What’s the secret to remote work success? It starts with using the right access-from-anywhere, do-everything, cloud-based tools.
We spoke with Toronto-based (but globally-spaced) design agency Phuse to learn why choosing the right tools is key, and how digital onboarding with Collage helps them save time while growing the Phuser family.
For most employees, the first few days at a new job are both exciting and nerve-wracking. What do I wear? What will my desk be like? Who will I sit with at lunch?
For teams like Phuse, a 100% remote web and mobile design agency, those questions are beside the point. Wear what you want, work where you want, just make sure you’re signed in and ready to go.
Based in Toronto, Phuse’s 13 employees are spread across Canada, South Africa, the U.S. and the UK. They work from home, cafes, balconies, beaches…anywhere but a traditional shared office.
This was founder James Costa’s intention from the time he hired his first ‘Phuser’ in 2009. “He realized right away that in this line of work, you don’t have to be in the same room as your clients or even each other,” explains Head of Operations Naomi Grey. “Plus, it gives us access to the best talent we can find anywhere in the world.”
Phuse’s employees work from home, cafes, balconies, beaches…anywhere but a traditional shared office.
Naomi’s responsibilities cover recruiting, onboarding, and retaining their international team. She relies on the best digital tools to ensure that even if they’ll never meet ‘IRL’, every Phuser feels like family.
In true remote-work fashion, we caught up with Naomi via Skype to chat about managing remote employees with easy, cloud-based tools, like, Collage.
Tell us about Phuse: what do you do and what is your mission?
Phuse is an international team of designers and developers. We like to think of ourselves as a team that uses design and development to solve real problems like conversion, productivity, and happier customers.
Our mission in every project is to work as closely with our clients as possible and to exemplify being partners as opposed to just a vendor. Collaboration is one of our three core values [along with authenticity and transparency], and it drives everything we do. We couldn’t function as a remote team otherwise.
Internally, our mission is to have a company that our team is proud to work at.
“Our mission is to have a company that our team is proud to work at.”
What is your role at Phuse?
As Head of Operations, I work with our company processes, finances, and a lot of HR. I came in when James was getting overwhelmed with that stuff. He’d gotten to a point where he needed to step away from things like managing payroll, training new hires, and keeping track of vacation requests.
There were already nine employees when I started. In retrospect, that’s a pretty high number considering James was doing it all on his own!
What are the specific HR challenges you face as an entirely remote team?
Can I just say ‘everything’?? Just kidding. I’d say the biggest challenges are inefficient onboarding, keeping track of payroll, and communicating expectations about our culture to new hires.
For remote teams like ours, digital is everything. It’s the work that we do as web designers and developers. But, we also rely on digital tools to assign tasks, create schedules, recruit and hire, and even express ourselves. Having the right tools for that is crucial.
“The biggest challenges are inefficient onboarding, keeping track of payroll, and communicating expectations to new hires. Having the right tools for that is crucial.”
Can you share some of those digital tools and how you use them?
It’s interesting because when it comes to tools, there are two types: those that are important to the company, and there are those that are important to me, because my role is quite different.
For communicating and collaborating, we use Trello, Skype, Invision, Dropbox, BitBucket, Google Docs, and Slack, to name a few. To keep the business running smoothly, I also use specific tools for scheduling and invoicing, bookkeeping, recruiting, currency exchange, and then everything HR-related like onboarding, vacation, and employee records.
It’s a lot to keep track of! Apps like Collage that let me do several important things in one place make my job a lot easier.
“Apps like Collage that let me do several important things in one place make my job a lot easier.”
How do you keep everyone working on the same page, especially new hires?
For new hires, we have a very detailed company handbook. The very first thing I’ll do, after having them digitally sign their agreements, is set up a time to go through it with them. It’s extremely comprehensive and takes several hours, but it’s worth it.
Digital onboarding with Collage also makes the process of joining our team so much easier and more enjoyable!
Getting a new hire’s information is one of those things that I didn’t ever think took a lot of time. But once I started using Collage, I realized how much time my old process was taking me. Writing a custom email, manually copying info from our PM tool to a spreadsheet and hoping that it was all correct… Now, each new hire automatically gets an email to sign up, and it’s done.
What else do you include in the employee handbook?
The handbook covers everything from how to set up the platforms mentioned above to how to request time off in Collage. It also covers our company values, culture, and perks. Phusers can refer to it anytime, and we are constantly updating it as we add new processes.
For example, a recent section we’ve written is on ‘Slack Etiquette.’ Even if most people know how to use Slack, or can learn quickly, we went to great lengths to make sure that our team is using it appropriately and respectfully given that we’re all in different time-zones and working different hours.
If you don’t understand when it’s okay to disconnect and not answer, or how to read somebody’s status, these kinds of tools can easily take over your life! We don’t want that for any of our team.
You’ve previously talked about the importance of “over-communicating and communicating with purpose.” Is that a part of it?
Yes. In a remote office, you can’t just catch up with people when you come in in the morning. You might not even have an opportunity to talk to a colleague on a given day because of different holidays, flex hours, and time differences. That’s why it’s so important to be organized, to have simple processes, and to communicate things like when you’ll be on vacation as early as possible.
Because most of your communication will be non-verbal, remembering to gauge the tone of your messages (be they in Slack, email or another tool) is vital to making sure that what you want to say is communicated in the best way possible. Emoji and gifs can be helpful, as is just reading over what you’ve written before hitting send!
We’ve also found that if we don’t overtly foster communication, some people—if they’re on different projects, for example—might never interact. We’ve addressed that by having hour-long ‘hangouts’ every Wednesday. Sometimes we’ll present different projects so everyone knows what’s happening. Other times we end up talking about any random topic, like that night’s Raptors’ game. The goal is for everyone to have a chance to interact and be a part of the bigger team.
Even if you’re not a remote office, using digital tools is becoming essential at almost every company. What last words would you share with operations or people managers in your position?
Once you really get into it, there aren’t that many differences between being remote or not. The greatest difference is at the personal level, because it allows us to avoid commutes, to choose our own hours, and to have a job that doesn’t compete with our lives. But we’re still going to work, turning on our computers, and doing the same tasks as anyone in a more traditional workspace.
What makes remote work a little different is that we have to be very explicit in how we communicate and how we choose tools that make our processes simple rather than complicated.
“What makes remote work a little different is that we have to be very explicit in how we communicate and how we choose tools that make our processes simple rather than complicated.”
There was a time when we were using spreadsheets and file folders to manage employee information, then we tried using a project management platform as a makeshift HR solution. But taking the time to find and implement the best tools for specific jobs just makes everything easier—and then once you’ve found it, you can’t go back.
Thank you to Naomi, James Costa, and the entire Phuser family.