Working @ Aptible

Intentional & Explicit Culture, Part 3: 3 Tools for Creating a “Center that Holds” on a Fully Distributed Team

Caroline Lau
Caroline Lau

This is Part 3 of a 3-Part Series. If you missed our last post, click here.

Remote First = People First

It was 2014, and our CEO (Chas) and CTO (Frank) had been working side-by-side in New York, NY on the beginnings of Aptible. They were ready to grow the business and found a talented Product Designer to join. The only challenge was that said Product Designer lived in San Diego, CA, and he wasn’t planning on moving any time soon. Could an early stage startup successfully get off the ground with over 2,000+ Miles between its founding members?

The answer, we’ve learned, is a resounding yes. Not only did we hire that Product Designer (Skylar), but over six years later, he’s had an outsized positive impact on the business and now leads our Design Team at Aptible. Throughout that time, he’s also gotten married, had two children, and moved cross-country (not once, but twice)! Today, Aptible is proudly “Remote-First,” with fifty team members based in forty cities across North America. In retrospect, had we not prioritized people over geographical centralization since our earliest days, Aptible would be a completely different company today.

The Aptible Team at our Virtual Onsite, May 2020

We're passionate about building a diverse team of talented people who accomplish great things together, regardless of where they are. We know that our ability to achieve our mission is contingent on ensuring our team performs at a high level and making Aptible the best environment to support that kind of team. We can’t control what’s happening outside of Aptible, but we can be certain that we have a greater chance at long-term success if our center holds. This means that the core of Aptible—our team and its culture—must be strong, through every phase of growth.

But how do you create that center when there’s technically no center at all — no headquarters, and practically no physical assets? We believe it begins with being intentional about the culture we're trying to create, and taking the time to explicitly articulate what we mean by "us". Here, we share three tactics for scaling culture on a rapidly growing, distributed team.

This is Part 3 of a 3-Part Series:

  1. Communications Architecture: Establish Norms for How You Come Together

Part 3 | Communications Architecture: Establish Norms for How You Come Together

If you’ve been following along in this three-part series, perhaps you’ve started to pick up on a theme: We believe that intentional culture design is necessary for creating a center that holds on a distributed team. And a large part of that design work lies in establishing clear expectations around what work needs to be done, and how it should be done.

At Aptible, we often refer to a set of “how we’ll work together” expectations as a social contract. And in establishing that social contract, we lean towards explicit expectations — those that are based on conversation and instruction, rather than those that are based on inferences and interpretations, or on assumptions and past experiences. As members of a fully distributed company, we have limited opportunities to develop inferences and assumptions about how we work (i.e. I can’t casually peek into a conference room to get a feel for how meetings are conducted here), so setting explicit expectations becomes critical to our success as collaborators. 

For teams that are transitioning to a distributed model for the first time — or teams that are looking to improve the way they work remotely — here, we offer our advice for establishing expectations and norms around how you come together as a company.

Document Explicit Communication Norms

It’s one thing to give a new employee Slack and Zoom accounts, but it’s quite another to document and have a conversation about how they should use Slack and Zoom. Social contracts exist any time you interact with another person on these platforms — the variation in social contracts is in how explicit they are.

The Aptible Owner’s Manual represents our collection of expectations, and in it, we establish an explicit Communications Architecture:

For example, we’ve established a norm that everyone has their video on during all calls. On distributed teams where the most high-frequency communication is often textual, it’s critical to hash things out face-to-face on video calls — where you can read facial expressions and body language. We advise Aptilians that if they find themselves writing long messages in Slack or multiple exchanges over email, it may be an opportune time to get on a video call.

With that said, we’re sensitive to the fact that teammates are working across multiple time zones, and might not always be available to join a synchronous meeting. As such, we encourage everyone to record conversations in or Zoom, and/or capture minutes in Google Docs or other shared resources. This helps us keep key stakeholders in the loop, while minimizing the number meetings overall.

Establish a Predictable Operating Rhythm

In the absence of a ritual around gathering daily at a physical office, we work to create a predictable rhythm around how we come together at Aptible. We use a variety of meetings with different cadences and different scopes to help teammates feel connected, empowered, focused, and informed.

A Sampling of Recurring Meetings at Aptible

In an effort to create as clear of a drumbeat as possible, we work to hold meetings that stakeholders feel a strong need to attend. To this end, we encourage everyone to get clear on the goal of every get-together, distribute and review collateral in advance, identify clear roles (e.g. MC, Scribe, Timekeeper, etc.), minimize distractions and maximize focus on the conversation at hand.

Ask Why

Lastly, we recommend setting the expectation that all of this is, ultimately, is an experiment. If a recurring meeting is no longer serving its purpose, we want people to surface feedback and change what isn’t working — or to cancel it altogether and give people their time back.

A Snippet (Anonymized) of a Real Conversation at Aptible (via Slack)

Consider sending a short survey to solicit feedback from participants as soon as possible after “expensive” company-wide meetings like All-Hands or Offsite/Onsite Workshops: Was the information presented useful? Was the information presented engaging? What did you like about this? How could we have improved this? Then, use that feedback to continually refine how you come together as a team and ensure the highest signal-to-noise ratio.

In Summary

At Aptible, we’ve seen meaningful returns on taking the time to establish explicit “how we’ll work together” expectations. While we’re proud of the Aptible Owner’s Manual, we know that this is really just the beginning. Establishing explicit expectations is a practice we continue to learn at Aptible — and the act of forming and continuously updating them brings us in closer alignment, even and especially when we’re physically apart.

Checklist: Create your own Communications Architecture

  • Document Explicit Communication Norms
  • Establish a Predictable Operating Rhythm
  • Ask Why

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