CoLab is a worker-owned web agency that focuses on providing digital design, development, and strategy services to nonprofit organizations and companies that have a social mission. Though the company operates its own co-working space in upstate New York, they have cooperative owners and freelance collaborators spread out across the world.
Ralph Cutler, one of the founding worker-owners, discusses how CoLab manages its globally distributed team and why remote work was an obvious choice for the group.
What does CoLab do and what do you do there?
We provide web services and strategy to organizations doing work that matters.
As worker-owner I do many things, but mostly design.
How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?
We have 8 worker-owners with about 20 regular collaborators. We are spread around the world:
Upstate NY, US
Brooklyn, NY, US
Austin, TX, US
Bay Area, CA, US
New South Wales, Australia
Why did you decide to build a remote company?
We saw it as a strength. We think globally, like the saying goes, and it was a natural progression coming from freelance work that was often remote. Think about the fact that as a design firm, we are never asleep -- someone is always awake.
How do you keep everyone feeling connected?
Everyone comes to CoLab through a personal connection, so we trust good people to bring in good people. We use chat tools, we schedule check-ins and less formal meetups. We visit each other in person to get to know each other when we can. We experiment and work to build a culture of compassionate, genuine loving people where they are really valued for who they are and not just how badass they code.
CoLab is also a worker owned cooperative. Does having a team spread out across multiple countries complicate things for you with regards to this ownership structure?
We optimize as much for budget and quality as we do for collaboration and interpersonal growth. Unlike many design firms, which fire and hire based on work alone, we hire and allow for personal transformation. This aspect of our value system aligns with many of the clients we work with; or they aspire to work in this way and draw inspiration from us for caring about people as much as profit.
International communication does complicate our work from a technical standpoint in terms of institutional and project-based memory. That said, it does not complicate things in the way we conduct ourselves, make decisions, or run operations.
Slight aside: What made you decide to form as a cooperative? What are the advantages to that structure?
We like empowerment, we like freedom, we like democracy. We think hyper-competative economies based on exploitation and survival of the fittest are archaic and doomed to fail, or just destroy the planet. We felt is was the the best way to walk the walk and stay true to our intentions and hopes for the world, while providing a livelihood for ourselves.
Take a moment in silence and stillness together to experience your co-worker's mood. Become masters of empathy, know each others strengths and always be looking to improve communication skills and carve out time to travel and see each other face-to-face.
What are the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you overcome them?
For me not having someone around to just ask a small or stupid question, to get out of my own head with some sketch or idea and find a groove to go on impromptu. Sometimes that works, but it’s easier with someone next to you in a space.
**What is the biggest benefit that working remotely has afforded your company?
Someone is always awake and ready to work. It helps us provide great value to the partners and clients we serve.
Do you think you lose anything by working remotely?
It would be nice to shake hands, dance together, hug, or buy someone a coffee more often. Those things happen, it’s just more spread out.
You also operate a coworking space in Ithaca, NY. Is it important that you have that physical space for people to work from or do you think it doesn't have much impact on how CoLab operates?
Yeah, we think it’s important.
We think it’s great to have smaller hubs where a few CoLabrs are together. It is a place for others to visit, a place to foster culture, and bring energy to the team. It also creates greater opportunity for CoLab to contribute to that local community.
What do you think is the most important thing a distributed team can do to ensure successful collaboration?
Start every meeting with a check in about what is going on for each person. Communicate with one another face to face in real-time over Skype or Google Hangouts or Zoom. Take a moment in silence and stillness together to experience your co-worker's mood. Become masters of empathy, know each others strengths and always be looking to improve communication skills and carve out time to travel and see each other face-to-face.
What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?
Responsiveness and productivity are good indicators. When a CoLabr goes quiet it's usually a sign that they need some additional support. We also do explicit checkins, giving everyone a chance to report on how they're doing/feeling about their work and in general. We also have peer reviews and project retros.
What sort of culture does your company have? Is it harder to build cohesive culture across geography?
Everyone comes to CoLab through a personal connection and a connection to collaboration and interpersonal transformation. Good people are magnets for other good people. That part is a bit magical. People find us, they can sense in part through our work, through our model, and instinctively that something different is happening here.
What do you look for in an ideal remote employee? Are there any qualities that make someone more successful at working remotely?
It is a question we ask and when we look at a candidate for a job it is a consideration just how comfortable we think they will be in a distributed environment. However we look for the same things in a remote person as we do for someone who would be at our Ithaca coworking space. We want people who are authentic, seeking community in the workplace, have a strong desire to make the world a brighter place, and want to learn and grow (themselves, in their craft, in collaborating with others).
Good people are magnets for other good people. That part is a bit magical.
Describe your personal work environment.
I work in a dedicated home office / guest room. It’s a new set up because I just moved to Austin, TX. It’s pretty minimal. CoLab affords its owners an ergonomics stipend, so I have a nice chair, a simple white desk, pro color monitor, Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and my Macbook Pro stacked on some books. There is a convertible couch/bed in the room and a nice-sized window. The walls are pink and orange. I kid you not, porange. I am thinking about what to put up on the walls ,but for now it’s just a picture my son drew with him, his brother, Mom, Dad, and Laya (CoLab co-cowner Ethan’s one year old daughter).
How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?
I have two kids under five and we just moved to a new state, so it’s all just kind of a glorious shit show right now, but being home allows for great flexibility when family life needs attention.
How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?
Remote workers need to be very self-motivated, disciplined, and organized.
It’s kind of simple for me, I have between five to seven hours of “office” time on any given work day. If I haven't been able to log close to that in work because I took too many trips to the fridge, I need to focus better or go for a walk to reset.
CoLab owners also have team all hands meetings each week. So whatever I say I’m going to do this week, I’ll be reviewing next week in front of other team members.
What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?
Oh man, over the years we’ve had them all including some custom built ones. We can’t live with out JIRA or HipChat right now, but that’s not to say we don’t dream of a better solution. By the time this goes live, we’ll probably be off HipChat and onto Slack.
What do you like to read?
Stories to my kids!
Lately I’ve been reading about typography and CSS on misc blogs. I was geeking out on 8 point grid methods the other day. I like magazines. Medium has some good stuff on politics and music, though I grow tired of those “How to hack yourself, the market, your job... to be rich or more awesome or build something 'useful' in 30 minutes"-type posts.
Austin has some great bookstores; I’m looking forward to going to one and getting an actual book to read soon.
What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?
Find honest, trusting and open people to do it with.