Despite being a distributed team with bases across the world, Aerobotics has found it hard to establish a true ‘remote-friendly’ culture. However, now that the whole team is working from home, Co-Founder and CTO Benji Meltzer has found a unique opportunity to assess what’s really important to the team. It’s provided them with the chance to see how this can be built into their new remote setup and benefit everyone, no matter where they’re working from. Here’s how they’ve done this.
Aerobotics has had remote teams for a while, with the main team based in Cape Town, and smaller teams working remotely in Los Angeles, Florida, Porto and Sydney. However, making this dynamic work has been a continuous challenge.
“As a tech startup, we’re still focusing a lot of our attention on establishing ourselves in the industry. This ‘hyper-growth’ mindset has made it hard to take a step back and think about more than just the day-to-day,” Benji says. “Everyone on the team is incredibly capable, so they’ve been making the remote setup work – but we’ve never felt like it’s as good as it could be.”
Faced with the new ‘work-from-home’ reality that COVID-19 has brought with it, however, the Aerobotics team has had to focus on making remote work more structured and accessible:
“When we had to close the office in Cape Town, we took the opportunity to think about how we could set all of our teams up as well as possible to survive this crisis, keep everyone healthy and functional, and build something sustainable into our culture that we can carry forward,” Benji says.
To start building a more remote-friendly culture that will serve them both now and in the future, the Aerobotics team have started doing the following things:
- Developing stronger, more structured communication lines
- Providing everyone with equal access to what they need to work efficiently
- Setting and respecting boundaries
- Maintaining rituals
Here’s what this looks like in more detail.
Developing stronger, more structured communication lines
“Everyone knows how important communication is, but it can also be the first thing that you get wrong as your team scales,” Benji says.
However, when COVID-19 forced the team to rethink their roadmap overnight, they found that getting everyone on the same page as quickly as possible was the best way to keep moving.
To do this, the team focused on:
Collaborating more broadly
One of the first things Aerobotics did when working from home became a reality was open up the company’s strategy discussions to everyone. “We realised to keep taking the next step,” Benji says, “we needed to have as many people as possible aligned in their thinking so that they could execute on plans decidedly, even if we were far apart.”
Optimising for asynchronous communication
“I really don’t like meetings because they require everyone to be available at the same time, and, if you miss the meeting, you inevitably miss the bulk of the information,” Benji says. To avoid this, the team has tried to be more meticulous about documenting information and making it accessible on Slack so that any team member can access it at any time.
Encouraging more equal participation
“We have a really strong team so it’s helpful to get as much input from every person as possible,” Benji says. Because communicating online is often more challenging than in person, the team makes sure to build check in points into their online conversations to actively ask individuals if they have any questions or anything they’d like to share.
Providing everyone with equal access to what they need to work efficiently
When remote working was enforced, the Aerobotics team was able to secure a discount on data to help those that don’t have internet access stay online. They also let everyone take what they needed from the office home to make their set up as comfortable as possible. “We took everyone’s unique context into account, and worked with that as best we could,” Benji says.
Beyond that, however, they also realised that people need more than just physical resources to work effectively – they also need things like a teammate’s advice and feedback.
Implementing ‘office hours’ has proved to be a useful way in helping this so far.
“Relying on tools like Slack to communicate can be a blocker,” Benji says, “because you don’t know when someone will get back to you – it’s not the same as wandering over to someone’s desk.”
He’s found that broadcasting when he’s explicitly available to help with things has been really useful in encouraging engagement because the team feels supported.
Setting and respecting boundaries
The Aerobotics team previously had to think about timezone sensitivities when it came to remote working to collaborate well with their teams overseas. With everyone being fully remote now, however, new complexities have been added to the mix, and therefore, there are new factors that have had to be taken into account.
One of these is flexibility. While Aerobotics has always been open to flexibility when it comes to how the team operates, like many other businesses, they’ve felt the pressure that the online environment brings.
“We’ve all struggled with feeling like we need to be constantly available, and at our computers 24/7 now that we’re remote,” says Benji. “This is really not realistic though because it’s not like that, even when you’re at the office.”
To help relieve this pressure and facilitate a culture of trust amongst the team, they’ve worked out ways to help individuals set their own boundaries as easily as possible:
Download calendar integrations into Slack
The team has found this to be really useful in avoiding messaging teammates when they’re not available and putting pressure on them to reply immediately. “Because it’s linked to your calendar, it sends a message notifying whoever is trying to contact you that you’re busy until 2pm, for example, and then they know when would be a good time to reach out.”
Being visible about individual needs
Working from home is definitely a whole new ball game for a lot of people, like those who have children, for example. Finding time to get focused work in while juggling things like school and playtime has been difficult for most parents. “We know that our team has a lot on their plates right now, so we’ve just asked everyone to be as visible about their needs as possible so that we can factor them in and work with them as a group,” Benji says.
The Aerobotics team typically spend a lot of time interacting with each other on a lot of different levels – be it work or hobbies. Benji has found that maintaining these interactions, albeit online, has been really important for keeping team morale up:
“Those of us in the Cape Town office do a lot together, and when we had to close the doors and work from home, losing these connection points was the hardest thing for me,” Benji shares. “We all get a lot of energy from each other, so finding a way to keep that up was a priority.”
To make sure that the team sees each other often, they’ve stuck to doing daily standups, weekly sprint planning, meetings and retros over video calls. They’ve also started doing their company-wide-all-hands meetings weekly instead of monthly to make sure that everyone is continually kept up to date.
“We didn’t want to let go of the pillars that keep our team on track. We wanted to keep them as ‘normal’ as possible, even if that just meant finding ways to see each other’s faces on a regular basis.”
Aerobotics also hosts semi-regular ‘learning sessions’, set up by the team. “We’re really passionate about learning,” Benji explains, “and host multiple learning sessions internally, and sometimes externally, where we get together and discuss new academic research, experiments and practical applications, amongst other things.”
These sessions have proved to be beneficial both for the team and the development of the product, so Benji has made it a point to make them work online. “We believe that these get-togethers are as important as meetings, so there are Slack channels for the different groups, and regular video calls being set up to keep them rolling.”
By taking these steps, the Aerobotics team have found that establishing a ‘remote-friendly’ culture is something that is definitely doable for them.“Although this has been a challenging time,” Benji says, “it’s also been one filled with really positive opportunities.”
“The pause that COVID-19 has given us has helped us shift our focus and double down on what matters.”
Benji says that there’s been a ‘buzz’ in the air as everyone has started adapting to the ‘new normal’. While it’s still very much a work in progress with the team constantly iterating on how they do things, it’s shown them that by getting this new environment right, they’ll be able to unlock a whole new potential.