Becca Van Nederynen - Help Scout

Customer service is a market opportunity that small startups can exploit. While large incumbents often grow bloated and have difficulty providing fast, personal support, smaller upstarts can delight users by investing in a great customers experience, especially with the help of modern help desk software like Help Scout.

Customer support also tends to be one of the jobs most often done remotely at companies, whether a company is fully distributed or not. (If your job mostly involves talking to people in remote locations all day, do you really need to be in an office?) It makes sense, then, than Help Scout itself is a distributed company.

We caught up with Head of People Operations, Becca Van Nederynen to discuss working in a remote team and building a distributed work force.

What does Help Scout do and what's your role there?

Help Scout is a web-based help desk for companies who care about a delightful customer experience and I head up the People Ops team.

How many people are at Help Scout now and how spread out are you?

We have 33 folks across 12 states and seven countries. We have 26 in North America, five in Europe and one each in Australia and Argentina.

Why did Help Scout start hiring outside of its Boston office?

The founders spent years working remotely prior to Help Scout, so it felt like part of our DNA from the start, but the main reason is talent. There are some tradeoffs, but we really did not want to compromise on building the best team possible and that meant not limiting ourselves to the Boston area.

Do you find that having a small core of folks in Boston and others working remotely creates any problems?

No, I don’t think so. It helps that only 25% of us are in Boston. The key to making remote work is all about making sure everyone has access to the same information, and we’re very intentional about that. Any important updates are shared through Slack channels, Dropbox, quarterly all-hands meetings and consistent 1:1s over video.

How do you keep a "two tiered" culture from developing?

The top thing is information sharing. Everyone has access to the same information whether they work in Australia, Boston or Canada. We have a daily email that shares our company revenue metrics and a weekly video update to share any company news. 90% of it is asynchronous.

It seems basic but we try to acknowledge everyone’s birthdays, company anniversaries and life events. In an office, these are easy to pull off - buy a cake and there you have it! But with a remote team it takes a little more thought and planning, which we’ve equipped ourselves to manage easily.

The key to making remote work is all about making sure everyone has access to the same information.

Because we’ve prioritized remote work, our office culture is a pretty different from most. Visit our office and you’ll find it to be very quiet, because we’re all using Slack and communicating just like our remote teammates. Also, folks are free to work from home when they want and three people on the team regularly work from home 1-2 days a week.

Is there anything you lose working remotely vs. in an office?

One thing is the spontaneous idea exchange that comes with conversations over coffee or lunch, but I’ll answer how we manage that in the next question.

How do you make sure people outside the office don't miss out?

One thing we started doing earlier this year is what we call Friday Fika. It’s a remote version of water cooler talk. We schedule a video call with someone else on the team once a week. We have a topic on hand in case you’re at a loss for words but most people just have a 15-30 minute chat. This helps us stay connected and get to know everyone. Our twice-a-year team retreats also help everyone bond in person.

What are the biggest challenges you face in a distributed company and do you overcome them?

Keeping everyone feeling connected is a challenge. We manage that challenge with Friday Fika, team retreats, consistent video chats and we are always looking to try new things. Being intentional with putting processes like these in place actually makes it pretty easy to manage.

There are challenges to overcome whether you have a remote culture or an office culture. Neither is perfect. It’s our job to be mindful of those challenges and come up with ways to make sure the team feels connected and happy.

What is the biggest benefit that working remotely has afforded Help Scout?

Access to great talent for sure! Also, it keeps us honest when it comes to transparency and trust. We have to trust each other when we work remotely and that means less process and less meetings so we can get our work done. Transparency helps keep our team engaged and working toward a common goal.

As an employee, I think it’s easier to sustain a healthy work/life balance in a remote culture. You work the hours that make sense for you and have enough autonomy to feel a significant sense of ownership in the business.

What do you think is the most important thing a distributed team can do to ensure successful collaboration?

Regular 1:1s over video! Those are really important to keep the team in sync and encourage more spontaneous discussion. I’d also recommend being very pro-active in trying new things and new tools that can help the team. The challenges in a remote culture are pretty clear, and you need people in the company dedicated to overcoming them.

What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?

That’s something we’re working on now. Up to this point we’ve been able to gather that data by asking, but we’re looking to do more as the company grows. We’d like to set up a better employee feedback loop with regular surveys or an outside tool like Know Your Company.

What sort of culture does your company have? Is it harder to build cohesive culture across geography?

I wouldn’t say building a great culture is harder across geographies, it’s just different.

Last year we defined our company values starting with interviewing everyone on the team. We boiled down their feedback to three things that we want to be about: excellence, helpfulness and ownership. It doesn’t matter where in the world people come from - if they have these values, we can keep our culture cohesive. Of course we screen for them throughout the hiring process.

We have to trust each other when we work remotely and that means less process and less meetings so we can get our work done. Transparency helps keep our team engaged and working toward a common goal.

In addition to caring deeply about these values, I’d say our team is curious, deeply passionate about their craft and serious about enjoying a great life outside of work.

Talk about some of the fun things you do you to bring everyone closer at Help Scout.

I mentioned Friday Fika before. We also have some fun Slack channels where people can post photos, music or podcasts but I think the most fun thing we do is our twice-a-year team retreats. We get together for 4 days, talk shop, eat together and chill out. It’s tough to express in words how meaningful the retreats are, but they are super important. Here’s a video from the last one we did:

What do you look for in an ideal remote employee? Are there any qualities that make someone more successful at working remotely?

In a remote culture, folks are productive when they can work autonomously and proactively prioritize their work on a daily basis. This means we need to hire folks who are fairly senior with a high level of skill and experience in their field. It also means we can’t really have interns or hire people right out of school.

Communication, especially in writing, is also really important. If they haven’t worked remotely before, I pay careful attention to the questions they have about how we approach remote work. If they don’t have a lot of questions, it’s a red flag. We also look very critically at their ability to explain complicated things clearly in writing.

People who are at least a little on the introverted side do well working remotely. As an extrovert, I know I would struggle working from home all day, everyday - I’m energized by interacting with people.

Describe your personal work environment.

I work in our Boston office 3-4 days a week and at home 1-2 days. I’m an extrovert so having that face to face time for me is critical to staying motivated and engaged. That said, I love that I can work from home when I need a change of pace or to dive deep into certain projects.

Our office is quiet with minimal distractions, which I like; I can put my headphones on and zone into something, but there’s also people to eat lunch with. At home, I like to work standing up at my kitchen table and cooking myself lunch or going for an afternoon walk to my favorite bakery/coffee shop.

As an employee, I think it’s easier to sustain a healthy work/life balance in a remote culture. You work the hours that make sense for you and have enough autonomy to feel a significant sense of ownership in the business.

How do you make sure you keep your work and life in balance?

Ha -- it’s not always balanced! One thing that I try to do is work a shorter day on Wednesdays and a longer day one other day. This seems simple, but that extra time on Wednesdays helps me catch up on things at home without cutting into my family time during the rest of the week. I try to check in with myself every couple of months to see what needs adjusting and make a couple tweaks.

How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?

I’m easily distracted so this is a tough one for me! I do love that we have communication guidelines at Help Scout to help people know when to Slack, email, call, video chat which keeps distractions to a minimum. I’ve also turned off my Slack pings so I can ignore them for an hour while I focus on something if I need to. Measuring efficiency? Once and awhile I’ll track my time so I get a sense of how much time I spend on tasks and see what I need to adjust.

What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?

Slack, Trello,, Highfive, Dropbox, Google Apps and of course Help Scout! We keep all our internal company docs in Help Scout.

What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?

Commit to trust and transparency from the beginning and stick to it. You can’t dip your toe into remote work, it requires 100% commitment.

Hire people who want to work remotely and are mature enough to work well without a ton of structure. If you are making a shift from in-office to remote, make sure your in-office managers have the support and training they need to manage a remote team or find ones that do. If you have an office, include remote folks in the conversation and acknowledge them often. Treat the decision to build a remote team as a strategic one because the benefits far outweigh the challenges when done well. :)

Josh Catone
Josh has been the Content & Community Manager at feedly, the Executive Director of Editorial Projects at Mashable, the Lead Writer at ReadWrite, and the Lead Blogger at SitePoint.