Meetings have had a bad reputation in some circles over the past few years. Perhaps because Basecamp (née 37signasls) -- a vanguard for remote work -- called meetings "toxic" in their 2006 book Getting Real. But to Elise Keith, the problem isn't the meetings, but how they're being run.
Keith is the founder of Lucid Meetings, a startup that helps others run more effective meetings, both with each other and with clients. Well run meetings can be useful communications tools and especially vital for remote teams that might not get a lot of facetime.
Pajamas talked to Keith about how to run great meetings and how she's building Lucid Meetings, itself a distributed company.
Describe Lucid Meetings and what you do there.
Lucid is an online platform for designing and running business meetings. Our customers can set up templates for the way they like to meet, work together on agendas, collaborate during meetings, and keep great records. We work with remote teams who use our platform to run their status meetings and one-on-ones, and we help people who need to run professional meetings with clients, where something like a Hangout or a Skype call just doesn’t cut it.
I’m one of the co-founders, and we’re a small team, so I do many things. I work on the product, write for the blog, work with partners, manage payroll and HR... and I help design fabulous meetings, of course.
How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?
We’re five full time folks, supplemented by a bevy of contractors that we bring in as needed. We maintain a central office in Portland, OR, where three of us work on a regular basis. We have one employee in Maryland, and one of the founders splits his time between the Caribbean, Los Angeles, CA, and Europe.
Why did you decide to start working remotely, both on a personal level and as a company?
On a personal level, I actually began working a split schedule in 2001. I worked three days in the office and two from home when my first child was little. By the time we founded Lucid, we were all already working full-time jobs from different parts of the world, so whether we’d operate as a remote company was never a question.
For us, the more controversial decision was establishing a central office at all. We knew we didn’t need one to get work done, and we certainly weren’t about to start requiring people to show up in the office at set hours. But as many people who work at home know, avoiding the office doesn’t necessarily translate to avoiding distractions.
How do you keep everyone at Lucid Meetings feeling connected?
This is a challenge, always. Using Slack has helped a lot, as we pipe in all the sales, marketing and support activity in where everyone can see and feel the pulse of the business. The automation here matters a lot for us, because we’re just not a super chatty bunch. I’ve heard of several companies who keep Slack channels full of animated gifs and social commentary, but that really isn’t our thing.
Beyond Slack, the most important ways we keep connected is through semi-regular face-to-face retreats, and regular meetings. As you might imagine, we spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to meet well and the function those meetings serve in the company. Keeping the team connected is definitely one of those functions, and we design our meetings to intentionally strengthen those connections on each call.
What are the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you overcome them?
Two things: time zones make coordinating more difficult. There’s no way around that. We combat this with careful scheduling of calls, and gentle reminders when someone catches us at an awkward time.
The other challenge is combating assumption in the face of missing information.
Any time you can’t see what someone else is doing, who they’re talking to or who they’re ignoring, your mind automatically fills in the blanks. We can’t help it -- it’s a fundamental part of how we’re wired. And if things aren’t going particularly well, many people will assume the worst. I don’t think this is unique to remote work places at all (I’ve been in siloed workplaces that were awful this way), but remote work makes the challenge more obvious.
We combat this challenge first by acknowledging it.
Early on, I made this awesomely hideous quadrant (above) to help us keep this challenge in mind, and we included it in this blog post.
Next, we’ve designed our processes to:
- Make our agreements and achievements explicit. If someone commits to doing something, it’s tracked and we check.
- Talk about the unexpected and the personal in our meetings.
This way, we all get an understanding about what else might be going on in a person’s life that’s impacting their work. I know some teams share all their personal stuff regularly on Slack, but we’re generally very focused and try to respect each other’s time that way, so we’re not prone to automatically share the non-work stuff.
As an example of how this helps, we recently learned that Tricia’s house is being undermined by groundhogs. She unexpectedly found herself dealing with what was now an urgent groundhog emergency. Seriously, groundhogs? That is not something I would have ever thought up in my wildest of assumptions.
You can read more about the Cross-Functional meeting format we use here.
As many people who work at home know, avoiding the office doesn’t necessarily translate to avoiding distractions.
What is the biggest benefit that working remotely has afforded your company
We would never have formed without the option of working remotely. Our very existance?
A lot of distributed companies preach radical transparency, and Lucid Meetings has written (on your blog) about the importance of “over communicating” for your remote team. How does that look in practice? Why is clear communication so vital?
I think I’ve covered this in the answers above. I guess one thing I’d add is this; some people feel that “over communicating” means they have to share everything, always be online, etc. Constant communication is not the goal of the “over communicate” idea, though.
It’s all back to avoiding assumption. You can’t assume that your co-worker saw the latest code commit. You can’t assume that they know you’ve been on a long support call, or in an extended Twitter exchange. We’re all deluged with a constant stream of information, and especially in small teams where no one gets excused from creating actual content or code, you have to assume instead that people are focused on their own work. So in this situation, “over communicate” means that you have to actually share things that you think should be obvious. As if the rest of your team was recently on a journey with Dr. Who and missed all the news.
What do you think is the most important thing a distributed team can do to ensure successful collaboration?
Make sure the team’s goal is clear, and people are committed to achieving it. There are lots of tactics after that, but if you don’t have a team that’s bought into a clear goal, successful collaboration isn’t possible.
What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?
We track all those SaaS metrics you’d expect, and we look at those as a team each week. We also take a moment to celebrate victories together each week, which are those accomplishments that get us closer to our goal.
The numbers are useful, but I think hearing victories gives us a better sense of how the team’s doing. Some weeks, we just don’t have many, or the ones we hear are weak. Those are the times when we know something’s off that we need to dig into.
One of your employees, Tricia Harris, wrote on the Lucid Meeting’s blog that she sometimes wished there were more folks in her timezone who could interrupt her once in awhile during work hours. Do you think that burnout is a bigger potential worry for remote employees who might have a harder time separating work from life? How do you make sure employees are getting enough downtime and not working too hard?
I do think burnout can be harder for remote people. Also, remote people in the tech industry know they have a pretty good shot of landing a new job with another remote team if they get bored with the current one, so managing this burnout is super important for leaders.
I’ve seen lots of larger or funded companies combat this with perks; company retreats to Banff or Venice, t-shirts, etc. And I know this works really well for some of them. As a bootstrapped company that has to actually sell stuff to make money, that isn’t an option for us. Well, maybe t-shirts. And we did make cool buttons once. But nothing perky enough to combat the fatigue of working all the time on the relentless SaaS hamster wheel.
“Over communicate” means that you have to actually share things that you think should be obvious. As if the rest of your team was recently on a journey with Dr. Who and missed all the news.
We do have a “take it when you need it” vacation policy, but like many other companies have discovered, this means some people never really get a vacation. I’m going on my first week-long vacation in 4 years next month, and am definitely conflicted about it.
What we’ve done that helps more is this; everyone takes every-other Friday off. We take turns to make sure someone’s always around to work with customers and handle any tech emergencies. This gives everyone at least a few full weekdays each month to go to appointments, take a long weekend, or whatever they need to do to decompress.
What sort of company culture are you trying to create at Lucid Meetings? How do you build culture with people working in so many different places?
The founders came together at the start with a shared set of values. So far we’ve only hired full-time people that we’ve worked with in the past, so we already had a good sense that they shared those values before we brought them on board.
So we have a list of core values and beliefs, and that’s nice and all. But really, a company’s culture is like a person’s character; it only exists in what people actually do, not in what they claim to believe. Building culture requires you to do the things your values say you will, and to design your company rituals to support and nurture that culture.
Our rituals include our meetings, each designed to reinforce both work and cultural goals, the kinds of discoveries we share (we’re all eager learners), and regular infusions of excellent food.
Special tip: tasty treats from Nuts.com come in a highly delightful box that you can’t help but love. Also, chocolate!
How do you personally manage work/life balance when working from your home? When you don’t have a commute, do you ever struggle with when to stop working for the day?
Not particularly well? I’m not sure ‘balance’ is really a core competency for many founders, but I may be wrong on that.
Or maybe it’s that balance isn’t a forte for working mothers? I have three children at home, and an abundance of family within 100 miles, all of which force a healthy dose of the life part of the equation for me. When your hungry toddler gets home and demands dinner, it’s pretty clear you need to step away from the keyboard.
Now if we could find a magic key to the work, life, “just 10 minutes alone in my own head dear god!” equation, that would be awesome.
A company’s culture is like a person’s character; it only exists in what people actually do, not in what they claim to believe.
Describe your usual work environment.
A laptop, headphones, and something to drink. Beyond that, it’s all up for grabs.
You mentioned by email that you spend a lot of time working from the road. What are some of the necessities for effective work while traveling?
Back-up internet, extra chargers, and babysitters! Not so different from anyone who travels for work, I think.
The one difference for our remote team is that you can’t tell the difference between someone who’s not online because they’re on a plane from someone who may just be shifting their hours for the day. So “where I am today” is one of those items that always needs to be communicated.
Do you think having a remote team makes it easier for you stay connected from the road?
What are some of the tools you couldn’t live without as a remote company?
- Back-up internet. What is the deal with Comcast, anyway?
- Lucid Meetings: this handles our multi-timezone scheduling, our audio calling options, our meeting processes, and is how we communicate with customers who need project help or demos.
- Headphones for concentration and for jumping on all those quick calls.
What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?
- Be super clear on the results you need from your remote team.
- Run a trial.
If you have fears about people going remote, it means you’re not confident you’ll know if it’s working and you’re afraid that you won’t be able to bring people back in should it fail.
I’d recommend working with the person (or people) involved to explicitly state how you’ll know they’re doing their jobs, and then set a time limit to try it out. You could track a set of deliverables, their attendance at team meetings (video conferencing is a marvel), or something else -- as long as it’s specific and measurable. At the end of the trial, review what worked, what didn’t, and then decide.