Precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19 have required many office workers to work from home for the past few weeks. Given our distributed organization with over 950 employees across 13 countries, other companies and individuals adopting remote work for the first time have asked us to share our best practices.
Rather than trying to write a list of tips or general remote advice (Doist and Zapier have great content on this already), we collected stories of HashiCorp employees' remote work habits and how they're adapting their routine due to COVID-19. These folks have a diversity of roles, backgrounds, and history with distributed work; each approach it in their own way. We hope their stories are informative and humanize working remotely as people explore it for the first time. If this is your first experience working remotely, know that even our organization, which has had remote-first operations for years, is struggling to find new routines. Now, more than ever, with kids at home, local businesses closed, and travel restricted, there’s no one right way to work remotely.
Here are our interviewees; their quotes are used throughout this writing.
While we are fortunate to have experience working remotely, we don't consider ourselves experts. We have practices that work for us and that might work for others. We hope sharing these stories provides some useful insights and approaches, and helps others find their unique way.
Each employee's interview showed a different approach to working remotely. One person interweaves their work and life schedules, while another keeps them completely distinct. Even within HashiCorp, there is no one right way to work remotely. While there are definitely differences, HashiCorp employees have a few things in common in approaching remote work — they look inwards to understand what's important to them, they shape their work environment and calendar to reflect those priorities, and they thoughtfully communicate and connect with colleagues.
Working remotely is a blank slate. You don't have to work standard hours, commute to an office, or work a specific way. The only expectations are to contribute to the company goals while following our Principles. When presented with a blank slate, our employees look inwards to understand what they value. Cameron, a solutions engineer in Australia, shared a story of his process to build a home working space that reflects himself. "After the move from a dedicated, well-manicured study to the confines of my bedroom, I wasn’t happy, or confident, to continue using the camera. It was very impersonal, I get that, but to me having customers, colleagues and partners see the worst parts of my bedroom just wasn’t going to happen. So I went on a bit of a journey to fix that. I was using the onboard camera of my computer and the angle gave a great view of my chin and nostrils, so I fixed that. I had a heap of clutter behind me, so I fixed that. Part of the wall I was using is an open fireplace -- it was garish, obstructive, and distracting during the video -- I’m in the process of fixing that," he shared. "All these things have given me greater confidence in letting people in. Letting them connect with me. But ultimately, letting me own my ‘me.’"
This process of observation, reflection, and adjustment was a thread in Ernesto's approach to remote work too. Ernesto Cazares is a senior recruiter focused on product management. He shared that his introspective process helps him learn more about himself and his working styles. "Iterate until you find the right combination for you. Get into a schedule that includes mental and physical wellness. Bring things into your space that are beautiful and inspiring. And most important, give yourself a break if you’ve never worked 100 percent remote. Change is difficult but if you listen to your mind and body, you’ll make it through just fine and along the way, perhaps learn a bit more about yourself."
Introspection is an ongoing process; as individuals grow, as the company expands, as circumstances change, we recalibrate what's important. And then update our environment to reflect our priorities.
Our environments shape us. When we want to be productive, we often overvalue willpower and undervalue the environment. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear states, "it can be tempting to blame failure on a lack of willpower or a scarcity of talent, and to attribute success to hard work, effort, and grit. To be sure, those things matter. What is interesting, however, is that if you examine how human behavior has been shaped over time, you discover that motivation (and even talent) is often overvalued. In many cases, the environment matters more."
Remote work is an opportunity to have more influence over personal environments — both time and space. Time in terms of how employees schedule their days, and space in terms of how they construct their work setting. Employees look inwards to understand what's important to them, then shape their spaces and routines to not just reflect their priorities, but encourage them. They define their environment, the environment doesn't define them.
While employees aren't expected to be in an office from 9 to 5, most employees build their own structure. Distributed work enables flexibility, but that doesn't mean employees aren't disciplined. Quite the opposite, they enforce a disciplined schedule that works for them. Each person has found their own work-life balance. Some integrate work and life by staying connected throughout the day, others create strict boundaries. It takes time, introspection, and adjustment for each person to find their own personal rhythm.
James Conway, VP of international sales, has one of the most hectic schedules in the company. He's responsible for sales teams across Europe, Asia, and Australia and is in regular contact with U.S. colleagues. James integrates work and life schedules. "The flexibility of working remote or ‘working on the move’ as I call it, allows me to combine my very hectic work schedule with my family life. I am often on very early calls with Asia, on late night Zoom calls with my U.S. colleagues or travelling to and from the airport. Continuing to have my home as my base has for me created a sense of calm and has given me the opportunity to recharge, catch up on any admin and of course spend as much quality time with my family," he shared. "I quickly became comfortable with the working remote culture when I realised the huge benefit of being able to combine work and life so that they can both coexist. This is especially true since having a young family, working remote continues to be one of life’s true pleasures. For me, I would not want it any other way."
While work-life integration works well for James most of the time, vacations have different rules. "Every day after breakfast with the family, I hand my phone, sometimes reluctantly, over to my wife Helen who locks the phone away in the in-room safe and sets a brand-new access code! At 5 p.m. later that day, I am given the new code where I am able to retrieve the phone, find a quiet bar in the hotel, order myself a cold beer and respond to any new emails, etc., then before dinner we repeat that process! My wife and I laugh about it and it has become a holiday tradition where the kids now enjoy locking my phone away each day! You may argue however that I should have the willpower to simply switch my phone off each day, but the temptation to check in is just too much! Sad, I know!" This is a good example of using the environment as a tool to change behavior rather than putting all the pressure on willpower!
Similar to James, Ernesto also integrates his work and life schedules. While at his desk, he shapes his environment by using alarms to improve his productivity, mental health, and physical health. "At home it’s easy to get in a groove and not look up from my desk, so I’ve set up alarms for breaks: go outside for a walk or just stand in the sunshine; stretch, exercise, or call a friend for a mental break. I can’t stress enough how the alarms have helped me be successful. They help me manage my calendar and thus my productivity and mental/physical health." Time and attention-management techniques like Ernesto’s alarms and Pomodoro are common across the HashiCorp employee base. While these practices might not be perfect for everyone, they reflect the cycle of introspection to understand personal needs and then structuring the environment to reflect those needs.
In the words of James Clear, "environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. We tend to believe our habits are a product of our motivation, talent, and effort. Certainly, these qualities matter. But the surprising thing is, especially over a long time period, your personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by your environment." While an overpowering environment can have negative effects, it can also be used to your advantage by shaping the environment to facilitate the outcomes you want. If family time is a priority, employees shape their time management around that. If physical health is a priority, our employees schedule an hour on their calendar every day just like a meeting.
While Ernesto and James Conway have more integrated work-life schedules, Lauren Rother takes a different approach. Lauren is a product manager for HashiCorp Terraform. "I really try to not do life stuff or house stuff at my work desk, and likewise try not to bring my work stuff outside of my office. I used to bring my work laptop all around the house with me, but found that the work I was doing at my kitchen table while eating lunch wasn't great work and was stressing me out because I never gave myself a moment disconnected from my laptop and the obligations of answering people's questions. When I'm done for the day, I say goodbye to my coworkers in Slack, I quit Slack, leave myself any notes for tomorrow, and then close my laptop and turn off my monitor. I usually will sit in a chair in my office for 15 to 30 minutes and listen to music or do something on my phone, basically try to transition my brain from work to home like I'd do on a commute."
Most technical employees like Lauren err on the side of distinct work and life time and spaces. They create specific hours and areas within their house dedicated just for work. Hope Blaythorne, director of technical account management stresses the importance of a comfortable workspace at home. "Location, location, location. Some people 'carve out' a workspace in a living room or bedroom and place themselves in what appears to be temporary space. Considering you will spend more time in this space then even in your kitchen, make it as comfortable and pleasurable as possible. I have my standing desk oriented so that I can see outside and am surrounded by things that 'spark joy'. Comfort is key, as if you're sitting on an uncomfortable chair or makeshift desk then that will not enable you to be your best." While a dedicated space might not be possible for everyone, make whatever space you have your own.
And some employees take a hybrid approach like Katie Reese, senior community manager in New York. "I typically protect evening hours for friends and family but have to acknowledge that I frequently get super motivated and creative in the 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. hours. I am grateful that I feel supported to take advantage of these precious bursts of energy and then compensate the next day."
As circumstances change due to external forces like COVID-19, employees adapt. The cycle of introspection and environment adjustment continues. While COVID-19 forces the home to be both the work and life environment, our employees are working even harder to be deliberate about how they spend their time because they can’t really choose their space. And for many employees, they’re adapting to both how they spend their time and how their families spend their time too.
Melissa Gurney Greene, our director of community engagement, has updated her routine and her family's to reflect their priorities. "Now, I have a daily set of tasks for the kids to complete to help them stay fresh on their math, reading, and language skills. I refuse them access to WiFi until they have spent some time outside in the yard, contributing to house work, and completing their studies. I am fortunate to have the flexibility to focus on meeting the needs of my family and employees during this unprecedented time as well as having the ability to spend the amount of time I want to spend engaging with work. Most of my downtime is spent playing board games with the family or volunteering to help with the crisis in any way I can, which for now means sewing masks."
It takes a while to find a rhythm, and those rhythms evolve over time. Employees are mindful of their needs, and mindful of their colleague's patterns too. Martin Smith, senior site reliability engineer, shared "I think it’s really important to pay attention to the natural rhythms of your team and your colleagues. In addition to saying hello and goodbye at the start and end of each day, it’s super helpful to me to 'star' my colleagues in Slack, so that I always see their presence, if they’re in meetings, and generally what the rhythm of their days are like. Combined with a daily or weekly update of how folks are feeling, either as a weekly meeting icebreaker or a daily standup question, I feel like I have a much better 'full picture' of the daily life of my teammates. I can tell when someone has been sick, started extra early, or has had a lot of meetings. That knowledge adds so much rich context to my interactions with them." Especially during COVID-19, being mindful of how colleagues' schedules have changed is important to foster empathy and kindness.
The thoughtfulness of constructing an intentional environment extends beyond the individual. It's a core part of how our employees communicate and connect as a community.
A distributed company is not much different than a co-located company, but it makes organizational challenges that much more apparent. If employees don't know the company priorities, they really don't know the company priorities. Distributed groups need to be intentional about acknowledging these challenges and addressing them. The result is thoughtful practices that should exist in any company, not just distributed ones: consistent communications, deliberate connection and inclusion, and structured collaboration.
Preeti Somal, our VP of engineering, describes thoughtful communication best. "The main difference [between distributed and co-located] lies in being very thoughtful and aware of the humans that don’t know you well enough or can’t walk up to you and share their hopes and fears. This manifests itself in being aware of the tone that may be read in textual communication whether that’s Slack or email and being visible and consciously present."
Preeti runs a 200-person organization and fosters emergent communication networks through the engineering managers. "Engineering managers are the glue that holds the teams together; that’s always been the case in any engineering organization, however in a distributed organization the glue needs to be that much stronger. As a leader, I work towards enabling and empowering our managers and they in turn represent the issues that their team members face so we can refine our environment to be one where engineers can thrive while solving complex problems."
Communication is probably the most important practice in distributed organizations. Email, Slack, Zoom are the main tools of the trade at HashiCorp, and each requires thoughtfulness. Melissa and her team practice "working out loud” in Slack. She shared that "part of our team culture is to be honest and to work out loud. Honesty within the team looks like sharing when you are confused or having a tough day on our private team Slack channel. Often, others in the team will open up a call and meet with the person [who is] struggling to help [them], or express support through words, memes, or other means."
Justin Swisher, a recruiting manager based out of San Francisco, recommended "when hosting Zoom team calls, it’s important to ‘work the room.’ Ask for peoples' opinions, make sure you spread the time around so one or two people don’t dominate." Sometimes we take practices like this for granted; every collaborative team meeting should give each attendee an opportunity to be heard. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of remote work — by introducing new communication mediums, we're forced to reassess even basic practices. What does it mean to run a good Zoom meeting? How do we keep all distributed employees informed? If you remove the word "Zoom" in the first question and "distributed" in the second, these are questions that all companies should be asking themselves. Because remote work is a blank slate, we get to question common business practices and build what makes sense for our company.
Similar to communication practices, our employees apply the same level of thoughtfulness to building relationships inside and outside of work. Distributed companies don't provide a social network "for free" like co-located companies, so it's important for employees to be more intentional about creating both their work community and their local community.
Hannah Oppenheimer, our design manager for HashiCorp Consul, shares how she finds that balance. "After work, I normally prefer to use my hands and get away from my screen. Typically, I might do something food-related like making ice cream or fresh pasta for friends, or something outdoor-related like playing soccer or going rock climbing with friends. With restrictions around Covid-19, I am having virtual friend meetups, bike riding, having bonfires in my backyard, and reading a lot!"
Within the employee community, we try to focus on making each interaction a positive experience. Rather than broad, sweeping employee engagement, if we make each connection a positive one, the outcome is a culture of kindness. Culture emerges from our micro interactions rather than from a top-down program. Ancil McBarnett, a regional director of solutions engineering, echoed this with his approach to connection. "The small interactions you have with people in the office really do make a difference in terms of building trust, empathy, and a strong connection. I’ve been working with remote teams for almost a decade and I’ve learned that you can create those feelings remotely. But remote relationships take more effort because you are not forced to interact with people at the water cooler." He added, "you have to be intentional and brave. When you are meeting a remote colleague for the first time, take a moment to learn about them, their story. Ask them what their interests are outside of work. It can seem odd when you are there to talk about a project that is behind schedule, but it may do a lot to build trust and empathy in the long run."
The small things really matter for us at HashiCorp; they turn simple communication into connection. On Slack, Katie brings emotion into her chats with emojis. "When you are not speaking in person with someone, it is more challenging to read their body language and tone of voice in relation to the conversation. Chat literacy comes into play here - ‘K 🙂’ reads much better than ‘K.’ HashiCorp has thousands of custom emojis and I love discovering new emojis. My favorite is the automated smiley face waving his hand to say hello or goodbye. I find myself accidentally texting :joy: to my friends because iMessage does not recognize that as a prompt the way Slack does… but they know what it means by now."
It's true for Zoom too, where Hope suggested "be engaged and to try to show up on video. At my other company, there were some business units that did not use video and others that did. I found that if I always used it people got to know me better and they also tended to come onto the video as well. Then when I met them face-to-face we had a better relationship versus a phone call exchange. Eye contact is eye contact, whether it is face-to-face or on video and it can convey the emotion of a person."
Even though our communication and connection is separated by a virtual barrier, we are deliberate about showing emotion and respecting the emotion of colleagues.
These thoughtful actions cultivate a more respectful environment, especially for Preeti's engineering team where engineers are distributed across the globe. "Another dimension is awareness of diverse backgrounds and cultural influences -- with a remote first organization our team members are spread in 30 states and 13 countries, I cannot assume that everyone will understand the Silicon Valley colloquial language. Recently I was reminded of this when someone said ‘that’s a hail mary’ and others were puzzled -- see I just fell into that trap again!!!"
While our history of remote communication and connection is a good starting point, COVID-19 affects each of us differently. Employees have been resourceful and resilient in adapting to the circumstances. Melissa is mindful of her energy levels while engaging with employees across the company. "The biggest change for me is the amount of time I have spent engaging and supporting the team and the amount of energy it takes for me to engage and work. I have adjusted my work hours on select days to allow for a midday nap to help with the mood and energy through the day," she says. "As a managing director, my energy, direction and positive attitude are the most important tools I have available to me right now. Keeping that battery charged for my people and the teams I meet with cross-functionally is very important. In general, more empathy and kindness than before -- lots of encouragement and just listening to people and acknowledging their struggles at this time and trying to share bits of sunshine wherever I can."
And Colleen Fukui-Sketchley, our head of employee engagement, diversity, and inclusion, reflects on the intimate nature of seeing employees at home with their families. We're of course used to seeing each other at home, but not always with kids around too. "It's interesting how we have normalized hearing and seeing kids during Zoom meetings. I meet employees’ kids, pets, and partners, and it has been so fun seeing people in a home environment. We would have never gotten to know people this way if we weren’t forced to be at home. It has humanized everyone...particularly executives. You only get to see one side of a person (for the most part) at work and to see someone run a meeting holding a baby in one arm or to see an executive stop, ask their child if they brushed their teeth yet and then continue with a meeting...it creates a more level playing field and it’s refreshing."
Hannah says it best: "If the Coronavirus lockdown is your first time experiencing remote work, just know that this isn’t what distributed life normally looks like. Even our team, an organization that was always fully remote, is struggling during these times. Parents have to figure out how to be a parent, teacher, playmate, and co-worker all at once. Mental health for everyone feels like it’s on the brink. People are spending parts of their days just making sure they have enough food and supplies."
These are weird, challenging times. We're all adapting to a new work-from-home environment and there's no one right way to do it. We hope sharing these stories helps others find their unique way.
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