How we stay productive as a remote-first startup

I’m very thankful that Steamship is a remote-first workplace. Living in Maryland, I may never have been able to experience working for a startup otherwise. By being remote-first, we have the opportunity to hire the best talent irrespective of geography and get great people like Enias.

That said, being full time remote does have its own challenges, especially in a fast-moving environment. Here are 5 of the practical, day-to-day things we’re doing that I think really help us stay excited and productive.

“a cyberpunk illustration of a standing person typing code energetically in a bright room” as interpreted by DALL-E. While this is not exactly how I look when coding, we strive for this sort of energy.

Embrace Asynchronous Reviewing

Since we’re not only remote but spread across many timezones, our (video call) face time together is limited and precious. As a result, 80–90% of things that are reviewed must be reviewed asynchronously. For the person whose work is being reviewed, this means being open to feedback in written form and not being shy about others seeing your work in progress. For the reviewers, accountability is key, and reviews should happen within 24 hours. I’ve found it best for me to review anything in my queue when I first sit down in the morning before I get caught in the flow of my own work.

Hours ≠ Productivity

Productivity is not the same as either which hours or how many hours we spend at our desks. Our “core hours” are very limited due to minimal time zone overlap. We need to trust and evaluate each other based on real output and not Slack response latency. One thing that really helps me is getting out for a walk in the afternoon; I both feel better and am more productive after stretching my legs for a bit. Everyone adjusts their own notification settings to the hours they see fit, and the others don’t have to worry about whether they’re posting off-hours for someone else.

“an exhausted person at a desk staring at a clock on the wall, oil painting on canvas”, as interpreted by DALL-E. This is not what we want.

Willingness to interrupt

Most people seem naturally less willing to interrupt others in a remote setting than they are if they are in an office. It feels natural to knock on someone’s door and say, “Hey, do you have a minute?” or “Could you look at something with me for a sec?” To have these moments in a remote workplace, there can’t be any stigma against messaging someone in Slack and firing up a video call.

Minimal scheduled meetings

Meetings can be exhausting, but video meetings are especially so. Since all of our meetings are video meetings, we try to keep them to the bare minimum. Ironically, for a remote company started during the pandemic, we actually don’t spend a lot of time on zoom. This is enabled by asynchronous reviewing; we don’t hold meetings for reviews of code, slide decks, etc. Our one scheduled daily meeting generally lasts thirty minutes to an hour, but it speedily covers status, planning, strategy, and chit-chat (see below).

Getting to know each other

One thing that can feel missing is water cooler conversations that naturally happen in an office. Without these spontaneous off-topic chats, it can be harder to really get to know your colleagues. We mitigate this by allowing our daily meetups to start and end off-topic and just have some time to chat. Naturally, we like getting together in person sometimes too! We try to have a few offsites a year that are equally focused on work and team-building. Current offsite mission: finding the best BBQ in Washington DC.

“two people having a discussion around a water cooler in space, digital art”, as interpreted by DALL-E

Challenges for the Future

It’s obviously easier to stay in sync when you only have a handful of employees. Cross-team collaboration and mentoring junior staff may require new strategies. There’s no going back on remote work though, so we’ll have to stretch and adapt as we grow.

We’ll continue growing and publicly blog about it. Are you currently working at a remote-first company? What are your tips so we can scale and stay remote?