How to Take Your Company Fully Remote During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Q&A with Mike Chen, CEO of Magic

We sat down with Magic CEO Mike Chen and interviewed him about moving Magic to a fully remote company. Mike offered his thoughts and advice to startups right now doing the same thing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: Why did you decide to move the company to a remote structure?

I never originally thought that remote is what we would want to do. And I was actually even skeptical of it at first. But there were a few things that happened that ended up forcing it to be that way. And then it turned out to actually be a really wonderful decision. 

The first thing that happened is we had an office in the US and then in 2016 we also set up an office in the Philippines. And as a result of that, a lot of meetings started ending up happening remotely or over Slack. That was the first thing that happened. And it ended up working quite well. 

Some employees started saying, “Well hey, since most of my meetings are remote anyways, can I just be remote 100% of the time and work from home?”

And then after that, some employees started saying, “Well hey, since most of my meetings are remote anyways, can I just be remote 100% of the time and work from home?” In the beginning, I was kind of resistant to it because I was worried about things like productivity and culture, but it ended up actually being a huge win and ended up being good for productivity and good for culture. So it was less of a decision and more of just following a natural trend. 

Q: So how did it actually happen? Did you start with a small group, or did you do it all in one go?

It was in stages. In the beginning, we had one office. Then we had two offices which were remote to each other, but it was still two physical offices. That was the seedling of it since you still had to be a little bit remote. And then after that it was just a few employees in various departments who noticed that because they could do their job remotely, they wanted to work remotely. And then, after we saw that it was working, we realized that it was actually better for employee morale. It opened up the hiring pool. And so we just decided, okay, well, I guess we can support remote work more broadly if that’s what they want.

Q: What were some of the challenges when you went international with two offices?

One of the biggest challenges is definitely time zones. Not everybody wants to work during hours that overlap with other people’s hours overseas. But what’s actually interesting is, we also discovered that there’s a lot of people that do for various reasons. Like if you’re in the US and you have a young child, we’ve noticed that it’s actually a really good time for you to hop in a meeting, after dinner after the kid goes to sleep like eight, nine, ten at night, which does end up actually being a good time to interact with overseas, and then that actually gives you time during the day to spend with your family.

Not everybody wants to work during hours that overlap with other people’s hours.

The other thing is you just have to be a lot more deliberate and conscious about the meetings that you have. Because you can’t rely on bumping into someone at the watercooler, you know?

Q: Speaking of that, was there anything you learned about building a good company culture while being remote?

One of the values we’ve always had since the beginning, even before going remote, was transparency. And I think that helped us a lot moving remote because it’s really important that everyone feels like they have access to everything. Especially since remote feels a lot more secluded. I mean, you can’t look around and see any other employees. So it’s even easier to have speculation or rumors about what the company’s doing. Make sure that transparency is a high level company value that everyone understands, so that even if your team can’t see what other people in the company are doing, they can trust them. That they could find out about any information if they wanted to is important. 

Make sure that transparency is a high level company value that everyone understands.

I’ve also noticed that setting a much more regular schedule is important. A lot of managers do this anyway. But if you like to do daily stand ups, or if you want to make sure you talk to all the people that you want to run into in a given week, you really need to schedule that as like a standing meeting. So there are a lot of standing meetings that recur on a weekly basis. And sometimes that can feel like too much. Someone will inevitably ask you: “Why do I need to have that standing meeting with you? Do we really have that much to talk about?” And what ends up happening is you cancel them sometimes when there’s nothing to talk about. But that meeting is important anyways, because it’s a proxy for what would have happened if you ran into them at the office. So you want to be more structured about it, and you want to keep the meetings scheduled no matter what. 

Q: What was something you learned while going remote that goes against common wisdom?

Something I discovered doing a lot of remote meetings is actually a little controversial. There is some research on this, by the way, backing up what I’m about to say. But here it is — I hate video chat. And everyone who has remote meetings with me knows that I’m never on video. And many people at Magic turn their cameras on during a video call, so maybe it’s just me. But for me, just the way my personal brain works, I can’t stand it. And I spent a lot of time reflecting on why I hate it so much. And I think there’s a few reasons. 

I hate video chat. Everyone who has remote meetings with me knows that I’m never on video.

One reason is because you have to keep your body really still to be in the frame of the camera. And that’s just not even how I am in person. If I’m having a meeting in person, I’m moving around all the time. If I’m in a conference room, I may even get up and pace around. So if I’m having a day of remote meetings and I have to sit with my head in this little two foot by two foot rectangle it just really screws with my ability to even think. I have to get up and pace around. 

Another reason I hate video is — and I don’t know why more people aren’t talking about this — it forces everyone to be looking at their computer screen during the meeting. And last time I checked, looking at your computer screen is exactly what you’re not supposed to do during a meeting, because it’s really distracting. There’s all these notifications coming in, and so normally in a meeting, you’re supposed to have your laptop closed, but in a video meeting, the correct etiquette is to be just staring at your screen. And of course, everyone’s got a ton of windows up. If I’m looking at my screen, I’m trying to focus on you, but I’ve got all these things popping up in my face. My favorite way to do a remote meeting is to pace around my apartment with a headset. I’m so much more focused. I don’t get restless. I don’t have to keep my head in a little rectangle, and I’m way more focused, because nothing is popping up and distracting me. I’ve talked to other employees, and they’ve said that when the video is off, they behave similarly to me. And they found it to be more engaging as well.

Now I get the point about missing each other and wanting to have some social contact. But I just highly recommend trying no video. Maybe it’s a personal preference. It’s how my brain works, but I know it’s true for others. So I definitely recommend not requiring video.

Q: How do you trust things will get done? 

I think every manager’s biggest fear when you go remote is that the employees are going to slack off. It certainly seems like it’s gonna happen. 

We did not experience this anywhere near as much delinquency as anyone was concerned about. It definitely was a concern, but it was an abstract concern, not for any particular reason. People ask: “What’s to stop people from slacking off if you can’t see them?” But actually, we didn’t have the problem at all because we hired correctly to begin with. If you have the right type of people who are trustworthy and who are A-players who are bought into the company and are good performers, which is who you should have hired anyway, it’s not an issue. It just so happens that these people do just fine when they’re not being supervised, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. People aren’t supervised in school when they’re doing their homework, but a lot of people still get A’s. So if you’ve hired correctly in the beginning, it’s not an issue. 

People ask: “What’s to stop people from slacking off if you can’t see them?” If you’ve hired correctly in the beginning, it’s not an issue. 

Now, I think there are certain people that do better in remote environments than others. There are people who are even more of a “self starter” than others. They’re even more organized, or even more responsible, and certainly remote is biased towards that kind of person. And there certainly is a type of person you could hire that would slack off a lot after going remote, but my guess is if you kept them in an office, that person is going to be a poor performer anyways. In short, it all starts with hiring.

There’s also a type of person who thrives on ownership and autonomy, which is what you want out of an employee. You want them to be bought in and be responsible for what they’re doing. So if you start implementing top down surveillance to make sure that they’re working, it can actually cause some issues. Of course, for certain roles, in particular operational roles, you will want to be monitoring them, although it’s not for the purpose of making sure that people are working, but it’s just for the purpose of measurement. So for our operations, we have a lot of monitoring of what each employee are doing. But I want to also point out we were doing exactly the same monitoring when they were in the office too. It’s important for us to understand the efficiency of our operation and how much capacity we’re utilizing and things like that. So if you have another need to monitor employees, that isn’t just making sure that they’re working, then you should do it. But my argument is, you probably should have been doing that in person as well.

If you have employees in an office, they could be slacking off too. Are you looking at everyone’s screen? No, you’re not.

And obviously, if you have employees in an office, they could be slacking off too. Are you looking at everyone’s screen? No, you’re not. Some people slack off way more in offices, because it’s a social environment. So they’ll be joking around with each other or they’ll go out even longer for a lunch break or things like that. Not saying that’s a bad thing. That’s probably good for office culture. But I’ve actually seen a lot of employees become more productive at home. They may also report feeling a little bit more isolated, and there’s things you can do about that. But they may actually have less distractions at home as well.

Q: Speaking of that sense of isolation, how did you make sure that people at Magic stayed in touch with each other on a personal level? Was there a concern that HR wasn’t going to be able to function in the same way or that people weren’t going to get the same level of management?

There’s two dimensions to HR. One is employee engagement and happiness and the other one is the company securing everything it needs from the employees. So what I can say about remote, especially clearly in this day and age, is that remote is a huge employee benefit. Massive. You will hear from some that they prefer to be in an office and be around people. But I’m actually surprised how much I don’t hear that. Maybe it’s just it’s different these days. No one wants to be around anyone. But even before all this was going on with the coronavirus, I was really surprised how much I didn’t hear that.

I think the ability to work from anywhere that you want is incredibly appealing to employes. Because it’s not just “work from home” when you’re fully remote. We’ve had employees go on a “work-cation,” and they’ll go to an island or to another country and then work from there and you won’t even know. So the ability to do that or the ability to go two or three days and work from anywhere is such a tremendous benefit. Or, for example, if your spouse needs to move for their career, you’re able to move with them without any friction. This has been the biggest employee benefit we’ve ever seen, and happiness and engagement go up from the employee side. 

Remote is a huge employee benefit. Massive. You will hear from some that they prefer to be in an office and be around people. But I’m actually surprised how much I don’t hear that. A lot of the stuff that you think wouldn’t translate actually just does.

Some companies do a company-wide annual gettogether in person. We actually have not done anything like that yet. And it’s been surprisingly okay. Although I have wanted to do it at times, and maybe we will in the future. We have brought our leadership team together for quarterly planning sessions. For leadership and high level management, if you feel like you want to get a team together in person, it’s probably worth it because it’s such a hassle actually to do all this. Especially now — this is currently off the table with all the travel restrictions, but previously it was still probably worth the money to do it because it’s really a big disruption for everyone to fly around like that. 

In general, there have been less problems than you’d think doing remote meetings. A lot of the stuff that you think wouldn’t translate actually just does. For example, one-on-ones. Can you be more empathetic in person? Yeah, you probably can. But you know what? It works well enough over Zoom or on the phone.  It really does.

Q: It seems like it’s been pretty successful. Have there been moments where you felt like it wouldn’t work? What were some roadblocks that you hit where you thought, “wow, this isn’t really working”?

One of the things that I find challenging is, if I’m leading a meeting, or if I’m speaking to a larger group of people, which is something that I do often in my role, I used to rely a lot on people’s facial expressions or like a quick nod to see if they agree or understand. So you know, you’ll say something, and then you kind of want to look around the room and ask “does that make sense?” And you can kind of really quickly just gauge that, sometimes it’s called “reading the room”, where you can tell if you’re boring people or if someone’s not paying attention. When you’re remote, it’s really hard to do that.

You know, my desire to not use video probably makes this a little harder. But I’ve noticed that with video, it’s still really hard. The pictures are small, and you just can’t read people’s facial expressions as well. So I’ve been worried at times that discussions aren’t as engaging. You can have an experience where you present to a group, and then you say, “Does anyone have anything to say about that,” and you just kind of silent and everyone’s on mute. And you have this feeling that if you were in person, that wouldn’t be happening. 

I used to rely a lot on people’s facial expressions or like a quick nod to see if they agree or understand. When you’re remote, it’s really hard to do that.

I’ve learned some techniques for mitigating that though. One of the techniques is to force a “round-robin” at the end of the meeting where everyone talks in turn. A downside of this is it can feel a little bit more forced, and, you know, might take a little bit longer than just going around and reading everyone’s face or having a more organic conversation. But an upside of it actually, is you make sure that you really have heard from everyone and hear what they really think. So it’s actually really useful. 

The other thing I’ve found helps is asking better questions. A lot of people, after they give a presentation, ask the group something like “what do you think?” It’s such an open ended question that it’s easier for people to just not say anything. But if you ask a better question, one that’s more clear and direct, you’ll get a better result. For example you can say something like: “I presented three options in this meeting. Can everyone rank these options ‘best, middle and worst’ and type their answers in Slack?” Then you can have everyone take turns explaining their ranking. 

Force a ’round-robin’ at the end of the meeting where everyone talks in turn.

With remote meetings, you have to be really intentional and explicit with what you want. But the interesting benefit of this is that it’s actually more productive to have meetings this way, because you can’t lean on the crutch of thinking that you’re reading the room, believing everyone is on the same page, and maybe you actually weren’t.

Q: What kind of messaging did you give to the employees in office to help explain what was going on? And how did you manage having employees in the office and remote simultaneously?

Well, it’s a different situation literally right now. Right now, when it comes to messaging, there’s a very specific world event that you can point to, and possibly even the government has said that you have to work from home.

We started a pilot program for work from home and asked: “Who wants to do it?” Working remote was optional.

For us, when we opened up the second office, we invited people to relocate, but it was also not required. We took a similar approach when we started work from home. We started a pilot program for work from home and asked: “Who wants to do it?” Working remote was optional, and we had both configurations coexisting at the same time for a while.

One piece of advice you will hear from veterans of working remotely is that having both in office and remote employees at the same time is a bad idea. As in, it’s better to be all one or all the other. I think that that’s true about meetings. For example, a big “no no” is having some people in a conference room and then some people calling in, because it disenfranchises the people that are calling in, because the people who are in the office have the ability to communicate with each other in person, read each others body language, or even mute the speakerphone and have a separate side conversation. And the people who are remote don’t have that ability. So it’s a really asymmetrical situation. If you’ve got a hybrid situation where some people are in the office, some are not, I still recommend everybody going to separate rooms and putting on a headset anyway. It seems silly, but it’s going to be way more productive. 

If you’ve got a hybrid situation where some people are in the office, some are not, I still recommend everybody going to separate rooms and putting on a headset anyway. It seems silly, but it’s going to be way more productive.

Regarding company culture, with some people working in office and some people working remote, we didn’t have many issues. We had the luxury of having more than a year to find out that more and more of our employees were choosing to move to remote work. I think we would have been in a different situation if that wasn’t the case, if most people preferred to stay in the office. But our team did prefer remote, and they switched over for a variety of reasons. You don’t have to commute if you work from home. You get to see your family more. You have more freedom. You can work more asynchronously. You can travel. You could say remote had more product market fit with our employees. And so by having both at the same time and letting it happen organically, a higher and higher percentage of the company just became remote. 

Recently when we were faced with the coronavirus situation, something like 75% of our company was already remote. And then for the remaining 25%, we just had to explain that moving fully remote was now necessary. 

Q: Are there any key takeaways you’d like to give someone who is just now moving their company remote?

Yes. First, be sure to give your remote employees the benefit of the doubt. Do not breathe down their neck. Just assume they are going to be good citizens of your culture and that they’re going to be productive and will take work seriously. And just see what happens. If you’ve hired correctly, you’re going to be really pleasantly surprised with how people rise to the occasion. And like I said before, the people who don’t may stick out as having had performance problems before anyway. 

Give your remote employees the benefit of the doubt. Do not breathe down their neck.

I would definitely not throw a whole bunch of crazy monitoring systems or protocols on you employees. I’ve seen things on social media now that major corporations are doing, like leaked memos that say all remote workers must have their phone by them at all times and you must answer it after one ring. Stuff like that. Don’t do anything like that. It’s really patronizing and it’s going to scare away the exact people you don’t want to scare away. 

My second piece of advice is to fill up your teams’ calendars with way more standing meetings. 

Take all the people you need to have 1-on-1s with and for each one schedule a recurring weekly meeting. Also, create a recurring daily or bi weekly meeting team meeting for everyone to join.

Fill up your teams’ calendars with way more standing meetings. 

Third piece of advice would be to start looking into your remote hiring funnel ASAP. Because your company is now remote, you’ve opened your hiring funnel up to the entire world. And that’s not something you’ve ever experienced before. You probably haven’t even experienced hiring talent outside of your zip code. There’s billions more people accessible to you right now in a very real way. And they’re going to have different skills and abilities, different levels of experience, and widely different salary levels. The labor market is just much bigger than you’re used to, and it’s to your advantage. You’ll find people with the same level of talent and experience at a much lower cost or a much stronger candidate at the same cost.

Start looking into your remote hiring funnel ASAP. Because your company is now remote, you’ve opened your hiring funnel up to the entire world. And that’s not something you’ve ever experienced before.

The biggest reason that I’ve seen that people haven’t taken advantage of the international labor market has been the difficulty of integrating a remote employee. How am I going to see them face to face? How are they going to interact with other employees in the office? But that’s not a problem anymore. Your whole company is remote. So take advantage of that. 

At Magic, what we’ve created is a platform where you can very quickly and immediately hire our people to work for you remotely. That’s essentially what Magic is. The only bottleneck to doing what I’m saying right now and hiring internationally without Magic would be the schlep of setting everything up. You’d have to post the job ads yourself and navigate the hiring conventions and regulations of that country, figure out how to pay in that economy, build a new interview process that can be done remotely, make the right job offers offering the right benefits, etc.. That’s where the complexity is when it comes to hiring remote talent. And that’s what Magic has solved. 

Magic is a platform where you can very quickly and immediately hire our people to work for you remotely.

We have a workforce of hundreds of people who are working remotely right now. This means we’re very resistant to any of these kinds of global changes that we’re seeing right now. And the economics of an international workforce are really good. You can just tap into them anytime you want. Drop Magic into your Slack channel or add them to your remote team today. 

I don’t mean this to directly be a plug for Magic. I just think if you’re remote in general, you should be exploring hiring remote employees internationally. At the same time, I really genuinely believe Magic is the best way to do it. That’s why we created it. And that’s what our users believe as well.