People, tools and process: How a fully remote team works - Technical.ly Philly

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Aug. 21, 2019 7:00 am

People, tools and process: How a fully remote team works

Marylander Bill Dixon shares the lessons he’s learned leading the customer support team at Zapier, a fully remote, 2012 Y Combinator graduate.
Bill Dixon of Zapier speaks at the July Baltimore UX Meetup.

Bill Dixon of Zapier speaks at the July Baltimore UX Meetup.

(Photo by Margaret Roth)

This is an article by Baltimore-based Technical.ly columnist Margaret Roth and originally appeared at Technical.ly Baltimore.

Remote work results in one of two outcomes: Done well, employees enjoy the opportunity to work when they want, where they want, and how they want while employers benefit from reduced overhead. Executed poorly, remote team members become isolated, while managers struggle with ineffective employees who are not on the same page.

Bill Dixon, director of customer support at Zapier, believes that the key is a culture driven by communication and collaboration.

“In remote work you have to measure output not input. It doesn’t matter when you work, where you work, or how much you work, it’s about getting the work done in a way that achieves our objectives” said Dixon in his presentation ”How a Fully Remote Team Works Effectively” at the most recent Baltimore UX Meetup.

After 13 years at T. Rowe Price and working as one of the first product owners to get the company’s local Innovation Center started up, Dixon now leads customer support at Zapier, an app-linking efficiency-enhancing productivity engine on a “mission to let computers do the work that they do best so that humans can do the work they do best.”

With over 3 million customers globally, over 1,500 supported apps, and over 250 employees in 13 countries, Zapier has been a fully remote team from its beginning in 2011. After graduating from Y Combinator in San Francisco, Zapier’s Midwest founders not only wanted to be able to go home for family but realized the value of being able to work with and access people across the globe.

“We’re not just a remote team, we’re a remote global team, across time-zones, across countries,” Dixon said. “Because we’re fully remote everyone is on the outside and the inside at the same time, no matter where they are.”

He sees this as a big advantage to supporting their customers, but it takes intentional culture design to make it work.

“Having the tool doesn’t build the collaboration, intention and design in culture builds the collaboration,” he said.

We’ve collected Dixon’s tactical design points for the three things that matter most for making remote work work — people, tools, and process.

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The write people

Building a successful remote team starts with getting the right people on the team. People who are doers, who you can trust and who are okay without a social workplace. Another key: writing.

“Because most of our work is done in writing, you have to hire people who can write, it’s easy to test score in a recruiting environment, but what I watch for is do they get energized by writing?” said Dixon.

In order to evaluate this, Dixon’s support team has a written application. Instead of asking the normal stuff you would ask in an in-person interview like, “tell us about a time when you worked with a difficult customer,” they ask applicants to write out their responses.

The right tools

The Zapier team is prescriptive about how work needs to get done. Dixon shared that their guiding principle is to “use what is useful to you, mute what’s not, and mention people in the right context. You wouldn’t walk into the middle of an office and ask a question. You would go over to ask a person. Same thing with Slack, use the right context or the right channel.”

The team also thinks about written communication on a continuum between short term and permanent. For them, Slack is short-term, and Quip is for permanent documentation like policies and procedures, but the middle space is where it can get complicated.

They use an internal tool called Async for “anything that isn’t necessarily permanent but is the now. Every single person in the company posts a weekly update to Async that everyone in the company can see, sharing what you did this week, what you’re doing next, and something that’s going on in your personal life or what you’re doing this weekend,” said Dixon. This helps keep things connected and specific, while also personal, helping to build relationships between team members.

The right process for the right actions

As with any situation, process should be an enabler, not a right of passage. Because the team at Zapier has grown really fast having doubled their staff in the last 24 months, they have built their processes around their values. One of their values is: “Don’t be the robot. Build the robot.”

“We have things in place that help us reinforce the behaviors we want people to do,” Dixon said. “For example if someone’s talking about a ticket in Slack and they don’t link to the ticket, we have a bot that will remind them to link to the ticket, that way our support team can track that data.” Another company value is “Know your customer and each other.”

For this, every team member at Zapier does a couple hours of customer support every week. and the company has built the process around this to make sure it happens. For Dixon’s support team specifically, they “want to make sure that if we get good ratings people see it, so we have a bot set up to publish those in a Slack channel where everyone can see it,” he said.

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