How Our Remote Culture Works: Q&A with Help Scout’s Becca Van Nederynen
The Help Scout team is spread across 40 cities and four continents. Head of People Ops Becca Van Nederynen shares how the company makes its remote culture work.
Becca Van Nederynen (Courtesy: Help Scout)
Becca Van Nederynen is head of people operations at Help Scout, a help-desk software company staffed by a fully-remote team spread around the world. Over the phone, we discussed Becca’s career-shift from product marketing to people operations; discussed the unique systems and practices that support Help Scout’s virtual team; and broke down what it takes to build a thriving remote culture.
“We wanted to build a super-talented team, and going remote widened our pool.”
How did your career pivot from product marketing to people operations?
I joined Help Scout in 2014 as a product marketer and user researcher. The company was just starting to scale up, and there wasn’t quite enough product marketing and user research work to keep me busy. So, I started taking on some of the people ops stuff. Quickly, I realized that figuring out what makes customers tick, and what they love about products, is very similar to figuring out what makes employees tick, and what they love about their employer. To me, that was really cool.
Eventually, I came to a crossroads. Nick Francis, our CEO, asked me what I wanted to do: continue my marketing career, or move entirely into people operations. I thought to myself, “There’s tons of crossover from my marketing and user research experience. I want to do it.” So I made the leap.
Your background must give you a fresh perspective on people operations, compared to if you’d followed a more traditional human resources career path.
I couldn’t agree more. I didn’t have that conventional HR playbook, which tends to start from the compliance side. Instead, my starting place has been culture: who do we want to be?
Help Scout is a remote-first company. Can you explain what that means, and how you work?
Right now, we have about 60 employees, working from 40 cities across the U.S., Canada, South America, Europe, and Australia. We stay connected through technology: using Slack, Trello, video conferencing, and email. Because we’re spread across many different time zones, we operate as asynchronously as possible. We limit the number of real-time meetings, mostly to one-on-ones with your manager. We do asynchronous standups. On Mondays, we put out a company-news video, and we record our monthly town halls and quarterly all-hands meetings so that anyone who can’t attend can watch them later.
It sounds like you must be very intentional about communication.
Yeah. We have detailed communication guidelines. When new people join our team, we go over them ad nauseam. [Laughs] When you’re co-located in an office, you get peripheral context just by being around your coworkers. You overhear things, sense the vibe, notice when people are happy or tense. You don’t get that as a remote company, so we must focus on being a lot more transparent.
What kinds of things do the communication guidelines address?
We coach our team to write everything down. We encourage everyone to talk in public Slack channels, instead of defaulting to direct messages. We send out daily update emails and give everybody access to our revenue metrics. That way, you include people in your conversations, allow other team members to gain context or ask questions, and soothe the little intrinsic fears everybody has about not knowing what’s going on.
An essential part of our employee onboarding focuses on the nuances of communicating through chat. As anyone who sends text messages knows, you have to be very intentional about wording and tone. Otherwise, your message might not read the way you mean it to. You can’t rely on tone of voice, facial expression, or body language. So we encourage our team to use emojis – to make sure people know you’re just curious, not pissed off when you ask “Why didn’t you loop me in on this?” [Laughs]
You must also have to be more intentional about helping colleagues get to know one another.
Absolutely, that’s another piece of remote culture. When you work together in an office, you naturally get to know each other. You eat lunch together, grab a beer after work, or whatever. You build familiarity and trust by interacting like that. On a remote team, you don’t get unplanned “water cooler” moments, so we try to create them.
There’s a cute little Slack integration called Donut. Once a month, it matches you with a random colleague and schedules a half-hour virtual coffee date. You hop on a video call and talk about whatever you want. We call it fika, which is a Swedish term for taking time out of your day to grab coffee and cake with a friend.
We also do a monthly, half-hour “Troop Talk.” This practices evolved out of a failed attempt to grab a beer together over Google Hangouts, which felt like a good idea, but was awkward in practice because it’s difficult to hold a natural conversation with many people in one video chat. Instead, our Troop Talks are structured around a theme. Maybe nine or ten people hop on a Zoom call, and we take turns talking about the topic. For example, a few weeks ago we did one on our favorite new apps.
It sounds like many of your remote practices have emerged out of trial and error.
Definitely. Trial and error, and also just listening to feedback from people. We keep an open mind when trying new things. If something sounds silly, we give it a chance anyway.
Why was Help Scout built as an all-remote team?
It’s all about talent. We wanted to build a super-talented team, and going remote widened our pool. Help Scout started in Boston, which is a hot tech market. As we got funding and were looking to grow, we faced a challenge. We were small. We didn’t have a lot of money or a huge brand to help us attract the people we needed. There were people we wanted to work with from places like Delaware and Kansas City, but they didn’t want to move. Our co-founders, Jared, Nick, and Denny, had experience working remote, so they thought, “Okay. Let’s do this.”
“You don’t get unplanned “water cooler” moments, so we try to create them.”
Do you look for particular traits in candidates, to determine if they can succeed on a remote team?
First, we look for folks who are super curious. People with this trait actively seek answers to their questions. If you’re working in Europe, but your manager is in California, you’re not going to wait ten hours to ask a question. You’re going to figure it out for yourself.
We also look for folks who are entrepreneurial in spirit. Usually, I ask candidates a question about what side project they are working on, or if they could start their own company, what would it be. Entrepreneurial people get up in the morning and get their work done with energy – without waiting for their manager to write the book for them.
Do you pay people differently, based on where they live?
Obviously, the salary you need to pay a developer in Des Moines is different from the salary you need to pay someone in San Francisco. We don’t try to match local market rates. Instead, we pay everybody the same, no matter where in the world they live. Our formula is based on the average salary for a role in the U.S. Not matter if you’re in Brussels or Boston, you’re paid at that rate. If you do live in an exceptionally high-cost area, we also provide a cost-of-living adjustment.
What, in your experience, has been the hardest part of managing people operations for a remote workforce?
As you scale your company, you have to shift how your team stays connected. What we need to do for 60 people is different than what we could do for 12 people. It can change fast; our most recent retreat was 60 employees, but the one before that was 40 people. We have to continually remind ourselves that what worked with 40 people might not work as well with 60.
No matter what, scaling a team is hard. But in a remote setting, you always have to go above and beyond to make sure everyone is kept in the loop.
Let’s shift back to your background in product marketing. Is there any advice taken from that experience you would offer to talent professionals with a traditional HR background?
Every interaction with a candidate is an opportunity to tell your company’s story and shape their perception of you. That person might not join your team, but they might buy your product, or refer someone else to you.
Our team at Help Scout responds to every single application we receive. We get so many messages back, saying, “Wow, thank you for just getting back to me!” Most companies don’t do that. The bar is so low! [Laughs] But if you would do that for potential customers, you should do it for potential employees too. Recruiting is marketing; give candidate touchpoints the same care you give customer touchpoints.