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How to successfully run a remote studio, and make it last

Roll7 head of people Nisha Minhas shares the OlliOlli studio's tips for building a strong studio culture when people don't work at the studio

Roll7 has been a remote working studio for seven years now, and as such the OlliOlli and Rollerdome developer might have a little more experience than most in how to make the set-up work.

In a presentation at last month's HR Summit, Roll7 head of people and operations Nisha Minhas shared some of the studio's learnings on how to embrace remote work for the long haul. While Minhas has 15 years of experience in HR, she got her first taste of remote work during the pandemic, and it made sense for her personal situation.

"For more and more people, remote working is very much becoming a secondary event of the day," Minhas said. "So as HR professionals, I think it's important that we have an awareness of that shift to one in every fourth person, and push ways to create a successful working model that works for us."

Here's how Roll7's model works for her.

The first day of work sets the stage

Minhas stressed the importance of the onboarding process to a good remote work situation, and said Roll7 made her own introduction to remote working considerably smoother than it could have been.

She was introduced to a handful of the studio's various processes for virtual work.

Roll7's Nisha Minhas, posing with a BAFTA award and smiling
Nisha Minhas

For one, Roll7 has a hard starting time of 9am when everyone has to be on hand to ensure at least some overlap for the entire staff. Employees are free to arrange their working day however they like within the studio's working hours of 7am to 7pm. Some might get an early start and finish mid-afternoon, roll in late and stay until the evening, or work early and late but take breaks in the afternoon for handling kids' after-school activities or other tasks.

That flexibility in hours means you can't necessarily assume co-workers are there when you are, so Roll7 has a virtual door on Slack where employees can quickly tell people if they're available or not. Employees are also encouraged to take regular breaks from their desk just as they might in an office setting, and the Slack door helps for that as well.

The studio also impresses upon employees the ambiguity of written conversations, and doesn't want people to hesitate to call each other for clear communication on matters big and small.

Finally, as a logistical measure, when Minhas first logged in she had all her introductory meetings and staff gatherings pre-booked into her calendar so there was no confusion as to where she was supposed to be or what she should be prepping for that first week.

"Having that clarity provided to me, it set me up to just crack on," Minhas said. "It's a shift in mindset that I immediately adopted, and one that HR was responsible for outlining from day one. And it's so important because it has to happen on day one, that people have got the best opportunity to succeed."

How do we build relationships remotely?

Having a great communications tool is important for remote working, Minhas said, but it's also important to consider how you're using it.

Roll7 doesn't communicate internally with email at all, she explained. Instead, there's a team announcement channel on Slack for company-wide messages, dedicated channels to share work for specific disciplines and projets, and non-work-related chats for food recommendations, pet pics, or random chats with new conversation-sparking topics each day.

"It's so important that HR spend time on growing and developing your communications tool because it needs to truly reflect who you are as a company"

"What I very quickly realised is what we're doing here is creating virtual spaces that are bringing us together," Minhas said of the company's approach. "We're getting rid of that isolated feeling that sometimes remote working can bring, and we discover people's likes, people's dislikes, people going through times of hardships or celebrations. I now know that I'm not the only crazy person counting down to Christmas in September."

The communications tool the company uses is in itself the virtual office, and the place where a company's culture is created.

"This is where people interact for the first time to find out if they've got something in common," Minhas said. "This is where people will really make personal connections and help build relationships.

"It's so important that HR spend time on growing and developing your communications tool because it needs to truly reflect who you are as a company. It needs to feel easy to use. And if this doesn't happen, your comms tool will lack traction and people won't feel connected to your company."

It's not enough to use Slack and do everything online, Minhas said. HR also needs to think of the smaller but still-meaningful work it can do to maintain and build relationships.

For example, Roll7 has its own approach to celebrations. For employee birthdays they "release the virtual party parrots" on Slack, announce it to the company, send the employee a gift voucher, and celebrate every birthday that quarter with a group lunch.

"It's just a shift in mindset that way that we're looking for here," Minhas said. "Be ready to get creative and super organized, and don't forget the little things because they do truly count."

How do we build trust remotely?

This was a brief part of the presentation, but Minhas stressed that building trust was possibly the most important part.

"First and foremost, we let people own their own process"

"First and foremost, we let people own their own process," she said. "And what I mean by this is it this is where we let go of the reins and we truly trust people to map out how they're going to get from A to B. We give them the space to explore, sometimes fail, but learn from it and grow.

"This is probably one of the hardest lessons to learn how to do effectively remotely. We give people autonomy. So, we trust people to manage their own day, and work how they want in the order they want, and at the pace they want."

However, empowering people to work the way they want to work has to go hand-in-hand with holding people accountable for the work they deliver.

And that's why it's important to have clear roles and responsibilities outlined for everyone from day one, "so everybody knows who owns what, where the boundaries lie, and we trust people to work with them."

How do we get people working productively in a remote setting?

A lot of getting people to be productive remotely relied on a company's ability to do the first two things Minhas talked about, building relationships and trust within the team.

Beyond that, Roll7 also has one in-office day per month, which HR is responsible for organizing.

"We streamline productivity here," Minhas said. "We are holding discussions, having roundtables, inspiring each other in different ways, and we do that all-important collaborative work that sometimes just has to happen in person."

Beyond that, the company also tries to practice overcommunication as a desirable thing. As Minhas alluded to earlier, there are 101 ways to misread a text message, but providing people with information in a variety of different ways through the channels that suit them best is a helpful way to ensure the message gets through with adequate clarity.

"A good project management tool is how we plan for success... It's our company-wide to-do list"

She also stressed the importance of project management tools like Notion or Jira, both of which Roll7 uses depending on the department.

"A good project management tool is how we plan for success," she said. "It's how we keep on top of project progress. It's how we hold people accountable for their work and it's how we can manage or discuss any blockers that are going on. It's our company-wide to-do list."

Managing travel and accomodation expenses are also of primary important for a fully remote company.

"We have people flying in from all over the globe, twice a month at minimum," Minhas said. "So it does very quickly add up. And if it's not meticulously tracked and planned out, you will very quickly become restricted on what you can and cannot do, people will lose interest and they won't commit to anything organised."

One thing that Minhas said has been essential for Roll7's success in a remote working capacity is its ability to adapt to unpredictable situations.

"We are not afraid to evolve. We work with a growth mindset and we adapt," she said. "If something has just gone a bit stale or it doesn't quite work for our current circumstances, we're not afraid to just can it, learn from it, switch things up, and grow from there. We never get complacent in what we're doing or how we're doing it because there will be external factors that force you to look again at how you've got your remote working order set up."

"Working to a no-crunch strategy is a very big shift in mindset, but it is possible"

She also warned about blind spots for HR professionals in remote settings, with a need to think about the rise in mental health struggles. Roll7 has a number of initiatives on that front, and in particular has a no-crunch policy.

"We set clear boundaries," Minhas said. "People are working in their homes so building time in for life is encouraged and not questioned. And if people are crunching, it's spoken about… Working to a no-crunch strategy is a very big shift in mindset, but it is possible."

Finally, she noted the importance of celebrating individual and company-wide successes, something which can be lost in the move to remote working.

Roll7 created a "virtual team shout out room" on Slack to give people company-wide visibility on each other's successes, and created an internal annual award ceremony to recognize longer-term achievements.

"Remote working is all about finding a way to create a working culture that fits around people's personal lifestyles," Minhas said. "And in my opinion, working with people and not against them is the best way to make a remote working model last and create a happy workforce."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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