After 10 years, our remote-only company had its first in-person meeting
Two years of Covid-19 did more for remote work than decades of business conferences and all of Dilbert comics. Both lovers and haters of remote work were forced to close their offices and work from their pajamas. But, as lockdowns ended, haters were quick to demand going back. Offices are “more productive” and “build the team spirit,” or at least those are the claims. The same experience—working from home—was perceived quite differently by the two camps.
And then, there is a third camp—the ones who didn’t notice the lockdown in their workday. The ones without a strong opinion because they accepted remote work, with its pros and cons, long ago. Current online debates make them smile and remember the younger days when they started their remote journey.
Our pre-employment testing company, TestDome, is firmly in the third camp. We went from a startup of 4 to a company of 20 people, all working remotely. This year we met each other for the first time to celebrate 10 years of doing business. Before I share funny anecdotes from that meeting, let me explain how we got here and what we learned about remote work.
Our remote experience
We started remote work almost accidentally. The founding team was all from Croatia, but one developer wanted to work from a Croatian island, another from his home city, and I wanted to be flexible to travel around the world. So, in 2013 we decided to use Assembla for tickets and code hosting, Google Docs for writing documents, and email and Skype for communication. But the tools are less important than the mindset. We learned that:
Remote work requires asynchronous communication, in contrast to the office, where colleagues being a few steps away facilitates synchronous communication.
Many companies use Slack or Discord chat rooms to simulate a feeling of constant online “togetherness.” But that never worked for us. You never know if the other party on chat will answer your question in 30 seconds or 30 minutes. We tried many tools, but:
We never found chat software that accurately shows if the other person is at their computer, away, or in “do not disturb” mode because of an ongoing call.
If you count on people to manually change their status every time they go to the toilet, good luck. And requiring people to be constantly attentive to every message in Slack, be it important or funny, is a mass killer of company productivity. Instead, we adopted one style of communication that works for chat, email, and ticket mentions:
Provide full context when asking or requesting something, and get back to that task once the other person answers.
For example, when a coworker asked about his post idea over chat, he provided full context:
Written communication is the king of remote work. You need to write clearly and concisely in tickets, wikis, documents, emails, etc. Everything is written down because:
The mortal sin of remote work is blocking other colleagues. The easiest way to block others is not to write something important, and then they need to wait until you respond in your time zone.
That explains the disagreement at the beginning of the article. If you are a structured person who likes to work in the zone, without distractions, and then write things down, then you will probably like remote work. If, on the other hand, you like impromptu conversations, fluent structure, being able to walk to a colleague and ask them a question, or dislike writing—then you will probably hate remote work. In general, it seems that:
Remote work is more suited to introverts, while office work is more suited to extroverts.
With all that wisdom, we were able to grow from 4 people in the beginning to 20 people today. We have remote employees in Brazil, Costa Rica, Morocco, Portugal, Finland, Croatia, Poland, Azerbaijan, India, China, and Australia. We found most of them using a lesser-known job board called We Work Remotely. Only remote jobs are allowed there.
FUN FACT: We Work Remotely started as a side project of 37 signals and featured in their popular book REMOTE: Office not required. I highly recommend this book; it explains many of the ideas mentioned here.
The location of either companies or candidates is irrelevant on We Work Remotely, which led to one funny situation. A candidate called Bruno decided to try remote work. He had a bad experience working for local Croatian companies and decided to work for a foreign company. He applied via We Work Remotely and solved the pre-interview screening test on TestDome. When it was time for the interview, he was surprised that his interviewer spoke Croatian, not English. But he thought, “It is a big international company; they assigned someone from the region to interview me.” Only in the end, he realized that TestDome founders live in the same country he tried to avoid—Croatia!
Employees aside, there is another essential ingredient:
To be a remote-only company, you need to have remote-only customers.
If your customers demand physical meetings or want to come to your office, no remote book will help. Fortunately, TestDome is a prepaid SaaS solution, and most new customers come via SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Typically, our customer is a CTO or a project lead responsible for technical interviews. They get too many unqualified candidates; today, everybody claims to be a skilled programmer. When they google for e.g., “angular coding test,” TestDome’s free test shows up on top:
If they like our free questions, they can sign-up and make a purchase with a credit card; everything is self-service. We have large customers we have never talked with or exchanged emails with, and honestly, they probably don’t want to get any emails or calls from us.
In other words, it took an effort to have remote-only customers. We give 30% of our questions for free to have attractive landing pages and demonstrate value. We give developer certificates for free. Onboarding, global CDN, and responsive pages are all there for a smooth customer experience. If your product requires on-site support, remote is hard.
It is not all milk and honey in the land of remote work. The most significant drawbacks we noticed are:
- The lack of team spirit.
- General loneliness you can feel if you don’t leave your house for a day.
- Sometimes you just want to make small talk.
We tried to address that with the following:
- Daily team standup calls—There are separate calls for content and product teams, and they are in the middle of the workday to be convenient for all time zones.
- Paid coworking membership—Choose any local coworking location you like, and we will pay for it. I worked from coworking places in Oxford, Berlin, Thailand, and Croatia.
- Virtual team buildings—2-3 times a year, we have a virtual team building where the entire company plays silly team games.
Daily calls show what others in the team are working on. A coworking place surrounds you with people in a similar situation where you can hang out for coffee or lunch. Games on virtual team building are needed for people to relax and stop talking about business. Classics we played over the years are:
- Two truths and a lie—each employee tells three personal things, and others need to guess which one is a lie. As it is often in business, the best liar wins.
- Geoguessr—pin the exact location on a world map based on just the Google Street view. Quizmaster usually takes one location from each city our employees live in, so everybody has a fair chance, and we get to see what our home cities look like.
- Company silly events quiz—e.g., who did a code commit at 3AM, who replied to a customer with an unchanged template email, who crashed the server on Friday afternoon. Use events that happened some time ago; otherwise, not everybody will laugh.
Still, building team spirit and getting to know your colleagues is a challenge for a remote company. That leads us to the next topic, our first in-person team building.
First in-person meeting
The first question was, where in the world to meet? Since our employees live from Brazil to Australia, going near a big international airport made sense. Rome won over Istanbul and Barcelona, both because of better flight connections (all flights lead to Rome) and because everyone wanted to visit the The Eternal City.
In retrospect, we should’ve checked with EU visa officers. It turns out that, for some nationalities, getting EU business visas is quite hard. Applicants that are young, unmarried, without real estate, and without children (“strong ties” criteria) are flatly rejected, regardless of the company guarantee. We later learned that the unwritten rule of international team building is:
If US-based, organize international team buildings in Mexico. If EU-based, organize in Turkey. Getting US or EU visas for international employees is a royal pain.
Unfortunately, our employees from Morocco and India were denied visas and couldn’t come. But that highlighted one enormous benefit of remote work:
Remote companies get access to an enormous talent pool, and remote workers get opportunities they couldn’t get otherwise.
It is easy to forget how divided the world is if you have a Western passport. Our employees both have education and years of experience in IT, but couldn’t get an EU business visitor visa. Ridiculous.
We booked a hotel in Rome that has a meeting space and is close to all attractions. Visas were stamped, plane tickets received, and we flew across eight time zones to meet for four days, starting May 22nd.
Needless to say, everybody was quite excited.
When everybody showed up on Monday, the first surprise came. International employees only saw the founders (Mario, Josip, and me) in a video call, where our heads occupied the same number of pixels. In reality, let’s just say we don’t occupy the same volume:
During the next four team-building days, another small surprise was that most of us were quiet introverts. I said “small surprise” because we kind of expected that—IT and remote work seem to select quiet introverts, and our company was both.
Anticipating that people may be shy because they are meeting for the first time, we packed the next three days with social activities: Rome treasure hunt, pasta cooking class, walking tour, and a TestDome history presentation with a selection of funny events that happened in the last 10 years. While we were doing that, new funny anecdotes kept happening.
For example, I was able, on my first try, to find the worst pizza restaurant in Rome. Pizza Romana is supposed to have a stiffer dough, but this one was both hard as a rock and small—a perfect frisbee!
We learned that a senior team member has been rebuilding his house for 10 years now and still has problems with construction licenses and building statics. Coincidentally, he was also the first TestDome software architect.
A senior on the content team impressed everybody by delivering an engaging one-hour presentation with just five slides. His strategy was simple—he mentioned how ChatGPT would change our questions in the future, and suddenly everybody was participating in the heated discussion.
We joked that a coworker from Brazil liked the team building so much that he decided to stay in Europe—and yes, he did use the travel opportunity of the team building to move from Brazil to Portugal. We are afraid to organize the next team building too soon.
Office not found: what next?
We planned to have in-person team buildings on anniversaries like 10, 15, or 20 years of TestDome. Now everybody wants to have it every two or three years. Now people find it easier to ask or request something from a colleague after they have spent a few days with them. All communication flows easier, although it is still over emails and mentions. I will give it to the haters of remote work; there is something to the in-person connection.
But I don’t see how we could transition to the physical office. Our employees are spread around the world, I don’t know how I could ever attract such a team in the small city of Zagreb. Search for talent was the initial reason we became a remote company. We became a local poster company for remote work by accident. But even if we could attract talent locally, requiring everyone to crawl through a rush hour to be in one office from 9 to 5 now seems like an inefficient use of people’s time. Remote work, with occasional in-person team building, is still our preferred mode of operation.