. Every two weeks, you have to do some basic reporting. There’s a metric for everything.

And at the end of our meeting, we are super-transparent on recruitment and we talk about every open position.

Every day, on Basecamp, each person on the team receives a notification that says: “What did you work on today?” The goal is that each person should put two or three bullet points on what they have been doing every day. I just have to look at that to see if they’ve been working and what everybody is working on. And it’s transparent for the whole team.

Is it useful for employees so they can look back at what they’ve been working on? For teammates? For managers?

It’s useful for everyone, but especially for employees. At the end of the day, you realize whether you have been productive or not. And you realize what you achieved compared to yesterday, compared to a week ago. After several weeks, several months, you can see your productivity change over time.

The second reason why it’s super-useful is that it helps you create reports every two weeks. And it’s useful for the rest of the team too. This way, they know what others are doing. Sometimes, people write too much stuff so we try to tell them to limit it so that everyone can read it.

What’s the feedback from your employees on this? Do they find it too heavy-handed?

It’s not too cumbersome. Basically, I think it’s the bare minimum. We are fairly light in terms of processes. There is someone who creates a todo in Basecamp, there are some details attached to the todo, it links to a document with what there is to do — all of this is quite light. You can also subscribe people so that they’re aware even if they are not directly responsible.

There must be some employees who weren’t used to working remotely before joining Reedsy. How do you educate your employees to all those processes?

I think there are people who are naturally good at working remotely. There are others who are not made for that. Some people need to see people and co-workers every day.

When you join or before you join, we grant you access to onboarding documents specific for each team so that they can learn everything about the company. You learn by yourself. We don’t tell them we’re going to spend tens of hours explaining everything. We will obviously do it as we go along, but you have to have a natural itch to learn new things.

How long does it take to read the onboarding documents?

When we recruit, someone usually starts working a few weeks later. Reading all the documents takes a day or two. But assimilating them can take several weeks.

You were talking about people who are not naturally good at working remotely. Did some of them find tricks to make it work?

Even if they work remotely, they try to see if there are other people from our company in the same city. There are several who work together even if the company is remote. There are some who just go into co-working spaces with other people who also work remotely.

During the recruitment process, if any question comes up, such as, “but isn’t it hard to do this remotely?” we most likely won’t hire that person. They think it’s more difficult but we see that it greatly simplifies everything.

I’d like to talk about one-to-one interactions between a manager and an employee. What channel do you use — instant messaging, calls?

We schedule one-to-one calls for two reasons — a workshop on a topic in particular or a problem. We often handle small questions on processes or daily business through instant messaging.

Do you talk at the same frequency with all employees?

I try to talk with everyone nearly all the time. The benefits of those interactions vary from one person to the other. It takes some efforts from employees to synthesize their thinking and ask direct questions so that I can be useful to them.

Let’s talk about social interactions. Are there places to relax and foster team building?

We have a #random Slack channel like everybody who uses Slack. We have a #thanks channel that was created by one of our developers in order to thank someone on the team when they helped you with an issue.

Other than that, it happens more during stand-up calls. I know that the marketing team talks about what they are going to do over the weekend on their Friday stand-up call.

At one point we organized something called “Snack & Learn” — it was “snack” because it could be at different times of the day depending on the people. Either we asked questions to someone on the team or someone on the team made a presentation. Something very casual.

On a work topic or not?

We did both.

Is it important to see each other from time to time to know your co-workers beyond the computer screen?

Two of our co-founders hadn’t seen each other for the first three years of the company. They knew each other incredibly well, but they had never seen each other for real. For them, I’m not even sure that having seen each other for real has changed their relationship.

But this isn’t true for most people. It makes a huge difference when we bring people together. We organize a ski trip every year. We will try to make a summer one too. Last year, our last team trip, people didn’t want to leave each other even at the airport.

As the company gets bigger, I feel like people are taking every opportunity they have to spend more time together. When we organize off-sites, we hardly work. We’re just trying to get people to hang out together.

Do you have meetings?

We have mini-meetings when we want to talk about something specific with some employees. But we don’t want to spend three or four days partying at night and working the next day.

I would like to talk about work/life balance. How do you view work when it comes to time spent in front of your computer?

We are past the phase during which everyone has to work like crazy. As we get bigger, we don’t ask people to work 70 hours a week. I don’t know if there are a lot of people who work more than 50 hours per week. Most people work around 40 hours per week, I think.

There are a few employees that work more than that but we never asked for that. Sometimes, I’m a bit surprised when I see someone replying when it’s very late — I tell them that they shouldn’t be working that late.

Have you ever had to talk to some employees and tell them to slow down because they’re working too much?

I don’t know if they work too much but I see the current time in their time zone. There are some people who like to work late but we sometimes tell them to go to sleep.

Is it possible to have a flexible work schedule? For instance, can you go to the dentist in the middle of the day?

People can do whatever they want. We don’t track time spent at work at all. If somebody is more efficient than others, good for them.

Some employees have passion projects. One of our employee owns a farm and grows flowers and sells them. From May to October, she works part-time with us and that doesn’t bother us at all. We have an employee who participates in high-level dance competitions all the time. If she’s tired at work the next day, I prefer that she doesn’t work.

We give 28 days of vacation per year. But if someone wants to take more days, we don’t care. What matters to us is the quality of the work.

How do you handle performance reviews?

We do it once a year. As a manager, we look at past work. Bonuses are awarded to certain teams if they reach certain objectives. We have no individual objective.

So it’s a fairly classic model that we could find in a non-remote team…

The only difference is that there are people who are too invisible in remote. I tell some people to say “hello” once in a while.

Does the fact that you have to communicate a lot to get information across lead to information overload?

What I love about remote teams is that information is completely transparent. Everything is accessible to everyone except wages — we haven’t done that yet, maybe we’ll do it one day. If I’m talking to investors, it will be in my daily report under my name.

When you put people in a room, they tend to say things they wouldn’t write. In a remote environment, you eliminate harmful things.

Clans for instance?

I’ve had few experiences of office work, but people usually talk behind the backs of others. Harmful people are less harmful in a remote situation than in real life. They are not going to send a series of direct messages to people to trash-talk someone.

I don’t think there’s too much information. But more importantly, I think our communications are healthy.

Does the fact that everything is public make it easier to keep everyone on the same page?

Except if you don’t read your notifications and emails, if there’s something you don’t know, that’s weird.

Is the volume of notifications reasonable for employees?

I’ve received two direct messages and 10 messages in Slack channels since we started the call 45 minutes ago.