Fifteen years ago, FormAssembly, an online form-building platform, was a one-man operation, with founder and CEO Cédric Savarese acting as leader, salesperson, marketing person, tech support, developer and janitor.
Then the company included a handful of local people in an office in Bloomington, Indiana. A few years later, FormAssembly became a hybrid workplace, with some staff working in the office and others fully remote. About eight years ago, Savarese decided to take his company completely remote with a fully distributed workforce.
Today, it stands at 115 employees around the globe — in Bloomington as well as in Canada, the Philippines, Nigeria, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Chile and Brazil. In the past three years (during which time it acquired an investor), the company tripled in size.
So Savarese has been through the full in-office-to-remote evolution. But unlike some companies, which had to convert to telework practically overnight during the pandemic, Savarese’s business has had the luxury to make such transitions gradually.
Serving sectors from higher education, healthcare and financial services to government and nonprofits, the company has been a partner with the customer-relationship-management service Salesforce for more than 10 years and was named an IndyStar Top Workplace in the small business category in 2019.
The Covid era has been “business as usual” for FormAssembly, Savarese says, without a touch of smugness. He shares with Remote Report some managerial advice for remote and hybrid companies that he’s gathered along the way.
Remote Report: Was there a learning curve after you decided to go fully remote?
Cédric Savarese: We gradually transitioned into it, so we didn’t have to adapt overnight. We were already doing almost everything online. The first thing is, you have to have the right tools for collaborating online, for discussing and for meetings. Like Zoom or Slack, Google Docs, you have pretty much what you need for everybody to be able to access all the information from anywhere at any time. …
Then the hardest thing for someone who’s a manager is to look at remote workers a little bit differently. It’s not like, do they show up on time? Are they working all day? You have no control over that, so you have to be willing to surrender that: OK, I’m not going to care about it if someone takes off in middle of day to run an errand or walk their dog. The only thing I care about is does that person produce quality work and do they communicate effectively. If that’s there, we’re good.
RR: Do you have advice for business leaders wondering whether to go 100 percent remote or offer a hybrid culture?
CS: First of all, everything is possible as long as you understand the pros and cons. What I’ve noticed, in a hybrid model, the people who are remote are more likely to feel excluded, out of loop.
In person, it’s easier to have discussions and make decisions. Things happen organically when you’re all in the same office, so remote people will feel left out. … If you’re not careful and not making an intentional effort to avoid making decisions when some people aren’t there, that’s how the experience for remote workers [might turn negative].
Regardless of the model you choose, you need to make sure you have the processes that keep everybody on the same level and that everybody is treated fairly. You need to make sure that if you have remote people, they feel included and really feel like they’re full partners in the organization.
And again, regardless of whether you’re hybrid or fully remote, you should set up your organization to work like you’re fully remote. Even if you’re in the same office, you should work through your online tools — you should have communication on Slack or whatever else you use — because other co-workers might not be in office. … So the advice is, work as if you’re 100 percent remote even if you’re not.
OK, I’m not going to care about it if someone takes off in middle of day to run an errand or walk their dog.
RR: Are there things to keep in mind when hiring remote workers?
CS: One of the things we do when we hire is, we ask if the person has experience working remotely and if they know what they’re getting into. It’s not necessarily for everybody.
We do try to meet in person at least once a year and sometimes more often, but there are people who would rather be in an office at least on some days.
Recently, we had someone we were trying to hire who decided against taking the job. One of the reasons that person gave was that after spending the whole pandemic in lockdown, they had cabin fever. They said, “Personally, I would rather go back to the office.”
The advice is, work as if you’re 100 percent remote even if you’re not.
RR: Are there difficulties in managing a remote workforce?
CS: Especially when it comes to mental health, it’s difficult to really know what the person needs. If you’re in a remote environment, … I can’t tell if you’re having a bad day or need someone to cheer you up or listen to you. It’s more challenging. It’s something we try to accommodate for.
One thing I do, I have a welcome call with new hires pretty much every month. Part of that welcome call is to say, we’re a remote company. Here are the things you need to be aware of: One of them is communication — we need to overcommunicate.
The other thing is mental health. You might feel isolated, we might not pick up on cues the way we would otherwise. To some extent, it’s on the person to raise their hand and say, I need to talk to someone on the HR talent and culture team. There are also mental health awareness communications and sessions as needed.
RR: You say you need to overcommunicate. What does that mean?
CS: If you have communication problems, being remote will make it worse. In an office, you can get by because there’s a lot of informal communication happening all the time. You can get by with somewhat dysfunctional communication and still make it work. In a remote environment this would become a bigger problem.
What we do is, we formalize some of it in our core values that we document and share and talk about. One of our core values is being transparent. We try to keep our communication channels open by default. If I want to jump into a conversation in marketing, I can do it even if I’m working in a different department. We try to break down silos … so everyone can participate if they have something to add.
RR: What tools can help remote workers participate?
CS: The good thing about being remote is you can have more asynchronous communication and more written communication. This is great because people are more in control of their time — they can choose when to ask questions and answer on Slack. It doesn’t have to be in real time. The fact that it’s written allows us to open it to more people to read and participate, it allows us to refer to it later because you can search it and you can have a conversation that spans days or weeks.
Then we have meetings in Hangouts; we ask people to turn on their webcams. It’s not an absolute rule, but we encourage it because we need to have that connection. There’s a lot of communication happening nonverbally through your expression or your smile.
We also encourage people to not rush to business when we’re in a meeting. It’s OK to spend five, 10 minutes to talk about random things, just casual conversation. This is something that would not be needed in an office, because in an office you can have those conversations in the hallway before the meeting or at the water cooler. … In a remote environment, it’s not likely to happen that way, so we make room for it. Again, it’s about being intentional.
RR: I know you’ve been inspired by Basecamp in building your company. Regarding their recent difficulties, where they tried to suppress political/social discussions on work channels, have you felt the need to create a policy about politics in the office?
CS: We haven’t felt the need to do that. … If you’re building a diverse company, which we try to do — we hire people from all over the world and from all different backgrounds — if you agree that having diverse team is good, you by necessity also agree that diversity involves diversity of opinion, including political or religious opinion.
Then you just have to be sensible. You want to be respectful of your coworkers, and that means we know that we have people of different opinions or different ways and predilections. I personally try to have neutral stance on all of that. I encourage my leadership to also have a neutral stance. [But] we’re not going to police people if they want to share their opinions.