At Aptible, we’ve spent years thinking about how to run a high-performing remote team. Key to our ability to make important business decisions and promote collaboration as a team is something Skylar Anderson, Aptible’s VP of Design (and our first employee) describes as “having a culture of knowing when to make things permanent.”
In this post, we’ll define how we think about permanence at Aptible, describe some manifestations of our ‘culture of permanence’ and explain how permanence both informs and is informed by remote work.
As a fast-growing, early stage startup, we constantly iterate through cycles of learning and executing: We know we need to make decisions quickly, and we work to understand the ‘why’ behind actions we take.
Because we are a fully distributed team, nearly all of our communication happens virtually over Slack, a text-based communication tool, which allows us to have dynamic discussions with individuals or groups of team members throughout the day; and Zoom, a video conferencing tool, which allows us to have face-to-face interactions that are invaluable to building strong connections within the team.
We’ve created a set of norms to maximize effective communication on these platforms, but know that Slack and Zoom have some major limitations, too. Skylar put it this way: “If you enter something in Slack, it is basically gone. People may see it in the moment but there is no permanence to it. Similarly with Zoom, I think you can achieve more in 30 minutes on Zoom than you can in Slack. But it is also not permanent. You can record it but watching a video is not digestible.”
In other words, as useful as these tools are, we believe that they aren’t conducive to an exchange of information that is:
Accessible: Can teammates reference this information easily, now and in the future?
Discoverable: Can teammates find the information they need, with little to no guidance?
Actionable: Is the information presented in such a way that it accelerates decision making?
Just because something is written in Slack or recorded in Zoom, doesn’t mean that it is permanent — or documented in a way that will be beneficial to long-term learning within the team.
Teams can begin to combat the fleeting nature of text-based or video-based communication platforms — or even in-person conversations — using a variety of methods. At Aptible, we’ve experimented with the following tactics:
Creating dedicated "homes" for specific types of content, by organizing channels in Slack. This includes using naming conventions to ensure channels are discoverable.
Maintaining “permanent” counterparts to these Slack channels in Google Docs and Google Sheets.
Maintaining a searchable archive of video recordings that are tagged and/or transcribed using Gong.io, an intelligent call recording tool; or Lessonly, a knowledge management and training tool.
These techniques manifest themselves in a number of ways. For instance, Aptible creates a private Slack channel for each role for which we are actively recruiting. We use these channels to bring together Hiring Managers, Interviewers, and the People Operations Team to discuss any questions about candidates, talk through recruiting process decisions, and to generally strategize about hiring for a given role. At the same time, we memorialize each stage of the process and our expectations for each role in a document that we call an “MOC” (Mission, Outcomes, and Competencies), which we bookmark in the respective channel. We also log all interview feedback and candidate information in our applicant tracking system, Lever.
Other examples of Slack channel naming conventions at Aptible include:
“hire-” for cross-functional teams working to fill a specific role (Ex: #hire-finance-q2-2020)
“project-” for cross-functional teams working on short-term initiatives (Ex: #project-pandemic-response)
“squad-” for cross-functional teams working on evergreen initiatives (Ex: #squad-newptible-onboarding)
“team-” for functional teams (Ex: #team-customer-success)
“whats-” for a host of unstructured, water cooler topics (Ex: #whats-cookin)
We work to build permanence with video-based content, as well. In January 2019, we launched a series of internal “brown bag” seminars where we discussed security and privacy management topics that our customers face. Naturally, we conducted these meetings over Zoom. Once the series concluded, we decided to build out a knowledge management library for the team, and all of those Brown Bag seminars — which likely would not have been recorded had they been hosted over lunch in a traditional office setting — served as the first pieces of content. To make the videos discoverable, we cut each video into more digestible segments, then tagged and organized them within Lessonly. Now, every time we onboard a new hire, we’re able to level up their understanding of our customers, product, and competitive landscape — without any additional time investment from our internal subject matter experts.
Aptible's Brown Bag Library in Lessonly.
“Being distributed forces you to be more asynchronous. That has the benefit of requiring you to consider permanence," Skylar explains. "When you prepare to communicate, you are forced to pick tooling that favors asynchronous communication and gives you a broader audience.” Communication when remote is necessarily more intentional than in an office setting. Since team members can’t simply swing by someone’s desk or pull them into a conference room for a quick discussion, working remotely encourages them to think about how best to share a thought with or elicit feedback from a colleague.
Before synchronously collaborating at Aptible, we work to document our ideas and make them accessible to stakeholders. As Skylar puts it, “There is value in getting on a call, but we save that for the point that matters most. When we do get on a Zoom call, we all already know the context and can get right down to making decisions.”
For our Design Team, eliciting feedback from colleagues cross-functionally requires combining a handful of tools that each solve a particular pain point. Figma helps the team share files of prototypes, while video walkthroughs in Loom or annotated PDFs can help to provide further context. “The process by which we share our designs needs to carry the context of what goes into those designs, because there isn’t one tool that can hold all of the necessary context,” Skylar asserts. “To combat this, we started creating a weekly design newsletter. The document includes links to problem statements, design briefs, video walkthroughs, and prototypes that live in other platforms. Over time, this tells the story of everything that’s happened with design, while organizing our work in a way that is great for broadcasting to other teams.”
Aptible's Internal "Design Weekly" Newsletter in Figma
While a co-located Design Team may also use tools like Figma and Loom to solve specific problems over time, being remote-first at Aptible necessitates our use of a variety of tools at the same time. With our Design Weekly, stakeholders can easily access the context they need to make key decisions. And this process is not unique to Design: Aptible’s Product Team is in the process of collecting and sending out documentation at a weekly cadence, as well.
It’s impossible to deny that Slack, Zoom, and similar tools are not just useful but essential to distributed teams. That said, to effectively use these tools, it’s important to understand their limitations. At Aptible, working remotely provides us with the opportunity to be intentional about what we bring to the “water cooler” (i.e. casual, fleeting, unstructured thoughts) vs. what requires more durability, clarity, and precision.
We’ve learned that in order to build a collaborative environment, we need to experiment with how we share information so that it is accessible, discoverable, digestible, and actionable. This doesn’t mean creating processes that are inflexible or difficult to manage — but rather designing communications that facilitate rapid decision-making and execution, so we can continually move forward.
How do you drive “permanence” at your company? What strategies have you found effective for fostering team learning? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.