Job van der Voort of Remote: “Take time off and be public about it when you do”

With remote work, you have to create these moments for team bonding on your own. The only way to do that is to think deliberately. How can I foster connections between individuals at my company remotely? There’s not one solution for that. At Remote, we have multiple bonding calls at different times, play games together, […]

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With remote work, you have to create these moments for team bonding on your own. The only way to do that is to think deliberately. How can I foster connections between individuals at my company remotely? There’s not one solution for that. At Remote, we have multiple bonding calls at different times, play games together, have fun Slack channels, and an always-on hangout where people can go to talk about non-work topics.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Job van der Voort.

Job started his career as a neuroscientist before leaving academia to become the VP of Product at the largest distributed company in the world, GitLab, where he helped grow the company from five to 450 employees across 67 countries with no offices. He’s now the CEO and co-founder of Remote, an HR tech startup solving remote global organizations’ biggest challenge: employing anyone, anywhere, compliantly.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I began my career in neuroscience before becoming VP of Product at GitLab, where I helped build the world’s largest all-remote company. While I worked there, we regularly ran into problems while trying to hire people internationally. I realized companies needed a better solution, so I started Remote to help companies of all sizes hire great people all over the world, easily and in full compliance with all the complexities of international labor law.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

It was a series of fortunate events that led me to where I am today. I left science to found a startup, but ran out of money quickly as I was earning no money at the time. I had a few thousand Euros and burned through them in a few months. Then I found a job as a programmer — sitting next to Sid, the person who would later start GitLab. After about nine months, we both left that company to work on GitLab, which led to my role there and later on inspired me to start Remote.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My email address is [email protected] — it’s not short for anything and not a mistake, it’s my legal first name. It’s a coincidence that I happen to work at a company that helps people get jobs. I always laugh because I do get a lot of emails from people looking for a job.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Set the example. Take time off and be public about it when you do. Insist upon a culture of documentation and asynchronous working. With an international team, we can’t all be online at the same time. One of the benefits of remote work is the ability to change your schedule as necessary. When everyone communicates appropriately and often, it’s easy for people to take time off when they need to and do perform at their best when they’re in work mode.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

I have been managing and building remote teams ever since I joined GitLab in 2014. We have gotten a lot of attention for our global employment expertise since the pandemic, but our company started long before the virus was a concern. Remote is not a response to current events but a strategic answer to the needs of the workforce of the future.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

Controversial opinion: there is not a big difference.

People in offices are generally terrible managers. The only reason they get by is because their terrible management is saved by the fact that they can just look at people and talk to them in person, so they don’t need a formalized structure or think much. They rely on being in the same space. They never think about how to manage, because proximity means they don’t have to.

That’s been my experience my whole working life — until I joined GitLab. There, we had no structure beyond how your manager was your boss, and that’s the story.

Good managers do the same things in both situations — remote and in person. Doing that is not very hard at all if you manage deliberately.

First, have regular 1–1s will every report. In that 1–1, the purpose is to discuss things related to that person, how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, if they’re feeling good or challenged in their work. Those are the priorities. Discussing the actual work is secondary and can be done in a public setting.

For seven years I’ve experienced the absence of good management until starting to do it myself at GitLab. There are so many things you expect to perceive when you’re just around each other. People often assume others are OK and happy. I’ve found if you actually ask people and spend significant time with them, you discover much more and can help them succeed.

I always give the same example. In offices, people rely on the ability to walk over and talk. You can’t do that in a remote setting, but you can constantly Slack each other or call. You should be able to work undisturbed, but when that doesn’t happen, the benefits of working remotely become harder to attain. The solution is documentation and async communication.

Bonding is also essential. In the office, you get bonding for free. You say hi to the person at the reception, see your colleagues at breaks and at lunch, get snacks together, and maybe you commute together. None of those moments exist in remote work. Those moments may have felt worthless in the office, but they served a great purpose of bonding in an unstructured way, every single day.

With remote work, you have to create these moments for team bonding on your own. The only way to do that is to think deliberately. How can I foster connections between individuals at my company remotely? There’s not one solution for that. At Remote, we have multiple bonding calls at different times, play games together, have fun Slack channels, and an always-on hangout where people can go to talk about non-work topics.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

I think I already answered that in the previous question.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

Our top value at Remote is kindness. It’s the first part of the first section of our employee handbook. Without kindness at the core, remote workforces suffer. We make a point to everyone to assume the best intentions of their colleagues. No one goes to work to do a bad job. Giving performance feedback or constructive criticism on a project is much easier when you have a basis of trust and kindness to begin with.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Email isn’t the right channel to deliver feedback, especially when the person receiving the feedback may feel like they’re under the microscope. If the feedback is about a specific project, we collaborate in Notion or one of our project management tools, always focusing on the task and never on the person doing it. If we need to give feedback to a specific person or redirect their efforts, we do video calls. Everyone deserves to feel respected and heard.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

The most important thing is to recognize that there is no such thing as a “remote-friendly” company. You must be a remote-first company. Otherwise, people who work remotely will find themselves left out of important conversations and your organization will become misaligned. Build and retool systems with the understanding that remote work will be a permanent shift, either for some or for all, so that you can grow in the future without worrying about where people work.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

We do all sorts of things, but again, the value of kindness is the most important part. We recently changed our meeting structure to schedule at least one bonding call a day for people in different time zones to connect with each other. We have one all-hands meeting per week as well and we are always exploring other innovative ways to get to know one another.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I left GitLab to start Remote because I wanted more people to have access to great opportunities regardless of where they live. As the world gets smaller and more connected, these are the types of movements and opportunities that will allow more people to live better lives. And that is the ultimate goal — to give people the tools and connections they need to live fulfilling lives. I’m very focused on Remote’s mission, but there are many other missions that focus on democratizing global opportunities.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is from Finding Dory — I actually never saw the movie, but she says “Just keep swimming!” Especially now, times are tough for many people. In a business, it can be a roller coaster, especially as a founder. You have to deal with bad and good things, and you always have to keep going, no matter what. As a parent, it can be exhausting, but it’s also very rewarding. When times are really tough, you just have to keep going and “keep swimming” — you have no choice and it’s ultimately what you want to do.

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