Wildbit's CEO on how to survive as a (mostly) remote team - Technical.ly Philly

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Aug. 26, 2019 1:10 pm

Wildbit’s CEO on how to survive as a (mostly) remote team

Cofounder and exec Natalie Nagele breaks down how her team manages its remote-first, 32-hour-week work environment.
At Wildbit’s May 2019 retreat in Stowe, Vermont.

At Wildbit's May 2019 retreat in Stowe, Vermont.

(Photo courtesy of Wildbit)

After nearly 20 years, Wildbit is a bit of an expert when it comes to remote work.

What started out as completely remote consulting changed to a still-remote-first software company with a local HQ (open concept, then private offices) more than a decade in. Now, Wildbit is leaving its Old City digs to take up residency at Fitler Club’s new coworking space, where any of its 30 or so employees can work when they’re near Philly.

“We find amazing people all over the world, which for us is a really meaningful thing to be able to create a business to support people of all backgrounds,” cofounder and CEO Natalie Nagele said. “It allows us to support our customers better because we have people in different timezones.” Staffers hail from as far as British Columbia, the U.K. and Serbia.

The web dev firm also follows a strict 32-hour working week to increase productivity, strongly encouraging some R&R over its three-day weekend. Nagele said its been a lot of trial and error over the last 19 years, but offers her tips for following Wildbit’s unique model and why it works so well.

Her main takeaways: Be intentional and question everything.

Create an “intentional water cooler”

Every Monday, Wildbit’s Slack workspace sends out the same message: “How was your weekend? Is there anything you want to share?” Employees then respond with photos and general updates, which creates necessary social connections in addition to a working relationship, Nagele said.

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“We spend a lot of time thinking about what I call the ‘intentional water cooler,'” the CEO said. “Having events and meetups and automated questions that go out that intentionally connect people on a social level because you can’t just rely on people popping in and out of Slack all day long.”

Having that social connection is one of the many ways Wildbit ensures its remote employees don’t feel left out. Its workspace also includes quarterly shares for employees to discuss what projects they’re working on and everyone is required to call in from their desk for meetings, no matter location (even if two employees are in the same office). Most importantly, Nagele said no decisions are made exclusively in Philly so that everyone has a chance to be involved in shaping the company.

Wildbit also tries to inspire in-person social connections. Remote employees are flown in when possible, and the team hosts two annual retreats.

“There’s some complexity around running a hybrid solution that you want to make sure that the remote team doesn’t feel like they were different, or other,” Nagele said.

Trust the process

Wildbit first went brick-and-mortar seven years ago, after an entirely remote setup. Some of their first growing pains included employees actually being less productive than they were at home, where there were fewer distractions. In order to maintain their model, Nagele and her team had to establish clear, articulate and frequent communications while maintaining accountability.

This builds a level of trust, which Nagele finds harder to create remotely than in person.

“We don’t do anything special — we write software just like everybody else, we have clients just like everybody else,” she said. “You have to trust people and create an environment where people are held accountable to themselves, which is hard.”

To keep up with the international and multi-coast team, they try to create a few hours of overlap and a few established focus hours every day. There are no more than two 30-minute meetings per week, and the team has set times for all-hands meetings. While Nagele said the timing isn’t always perfect for everyone (or sometimes anyone), it works well enough that the employees can collaborate.

“To me, it’s all about making sure you’re setting expectations clearly on the type of communication you want, how frequent, how it’s communicated and maximizing that ability to focus,” Nagele said. “The clearer those expectations are, the more people can plan their days around focus work and making sure that you [take something as amazing as the ability to focus in a quiet environment] and you don’t ruin it by setting communication expectations and being in Slack all the time, for example.”

Tame the insatiable beast

According to Nagele, her biggest change in mindset in the last few years has been thinking more intentionally about why Wildbit exists and constantly questioning what its purpose is. And the result of that questioning, for the CEO, is the decision that the company’s purpose is to support all of its stakeholders and team members, and not just growth for growth’s sake.

The four-day workweek is a big part of establishing quality productivity and the happiest employees. Nagele said she’s a big believer in understanding how the brain works and treating it with respect to produce the best work.

One big way the company is able to do this is through its customer-funded model: With no outside capital and investors to appease, Wildbit can choose how fast it grows and set its own milestones.

“Vying to continuously grow is an insatiable beast that is always hungry and it exists just to get bigger and fatter and bigger and fatter, that’s what its there for,” Nagele said. “So it’s up to the people inside that business to harness that beast and be able to define what enough is because if you don’t you just chase this thing forever and [you burn out]. I think the only reason we’ve survived and thrived for the past 20 years is because we constantly question what ‘enough’ is.

“If we chased bigger, shinier objects, there’s no way we would be here.”

Companies: Wildbit
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