At PureVPN, our main office is usually bustling with over 200 people who are handling our various company functions, from information security, customer support, to engineering, marketing, and other departments. With the World Health Organization raising the COVID-19 global threat level to “very high,” our office made the difficult decision to change our in-house work culture to that of a remote organization. This change was quite abrupt, with our company shifting gears almost overnight, and while we certainly feel what everyone feels—the longing for social connection—we have been making our remote culture work and wanted to share what this meant for the entirety of our organization in hopes that other business owners now moving into the remote work life culture can learn from our experiences.
While the pandemic’s far reaching effects are hitting everyone on all corners of the earth, we’re also the most fortunate in that we live in a time period when technological advances have bolstered connection, so that we are able to collaborate in such a way that doesn’t make us feel so apart. Our at-home internet speeds are fast enough to support working out of the office. Further, we also power the technology in our business VPN service that allows for IP whitelisting while also ensuring that user activity remains private and secure at any given time. This gives us tremendous peace of mind that our team communications are not being spied upon by prying eyes.
While our lives have been disrupted by this unprecedented change, we’re also extraordinarily lucky in that our business can operate remotely. We have already been working with team members from near and far, and while moving to our home offices has been a challenge, we’re also testing the waters of building a genuine remote culture. At the present time, we’re adjusting to these unique challenges and finding that we have been able to make it work. Our desire as a company to be adaptable and flexible has given us an edge that has allowed us to build a culture that can rapidly adjust to change, even if that means we’re making these decisions on the fly.
Now that we’re about a month into our at-home quarantines and have transitioned entirely to being a remote organization, we’re outlining the few takeaways from our experience so that you can implement these best practices for your own remote-culture organizational shift.
Embracing the best tools for the job
Every company has found the best jobs to serve them well for work in the office and remotely. While some of our specific tools are proprietary and we’ve built them inhouse, other widely available and mostly free tools have enabled us to collaborate and communicate easily and seamlessly across a number of timezones. Our favorites:
- Google Docs: We have found that the best and easiest collaboration tool for our team is the free Google Docs which we use on top of our paid Google Apps team accounts. If we work with vendors who upload files externally, we can still upload them to our Google Drive and make edits that all of the internal team members can see.
- Google Calendar: Now that most of us remote, many of us are more reliant on our own calendars to ensure that there’s more structure in our workdays (and a balance of work/life!)
- Internal Portal: Our team directory allows us to get contact information about our colleagues, including their roles, departments, and emergency contact information. We can use this database to send company-wide communications as well.
- Skype: We haven’t felt the need to overthink our primary communication tool. Skype isn’t an elaborate tool like Slack, but it works. In fact, some might argue that it works better—for our purposes, we enjoy using it. Using Skype calling, we can have face-to-face phone calls, we can open group chats that include certain team members who are delegated to different tasks, and we can easily quote each other and not lose the conversation (which differs from some of the other tools out there).
- Zoom: When we need to have a face-to-face team meeting, we use Zoom, ensuring that only vetted team members get access to a room at any given time. Sometimes our team will also use Google Meet. We’re flexible in this regard, allowing our teammates to use what’s comfortable to them.
- Assembla: Our team uses this tool for daily task monitoring, to encourage them to work beyond their job descriptions, allowing them to be creative within a data-driven approach. This tool allows our employees to submit daily progress so their managers and team leaders can provide their feedback.
- Jira: Our engineering team uses this tool to plan our team projects and track our software development progress. Teams host team sprints that are also held completely remotely via Jira.
- Bitbucket: Our developers also share code remotely via this tool which allows for versioning and remote updates.
- Miro: This collaborative whiteboard platform is essential when communicating with people, as it is a virtual ‘drawing board’ where you can explain concepts visually.
- PureVPN for Business: Our own tool works with all our team’s devices, laptops, and smartphones. We have clients for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS for work and play, and a plethora of other device-specific apps (Android TV, Kodi, Roku, Boxee, etc) for when we’re letting loose after work is over.
Creating a flexible work-friendly culture
While we are aware that we work from home as employees, we also know that the rest of our families are also stuck at home, and are unable to go to school or work either.
If these were regular times, perhaps a work-from-home culture wouldn’t be permissive to the sound of kids yelling in the background. An employee unable to control their child looks like a bad employee.
But we are living in uncertain times, and we embrace the pets and kids who are making noises in the background. We appreciate that our company is composed of people and understand these uncertain times. We don’t ask for apologies, understanding that our entire worlds are upended and our lives are topsy turvy right now. It’s better that we take care of our own and ensure that they can take care of each other by staying home. To that end, team leaders also check in with the team more often, and conversations have shifted much into the personal domain. The objective is simple: to ensure we’re cognizant to the needs of our team members and can lend support if it’s needed.
We are still quite communicative with our team, understanding that life will pull us away from the keyboard every so often. For anything over 15-20 minutes, teammates are expected to give a heads up, and we totally understand. Knowing how uncertain and difficult things are for us, there’s a great sense of compassion emanating from the team and from everyone.
One final point is that we never worked remotely prior to the pandemic which has now forced us into our homes. But being in the midst of a crisis helps shift perspective in such a way to strengthen our remote company culture. We’ve built stronger relationships with our colleagues and peers and we’ve also strengthened our resolve to stay committed to the tasks at hand and to keep the lights on.
Communicating values and expectations that encourage independence and teamwork
Since the face-to-face is a little more challenging in these uncertain times, we have more daily standups to ensure that we’re in regular communication, and that our team members are always up to speed on tasks. Our standup objectives ensure that there are no barriers to entry or delays that may cause work to be submitted late. Each and every employee has made himself freely available to other colleagues, simply pinging and ringing them when two (or more) heads are better than one.
Some departments are also moving away from the obviously more difficult face-to-face communications toward a culture of more written communications and asynchronous collaboration to reduce miscommunication errors. To resolve possible communication gaps and to ensure they are quickly identified and fixed, we are practicing basic habits like asking the other person to write down what they understood from the conversation.
Our meetings used to be time-bound with a mandate not to exceed a certain amount of time, but as humans, we crave the interaction, and thus, each and every team member actually allows the meetings to run over because it’s the only time for us to interact both professionally and socially. In fact, one of our marketing department heads recently said, “the conversations which happen before the start of formal meetings with our colleagues are really good.”
One of our core tenets as a company is our emphasis on respect. No matter what position or designation you hold, any opinions and suggestions have an equal value for our company. We encourage our team members to approach their colleagues or managers and provide insights directly and also encourage team members to discuss as a group; everything is important and valuable.
Finally, we recognize the difficulties we’re facing right now. We understand that things are difficult but we have really aimed to build a culture of commitment and trust, working against our team’s KPIs to ensure that goals are set and met properly.
Acknowledge your rockstar team players
Given that our team is now completely remote, it is even more important than ever to acknowledge team members and make them feel appreciated. This is often a lot easier to do in a face-to-face work environment, and is significantly more challenging when people are left to their own devices, unable to see the body language of their colleagues and peers to even understand what is on their minds. As such, we work to constantly positively reinforce the team through written (and verbal) feedback, as well as by sending dedicated appreciation messages to acknowledge all-star employees in our internal portal to encourage virtual high-fives and to see the success of the team members.
We also offer spot bonuses, which are instant bank transfers for team members who have achieved something truly remarkable.
As we continue working remotely, we intend to enhance this process by implementing optimizations across the board, specifically one-to-one meetups, the hiring process, peer/team reviews, bonuses, and the like, as we’re still, like many others, trying to figure it out.
Working remotely is really hard if you’ve never done it before, but a sense of belonging and appreciation is something that is known to be incredibly important both inside an office but even more so when you’re distanced from the people you’ve spent months or even years working alongside. While the remote culture is certainly not the real thing, we know that these gestures of appreciation are still able to make a difference.
Always be approachable
Our team understands that these flexible work arrangements might feel daunting, but our homes are now our offices. It is completely understandable that roles and responsibilities and even the work hours we used to keep may have shifted slightly. But that doesn’t stop our team from availing themselves to each other at unlikely times to ensure that business is continuing as usual for our customers.
To that end, we have an “open door” policy. No matter where you are in the company, anyone and everyone is encouraged to connect with our CMO, CFO, CTO, or even our CEO directly to discuss any personal and professional issues over the phone or over Skype at any time. No issue is too small; we treat each other like family, and we want to keep the lines of communication open.
Focus on health
These times may be the most uncertain of our entire lives, which creates an incredible amount of stress and hardship. From a financial point of view, our company is focused on the well being of our employees. Each team member has medical allowances for themselves and their family members and we have distributed medical first aid kits to our staff as well. We also have allocated special COVID-19 funds to those whose families need it.
As it’s more difficult than usual to be active, our team has recently launched a fitness challenge to encourage movement during this mostly sedentary period. We’ve brought onboard two personal trainers who will give us a challenge twice a week. Our employees have created teams and will have 24 hours to complete the challenge, uploading their videos to our portal, and they will be eligible to win prizes. The fastest submissions get the most points, so employees are encouraged to move freely and quickly.
Last but not least, we ensure that our team doesn’t burn out and encourage them to rest. As you’ll read below, having a transition away from working in an office becomes a mental struggle, but we remind our team members that they should focus on themselves and give self care a chance too.
Continue with “business as usual”
As difficult as the prospect of navigating these uncertain times, we’re fortunate in that we are able to continue with business as usual. In fact, we are the only VPN provider that is able to offer 24/7 support, which is definitely difficult when the overnight shift actually means operating solo in a quiet home. But given a focus on a global client base and ensuring our business operations run as smoothly as possible, we aim to be as focused on keeping our customers’ needs met, which means we work all day every day for our users.
Our challenges are your challenges
Making a drastic transition to working solo at a computer isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. One of our engineers reported that productivity initially slumped, but once distractions were removed, it became less difficult. Another lead in our marketing department said that he was so busy in the first week getting things done for the team that he didn’t have time to eat, which also translated to struggles with colleagues, likely because he wasn’t nurturing himself enough! But in “realizing our company’s culture is based on empathy, trust, and embracing change,” and as things fell into place, the new structure became easier. Team members are now more productive, doing focused work like always.
The work/life balance for anyone working in a culture where transitions are completely absent (out of the home, into the home) have been difficult. This is particularly more challenging when trying to break away from work and focus on family and oneself. As anyone who regularly works remotely can tell you, the biggest struggle for this kind of structure has always been trying to create a work/life balance, since your home office is also your home. This is significantly more pronounced and felt now throughout the world as we are all in the same boat. Now, though, we all don’t know when to shut off. Creating this delineation is still something many of us are still working on and optimizing.
And sometimes, even when we’re trying to get our children to their new Zoom classes, it’s a matter of simply asking someone to start up the meeting window or join the chat. Getting everyone to realize what time it is when we don’t even know what day it is is a consistent battle—but we know we’re sharing this pain with millions of people across the globe! However, it’s a must have as emotions are harder to interpret in written form, though the sporadic Internet connectivity issues that are impacting the entire work-from-home workforce right now won’t help solve that problem very much either.
All in all, we’re doing what we can to weather the storm. For more than 200 employees, this hasn’t been the easiest setup, but we’re proud that we built a culture that has transferred over reasonably well to working remotely. We’re lucky we are part of a tech organization that can, at a moment’s notice, become remote. We know that not all of our friends and family members have been as lucky. But we’ve been able to adapt to the changing environment and are still learning as we go along. With our tight-knit culture and transparent lines of communication, we’ve found that this storm is being more easily weathered.