Home Toptal’s Taso Du Val on How to Start a Remote Work Culture from Scratch

Toptal’s Taso Du Val on How to Start a Remote Work Culture from Scratch

Remote work culture isn’t new to Silicon Valley. But huge swaths of the economy are, thanks to COVID-19, having their first brush with it.

To comply with social distancing guidelines, record numbers of companies are asking their employees to work from home. Since January 31, use of Microsoft Teams has spiked 500%. For every team already working remote, five more are figuring out how to do it.

The critical piece of that puzzle? Remote work culture.

To understand its importance and implementation, I recently caught up with Toptal CEO Taso Du Val. Toptal, a freelancing platform catering to the top 3% of talent, operates the largest fully remote workforce in the world.

What does remote work culture look like, and how can teams new to the concept start from scratch? Du Val acknowledges it’s difficult, but he knows better than anyone that it’s doable.

Remote Work Means New Norms

To Du Val, the importance of remote work culture boils down to one word: norms.

“To function, teams need shared norms,” he says. “That’s just as true, if not more, for remote ones as it is for those that share an office.”

Norms are social and professional guidelines that every member of the team knows to follow. Together, those norms form a team’s culture. Du Val thinks of them in three broad categories:

  • Communication

Remote work culture requires changes to team members’ communication habits. No longer can people pop over to an office any time they have a question.

When someone has a quick question, should she Slack it out, send an email, or hop on the phone? Are after-hours calls considered rude? How soon should someone be expected to respond? Most importantly, how should tough conversations be handled remotely?

  • Execution

Even during a pandemic, work has to get done. “Remote work culture may not force big changes to production on some teams,” Du Val warns, “but it’s a massive shift for others.”

For self-contained roles, such as writers and designers, a different desk might be the only change. But what about a customer service person who does house calls? Can she troubleshoot problems via video? Does the finance team have online access to all invoices and receipts?

  • Team building and time off

Even remote teams need time to unwind. Du Val recommends thinking about this in terms of time off and on the clock.

If your in-person team likes to enjoy coffee together, for example, maintain that when you go remote. Send a bag of coffee to each person’s house, and carve out time to chat over a mug each morning.

Off-the-clock culture can be tricky, Du Val admits: “Separating work and life can be tough without the physical cue of the office.” Norms prevent team members from feeling guilty or judged when they call it quits each day.

Still, norms aren’t cemented in a day. Newly remote teams need to think through the basics to find their groove.

Norms Need a Solid Foundation

Although every team is unique, Du Val points to a few basics that are critical to a well-oiled remote work culture:

1. Schedules

In some remote work cultures, it makes sense to maintain the company’s traditional hours. “Remote work is a big shift, so it’s important to be deliberate about change. Don’t change things just for the sake of change,” he suggests.

To other teams, remote work is a chance to switch it up. With no morning commute to worry about, for example, some teams may want to start an hour earlier.

Du Val recommends a “core hours” approach: Perhaps everyone should be online from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. — but they’re welcome to make up the remaining hours wherever in the week they want.

2. Workspaces

Teams without a remote work culture often assume it means they can work from anywhere. But just because you can work from anywhere doesn’t mean you should.

Du Val learned this on a company trip to Thailand. Although Toptal’s team technically worked more hours on the retreat, they also faced more interruptions than they did from their typical remote locations. “So even in our hyper-optimized physical environment, we were still not as strong as we could have been remotely in terms of raw output,” he wrote.

Trust each team member to find his or her ideal workspace. To some, that may be a desk in a quiet home office. For others, it could be a couch where they can keep an eye on the kids.

3. Resources

Resources are tools team members rely on. Those might be informational, such as a guide on how to do something; physical, like a computer or phone; or human, such as a freelancer or manager.

During times of disruption, it’s essential that everyone knows what support is available. “Some teams are going through staffing changes right now,” Du Val explains. “Others, like telecommunications companies, are experiencing a surge in work.”

He points to a recent Staffing.com article by Lisa Huffing, CEO of Simplicity Consulting, on how to engage outside experts. Huffing encourages teams to ask whether they need onetime or ongoing help.

For the former, gig platforms like Fiverr are a good bet. Small transactions and mid-skilled workers make sense for things like logo updates. On-demand platforms like Toptal and Simplicity are more appropriate for long-term high-skilled needs, such as designing a whole new website.

Hold onto Office Culture

As teams learn how to work remotely together, Du Val cautions they shouldn’t forget their in-person cultural tenets.

“It’s about adaptation,” he says. “Strong remote work cultures can make people feel physically together, even though they’re physically apart.”

If your team likes to bicycle together after work, could they use an app like Strava to track and share individual routes? If everyone enjoys office potlucks, perhaps you could all cook the same dish virtually or donate to a local food bank.

There’s no right or wrong remote work culture, Du Val says. It does take time, but learning to work together while apart can only strengthen your team. And that’s worth it, no matter what the world is going through.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Brad Anderson
Former editor

Brad is the former editor who oversaw contributed content at ReadWrite.com. He previously worked as an editor at PayPal and Crunchbase.

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