Wade Foster on Building Operating Cadence With Remote Teams

Wade Foster and his co-founder started Zapier (it rhymes with ‘happier’) back in 2011 during a hackathon. Now, the company has over 160 employees and no office. Zapier is a fully-remote company, and has no intention of changing that. Here, Wade shares his processes for running a fully remote organization – how Zapier goes about hiring and onboarding their employees, how they run meetings, and how they work to continuously improve their culture.

Wade’s BoS Europe 2018 talk is followed by a mammoth Q&A – full of insights from someone who lives and breathes remote work. Make sure you stay for the whole video.

Find Wade’s talk slides, video, transcript, Hangout, and more from Wade below.

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Wade Foster:     All right. Good morning everybody. Really excited to get a chance to chat with you all this morning. A little bit about how to build an operating cadence and a remote team. The good news is this talk is not just for remote teams. I think some of the advice I share here works for a lot of different types of teams, but Zapier, we’re 100 percent remote so I have a feeling it works well. It definitely works well in remote or at least I suppose it does, uh, like mark mentioned, I’m the co-founder and CEO of Zapier. A couple of quick facts about why this topic. Um, I, I’m, I’m worthwhile to speak on this topic as our headquarters is the Internet. So we have 160 employees, 100 percent remote, no office. We’ve never spent a dime on an office. We have about 2.5 million users and uh, yes, Zapier rhymes with happier in case you’re curious.

Um, so that is a little bit about why, uh, you know, I can speak a little bit on this topic, um, with some, some authority. Now, a remote teams are becoming more and more common today where I’m from, San Francisco, a big reason why is because of the housing costs and the traffic and commutes and things like that. And so, uh, it’s 2018, uh, whether it’s preferred or not, many of us are starting to think about how can we be good at remote teams because of the advantages that affords because of access to talent because of all the nice things, productivity benefits and things like that. And so, uh, whether we think it’s the best way or not, the reality is a lot of us are, are actually thinking about how we can be more successful in this. So, um, let’s talk a little bit about some of the things that we do that, uh, I think perhaps might be inspiration for you all at your companies.

Um, this is a quote that I was talking to a CMO at a fairly large remote team. One that’s several orders of magnitudes larger than us and the CMO mentioned that he had a better operating cadence with his remote team than he ever had with folks in an office. Um, that’s a pretty bold statement. I think a lot of us feel like when, you know, when you work remotely, there are some distinct advantages but a operating fast and collaborating willy while you feel like you’re sacrificing or trading off on that a little bit. So I’m going to talk a little bit about the things that we do to try and make sure that that doesn’t happen in particular things that will kind of clear up some of the head scratchy parts on this.

Job Decsriptions

Um, the first thing is that it all starts with great people. So if you have great people, they’re able to overcome any sort of bad org chart or crappy company process you have. Now this is not permission to be okay at having a crappy org chart or bad company processes, um, but rather more of a point of emphasis that how important great people can be. If you get really awesome folks into your organization, they are able to solve these types of problems for you. So let’s talk about where that starts and that is with your hiring process. In particular, the very first place to pay attention to is your job openings. A job is one of the most important things your company can offer to people because if you bring really great people in, you’re able to, uh, sell your products and services much more successfully. Too many of us look at our job descriptions and just kind of repeat a list of corporate bullet points, five years of rails, 99 reels of years of reacts even though react has only been around for awhile. Things like that. Uh, and so we kind of create these just really bland job descriptions that don’t really resonate with anybody, is way more important to take the time to talk about what is going to make someone be successful inside of your company. What is exciting that you can give to them that they should spend the next several years working with you rather than any of the other places that you work? Nilan did a great job of this yesterday, talking about how, uh, you know, at TransferWise, their job is to beat the banks. How much more passionate is that? So then to like beat the banks, uh, so like sell what is awesome about your job and as a result you’re gonna get a lot more interesting people coming into your organization. Past that you have to start thinking about your hiring process. If you’re putting up remote jobs, you’re going to get a lot of applicants. Uh, we get hundreds, sometimes thousands for a single open application. Last year we had 20,000 applicants for 60 jobs. Uh, so you get a ton, a ton of people coming in and you have to find a way to filter through all that and find the folks that are going to be the best.


This is our current interview process. Uh, I can’t guarantee that it’s perfect, but we’ve tuned it over the years and it works fairly well for us. So the first part is a, uh, what we call a job fit interview. This is about 30 minute kind of open phone screen that we try and get to know the candidate, understand what they’re looking for, let them know what we’re looking for and ask a couple like tell me about a time when sort of questions to understand how they approach different types of problems that they might see that we like to see inside of Zapier. So for example, we have this value default to action and so we want to see folks that, uh, take that sort of initiative so we might ask a question like, tell me about a time when you started a new project at your company, just to hear a little bit about how they would approach things in a Zapier way. Uh, the next thing we work on is a skills fit interview, this is one of the most important things we’ve ever added to our interviewing process. This is a skills test that is designed specifically to look like work on the job. Uh, it probably will take an hour or two hours depending on the role it’s for. We ask them to take it home so they can do it on their own time and complete over the next week or so. Uh, and then we have them come in, come in, they get on a zoom call. Uh, there’s nowhere to come into a come in and talk to us through what they, what they built for the role and we’ll poke and prod at it. We’ll make suggestions to see how they might react to a collaborative environment to see if they are willing to, uh, you know, push back on certain things to see if they’re willing to, um, you know, relent in areas just to give, get a feel of what the back and forth is like there. The next thing is a new thing we’ve added, which is a crossfunctional interview. So we hadn’t, one of the things we realized we weren’t screening for is how well they could work across teams. So that skills fit interview, uh, was all done by their functional teammates. So for example, if we were hiring an engineer, the engineering team would administer that interview. Uh, of course, engineers worked with engineers a lot, but engineers also work with other types of people in your organization. They got to work with product managers, you got to work with designers, data scientists, all sorts of different folks. And so this part of the interview is really designed to see how they can interact with different types of teammates. Uh, I’ll check back in with you later to let you know how that’s going, but I have a good feeling that it’s going to work well for us. Um, and if all that goes well, we try to do reference checks. So we use this product called SkillSurvey that lets you do anonymous reference checks. It’s super handy. Uh, one of the things we’ve learned in remote environment though is that there’s cultural differences for how reference checks are done. In the United States, reference checks are super common. In places like the UK, they’re less common and they’re done in certain different ways. Uh, so it’s good to understand that when you start hiring remotely and internationally in particular, uh, in the last thing we do is we make an offer in along the way we’re selling the job at every step of the place. So it’s very, uh, it’s very rare for us to lose out on an offer. We have almost 100 percent accept rate on offers that we give. And so tuning your interview process to make sure that you’re hiring great people is going to be a really key part in growing your company. If you’re looking for better questions, one of the best things. Resources surprisingly comes from the US government va.gov/pbi/quaestions.asp is the link here and it has a lot of those. Tell me about a time when questions and they’ve tuned them thorough research over the years. So something that’s worthwhile checking out. Uh, I bet you could spend 10 minutes looking at these questions and make your interviewing process a lot better.

Onboarding Employees

Uh, so once you’ve got folks hired, the next thing that we think about is what’s the onboarding process like? We do this unique thing called AirBnOnboarding, uh, but before we get to that, let’s just talk about the normal type of ongoing. So your first couple of weeks are spent remotely working on the job just getting set up in tune with all the routine things you have. Do you have your accounts set up? Do you have a Dev environment in place? If you do know how to do kind of some of the nuts, bolts of your typical job and once you have that in place, this is where AirBnOnboarding comes in. Uh, and so the second week of every month we fly all the new folks out along with their hiring managers to the bay area. We rent a bunch of airbnbs and we co-work with them. Uh, and this is kind of a unique opportunity for us to really get that human connection with our new teammates early on in the process. In fact, at this, uh, during these onboarding events, we don’t do any sort of the routine work. So we’re not typically like sitting down buckling down and trying to work on core projects or things like that, but were rather spending time helping them understand what is going to make them successful inside of a company like Zapier. Uh, this is really important because new folks to your team in the early days, they’re looking for kind of those social norms, those cues of what might be, make them more successful so you have a chance to really, um, you know, change how people’s behavior works and very early on that you don’t get later on. You know, once six months comes around, they kind of start to set in their ways and do things in a particular way. And it’s a little bit tougher to change. So use these first couple of weeks on the job wisely to find ways to adapt into your, uh, the way of work that you do. Uh, so for example, um, you know, I talk about how to live your values. One of the things we do at Zapier we have this value of growth through feedback, we want folks to get good at giving and receiving feedback because that’s a big way that we work to improve our folks come from all sorts of types of environments where feedback may not be comfortable to give or receive or perhaps it’s done in a toxic way. And so I actually take time to teach a course to all the new folks on how we give and receive feedback inside of Zapier to make it more comfortable in our environment. And this does a good job of kind of setting the expectations, uh, into the future. And then lastly, your in person. So a lot of it’s just spent time building rapport, uh, that the founders are all hanging out with them. We’re getting to know them personally and we understand who their families are. We’ll play games within the night. We’d take them out to eat, all that sort of stuff that really lets people know, hey, we care about why they’re here at Zapier. We care about their role and we know how their role is going to have an impact on them. So that’s a big part of how we get folks onboard. Now, once folks are into the company, they’re onboarded, you’ve got these great folks, this is when kind of like the day to day starts to set in and you have to really work hard at setting up a routine operating cadence. And when I’m talking about operating cadence, I’m really talking about what are the things you do daily, what are the things you do weekly, what do you do monthly, what do you do quarterly, that sort of stuff.

Weekly Staff Meetings

Um, so for us, this all starts with our weekly staff meetings. So I’m going to dive into a little bit about how we run these meetings. Um, and again, this may not work perfectly for you, but hopefully you can take some of the inspiration from it. Uh, the big thing that this starts out with is with a template. So we’ll post the template to slack and ask folks that are attending the meeting to prefill out a couple of sections so that they can come to the meeting prepared. Uh, this is an example for our engineering managers meeting that happens bi-weekly. Um, so when this happens, all those managers jump into the doc and we asked them to answer a couple questions. Namely, how are they, what is, was the team working on and how is it going in particularly we want them to label what those things are. A red, yellow, green, red is like, this is a disaster. We need to talk about this and fix this asap. Yellow is things are going okay. It could certainly be a lot better though. A green is smooth sailing, everything’s great. So we ask people to do this a couple days beforehand. Now about a day beforehand, uh, folks will start kind of just poking through the doc a little bit. There are putting comments on the sidebar. We’re doing all this in a google doc and as a result, people are starting to get a little bit more context. Thinking about the meeting just a bit more ahead of time so they’re not coming in a totally dry on the day of the meeting. Uh, now the last thing is the meeting organizer beforehand. We want them to go through each section that every person filled out and pull out the yellows and the reds and put those at the very top of the doc so that we have a sense of these are the important things we need to be spending time on. Also, each person should go into the doc at the very beginning of the meeting and take time to put a quick plus one next to topics that they think are relevant to them as well that they’re having a tough time with. Uh, and so once all that’s done, you’re kind of ready for your meeting to start. So, uh, one it begins. We’re all remote so we jump on Zoom. And so the first time we see each other maybe all week. And so it was a bit of small talk, introductions, fun things you might have like a, a fresh puppy saying hi, uh, because it’s a remote environment. So that, you know, it’s just a little fun personality added to it. And then were you kick off the meeting is we start with kind of our previous action items. We don’t spend a lot of time on this. This is stuff that we should have taken care of last week. We just want to hold folks accountable. Hey, you said you were going to do this, did it get done? We’ll spend 60 seconds maybe on it and then we really want to spend bulk of the time diving into those yellow and reds. We don’t spend any time talking about Greens. Greens are smooth sailing. It’s all great. We’re here to solve problems, not to kind of pat ourselves on the back. Uh, and so the yellows and the reds are really where we want to dive into the meat of the issues. Now, what’s perhaps unique about these meetings, uh, are that we don’t spend a lot of time talking about solutions. Really what we’re trying to identify is a shared understanding of what the problem is. And so the way the organizer typically kicks this off is by addressing the person that brought up the issue. So in our first case here, we’ve got this slow recruiting cadence. So the person running the meeting might say, Hey Alex, can you tell me what sort of problems you’re seeing with this recruiting cadence? Alex would chime in for 60 seconds or so and say like, Hey, this is what we’re seeing. Then the meeting organizer might pick someone else out and say, hey sally, what are you seeing on this slow recruiting cadence to get a feel for are we seeing the same problems or we see in different problems? And that building that shared understanding of what the problem set is is really important because it allows us to all get on the same page and take the next step forward. And then instead of solving the problems we’ve taken to assign a person to go figure out what a solution, a proposal for a solution might be to some of these things. So in this case, we might say, Hey Alex, do you feel like you understand the problem really well? Great. I want you to come back next week and have a proposal for how we might tackle this, um, and that’s where these action items come in, so you’ll log those as you go and say like, hey, so and so’s going to follow up in this area and make sure that we figure out what’s happening next and that’s what you’ll go through as many of those topics as you get through for about a full hour. And then that’s kind of where the meeting ends. However, there’s a few things still that you want to follow up with after the meeting. Uh, the first one is collect feedback. So immediately after the, uh, the meeting ends, we post this into slack and say, Hey, red, yellow, green. How did this meeting go? Because we want to know did people, was the meeting worth the time? Was this worth showing up to, and we’ll have a slack thread there where people can chime in and share, hey, I thought this part was really good. This discussion was good and get a feel for a, was it worth spending time here? This is really important. I bet if you did something like this for your meetings for a month or two, you’d all of a sudden find yourself having a lot better meetings because your team will tell you, uh, what sucks about your meetings and where you shouldn’t be spending time improving it. That’s exactly what happened to us and how we kind of iterated to this process is because the team basically said, hey, this wasn’t worth my time showing up. And then over time it got better and better and now we have more and more Greens. Uh, now you’re going to run out of time in these meetings. You’re not going to get to everything. And so this is where the, the, uh, other followup item is, which is these out of time, slack threads. So if you’re unable to get to a topic, we’ll spin up a slack thread on each individual topic where folks can chime in to make sure that those things have a chance to get addressed too. And that allows us to get to most everything. And then we’ll repeat it again next week. Uh, and this weekly staff meeting is really the driving cadence of progress inside of Zapier and make sure that things keep moving, that there’s accountable parties for each of the items and allows us to dig into the most critical problems that we’re seeing across the organization. Now, that’s not the only thing that kind of keeps us going from operating cadence standpoints.

All Hands

We also do a lot of this standard stuff of all do. So at 160 people we have a weekly all hands, uh, our weekly, all hands are a mix of fun and interesting thing. So, uh, this is an example of us doing some, like Zoom Yoga, uh, that someone on our team, a new person on our team decided to show off some, some yoga stuff that might be helpful for folks who sit in chairs all day and never leave their house. Um, which is really handy. Uh, for our all hands though we’ve kind of iterated to this format that works pretty well for us, which is introductions. So if we have new teammates joining, we’ll make sure to give them an intro, and then announcements. This is a chance where I have the whole company and so I work with the executive team before all hands to understand, hey, these are the things, the top things that are happening across the org this week to make sure that folks get a chance to hear what is top of mind for us at Zapier. And so those announcements are really critical point to make sure that folks kind of understand what we’re driving towards. Then we have a main topic of the week. This rotates from various executive kind of owns the main topic every week, and so you’ll hear a lot of things like a product demos or change logs that are coming out, a new process that’s happening, things like that. Uh, and it gives folks a chance to share a bunch of different things that are happening across the organization. One of the things that I’m hoping to introduce soon is this idea of digging more into our financials. I’ve been reading this book, the great game of business which digs into a manufacturing facility that teaches their line workers how to read all the financial statements. And as a result, the folks on the line are able to make better decision for the organization. Uh, I figured if are blue collar workers can understand financials, so can us in software and so we’re gonna spend time teaching them how to read our financial statements, understand what’s really driving our business forward, uh, as part of our all hands as well.

1-on-1 Meetings

Another big part of our operating cadence, weekly one on ones with your manager. So in a remote environment you don’t often have touch points with the coworkers on a given day. And so your manager is a really key individual for helping you feel glued into the company. And so you need to make sure that you’re doing these one on ones weekly. We run these out of Small Improvements. It’s a software product that helps you manage, um, like performance related stuff, hr related stuff. They have a whole bunch of features. The one on ones is the one we use the most and it works really well for us. The way that we do one on ones one-on-ones is very specifically for their direct report. It’s not my time to talk to them about what I want them to do or what I think they should be doing better. It’s really their opportunity to come to me and say, hey, here’s what’s on my mind this week, this is what’s bothering me, this is what’s going really well and get a chance to raise concerns and they always start this meeting. So I’ll just sit back and say, Hey, what’s happened? What’s on your mind this week? What’s going on? Uh, and get a chance for them to kind of bring to me. Because the reality is if you’re a manager, you can go talk to your direct reports. Anytime you can go tell them, hey, you should be doing this or you should be doing this. So you really need that time dedicated so they can come to you and kind of lets you know what’s on their mind. Now if you do this well, one interesting, an interesting thing that happens is folks get really good at raising problems to you so that like, Hey, this is on my mind. This is a big problem. This is on my mind. This is a big problem, uh, and if you’re like me, you’re probably a natural problem solver. And so your instinct is to just jump in and be like, oh, you could try this, why don’t you try this, this might work, this might work, this might work, um, which is fun for awhile, but then your company grows and grows and grows and more and more problems start finding your way and you can’t. It’s tougher and tougher for you to be able to solve all those at a good level. And so you start to realize, oh my gosh, my team is using me as a crutch to solve problems. Uh, and so you need to find ways to start helping them solve problems on their own. And this is where this book, The Coaching Habit has been really helpful for me. Uh, it gives you a set of questions that can help you walk your team through how they can solve their own problems. So than you jumping in and saying, oh, I have a great idea. You should do x, or why don’t you try this? Uh, you can kind of ask a couple of questions that help walk them to that which is really important. So those one on ones are really, really a key way for you to build rapport with your team, but also to train them up and level them up on how to solve different problems that might exist across your organization.

Building Culture In A Remote Org

Now I have a bunch of other rituals as well, uh, that we do a weekly 30 minute pair buddies. So, uh, there’s a Slack Bot called Donut that does this for us. They randomly pair people up inside of the organization with each other on a weekly basis. Then your job is to just get on informal Zoom call with them and say, hey, how’s your week gone? Learn a little bit about their hobbies, learn a little bit about their family, uh, learn about what they’re doing at Zapier. This is really important that you get bigger and bigger because it allows you to focus, to make connections with folks all across the organizations and kind of prevents folks from getting tunnel vision on the things that they’re doing. So these 30 minute pair buddies are really fun for that. A key thing is after that we’ve done for a long time is Friday updates and this has been a really important thing for helping get context on what’s getting done across the organization. So everyone posts every week on Friday to our internal blog, here’s what I did this week. If you’re a manager, here’s what our team did this week, here’s what’s coming next week. And unplugged, unplugged is a section for you to share what’s happening in your personal life. Uh, you know, it’s a picture of you with your family or with your kids are doing a hobby or thing like that. Uh, and this is really good for building comradery because now folks understand who different people are. When you think about those pair buddies, you can pull up folks Friday updates and be like, hey, I saw you are, uh, renovating your house, what’s going on with that? And it gives you kind of topics to, to build those relationships a little bit more. Uh, so those kind of cadences are really, really key for helping us kind of build the comradery and a bit of a forward momentum into the company. Now these ideas don’t have to just come from you or from your executive team. Uh, and they don’t all have to be like serious work things. We had one afternoon our support team, uh, things were getting a little, um, are we’re getting taken care of really well on a Friday afternoon. And so one of our support folks was like, Hey, let’s have a dance party. Uh, and so, uh, they picked a random Spotify song, it said, record a Gif of yourself dancing, uh, and post it into slack and we’ll just have a Gif party. Uh, and so, uh, this was like, it took off like crazy. And so now every month on a Friday afternoon, there’s going to be a dance party, uh, inside of slack. And so it’s a good way for, as a remote company when you don’t get to see your teammates all that often to make sure that you’re having fun together and, and you kind of get to see each other’s personalities.

Company Retreats

Uh, now all that stuff we’ve talked about there is how we do things as a remote team, but we also do get together in person a lot. Uh, so twice a year, we do an all team retreat. We fly everybody together, uh, to spend time. Here’s a picture of us this January at a Hilton head in South Carolina. These semi annual retreats, these facetime is super, super key. Uh, I don’t know that the structure of the retreats matters too much. If you want to do these, you can probably work and iterate to what works well for you. Here’s what we’ve kind of tuned to over the years. So we do a two day hackathon. Zapier started as a hackathon, so this is kind of a call back to our early days as a good chance for folks to work with different types of teammates. They normally don’t get a chance to work with a, we do a two day small group activity, so this is a chance for that small teams to get a chance to build a little bit deeper relationship address problems that they’re seeing a then we have a free day where people can just go out and explore the area and have fun together. But generally evenings we keep off limits and they’re just for like fun and Games and folks that have have, have a good time. Now as you get bigger and bigger, you can see that that last one was like 150 people at a retreat. It gets harder and harder to have time with your teammates. So one of the things we introduced a couple of years ago was a smaller team retreat. So this is our design team going on a retreat earlier this year. Uh, I don’t know that we’ve nailed this piece yet, exactly what the small teams should look like and what those retreats should look like. They get good feedback and good reviews. So we’re going to keep working on them, but we’re not sure. We have the right mix of components, like should it just be designed team should the product and engineering design teams go together and stuff like that. We’re still trying to tune over time.

Employee Survey

Lastly, I think one of the very key things you can do, whether you’re remote or not, is to embrace feedback regularly. Uh, this allows you to fix your organization continuously because, uh, as your organization grows, things are going to break on you pretty much nonstop. And so you need feedback loops built into your organization so that you can, uh, fix the operating bugs that you’ve created over time. And a key way we do this is through doing a semi annual employee survey. We asked the classic net promoter score, how likely would you recommend Zapier as a place to work to a friend of a colleague? And we just track the trend scores over time to make sure that that is trending in the right direction. And we pay a lot of attention to the comments to make sure, uh, as we notice things a early, as they’re starting to break, we also use like kind of the classic likert scale questions to dig in on specific more granular topics. Uh, so for example, we might say something like, I understand Zapier’s mission. Uh, let’s see how folks strongly agree or disagree or a, I understand how my role impacts Zapier’s mission strongly agree or strongly disagree and this gives us a chance to really hone in on different types of problems that we suspect might be coming up across the organization and try and have an opportunity to fix those. Uh, we used to run a lot of these things through a Typeform and that worked really great, but we actually started using this tool called CultureAmp recently. And it has really good reporting for these types of questions. And so you can see the difference. The really nice thing is you can break it down by different departments and see, uh, you know, is it, is this department that’s having a problem, is it all across the company that’s having a problem, that sort of thing. So for example, if I saw a report like this, uh, I might say, oh, what’s going on in our finance group? And that might be a key for me to go do a bunch of one on ones with folks in the finance team and see, hey, how’s things going? What’s on your mind? Why do you try and understand what’s happening here? And if I started to see this happen a couple times in a row, that might indicate to me maybe we need a new lead, a new leader in our finance team, uh, because something for whatever reason can’t get sorted out over there. Uh, and so CultureAmp has been really, really helpful for us at honing in on the specific problems areas. The bigger we’ve grown because it’s harder to spot those things. And lastly, uh, if you’re looking for more inspiration on how to scale up your organizations, whether you’re remote or not this book, Work Rules was really helpful for me. Uh, it’s a bit about how Google scaled up their organizations, they do a really good job of explaining the things they did well, the things that they screwed up and they’re very honest about what worked and what didn’t work and it gives, it gave us a lot of ideas for things that we can try inside of Zapier. So hopefully this is useful for you all. I’m happy to answer questions on how we scaled up our remote teams, uh, or how we scale up the organization.

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Mark Littlewood:             Yes. Thank you. I’m sure we’ll have questions. Oh, Peldi. Okay. I’ll give you the little ginger headed mic.

Audience Member:         Hi. Thanks Wade, how do you deal with time zones? You have a lot of in person meeting and real time meetings.

Wade Foster:     Great question. So time zones. It depends on the group. For certain orgs, time zone, diversity is great. So for like support and infrastructure you want that time zone diversity, 24/7 is amazing because now you’re able to have a 24/7 support or you’re able to have 24/7, uh, infrastructure coverage, uh, that works out really, really well. Uh, the place where we’ve had to tune over time is in our product units because those teams have a little bit tighter collaboration. It hasn’t caused as much problems having like a chunk of time zone diversity. The one place where it has failed on us recently is we had a situation where as a new teammate, uh, that was like 12 hours different from most of that teammate’s core team and that team was also new to so like everyone in the situation was new and as a result, uh, the person who was really far separated had a tough time getting oriented into that team. So now when we’re spinning up new teams, we really do like them to have like a least a couple hours of so that they can check in on a daily basis, get unblocked a, all that sort of stuff. But I don’t know that you need too much. We haven’t found that we needed to much more than maybe a couple hours difference. Um, so typically you’re talking about like within the same continent is probably fine. So. Oh, good question. So, um, for those, like the weekly all hands, we record those because there’s just no way that we could possibly get everyone on the same time zone. For staff meetings, we’re also recording those too typically so folks can follow up on them. For most sets of folks were able to fit them in on like a, we keep our team small enough like six to eight people. So you’re mostly able to get everyone in the staff meeting without too much of an issue. Um, every now and then someone does have to take a hit and do a meeting like late at night or early in the morning. Um, we’re kind of just okay with that though because of the trade-off of folks get into how work remotely is a, is a big enough or is it worthwhile enough trade off for them to take a hit on a, on a bad meeting slot?

Audience Member:         You, you mentioned in the hiring people you do reference check. Yeah, that’s, that’s great. Um, a question about that because in the UK you’re not allowed to give a bad reference. It makes it completely meaningless. I mean, okay, fantastic. That’s useful. But I can’t say that guy’s a complete ass is an ethical violation. So how’d you deal with it?

Wade Foster:     So in the US it’s very common to do reference checks and in the UK it is not. Right. And this was something we learned early on. I think the, a 12 person we hired was from the UK and we went to go do reference checks and they’re like, what, uh, what are you doing? And we’re like, what do you, what do you mean, what are you doing? Reference checks are very, very normal. So that’s something that we’re just cognizant of, of the different cultural differences when it comes to reference checks, it works really well in the States because people are willing to share. I don’t know that we’ve never not hired someone because of a reference check. Typically what we’re doing is asking, hey, what was it like to work with this person? What do you think they’re great at, what do you think I need to watch out for? Who should I pair them up with inside the organization? Just trying to get some extra understanding of like what makes that person tick and what makes them successful. Um, and so that, uh, is very, very common practice in the States, but in other countries it’s something that is sometimes legal and sometimes just not commonly done. So you have to, uh, if you’re going to add something like the heads of the process, you just have to understand as a remote org where that will work and where you kind of, it won’t work. it’s definitely culturally different. I don’t know the exact rules, but it’s not legal to give a bad reference.

Audience Member:         It’s illegal to give an unreal reference, but it’s okay to give a bad reference if it’s true.

Wade Foster:     It is illegal to lie, is that what you’re saying? Gotcha.

Mark Littlewood:             The reference you probably should look out for in the UK was this person was employed between x and y because you have to give some kind of reference so people don’t give. What you can do is speak to people and also between the lines, so the only way really to get any. Yup, exactly. Not that different. In the US. Most people will say good things. It’s what good things they don’t say that you look for.

Wade Foster:     Yeah. A common question we’ll ask is, you know, is this person in the top five percent of engineers that you ever worked with? And they’ll sometimes be like, well they were good. Like, okay. So that’s kind of what you’re talking about with reading between the lines there.

Mark Littlewood:             We were quite stacked with questions. So bridget, I’ve got mark.

Audience Member:         Hi. I’ve got things to say about references, but another time about three things. Firstly, I’m just a public announcement about Zoom. I don’t work for Zoom. But Zoom have recently rolled out a feature which allows you to create transcripts of your recorded meetings. Oh, I know, I know. I met, I met the team at a conference a few weeks ago, which is going to be transformational if you record your meetings and somebody didn’t get there and they haven’t got time to watch the whole hour, but they can just download a transcript.

Wade Foster:     So that’s wonderful. I’m going to text my team after that. That’s awesome.

Audience Member:         And then I’ve got two questions. One just really querying when you said that you and your leadership team spend, did you say one week, every two weeks AirBnOnboarding?

Wade Foster:     The second week of every month we do that onboarding thing in person the founders are there, the new hires are there and then whoever was part of the hiring manager will fly out for that. So it’s typically not… A hiring manager might come out like a couple times a year. Um, so it’s not too much travel for them. But since the founders live there…

Audience Member:         So you’re doing it every month, every month because I was just thinking like in terms of your rate of hiring, so you were hiring it, so your, a new hires every month to doing that. One week with you. So that’s a massive chunk of your time.

Wade Foster:     Uh, it is, um, we have people that help out with it now.

Audience Member:         Okay. And then the, the last point question is more about the practical one. Me and Peldi have both, uh, discussed this in detail, which is the corporate arrangements of hiring. So Balsamiq and YouCanBookMe, have we endeavored originally to try to essentially set up corporate entities or form of formal employment and all of the places where we wanted to hire and that quickly becomes, um, very difficult. I just wanted to know how with 160 people, how do you corporately do it? Do you employ them? Are they all on contracts? What’s going on?

Wade Foster:     Typically a, you start with, I’m using as contractors and then, uh, at a certain point you do need to structurally set up entities. There are more and more services that can help. You can outsource some of this stuff too. So, uh, for example, Upwork, you can employ people through Upwork and they’ll handle some of the corporate entity stuff. It’s not a service that they publicize often, but um, if you call them like they actually have a service that does some of this stuff and there’s other vendors as well depending on the country where you can help kind of do deal with some of the, setting up the entity to make it less of a hassle for you. Um, but that is definitely something to watch out for as you start to scale up staff in certain countries. A good lawyer and accountant go a long way.

Audience Member:         Yeah. Similar to bridget. We’ve had a lot of problems hiring people who are in different countries on contractors, you know, France, we can’t hire anyone. It’s just impossible to have remote work without having a business there. But also there’s problems with creating a tax nexus, IP being created in different countries. So having just the employment isn’t the only issue. How do you get past those?

Wade Foster:     Have a good accountant and a good lawyer. Yeah.

Audience Member:         So do you, do you accept that you’ve created a Tax nexuses all over the world by having these places and that your IP is fragmented and it’s not all created in the States?

Wade Foster:     Typically. Yeah, you’ll create when you start bringing folks and you’ll have to handle all that sort of stuff. Yeah. And the like the, I don’t know the exact specifics of every location we have a, but I do know that we have an accountant, like we have three accountants full time on staff that deal with this. Uh, and we have a lawyer that deals with this a lot too, so at a certain stage, uh, you just have to bring those folks on to help handle, to deal with this sort of stuff. It’s your trade off for not having office spaces that you pay a lot of accountants instead.

Audience Member:         Hey. Um, so I agree that like either everyone has to be remote or no one can be remote. I don’t think it works halfway, but I’m really curious how you solve, one of my biggest challenges I find like engineers, designers and product managers all love getting around a whiteboard and like collaboratively designing or figuring out a problem or whatever it is. How do you do that remotely?

Wade Foster:     Um, good question. So, uh, there are tools you can use or designers use Invision for mocks and commenting up InVision mocks, the tool called Muraly that folks use. That’s pretty good. That helps with that too. We also do a lot of solo brainstorming. There’s a fair amount of research that suggests that the best brainstorming happens, like individually and then critiquing should happen as a group. So we don’t often do a lot of like collaborative creation of stuff, but rather it’s like go kind of sort things out and then bring it to the group and then the group kind of goes over the things that are created as a team.

Audience Member:         Sorry I might get kicked out for violating the code of conduct here, but my company makes a tool for remote whiteboarding called Kaptivo. So we’re one of the companies in the booklet, so might be of interest.

Mark Littlewood:             Does anyone feel harassed by that? Not yet, not yet.

Audience Member:         Could you expand slightly on the products you use to help the team work more effectively? So you’ve mentioned Slack,

Wade Foster:     So there’s three that we use a lot. Slack, Zoom in an internal tool we built called Async. Slack is like kind of like the hive mind, the daily work where everything happens. We keep all the channels public so everyone can see what anyone else is working on. Um, this is critical because you want, we have a remote team, they need access to information to make smart decisions. So you want to make sure you kind of putting the work out there. Um, we’ve devised like naming schemes for Slack channels and stuff now is to help people navigate it because we have so many Slack channels. So for example, like team hyphen tells you that it’s a certain team. Feed Hyphen is like this is a, a bunch of bots and dumping information into Slack. Uh, we have fun hyphen, which is off topic channels for like people just talking about like hobbies outside of work, which is really important thing in a remote team because you need to recreate your kind of water cooler environment. Um, and so Slack kind of ends up the place where people are talking about the work as it’s happening. Async, which is the internal tool I mentioned we built is kind of the like 10,000 or 30,000 foot view of what’s happening. So it’s like a summarization layer on top of Slack and people post to that fairly regularly about the stuff that’s happening. So they might post like a change log of a product got shipped or results log. Here was the updates on what happened or here’s an RFC or requests for comments and we’re getting ready to start a project and we want to know what’s happening. People were thinking about here, here’s like an announcement about something new. We’re doing, all that sort of stuff kind of gets surfaced into Async. And then Zoom is primarily for meetings and chatting through things.

Audience Member:         Oh, hi. Um, I’m really interested to know if over time you’ve worked out, whether you can identify with a certain people are actually going to enjoy working remotely if they’ve not done that before. And also, you know, is there ever an issue of Sundays in a two bedroom place with 10 kids and they haven’t thought, the logistics of it, you know, one’s practical one’s like to do with the person, but it’s all about being effective. How do you work that out?

Wade Foster:     Um, typically we are asking things like, you know, tell me about a time when you started something at work to understand like, do they like start? Are they, um, like a self starter? Uh, tell me about a time like when you had to like write up a proposal or like show us some writing because we want to see are they good writer because those are the things that matter most for being successful in remote work. For folks who may not enjoy it typically. Like those folks aren’t applying for remote jobs. Like if they’re like, I don’t think I would like this, they probably just never applied in the first place. Self select out. Um, I’ve gotten to the point where I, I typically think that most folks can learn to be successful in a remote environment. Um, that’s a skill just like anything else in many, almost anybody can be successful in it now whether you like or prefer doing that, that’s perhaps a different question and I think that’s something you only kind of experience after having done it for a little while.

Mark Littlewood:             I got a question about cats. It’s impossible to remote work with cats because if I ever open my laptop or touch my phone at home, my two cats who hate me at all other times suddenly become my best friend and jump all over me. Have you been, have you been checking on your employees with cats?

Wade Foster:     We do have, we do have a teammate who has um, uh, a killer cat who attacks him on video calls and he has holes in his clothes from this cat we’ve, we’ve liked sometimes wanted to call emergency services to see if he’s all right…

Mark Littlewood:             Paddy’s doing Mic running, which is supposed to be running up and down, but basically he’s got the easiest job in the building today is just sitting there and handing it out…

Audience Member:         I have two questions. One, probably two. The first one. So how many people are leaving you and leaving you, because they considered homework a kind of solitary confinement? If I say may put it this way. And the second is what is the average age or generally the age of your employees?

Wade Foster:     Yeah. Good question. So our retention rates are pretty high. We had 94 percent retention rate inside the organization last year and our support organization, it was 100 percent, which is almost unheard of for a support organization. Um, I’ll have to check on the average age. I think it’s like, um, low, mid thirties. Um, we tend to hire folks, uh, we don’t tend to hire folks like straight out of college, um, typically because we want folks to like have a job or two first and learn how to work before they get tossed in like a remote working environment. Um, so we want folks that have a little bit of experience but they don’t necessarily have to have like decades of experience to be successful in the environment.

Audience Member:         Yeah. Hi, I’m just, I’m wondering how you, your benefits policy globally. So do you homogenise it? And then how do you deal with things like your employment policy? Is it same termination policy for everybody or do you have different policies for different countries? Because you know, holidays are different in every single different culture on earth. Do you homogenize everything? Most of our clients, totally different approaches to the whole thing

Wade Foster:     Good question. Um, so for holidays we have our holiday policy. We have an unlimited vacation policy and our holiday policy is take the holidays off that you take off. Uh, so the biggest thing is just tell us. Don’t just disappear for a day, make sure to let your teammates know like, Hey, you know, today’s Canada day, so we’re taking off and it actually ends up being like a nice way to learn about different cultures and things like that at the same time too. So, um, we try and a kind of respect the local holiday structure that folks are working with. And then what was the second half of the question?

Audience Member:         So things like probably health insurance, you know, you have it in the US, everybody has it. But then in say France, yeah, as you do have a debit take here for example, it’s not necessarily.

Wade Foster:     Yeah. So in some countries we’re unable to provide it and so typically there we just tack on an extra percent of their comp so that they can go purchase it on their own.

Audience Member:         But it is a homogenised global policy?

Wade Foster:     We trying as best we possibly can. We try to, uh, there’s just differences so it doesn’t end up perfectly the same, but we’re trying to make it somewhat equitable.

Audience Member:         Hi. Thanks for the talk. I’ve accidentally developed a remote team so it was very good to hear from somebody thought through the issues that I didn’t think through. I could ask you 20 questions but ask you one. So engineers tend to be introverts. Introverts tend to be not so good at developing social networks. How have you found that some of your, your team really suffer from loneliness or maybe even depression when they’re at home all day? They’re not seeing people not going out and the video stuff is not cutting it. And if so, how do you help them with that?

Wade Foster:     It happens sometimes, um, through um, what we, through our service in the States, we have a, there’s like a number that you can call from our HR provider where it’s like they actually provide therapy services and stuff like that, which is useful because those folks are like experts at dealing with serious mental health issues. Clinical mental health issues. If it’s more of a situation where it’s like I’m just a little lonely and I know you need to go see a friend or something like that. We do have um, like best practices and docs written that helped like coach people on, Hey, you know, remote work is different. Like you’re going to have to be a little more intentional about your social environment. So maybe you should join like a club or um, you know, go do an activity outside of your work to make sure to accommodate for some of that. So some of it is like informal coaching and then if someone is dealing with a medical issue, then it’s making sure that they have access to resources.

Audience Member:         Couple of questions when I’m curious about your management structure. So we have 10 people all remote and um, we’re kind of at the point where we need to decide if we want to have more of, you know, if we want to have managers are not. Any other questions about office space? Do you ever do, do you pay for or subsidize if somebody wants to go work at a coworking or something like that?

Wade Foster:     A management structure. We have a very hierarchical management structure. We introduced it probably around 25 people or so, uh, I think we should’ve done it sooner, to be honest, I think a hierarchical sort of thing works really well for a remote team because it helps you have like a connection point into the organization. Um, I was like pretty anti, managers coming in. I think it was like, ah, I don’t want to have a boss. So of course other people don’t want to have a boss sort of thing. Um, but I learned pretty early on that I’m having like a, like good management is really useful for teams. It helps. Good Management, helps folks provide career paths. It gives them like clear goals and expectations. Uh, all that sort of stuff is super helpful. Um, there’s a really good podcast where I learned like kind of the nuts and bolts called Manager Tools. Um, I will shout these guys from the rooftop. It like you can spend like a couple hours listening to their Manager Tools, basics bits and it’ll take you from a bad manager to average manager in a relatively short amount of time. And if everyone was like an average manager, I think we would all be a lot happier. So that’s the first thing. And then what was the second part of your question? Office space. Um, we don’t currently comp like coworking space. Um, we get some pushback on that sometimes. We might change it up. Typically what we found for most people, not all, but for most people they like working from home better. Um, they go to coworking space and it’s more distracting. There’s like different things that they have to deal with. Um, and so they typically, after trying it out for like a couple days are just back at home because they don’t have to commute, like all the benefits that they get from working from home is like there versus a coworking is just like another office that they have to go to. Um, that’s for most people. Some people do appreciate it and so that’s where we get, we do get a little bit of pushback on it and we’re reconsidering for that set of folks. Like if there’s some sort of options we can do for them.

Audience Member:         Hi. Really great talk. Thank you. I loved what you said about everything being a work in progress. Um, and I’m curious to know what the challenges are in both that you’ve experienced personally and with your team in that kind of constant development of your processes.

Wade Foster:     Yeah. Um, I think the biggest challenge is that it is constantly changing and so, you know, if you come to work at like a fast growing company, I think everyone kind of expects that things change a little bit. Like you kind of mentally prepare yourself, but if you’ve never actually gone through that before, it can be a bit. I’m like, when you get into the situation, it’s kinda like crazy a little bit. You’re like, well, everything is always changing and that seems, seems a bit a bit nuts. And so getting comfortable with that. Um, take some time and you often have to like coach people up and say like, look, we’re not changing this just for the sake of it. We’re actually really trying to hone in and understand our problems. And so that’s one way when our, when we’re in our meetings, that’s why we spend so much time trying to identify the problems because if we can articulate the problems really well, then the change seems appropriate. It’s like, oh, well we’re clearly trying to solve this things that all of us agree kind of stinks. So we should try and change for it. So that way it helps all the folks realized like, this isn’t just changed just because like, you know, we read like a blog post or read like a book and felt like, ah, this would be a good old thing to try. It actually is tied back to have like a problem that we’re having inside of the company. And so I think that’s the thing that we try to do. We don’t always pull it off or we don’t always communicate it as well as we possibly could. Um, but if it’s like tied to a problem set, change comes a little bit easier.

Audience Member:         Thanks. We’re about a 30 person, fully remote company and we’ve tried to do onsite get togethers periodically, but we run into a couple challenges when we do it. One is that, uh, for some people it creates a hardship. Yes, their spouse doesn’t like I’m traveling and it’s not described as a travel job and maybe that’s something we need to fix on the front end, but also for like a single parent. Um, that’s tough. And then the second thing is, um, uh, for our support, uh, they go and they’re there at this onsite and somebodies, you know, one or two people are always on support and I think a little bit of resentment there. Do you have any advice on those two?

Wade Foster:     I do. That is so the, the hardship one is one you definitely need to spend time on. We try to help folks out as best we possibly can and those types of situations. Um, sometimes that means like in the single parent instance, like if they’re not able to find other accommodations, like will they don’t need to come. And like we, you know, that is a bit of a bummer. But, um, in most situations we’re able to find ways to get them out there for like a day or two or, um, to try and get something working there. Um, one of the best things we’ve done is rotating the weeks out of the year so it won’t always do it on the same week out of the year. So you’re like hitting somebody’s anniversary or their kid’s birthday every single year. Uh, so by rotating in a little bit, that kind of spreads the pain out amongst everybody on the team a bit. Um, a lot of it is just listening to the people that have hardships and like trying to understand, um, what options they do have. There’s a way around it on the front end, you can address it, say like, Hey, you know, there is some travel required for this job in our case, two weeks out of the year and we’re going to ask that you, you travel. Um, we think that’s a fair trade off for most of the year. You’re actually in a situation that better support your family environment. Um, granted two weeks out of the year it is a little bit tougher and so you kind of have to work around with that and we do try and accommodate it. So that’s one thing. And then the second bit was around support. So, uh, one of the smartest things we did at Zapier which I didn’t talk about is, uh, we institute a culture of all hand support very early on. So everybody at Zapier or spends time on support. We do have a dedicated support team of about 40 folks, but every personal organization spends a weekly shift spending four hours a week on support. So when it comes to these retreats, uh, we know that everybody’s trained up and capable of doing support and we do like sprints and work where the whole team tackles it so that way the support team isn’t just like showing up and then just like sitting down and doing the regular job, we find a way to like support our customers as a team.

Audience Member:         What are the typical countries you hire from and do you pay US salaries across the globe? Uh, what was the first question again? Something about what are the typical countries you hide from her?

Wade Foster:     Well, the, the US is the most common country we hire higher. Um, then I think our most common after that might be Canada, the UK, Australia. I want to say it’s tough to keep track because it doesn’t really matter to us. So I think those are the most common, uh, in terms of salary, we try and keep it somewhat equitable across the board. Uh, the main thing that makes that tricky is currency fluctuations. Um, concurrence exchange rates change all the time. Uh, the one things that we do like to do is we pay folks in their local currency that way they get consistent pay and we deal with the currency fluctuation on our end.

Mark Littlewood:             Thank you – Justin.

Audience Member:         Great talk, thanks Wade. I’m just got a question on, on, on what your mechanism is to, uh, to assess performance and kind of deal with performance.

Wade Foster:     Yeah. So how do we assess and deal with performance? Primarily the mechanism is, uh, we, we’re getting to the point where we have, um, somewhat standard-esque job descriptions for various roles. Uh, and we have a, we’re starting to think about how to introduce kind of levels into the system. So, uh, you know, for an engineering role it’d be like, Hey, this is what, like a junior engineer, intermediate engineer, what a senior engineer does a. and then it’s mostly just kind of paying attention to like, are we achieving those outcomes, uh, on an individual basis? Um, so that’s kind of how we look at performance on an individual level. Um, a lot of times I spend most of my time looking at the performance though from a team level. Um, so like for our product units, we give them ownership of a particular part of the product and ask them to deliver outcomes around that. So for example, we have a team that’s dedicated to onboarding new users and their job is increased the activation rate and that team is judged as a unit based on how does our activation rate change over time. And that is a cross functional discipline team of engineers, designer or product manager or data scientists. Their job is to figure out what’s happening there. And so primarily that’s kind of where I look at the performance and mechanisms is, are we achieving kind of like these business outcomes as a set of teams.

Mark Littlewood:             Okay. Uh, let’s do one here. And then one final one.

Audience Member:         Hey Wade. You mentioned you created your internal tool, Async for the project management. So what was the reason? Did you not find any material on the market or do you have anything like specifically tailored for you?

Wade Foster:     We started using Automattic. The company behind wordpress has a tool called P2. It’s a wordpress theme and they use it for a similar reason. And so we actually started using their thing because we’re like, hey, they figured some of this stuff out, let’s try and use it. I think HelpScout was using at the time too. And there were another remote team and so we use that for, I want to say like six to 12 months before we kind of outgrew it. Um, there were some pain points we had around like authentication, load times and performance metrics and things like that. And so we went and hunted around for like different software that we might be able to adopt off the shelf and we never found one that we really loved. Um, plus we’re like a team of engineers. So we like to build stuff. So, uh, we make the classic choice of like, Oh, let’s build it on her own. And so, um, we ended up building it ourselves and now we actually do have a small product team inside Zapier that are dedicated to just like making async better.

Mark Littlewood:             Thank you. And final. Oh, Evan great. Yeah. Comes every year. It was about the first time you ever asked the question, isn’t it?

Audience Member:         Um, I, I would love to attend one of your classes on how to give and receive feedback. But yeah, I’m just on one point on that topic. Do you ever find that some of your managers always code everything green?

Wade Foster:     Uh, sometimes, uh, so this will sometimes happen. But when that happens, the group tends to do a good job of being like, that’s not like, that’s not possible. Like you’re not pushing hard enough if everything is green all the time, like you’re kind of phoning it in. I’m. So there is kind of like some social pressure to surface like the problem areas and make sure that we’re tackling them enough. Um, yeah, as a culture, particularly as a culture. Yeah.

Mark Littlewood:             Wade, that was fabulous. Q&A as well as the talk. Brilliant. Absolutely fabulous.

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Wade Foster

Wade Foster

Wade is the CEO and co-founder of Zapier (rhymes with happier), a workflow automation tool used by over 1.5 million people to connect the work apps they use every day. 

Wade studied business and engineering at University of Missouri-Columbia before  Zapier raised $1 million seed funding in 2012 after graduating from Y-Combinator where he was told his idea was nice – but not big enough. Zapier is a fully remote, profitable business employing over 350 people across 35 countries – they’re just humans who think computers should do more work. Zapier has taken no further investment though some original investors, though not the founders, recently sold their holdings at a reported $5billion valuation.

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