As our clients continue to evaluate hiring and shifting their teams to a dispersed model post-pandemic, I took the opportunity to sit down with Tim Quock, Director of Accounting at Mattermost, to better understand the challenges and opportunities hiring a remote team presents.
Mattermost has been a remote-first start-up since well before Covid-19 and has found unique ways to adapt to being headquartered online, allowing teams to work from just about anywhere. During our in-depth interview, Tim shares how he adjusted to sourcing talent, interviewing and hiring in a remote environment, as well as the unique nuances of communication and building culture with an entirely virtual team. Tim provides insights our clients may need to consider in order to make working remote successful long-term.
Jeff Davis: Let’s start at a high level. Tell me about Mattermost, your role, and your team.
Tim Quock: Mattermost started off as a workflow communication tool. I don’t want to draw too much comparison to Slack, but we have a very similar story, originally being a gaming company before becoming an open source chat optimization tool. Our mission is to make the world safer and more productive by developing and delivering secure, open source collaboration software that is trusted, flexible and offers fast time-to-value.
Mattermost is perfect for today’s economy – addressing both the recent focus on effectively working from home or remote due to the pandemic and the trend toward globalization that’s been on the rise for much longer. We’re seeing more of an appetite for remote work, and a need for better solutions. Mattermost offers an enterprise-grade, open-source team collaboration platform that can be deployed on-premise or in private or public clouds, such as AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud, and focuses on enterprise security and total control over data. Threaded conversations help maintain chat organization, and video and call support provide mediums for enriched meetings. With powerful integrations, we help teams get more out of the tools that are already in their workflows – Jitsi, Zoom, Jira, GitHub, Jenkins and Microsoft, to name a few – to help them do better work, faster. We’re also excited to be expanding our product portfolio – later this fall we’ll begin offering a new hosted SaaS product that will include all the tools customers have come to love about Mattermost.
I joined Mattermost about a year ago, right before we raised our Series B, and we had about 60 people on the team at that time. Our headcount currently sits at about 130 and growing, in 20+ countries across almost every time zone. The company is a remote-first environment; we like to say we’re headquartered on the internet, as our staff can work from pretty much anywhere.
I oversee the Accounting and Finance team, reporting to the VP of Finance and Operations. I have a team of 4 currently and together we are responsible for FP&A, accounting operations, general ledger, financial reporting, taxes, procurement, legal, and system administration.
Prior to Mattermost, you’d been working within an in-office culture. How have you had to adjust your approach to interviewing and hiring in a remote-first environment?
When I first started searching to build my team, I was looking for the best talent in San Francisco. I was trying to meet the demanding needs of this fast-scaling company and, despite Mattermost’s remote-first mantra, I still thought the only way to effectively collaborate was with local talent hired into our small satellite office in San Francisco. I realized very quickly that my hiring strategy was at odds with the culture. Mattermost has fostered remote working since its inception in 2011, and I was trying to source hires that were used to the in-office setting. People here have grown accustomed to beer and kombucha on tap, snacks and meals provided, foosball tables – the frills that I wasn’t offering. But perhaps the perk I could offer would be appealing to a broader audience: Work remote for a growing tech startup with the ability to flex your schedule to your strengths; early bird, night owl, and anywhere in between. Plus, no commute! That narrative wasn’t very hard to sell at all, it turns out.
Work from wherever you are, whenever you want, and get into a Silicon Valley tech company.
Yes. It was like a dream come true for some candidates. I found that I was getting a flood of resumés that I probably wouldn’t have considered previously. It was an interesting mix. I had applicants who had engineering or procurement backgrounds, and were highly motivated to pursue an opportunity within accounting at Mattermost.
“Every person on my team that I’ve hired has the capability to be super high-impact in their function – but it’s the soft skills, not the hard skills, that lend to that potential.”
I’d originally set out to find candidates with the ideal background; traditionally a combination of Big 4 and accounting skill sets picked up from industry experience within Bay Area tech companies. When I pivoted out-of-market, motivation and soft skills became the focus. Some of the people we ultimately hired were definitely not the cookie-cutter version of a finance professional, but they had the qualities to make them successful in a remote environment – the ability to think critically and problem-solve effectively for themselves, the ability to raise their hand when they had a question, and the ability to self-start and self-manage their deadlines and deliverables. Every person on my team that I’ve hired has the capability to be super high-impact in their function – but it’s the soft skills, not the hard skills, that lend to that potential.
How did you screen for that? How did you get past the lack of hard skills on paper in order to get that person in front of you, so you could evaluate the soft skills?
I’m not going to lie, being part of an early stage, scrappy start-up, you don’t have a lot of resources for recruiting. I did a lot of sourcing and first-round screening myself. That ended up being to my advantage. If I would’ve just told an in-house recruiter, ‘These are the skills that I want; I don’t want you to send me any resumés that are outside of this pedigree,’ then I would’ve completely shut myself off to these atypical candidates who were ultimately the best hires.
Also, cover letters became really important. If someone submitted a cover letter with their resumé, it helped me get a better sense of their interests and personality. Maybe they didn’t have a true accounting background, but they were able to shine light on who they were as individuals and what they might bring to the table that could make our team stronger. Today we have a more robust recruiting playbook that has been documented and contributed by staff members.
Once you find the right people to hire, how do you approach onboarding and training remotely? I assume the onboarding experience is quite different – welcoming someone on the first day and introducing them to the team, setting them up on systems, having them shadow, etc.
Onboarding and training in a remote-first environment is a coordinated effort. Once somebody is hired, the People Team kicks off the process by assigning them a Coordinator based on the country they’re from, the team they’re on, or any other needs they might have. The Coordinator sets up various touch points, and is in constant communication with the new hire to ensure they’re successful in onboarding. While we’ve relied heavily on our handbook—our written culture—to break down the process for new team members, we still need to provide an advocate internally. There’s a checklist the new hire will go through with questions like: Did you buy your new laptop? Did you get your SSO authentication? Did you get access to our systems? New hires need someone to quarterback that process from end-to-end – someone who can find answers for all of the questions they might have. That’s the Coordinator’s job.
After systems onboarding and getting your new hire online, how do you handle training? I imagine you can’t have someone shadow all day. How do they learn your processes?
As I said, we often turn to our written culture – our handbook or the Mattermost messenger tool. There’s power in the abundance of content, resources, and functionality of our own software. Channels within Mattermost hold records of every question that has been raised since the inception of the company, and the answers to those questions are often pinned to channels in a way that makes them easy to quickly reference. You can also use the Mattermost tool to raise new questions, and others can weigh in on best practices. There are no stupid questions; no one is judgmental here.
When I started at Mattermost, I spent more than half of my time creating documentation because there was so much to get on paper. Now that we’ve created it, though, the training and triage processes are much more efficient. It used to take me months to ramp someone into a new role, now it takes weeks. Once they know where to look, I can just point them to the handbook and process docs and tell them to come back to me if they still have questions after reviewing. That’s not to be dismissive, but to encourage them to be resourceful. With that approach, we also identify questions that aren’t currently answered in our process docs, in our handbook, or in our Mattermost tool. There will continue to be unique issues or niche circumstances that arise, and that’s when we create new iterations in our handbook.
“Working with remote teams forces you to outline processes and create documentation more than you’d need to in an environment where you share the same space and watch-and-learn on the fly.”
The handbook and Mattermost tool can only go so far when you’re talking about training people on new processes, so during one-on-ones we also use screen shares or provide previous recordings and screenshots of the processes to reference. As an example, my Accounting Lead created a recording on how to create and send an invoice, walking through the process step-by-step. We posted the recording internally for the team to reference at any time. If someone new steps into the process, this serves as an educational tool that no longer takes the Accounting Lead’s bandwidth.
Working with remote teams forces you to outline processes and create documentation more than you’d need to in an environment where you share the same space and watch-and-learn on the fly. It’s an investment up front, but it allows your team to troubleshoot independent of you being online and immediately available. It allows us to work asynchronously.
If you don’t need to be immediately available, has your perspective changed on typical hours for you and your team? Are you more flexible in online versus offline time, working with a team dispersed across multiple time zones?
I have someone on the East Coast, three hours ahead of me, who gets things done before I even get online each morning. A staff member was recently working through something for month-end close when I logged in after-hours, around eight o’clock in the evening. They had their part done, all the explanations were in there, and I was able to review, comment back, and within the hour we finalized the financial statements, completely outside of your normal work day. The natural staggering of schedules that occurs with a dispersed team allows us to execute efficiently on tasks without much lead time, as if we’re operating around the clock on tasks.
There’s typically a time-boxed environment for in-office cultures. If your team can’t get the work done between 9am and 5pm, you either have to put in longer hours or you have to wait until the next day. With a remote team, we can work in piecemeal. We can build in breaks or build in time with family or friends. The work is really nuanced around our own schedules. We know our own responsibilities, so we allow ourselves to work in a framework of deliverables. We don’t quantify based on hours, we quantify based upon work completed. Too much focus on the measurement of time isn’t a good idea in a remote environment, in my experience.
We have a channel in our Mattermost tool that we call our ‘stand-up channel’ where we can keep each other informed of our availability. Someone might send a message that they’ll be going offline for an hour and it’s not so people can track your hours, but a courtesy so that people know when you’re available and when you’re not. Nobody bats an eye. You know what your deliverables are, you know what you’re working toward, and we trust that you’re owning it.
“I strive to make my team’s responsibilities targeted and achievable. I don’t care if you work the traditional 9am to 5pm or work when I work, as long as I can trust you to get your work done so that we can execute on our goals and initiatives.”
Because of that, we all have to be highly organized and have visibility into each other’s work. Not only do we have internal productivity tools, but we over communicate with one another. We give heads up and don’t assume the other person would or should know what you working on. It sounds easy, but in remote organizations, and especially those companies much larger than us, it is easy for staff members to get lost or forgotten about, which leads to an erosion of productivity.
I strive to make my team’s responsibilities targeted and achievable. I don’t care if you work the traditional 9am to 5pm or work when I work, as long as I can trust you to get your work done so that we can execute on our goals and initiatives. To me, High Trust is the most important leadership principle that Mattermost promotes. I don’t question if someone is doing work; I operate, out of the gate, believing and trusting that they are.
So you only let your team know when you’re going to be offline so that they understand you might not answer calls or messages, or that they might not get an immediate response from you.
Exactly, yes. But even if you’re not making that announcement, the expectation isn’t that you need to respond right away to messages or calls. We all have our own boundaries in the workspace and how we choose to make those boundaries. For myself, I don’t have messaging on my phone. So when I close my computer, I’m not going to go answer any more messages. You set the cadence and manage expectations with your team and with your manager, and we all adjust. You’re responsible for your schedule and your work/life balance. Of course, if there is something urgent, I always tell those that need to get a hold of me to text or call.
I imagine it takes a while to build this level of accountability. How are you building trusting relationships with your team?
When you’re physically with somebody in an office, trust and accountability come along easier, almost organically. Human beings are creatures of community, and we tend to trust those we identify to be a part of our community. At Mattermost, only having video conferencing, our messaging platform, and the phone to communicate, the individual touch points I have with my team are critically important in building accountable relationships.
It’s so important to create safe opportunities for teams to engage with their leaders. I have daily 20-minute check-ins with the whole team where we connect to round robin questions, concerns, and updates—all face-to-face via video, almost like a standup. The team adds items to our shared board before each meeting, which I review ahead of time so I’m ready to cover whatever is top of mind. The goal here is to create alignment so that we don’t duplicate efforts. It’s also a daily event that we all look forward to that creates a sense of teamsmanship.
Throughout the day, I have a virtual open door policy and you can ping me at any time. If I’m online and not in a meeting, we can jump on a call and talk things out. I have to find a way to replace the physical interaction of an office, where someone can just walk up to my desk and say, ‘Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?’ And if a team member says they need someone to talk to about something personal, I have to give them that space in order to build the trust needed for us to work together remotely.
In order for my team to take me up on my offer to be readily available, I’ve had to over communicate my expectations and willingness. Otherwise people silo themselves, fading out of sight and out of mind. It’s an easy trap to fall into in a remote environment. Over time, though, the constant open communication becomes second nature, and I believe it makes us stronger than the typical team in an office. You become direct about things, because you have to. As a result, our relationships are deeper, despite most of us not having met in-person. You have to foster trust and accountability, and give both the right space to grow.
On the topic of direct communication, I’ve ascribed to the belief that speaking to someone face-to-face is always better than an email. But that’s not how MatterMost approaches it. In the handbook you referenced earlier, it states that written communication is the most important form of communication. Why is the written word so much more important in a remote environment?
If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist. Writing it down defines it. If there are variations or you disagree with what’s written, then we have a conversation on how we can improve it and align it across the organization.
We write the handbook in a direct way to provide clear expectations throughout the company. In a physical environment, you might have a lot of unspoken norms or colloquialisms that are developed, and legacy employees may know them, but they aren’t documented. You usually just become familiar by osmosis. At Mattermost, if it’s not in our handbook, we don’t expect our team members to adhere to it or to know it.
“Over time, the constant open communication becomes second nature, and I believe it makes us stronger than the typical team in an office. You become direct about things, because you have to. As a result, our relationships are deeper, despite most of us not having met in-person.”
We’re adding and subtracting content multiple times per day, and any staff member can provide input. My global expense policy alone has probably been edited and re-edited based on feedback by almost every person at the company.
To me, the written culture and the directness are really the cornerstones of us being successful as a remote company. We’ve documented things like our leadership principles and Mattermost-isms. When we say things like, ‘zero out of five,’ or ‘what is a dead Tarzan,’ people can find references in the handbook. If we create a new process, or a new slang catches on, we document it. The handbook grows as we grow.
In the office, you can meet someone new while heating up your lunch, or go to a company happy hour thrown together at the last minute – just the physical proximity to people naturally results in relationships. At the beginning of Shelter-In-Place, so many of us were attending these Zoom happy hours, but after a couple of weeks, attendance waned and it was clear that people were feeling “Zoomed-out”.
The large Zoom meetings often aren’t successful because people talk over each other or don’t talk at all. Sometimes too many people show up one week, so fewer people decide to join the following. Smaller groups are typically better, creating environments more conducive to intimate conversation where you can get to know one another. Meetups have to be intentional and you have to set expectations up front. We host opt-in events like wellness/fitness challenges and trivia, for instance.
We’ve had quite a bit of success with one-on-one coffee meetups. They’re 30-minute scheduled chats every couple of weeks where you’re encouraged to talk about anything but work. We have 50 or so individuals who opted-in to these during their onboarding, and it’s a random draw for pairings. The last coffee meetup I had was with an engineer in Spain. We talked about our interest in space and NASA, and we geeked out about some things that were going on in the Star Wars Universe.
Since the coffees are opt-in, how do you ingrain that one-on-one connections are important and that having relationships is important? I’m picturing a seventh grade dance, where you’ve got to nudge people together.
You can’t force anybody to do it, but as a company you need to create the space. Some people are more shy than others. Some people love working remotely because they don’t have to be in an office setting and don’t have to interact in-person with others. I often remind my team that the best way to earn trust with one another is to take the time to let people get to know who you are as an individual, what you’re working on. We are all human, but sometimes that gets missed when you’re operating behind a digital screen all day.
As an alternative to the face-to-face interactions, we also create spaces using random, off-topic channels within our messaging tool where people can post things like, ‘Here’s what my dog did yesterday’ or ‘Here’s a picture of my kids’. It’s another space where you can foster personal relationships and add to the company culture.
The observers benefit as well. Somebody posts something and the shy team member might find a commonality or shared interest, creating a bond or connection to the content publisher, even if it’s passive.
“When working remotely, it’s hard for people to delineate between their work and their personal life. Those lines often get blurred, and you’re hearing a lot recently of companies begging their employees to take time off.”
It brings people in. This has been so ingrained in how Mattermost was built, though; we created this space at the onset. We weren’t suddenly moving to a remote model where we were saying, ‘Okay, we’ve done all these things physically and now we’re shifting it remote’. It’s a lot harder to do that. I don’t envy companies that are going through that sort of process now, because the expectations are different.
By joining Mattermost, you signed up for it. You knew you were going to be remote as a part of the job. Most people I know didn’t see this shift coming, but we’re making it work. Do you think there’ll be a rebound back to a physical office space for most companies, or will more and more make the shift to dispersing their teams? What does the post-COVID Bay Area look like?
I think there was already movement toward remote working, and the pandemic accelerated it. I still don’t think there’s a world where every single company is 100% remote, but post-pandemic, we could be in a place where there’s more of a hybrid model for a lot of companies. As companies hire outside of San Francisco, employers are going to see the benefit in considering a remote workforce – they’ll see a talent pool that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to tap into. There will always be people that want to be in an office, at least part of the time, but most people don’t want to sit in the car commuting for two hours each day, and some would prefer to release their working schedule from the confinement of standard business hours. Working remotely during COVID has shown us that there can be, and should be, much more flexibility.
Physical space will still hold advantages for large group settings. Just because we’re remote at Mattermost doesn’t mean we don’t see the advantages of being together in a shared space to collaborate. We do this in a few ways: About once per quarter we host group meetups, where teams might go to, let’s say, Toronto. We rent out a few hotel rooms or maybe an Airbnb in order to scrum for a week, hunkering down to work through projects or sprints as a team. In addition to having the opportunity to be in the same time zone with one another to collaborate on complex initiatives, it also serves to strengthen relationships.
Once a year we also host MatterCon – a week-long, company-wide event somewhere in the world. It’s the only time most of our employees get to meet other people in the company outside of their direct team. It’s where a lot of team- and culture-building takes place. There’s a lot of work that happens in breakout sessions, but there are also intentional events around getting to know one another outside of work.
Even though we’re remote-first, we still find physical space together at times. It remains a medium to connect, but not the only medium we have.
If we continue to see more and more companies taking the leap, what other advice would you give leaders considering the shift to remote teams?
You have to be intentional in curating your physical space and your remote space in parallel—both spaces being equally important—to ensure that your remote workers don’t feel secondary. In a physical space, culture comes naturally. In the remote space, you can’t as easily do things on a whim, like bumping into someone in the kitchen or putting together a last-minute happy hour. Leadership needs to invest in creating the remote culture and workspace – spending more time with individuals, developing more content, and leveraging available tools. If you’re not thoughtful in your planning, then I don’t think you’re doing remote work right.
“Physical space will still hold advantages for large group settings. Just because we’re remote at Mattermost doesn’t mean we don’t see the advantages of being together in a shared space to collaborate.”
Also, as companies try this for the first time, whether it’s temporary or permanent, they have to keep an eye out for burn out. When working remotely, it’s hard for people to delineate between their work and their personal life. Those lines often get blurred, and you’re hearing a lot recently of companies begging their employees to take time off; PTO utilization is down. There’s nowhere to go during a pandemic, which makes it even harder, and people no longer have the physical separation between personal and work spaces. Companies have to find ways to create that separation.
Do you have to push your employees to take time off?
All the time. My team doesn’t take enough vacation. I just had this conversation the other day, where someone told me that they canceled their pre-planned vacation because of COVID. The first thing I said to him was, ‘You still need to take the time off, even if you can’t travel. Take some time to reset yourself, and don’t worry about work’.
It’s hard to turn off, it’s hard to separate yourself when you don’t have any other outlets, especially during this pandemic. People gravitate toward work right now, because it’s the one thing they feel they can control in a world that feels out of control.
We have an unlimited PTO policy, so people can take as much time as they want. Going back to our principles, we trust that you own your work. If you’re consistently meeting your deliverables and want to take eight weeks off, then by all means take that time off. We don’t measure or record any PTO time other than for purely from a statutory perspective in countries that require it.
Any final advice you’d like to share to make working with remote teams successful?
One of the things that I didn’t hit on was the player-coach mentality – the concept that managers have to be both individual contributors and lead the process. It’s a needed skill set in remote work.
When someone on my team needs help, maybe they’re dealing with a complex or ambiguous process that we don’t have documented, I not only have to be able to jump into the trenches to pitch in, I have to invest the time to teach them as I go. I have to simultaneously do the work and show them the process. These opportunities for learning come up often, and require more from me than just directing traffic or doing the work myself.
It’s been enlightening to have a conversation with somebody who’s gone through this transition to remote work ahead of COVID and understands what long-term strategies could be successful. Thanks for your time.
You’re absolutely welcome. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about this. It’s something that I’ve been inspired by at Mattermost, but it’s also been a huge learning experience for me to adapt to a remote-first environment. Hopefully this can provide insight to others making the same move.
Image: Mattermost, MatterCon 2020
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