Building a successful remote team is hard. Although the topic is anything but new, so many teams and organizations still struggle to implement it successfully. And while there’s at least some information out there — on the web, in podcasts and books — on how to make it work, there are only a few best practice examples available.
That’s why I sat down with Maël Frize, co-founder and CPO of “Filestage”. Together with his colleagues, he’s built a fantastic remote company. One where productivity and success go hand in hand with social connection and community.
This article allows founders and leaders to glance under the hood of a modern, thoughtfully designed remote organization.
Filestage is a “software as a service” business and was founded in 2015. Their product has grown into one of the foremost platforms to help companies review and approve content — in a simple, compliant, and consistent manner.
Currently, Filestage is a 50-member team that works fully remotely. People work from all around the globe: Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, and in every other corner of the world.
Maël is one of three co-founders and currently working as the company’s Chief Product Officer. But on top of that, he played a key role in shaping the early culture of the company.
Like in so many other startups, the culture at Filestage started informally: subconsciously shaped by the decisions, behaviors, and hiring decisions of the founders.
But over time, things changed.
On the one hand, because the founders were constantly in touch with other founders — who shared what worked and what didn’t work for them. They realized that culture could be approached much more intentionally and strategically.
On the other hand, Filestage learned to understand culture as a “muscle:” something they could train; something they could become better at.
Setting clear goals and being transparent about them is a central leadership concept at Filestage. Lots of teams claim something similar… but actually making it a reality is no small feat.
When organizations get this right, they allow their employees to take ownership. Only when people clearly understand what’s expected of them and what strategic goals the company is pursuing can everyone work in the right direction.
This type of ownership can be quite powerful. At Filestage, people know what they are responsible for; they know that they have the power to make decisions in a certain area; and they take responsibility for the results, good and bad.
“The question is: what happens when it doesn't work out? Do you start to micromanage? Or do you allow the team to make mistakes? There's no textbook answer to that. But we try to lead by example. And we continue to emphasize that taking ownership is important.”
Communication is a good example of the overall evolution of culture at Filestage: from “spontaneous and instinctive” to “intentional and structured” over time.
Especially the team’s understanding of synchronous versus asynchronous communication is much refined. People are aware that both concepts have their advantages and disadvantages and, therefore, know when to use what:
With a lot of asynchronous communication in place, Filestage — unlike many other companies — does not suffer from an overflow of real-time meetings. But a handful of core meeting formats makes sure the team stays in touch:
We also talked about Maël’s opinion on “ad-hoc meetings,” and I deeply resonate with his answer:
“We try to avoid ad-hoc meetings. They can make sense, sometimes… but with a good structure, you don't need many ad-hoc meetings.”
Filestage uses Asana, a project management platform, extensively. How they use it to enrich their meetings caught my attention: every meeting has its corresponding board in Asana — thereby making it a “living” agenda document.
In the days and weeks before the meeting, tasks and comments accumulate on this meeting’s Asana board; therefore, when the meeting starts, the agenda is already clear.
Additionally, it’s also a simple and quick way to document decisions: simply as comments in the respective tasks in Asana!
Icebreakers can be a nice way to start meetings: they open up people and act as a welcome buffer from wherever people came before this meeting. But with 50 people, you can’t just offer an Icebreaker question and wait until 50 answers have been given. This would be way too time-consuming.
Filestage found a nice workaround to this problem: they start by putting people into “Breakout Rooms” of four to five people and let team members answer the Icebreaker there. That way, in just 3-4 minutes, a whole team of 50 (or 500) can quickly go through this ritual.
The opinions on daily check-ins (on how they should be conducted; and if they should be conducted at all…) vary greatly between leaders. At Filestage, there’s a general consensus that they indeed are valuable; but teams are free to implement them in their own ways.
Maël’s own team uses a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous communication:
A very healthy combination, in my opinion: the real-time meetings create human connection; but having them only twice per week makes sure that people’s calendars don’t get filled up!
Like in many other remote organizations as well, documentation takes a central role at Filestage:
“Documentation is our single source of truth. Our goal is to document things so that they're clear for everyone and easily accessible.”
Beyond the main documentation (at Filestage, mostly in GoogleDocs), Maël also mentioned the concept of “living documentation”: the understanding that documentation isn’t a “write and done” thing. Teams need to constantly update and weed out their existing documentation.
Filestage has a couple of habits, tools, and mechanisms in place to stay on top of how the teams feels:
“We help people understand that their ‘rest ethic’ is as important as their ‘work ethic’.”
When employees are spread all over the world, the topic of vacation isn’t as simple as it might seem. E.g. the number of national holidays or the minimum number of statutory vacation days differ significantly between countries.
Large global corporations can afford to have separate subsidiaries in different countries that take care of these topics. But a small remote organization needs to think carefully and come up with rules that work for everyone — no matter where they live.
Filestage is known for their combination of simplicity and fairness; and the way they handle vacation days is no exception. The company offers a blanket 36 vacation days to all employees. This exceeds what most new hires expect and are used to. And it makes sure it works in any circumstance, country, and culture.
“We also make sure that everybody actually takes their vacation days. When our Head of People sees that somebody hasn’t taken enough holidays, he will remind them. ‘Please take your vacation. You need it!’”
Filestage is a big believer in goal-setting to get things done and make progress. Many companies would probably claim the same… but how exactly this is done matters a lot. A haphazard implementation — when people are left stranded with unclear or unrealistic goals — is a huge source of frustration in many organizations!
“If you get this wrong — if you fail to define the right goals, if you fail to define them clearly enough, or if the scope is off — then you will always struggle with ambiguity.”
Filestage invests a lot of time and effort into defining clear roles. This is based in the firm belief that there must be a differentiation between a person and a role. These roles (of which an individual might take on more than one) are clearly defined and designed, each with clear expectations and guidelines.
This structure makes two things possible. Firstly, with clear expectations for each role, employees (and their managers) know whether or not they are fulfilling these expectations. And secondly, employees find it easier to take on responsibility when they are confronted with clear roles — which are separate from themselves as people.
I loved Maël’s perspective on transparency and what it enables in an organization:
“Transparency provides context for people. And it allows smart people to make the right decisions.”
At Filestage, people have access to many business figures and receive a lot of context around important decisions. In Maël’s words:
“It's crucial that people get as much context as possible. Only then are they able to ask the right questions.”
It’s a very healthy sign that — in rare cases, when that context is missing — employees don’t shy away from asking the leadership team. “What’s this about? Why did we do this?” There seems to be a candid and open culture at Filestage, where people aren’t afraid to challenge their leadership team.
Filestage is a rare and stunning case study of how to create a vibrant remote company.
Their deliberate and intentional approach is a masterclass in building organizations of the future.