Tips for Your Remote Playbook from Toptal


Remote work wasn’t a plan for many organizations. The need for it arrived with COVID-19 and has since changed the way many companies operate and view the workforce. Now, they’re having to develop remote work cultures, workflows and processes on the fly, with the learning curve proving to be a significant challenge to operations.

For companies feeling this pain, it may seem like an uphill battle, but it’s not as if there aren’t companies out there they can pull lessons from. Toptal is a prime example of this as a company with no headquarters and a fully remote workforce. They’ve spent years developing a remote culture and practices for the effective hiring, onboarding, engagement and retention of employees. As COVID-19 forced other companies to operate as they do, Toptal began assemble a playbook for other organizations to follow in their footsteps.

“We have always been 100% remote so this isn’t something we’ve had to become accustomed to,” Michelle Labbe, Vice President of People for Toptal, said during a session titled “The Suddenly Remote Playbook” as part of our recent HR Tech North America Digital Summit. “We developed this playbook as a resource for everyone who was going through this in real time and we wanted to share all of our challenges and the things that we’ve perfected over the years.”

The playbook examines how Toptal surveys employees, how it tackles employee engagement with an approach that is direct and transparent. Nothing is anonymous so that the company knows how each individual is feeling and what they’re experiencing. For employees going through the onboarding process, Toptal has built in methods to teach them about the organization, the people in it, tools at their disposal and how to go about collaborating with their new teams.

A Remote-first Culture

For a lot of people, getting used to a completely remote work culture is an adjustment. On paper, not having to commute, not having to go into an office seems ideal, but in some cases, that can lead to isolation, loneliness and dissatisfaction.

“Even though we have all these tools internally to help people come together and have water cooler type chats, it can still be very difficult because you have to set up boundaries,” Labbe said. “You need be able to leave your computer and go for a walk, go to the gym, go meet friends and if you don’t have that type of experience it won’t work out.”

Virtual events and activities are vital ways to keep people connected and build the company culture. For Toptal, it’s keeping things light that makes the culture work. Whether that’s fun backgrounds for Zoom meetings, dressing up in costumes for birthday celebrations or participating in Slack channels focused on everything from camping to Zumba and video games.

“We’ve did a 30-day fitness challenge and it was in teams of five with everyone using an app,” Labbe said. “We got people to try different things and it spawned a bunch of new Slack channels. It’s all these folks finding like interests and knowing that you can find your people within the organization.”

The Importance of Trust

A lot of organizations are grappling with trust issues, somewhat predictably, as management struggles to believe in what employees are doing when they aren’t sitting in front of them.

“If you’re pivoting to remote work and you trusted your people and knew their work was great in the office, you shouldn’t have a fall off now that they’re not in the office,” Labbe said. “For me, if my team needs a nap in the middle of the day, I don’t care as long as they get their work done. Everyone knows what every team is supposed to be working on every quarter which feeds up into the company goals. If you’re not carrying your weight, someone is going to notice.”

The remote environment, when based on transparency and clear expectations, creates more freedom for employees. Trust is the key component and it doesn’t mean watching over employee hours or hounding them when they don’t respond to a message right away.

Labbe was joined by editor Paul Estes who noted the difference in remote work culture from other settings he’s experienced.

“One of the things that was always interesting to me when I had large teams and it was location based, they’d come to me and say ‘I need to go to the doctor’ as if they were asking permission,” Estes said. “I felt as a leader that it was odd to ask for permission, that you should do what you need to, just make sure the team is good and the work is getting done. When I went remote, all of that just went away.”

Trust is earned not given in life. That remains true in remote work, not just for the employee who earns it in their interview process and in their daily productivity, but for the organization, which is working to gain employees trust from the moment they begin interacting with them as prospect.

Labbe noted that Toptal’s job descriptions include outlining what the expectations are for the person’s role along every stage of the first year of their time at Toptal. New hires get an onboarding pass that unlocks content which clearly lays out the lingo, the culture and what to expect while working there.

“We really get into the nitty gritty, so that people can feel like they understand what they’re doing and what they need to do next,” Labbe said. “There’s people who have never used Slack before, so we outline Slack etiquette. And we space all this out so people aren’t experiencing overload. We do 30, 100 and 200 day check-ins so we know how we did with the onboarding process and where people are struggling.”

In the end, it’s about giving people the tools to succeed and leaving it up to them to make the most of a remote work opportunity. The fact is, remote work isn’t for everyone and some will choose another path. The important thing for companies moving to remote environments is that they embrace the demands of remote work and give people what they need to succeed.

“It goes back to over communicating the message, saying this is what you need to have done,” Labbe said. “There will be people that struggle and you will have to spend more time talking to them. Some don’t like it, but we have things like tutorials to set up their desks and tips to look better on video so they feel more comfortable and so that they can be more effective in getting their jobs done. We’re all remote, we’re all in this together trying to get the job done.”

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