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Shaping the Culture of Your Distributed Company with Tom Willmot

Tom Willmot is the co-founder and CEO of Human Made – a WordPress development agency focused on bringing open source to big publishers and enterprise-level clients. Tom is passionate about building distributed teams and helping the open web/source grow.

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Remote Business Founder

Luis:

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to another episode of the Distant Job podcast. I am your host, Luis, as usual, and this is a podcast that’s all about building and leading remote teams. My guest today is Tom Willmot. Tom is the co-founder and CEO of Human Made, a WordPress development agency focused on bringing open source to big publishers and enterprise level clients. He has a passion for building remote teams, and helping the open web and open source grow.

Luis:

Welcome to the show, Tom.

Tom Willmot:

I’m excited to be here, thanks for having me.

Luis:

I’m excited for having you. It’s interesting times for remote work, with the pandemic going on and all. I’m just trying to acknowledge it from the beginning, because I think that in a couple of years I hope that people will be listening to this podcast, and there will be this time capsule effect. Or, if this was a time in the world that such and such was happening, but I don’t want to dwell too much on it because I want to actually be useful for people, many years ahead.

Luis:

I guess where I want to start is let’s get the pandemic thing out of the way. How has this affected you and your company? Because I know that your operation is a remote operation, so how have you ripped the benefits of the resilience that remote work has afforded your business?

Tom Willmot:

Yeah, I love that you used the word resilience there, that’s definitely something we identified early on as an advantage, or a privilege that we had as company coming into this. We’re about 80 people spread around the world, and although it’s not been without its challenges and adjustments. I guess, most notably, maybe half of the company was working from home, so was already well set up for that, the rest of the company were working from co-working spaces. So, they have actually had to adjust to working from home, which especially if you don’t have a home office setup, or you’re now finding you’re working at home with children, or with a partner whose also now working from home for the first time, that’s definitely not without its challenges. But, certainly not quite the level of adjustment that co-located companies have had to make.

Tom Willmot:

I think that resilience enabled us to identify the areas that we would need to adjust, and make those adjustments very quickly. Then, we could turn our attention to supporting our clients, many of whom were transitioning to working from home for the first time, and were nervous about doing so, or didn’t quite know how to make a success of that. So, we were able to communicate to them, “Hey, we’re resilient, we’re well set up. In some ways, we were made for this, we can help you. We can keep your projects going, you can rely on us.” That was part of our messaging to them, really. We were trying to make clear for them that we were here, and that they didn’t need to worry about our resiliency as part of their contingency planning that they were doing, without obviously sounding like we were moving straight into sales mode. It’s not a time to be selling to clients, but I think it is a time to be supporting them, in any way you can. That’s definitely worked well for us.

Luis:

That actually makes me curious, because I haven’t yet interviewed a lot of people that used to have a co-located business, and then needed to move to remote. What are the biggest challenges that the people you’re talking to, that are doing remote for the first time, are facing? What kind of problems do they come with you, what kind of questions do they come to you with?

Tom Willmot:

Yeah, actually I’ve been talking to our clients, obviously, who are going through this transition, some of whom who are huge, multi-national companies, so the challenges they have moving to working from home, often actually, a lot of that is just around the logistics, and security, and equipment and things. How do you, if you’re a department within a company like Siemens, or Sony or something, how do you shift to working from home in a way that satisfies all of your corporate procedures? I’ve also been talking to a lot of agency founders, co-located agency founders who are also making this jump for the first time.

Tom Willmot:

I think there’s a mix, really, of a lot of the traditional, remote work challenges, that those of us who are invested in the future for remote work, and really care about it, have spent a lot of time talking about, how you communicate, and build culture and process remotely with your team. But actually, this is quite an unprecedented time, so most of these companies actually, although there’s a lot of literature out there on how to transition to remote, it’s not super applicable now because people are not transitioning to remote in a normal way. They’re having to do it within a 24 hour period, in a global pandemic.

Luis:

And with kids, et cetera.

Tom Willmot:

With kids, a lot of that. So, I think actually, a lot of the challenges are very basic challenges. Like, what tools should I actually use, day one? What’s the minimum I need to do, I can’t just overwhelm my team with 30 new tools on day one? How can I actually just get this up and running really quickly? Yeah, simple things like in the office we have a load of computers that are leased or something, how do I actually get those home to people? Maybe you have shared equipment, that was a common discussion I have amongst agencies. They actually have a bunch of shared equipment in their office, especially if they’re doing photography or something. Now, everyone’s working from home, it’s like how do you manage sharing those two office cameras around the team, or something?

Luis:

You’re stuck at home, how much use are you going to give to those cameras anyway?

Tom Willmot:

Sure.

Luis:

There’s a limited amount of cat pictures that one can take.

Tom Willmot:

That’s very true, I think it’s probably some of the most challenge times are going to for companies specializing in video work or anything like that, you’ve got to do onsite.

Luis:

There are a couple of directions I want to go from there. The first is that I consider myself a cautious optimist. So, although I do believe that this situation is actually a bit of a wake up call, that’s going to help some companies actually realize that having all their people in the office is something that comes from the industrial revolution, and doesn’t make sense in the world of today. But, part of me also fears that, as you pointed out, it’s not like companies shifting to remote now are going to see an increase in productivity, right? As would be expected, if they did it under normal conditions because yes, people are working from home but, as you pointed out, they didn’t have any time or budget to set up a proper home office. They’re stuck with their kids, so that’s a big … As someone who doesn’t have kids yet, I was amazed to see the impact it made on my colleagues with kids. They just look like zombies, it’s incredible. It definitely has a huge impact, it definitely lowers productivity, it requires a different social arrangement with their significant others, it’s just a big complication.

Luis:

I fear that companies will see that, well working from home led to a decrease in productivity. Do you think this fear is unfounded, how do you feel about this?

Tom Willmot:

I mean, I think it’s logical and it makes sense. It’s true, that the transition to remote that we’ve all been evangelizing, I think it can be tempting for us to want to co-opt this as a great opportunity. But actually, it’s not the transition that we’ve been hoping for. You’re right, that companies will potentially see the impact this transition’s had on their business, and place responsibility of all of that onto just remote working, generally, rather than the specific challenges of this pandemic.

Tom Willmot:

I think, actually, what we can do is just speak openly about that, as remote evangelists. Something I’ve been trying to do, whenever I’m talking about remote, is just acknowledge that this is not a normal situation, that this is going to be really challenging, that we’re finding it challenging, too. Remote’s not magic, it doesn’t make a global pandemic without its challenges.

Tom Willmot:

I think especially as this is likely to go on for some time, so what I’ve seen so far in the companies I’m talking to is there’s this initial stipe of everybody moves to work from home, a lot of those challenges come out, and then slowly, over those few weeks, people figure out some of the basics, and they start to get stuff working. So I think those challenges are not going to be present all the way through, people will figure them out, one way or the other.

Tom Willmot:

I think there’s going to be this interesting decision the other way, which is as we come to the end of this lockdown period, you’re going to have companies, and founders, and finance directors looking at the line items of all the costs of their office and thinking, actually, do we need to renew them? Is it worth us keeping that up? I think that will be-

Luis:

That’s the hope.

Tom Willmot:

Yeah. It probably doesn’t need to be that remote work has led to an increase in productivity, it probably just needs to be that you can’t really justify the costs, all of the costs of co-locate. It probably should be the same, or maybe even a bit less. Those other things outside of productivity that I think remote gives you, I would expect that a lot of the people who are working remotely now will themselves recognize. They’re like, “Oh, this is really challenging because the kids are here,” but as soon as the kids go back to school, “Actually, there’s a lot I would like about this. The commute, I’ve got the freedom in the day to do things that, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do.” That kind of autonomy and freedom that comes with the remote, I think people will recognize that they really value that, so I’m quite hopeful about that. Yeah.

Luis:

Yeah, well that’s a good point, thank you for sharing. You make me slightly more optimistic.

Tom Willmot:

Good. I am a bit of a naïve optimist, so I much warn you there.

Luis:

Well, it’s good, it’s good. Let’s wrap up on the Corona part of this conversation, I think that wraps it. Just because it’s the way the world is now and is going to be for a while, it’s possible that we might go back there, but let’s refocus a bit on your actual remote story, on your business story.

Luis:

How would you say remote work has made your business, as it exists today, possible? Or, help it make it better than it could be if people were co-located?

Tom Willmot:

That’s an interesting question. I mean, in some ways, a difficult question to answer because being distributed is so core to how we’ve always worked together, and I guess grown together as a company, I guess it can be difficult to imagine actually what we would look like if we weren’t. I think, really, probably two main ways I would answer that.

Tom Willmot:

I think one is, as a business, it’s being distributed allowed us to hire people from all over the world very easily, and that has been an advantage for us because that’s enabled us to do business all over the world. I think compare us to, say, a co-located agency in a major city, who is hiring in that city, and because they’re hiring in that city they’re able to win projects with clients who are in that city. But, they’re going to struggle to win projects with clients in other countries, for example, or even elsewhere. So that’s a very common model for a co-located agency, they set up shop on the street where all the newspapers have offices, and then that’s their client base, and it makes sense.

Tom Willmot:

What we’ve found is, actually, because we were not on that street, and we weren’t able to bring those clients back to our offices, well that gave us a little bit of a disadvantage when competing with those agencies for those clients, but it didn’t put us out of the game entirely. So actually, we found that even though we weren’t in London, we were able to compete with London agencies for London work, or New York agency for New York work. Because we were distributed in all these places, we had access to a lot of work that they didn’t have. So actually, straight off, I think it was massively in our favor, and I think massively is in your favor if you’re distributed.

Tom Willmot:

Similarly, on the hiring side, we can compete for London hires with London agencies, New York hires with New York agencies, but we can also hire lots of people they can’t hire, so again, trade off is in our favor. So I think that has been core to Human Made’s growth, is that we’ve been able to hire people, and win work all over the world, which again, has helped with our growth, we can be in places where growth is happening. If the London market’s slow and the New York market is fast, then we can shift our focus there much more easily than a co-located company that’s narrowly focused. I guess, that’s whole area of advantage.

Tom Willmot:

I think the other area that’s been really important for Human Made is culturally, and I guess from a values perspective, the freedom and autonomy that naturally grows out of the distributed model, you’re placing a lot of trust on people, you’re giving them a lot of freedom in return, you’re requiring them to take a lot of responsibility, and those values are a hugely important part of what Human Made is today, and how it runs, and I think how we’re able to work so effectively together as a team. Whilst I think you certainly could have those things in a co-located company, it isn’t impossible, they’re just so naturally aligned with the distributed model, I think that’s, again, an advantage that you get.

Tom Willmot:

If you’re requiring everybody to come into your office, and you require them to come at certain times, you’ve already taken away a significant amount of autonomy in doing that.

Luis:

That’s true.

Tom Willmot:

Inevitably, some large amount of that is going to be unnecessary, right? Actually, there’s very few jobs, especially in our world, where being in a certain place at a certain time is in any way relevant to the work that needs to be done. So you’re already just starting from a point where you’re arbitrarily asking people to do things, or requiring them to do things that don’t make a ton of sense, I don’t think that’s a great point to start from.

Luis:

Let’s take that, about requiring people to do things, let’s take that thread and talk a bit about how you manage your team on a daily basis. What does your typical day look like? And, building on from that, then, what does the typical week look like?

Tom Willmot:

Yeah, I guess each day has a rhythm to it, and then the week as a whole has a rhythm to it. For me, it’s typically a mix of writing and talking, I suppose. I think, like a lot of remote companies, probably like a lot of companies, we’re trying to shift away from lots of meetings, and towards more writing, and reading. It’s usually the primary way we communicate internally is either text, chat, or long form writing. There’s usually something for me to write up, which I’m sharing with the team, so I’ll spend time writing. There’s a bunch of updates that other people across the company have written, either direct reports, or teams, or projects in the company. So a significant amount of time just reading and writing, as part of our communication.

Tom Willmot:

Then, other real time conversations. I’ll one to ones with all of my direct reports every week, on a video call like this. And other team calls, too. We try to prioritize using video for the things where video is really valuable or important, so spending time together as a team where we can see each other, have fun, hang out, get to know each other. That replacement, I guess, for meeting up in the kitchen when you’re making coffee, or hanging around the water cooler, or whatever some of those cliches are. And then, we try and use long form writing for sharing ideas, for sharing status updates, because those things can be accessed asynchronously.

Luis:

That’s very interesting to me, because we haven’t established our own ratio of video to writing. I think that we are organically moving towards more video conversations, more calls all the time, and less writing. So I’m curious to learning about your reasoning, for trying to go the opposite direction? Why are you trying to focus more on writing versus video?

Tom Willmot:

I think a couple of reasons. One, we’re distributed all over the world, so across all the extremes of timezones. All the way from team members in New Zealand on the one side, to the West coast of the US on the other. So it’s actually just not feasible for us all to get together on video calls. Inevitably, if we’re doing a video call, we’re excluding some large proportion of the company, so that’s not ideal. In fact, it means if we do need to do video calls that contain important information, or an important part of what we’re doing at the moment as a company, we actually have to have multiple versions of the same call just so that everybody has a chance to join them.

Tom Willmot:

I’ll occasionally do town halls or something, I did a town hall at the beginning of this Coronavirus pandemic, and we did multiple of them to give everybody a chance to ask questions, and hear from us directly on that. Also, just the fact that, even if you are all in the same timezone, maybe everybody, at that exact moment, is not able or it’s not the right time for them to jump on. Especially, again, if you’ve got kids at home and things. So writing things down just means that people can read them at a time that’s actually convenient for them, and they don’t have to come and join us.

Tom Willmot:

We do do a lot of video calls, and they’re often just the easiest thing to do. Because, ultimately, writing something down, it takes time and thought to do that, and we’re all busy, and stressed, especially in this time, so the easiest thing to do is just jump on a call. I actually think that jumping on a call is … Oh, sorry.

Luis:

No, no, no, no. I was saying, it’s less direct, there’s a medium between the two speakers, and more room for interpretation, right? The way I read something is not necessarily the way you write it.

Tom Willmot:

That’s very true. So, I think if it’s, say … Yeah, I think there are times when a video call, or an audio call, can be the most effective way to work through something. Like, if you’re in a conversation with someone over text, whether that’s just in Slack or long form, and you’re just finding that you’re really both not connecting around that and misunderstanding each other, definitely the best thing to do in those situations is jump on, and have a quick audio call about it. But, I think that shouldn’t be the default. I think the default should be I, as the person who wants to initiate this conversation, will actually take the time to formulate my thoughts and write them down.

Tom Willmot:

It’s amazing, actually, just personally, I find, this to be true, that I will think oh, I must talk to so-and-so about that thing. So my instinct is to go and get their calendar, and try and work out when we could have a call. If instead, I stop myself and I instead write this up and send it through to them, often I find, in the process of writing that up, I figure it out myself anyway, and thus I don’t need to have taken that person’s time. That’s one person’s time I’m saving, but in a call with five, 10 people, what a waste of time for all those people to have actually called in for that thing that, actually, I could have just done myself if I tried, put a bit of thought to it.

Luis:

You’re actually very efficient. Because when I want something from someone, and I start writing it out, I usually come to the conclusion that wow, this is a really stupid idea, I might as well drop it.

Tom Willmot:

Yeah, that too. Yeah. Yeah. People shouldn’t feel bad for using video calls, or meetings for that. Shouldn’t feel too bad, we definitely do that, too, it is often the easiest way. But, I think it’s healthy to question the use of those, and to try and push back on our tendency to, “Let’s just pull everyone into a room, and hopefully that solves this for me.”

Luis:

Yeah, okay. Yeah, makes sense, makes sense. That’s a good perspective on video versus text.

Luis:

So let’s talk a bit about your one on ones with your direct reports. How often do you do it, do you have a specific structure that you like to go through, and why? I find this, by the way, to be one of the most important things to do as a manager. If there’s a week where I don’t spend time talking with each person in my team, I know that something will be lost from one week to the other.

Tom Willmot:

Yeah. Yeah, I agree, they’re really, really important. Now, with the size that Human Made is, I do them with my direct reports, the leadership team every week, so we’re meeting usually between 30 minutes and an hour, depending. I’ll schedule them for 30 minutes, but I always make sure in my schedule I’ve left some buffer afterwards, just in case there’s something extra that needs talking through. I sprinkle those through the week, so I’m usually doing a couple a day or something.

Tom Willmot:

Then, I try to do, with the wider team, or my indirect reports, people who are reporting to the people who report to me, I’ll have one to ones with them either on a monthly basis or a three monthly basis. It wasn’t that long ago that Human Made was still at the size that I could feasibly have one to ones with everybody in the company. That was, for a long time, that was what we did. I would have a one to one with everybody in the company every month, up until we were about 20 people. Then, I switched to do a one to one in the company with everyone every three months.

Tom Willmot:

I think if I could give one bit of advice to small, either newer companies or founders of small companies, it would be to do just talking to everybody regularly, in that one to one setting. It’s a really powerful way for you, as the leader of the company, to actually know what’s going on for people across your company, and for them to be able to hear from you.

Tom Willmot:

Actually, when I stopped doing that, when I stopped having that direct connection with everybody in the company on a regular basis, I started to realize just how I’ve been, and I’m still now, even, running into things where it’s like, “Oh, because I stopped doing that, this thing is no longer working.” Now, I need to put something in place to replace that benefit we were getting from me talking to everybody directly. Similarly, other leaders and managers at Human Made are again, meeting at least weekly with their reports, just for 15, 30 minutes.

Luis:

That seems like a good way to go about it. There’s something that you did, in your company, that I think takes some real guts. That’s to actually publish, make public, the manual of how things are managed and done in the company. I’ve done something similar in the past, just for the marketing department, which is my marketing. We call it the Marketing Team Agreement, and I put it up on GitHub for people to modify and share. But, you did this for the whole company. I mean, I don’t know if it’s on GitHub, but it’s definitely public, right? You can see it on your website.

Luis:

How do you think this has shaped the culture of your company? And, how do you … Maybe you’ve never been faced with this problem, but there’s a book that I really enjoy, from Ben Horowitz, I think it’s his name, that’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. He talks about the peacetime CEO and wartime CEO. No one wants to be on the other end of a wartime CEO. So I can say for myself, when I made my marketing agreement and I made it public, it was very peacetime, there was not a lot of wartime there. I find that when it’s wartime, I try to live up to the expectations set up by that document, but I can never do that fully, right? I can never do that fully.

Luis:

How has your experience been? How hard, when things get hard, has it been to live up to that’s public? And, how has that public document influenced the way you manage your company?

Tom Willmot:

I guess, as a company that grew out of open source software development, the beginnings of Human Made were quite intertwined with the WordPress open source projects, so we were all quite used to that open sharing of the work we were doing, and even the how of doing that work was in the open. I think that made the idea that we could open our company handbook, I guess, seem somewhat natural.

Tom Willmot:

I think it’s had a lot of advantages. We found that it’s really, on the hiring side, actually been really valuable for us, to have that be public. It means that a lot of people, kind of like the hiring equivalent of pre-sales documentation, people who are wondering what it’s like to work at Human Made, read that before they apply. That actually just directly benefits us, people are accessing that and making a decision of whether to apply or not. We’re not finding that we’re having to explain, they can very conveniently … I would just say, “Our pension policy is there, public, you can just go read that.” We don’t have lots of requests to provide that information.

Tom Willmot:

I think, like the question about wartime, peacetime, I think it’s at times like this, and I’ve been saying this internally, too, times like this when things like your values, and the principles that you want to live by or work by as a company, that you aspire to, it’s at time like this that those are really tested. Actually, this is when they matter, right? When things are easy, it’s easy to write down a list of values. Those values are probably not coming into conflict, they’re not really being tested then. In peacetime, those things can be somewhat meaningless and frivolous, right?

Luis:

Yeah.

Tom Willmot:

In wartime, that’s when you see whether they’re true or not, because you’re actually forced to act. So for us, actually, just in the contingency planning we’ve been doing, which has required scenario planning out, some of the ways in which things could go really wrong for us as part of this pandemic, having our values, and having the policies, and the principles and things that are listed in our handbook, having those there has been really valuable. We’ve been able to be guided by those, we’ve been able to lean on those, in terms of communicating to the company how we will go about making even really tough decisions.

Tom Willmot:

We’ve had discussions in the company about well, what would happen if all of our clients left us because of this pandemic, and we were forced into make redundancies or something, a really difficult conversation to have, but we’ve been able to have that openly because … and, we’ve been able to lean on our values in guiding well, because we know we trust in these values, and that we will stick to them, this is how we would even go about navigating something as terrible as that. Thankfully, it’s not . But, I think you’re totally right, it’s at these times that those things are actually put to the test.

Tom Willmot:

I think you may well discover, actually, a bunch of things that were aspiration you wrote down are actually not true, we can see that they’re not true. That’s okay, and you need to, then, just adjust those, and write down, actually, what they really are. Maybe people are discovering now what they really are, that’s something, I think, useful in a time like this, to keep a watchful eye on. What are we doing, how are we doing it? What things did we think were important to us we’re now discovering aren’t? What things might we want to take forward, even after this situation ends, and things are back to normal? What things have we done well, that we’re going to want to take forward?

Luis:

Yeah. Yeah, it makes sense. It’s a balancing act. Again, it’s important that these agreements, although public, they don’t need to be set in stone, right?

Tom Willmot:

No.

Luis:

They can be revised as we learn about them, right?

Tom Willmot:

I mean, one of the things I love about having them out there is that people will take them, and repurpose them, then they’ll send us the changes they’ve made. Maybe some of those are actually things that, then, we can take inside. People will question us on then, and those questions will lead to improvements.

Tom Willmot:

As I think, actually, approaching this from the point of view of, “We’re just going to share what we’ve got, though it may be imperfect, because our goal is to be transparent, and to improve it if possible,” frees you up from feeling like you’ve got to come up with the perfect company handbook, or the perfect policy on everything before you share it. Share it way earlier than that, share it when it’s imperfect, and you are embarrassed about it, and people will help you improve it. You’ll come out of it with a better handbook, at the end of the day, and that’s the goal.

Luis:

That’s definitely a good point.

Luis:

So in your open letter to the company about the current world situation, you did mention that you’re thinking about how you can do more to promote social connection, support mental health and well being, while being remote. So what are some of the things that you figured out in the meantime? What are some of the things that your business is doing?

Tom Willmot:

Yeah, that’s a huge, huge aspect to remote work, even prior to this, that actually I just don’t think is talked about enough. You know, I think we’re, understandable, a lot of us who are evangelists for remote work, want to focus on all of the ways in which working remotely is just amazing, and is what everybody should do. But, I think loneliness and mental health, more generally, is a real challenge, and there’s a bunch of specific challenges, I think, around distributed work.

Tom Willmot:

I think what we’ve found, actually just in this current situation, people are locked in, in their homes. So, even more so than usual, just the social connections that you can get with your colleagues are really important. Just some simple things we’ve done, very early on we created a separate space in our Slack, a dedicated Slack channel, and also a company blog which is where we do our long form writing, we created specific areas for discussion Coronavirus, and the situation. One, so that people had an outlet for that. But two, so that if you wanted to avoid that, you could. I’ve found that to be really helpful.

Tom Willmot:

Again, early on we prompted discussions there, by asking people to share what are the discussions that you’re having at home about how you’re going to manage working remotely now that you’ve got kids, or a partner that’s work from home. So that was really great to see internally, everybody writing up the situations that was happening in their home country, or at home, and posting up things on there, and sharing advice with each other, and supporting each other.

Tom Willmot:

I think it can be natural as leaders to feel like oh, how are we going to support everybody with all of these challenges? But, the truth is, in a situation like this, it’s way bigger than our identity, just as the leader, or founder, or CEO, we’re just not going to be able to take on the full responsibility of supporting everybody through a pandemic. This is a global situation. But, everybody actually was able to jump in and support each other, too, which I think is really powerful.

Luis:

Yeah, it’s really good. It’s really good, and it speaks a lot to the quality of the culture in the business.

Tom Willmot:

Sure, yeah. I think there’s actually an opportunity in a situation like this, talking a bit about wartime CEO, wartime culture, I think, can be actually, people are naturally have a tendency to band together, and to support each other, and you can facilitate as a company that, and again likely come out of this with a stronger culture maybe than you went into it with.

Luis:

Oh yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Luis:

I want to be respectful of your time, and we’ve gone for nearly an hour. If you’re up to it, I would like to finish on some rapid fire questions. The questions are rapid fire, but the answers don’t have to be. So, shall we begin?

Tom Willmot:

Let’s go.

Luis:

Okay. So, what browser tabs do you have open right now?

Tom Willmot:

Oh, I don’t even have a browser open.

Luis:

Oh! Okay, very focused. Congratulations.

Tom Willmot:

I’m focused on you.

Luis:

Congratulations. Okay, if you had 100 Euros to spend with each person working for you, what would you give them? The rules are you can’t give them the money, and you can’t let them pick. You have to buy, broadly, the same thing for everybody.

Tom Willmot:

Everyone has to have the same thing? Hm, that’s challenging. My first answer would be that I would go to each person’s manager, and they would be able to pick something small but meaningful for each of their people. That’s something we found to be a really nice thing, especially as a remote company, to do. We have a discretionary budget that managers use internally, to just send little gifts to their teams.

Tom Willmot:

To send the same thing to everybody, I would probably send a little lockdown care package of toilet roll, and hand wash, and those sort of nice things.

Luis:

Very topical, very topical.

Tom Willmot:

Yeah.

Luis:

Okay. What purchase has made your work life easier or more productive in the past year?

Tom Willmot:

Probably my favorite purchase was a standing desk, I really like being able to shift from sitting to standing. I’m standing at the moment.

Luis:

You’re actually my first standing guest.

Tom Willmot:

Yeah?

Luis:

Yeah.

Tom Willmot:

For a podcast, it’s good. I can be dynamic, and move around, which is what I need to do to get my brain juices flowing, and runs in line with that several times a day, usually, depending on what I’m doing.

Luis:

What brand would you recommend, if you’re up to sharing?

Tom Willmot:

Yeah, the one I got actually was just from Ikea. It was 500 bucks, and it’s great. It’s got a nice little buttons on it. It’s pretty quiet, I’m lowering it right now and I’m guessing that you maybe can’t even hear it.

Luis:

No, not hearing it. Nice.

Tom Willmot:

Yeah, get that one.

Luis:

What book or books have you gifted the most?

Tom Willmot:

I think probably the couple of books … One, I’m going to plug a book, actually, that Siobhan, a friend who also works for Human Made, wrote on remote work, I think it’s topical at the moment. It’s called A Life Lived Remotely.

Luis:

Wow.

Tom Willmot:

It’s by Siobhan McKeown.

Luis:

I’ve never heard of that book. I thought I had read all the remote work books, apparently I missed it.

Tom Willmot:

Well, here’s a new one. What I particularly like about it is that it’s not just all of the positive sides of remote work, it also touches on some of these things that we’ve been talking about, some of the challenges of loneliness, and mental health, and spending your whole life connected to technology.

Tom Willmot:

I think another book that was really influential on me, in building Human Made, one is a book called Mavericks. Or, Maverick actually, I think.

Luis:

Maverick?

Tom Willmot:

I’m just trying to find it now, so I can tell you exactly who it’s by. It’s by a guy called Ricardo Semler. It’s kind of a biography of him, and he inherited a business from his father. Then, revolutionized, I guess, the workplace using a lot of the things that we’re talking about now, around remote work, or non-hierarchal companies. But, then he did it in Argentina, in the ’80, so that was really inspirational to me. Just not being afraid to question some of the traditional ways of building and running a company, giving yourself permission to rethink those things, and first principles, and to trust people. Yeah, that had quite a powerful effect on me.

Luis:

Awesome. Thank you for the suggestions.

Luis:

Final question, now. This one is a bit of a longer setup, because it’s the last one. Let’s say that you’re hosting a dinner with all the top CEOs, executives, hiring managers, et cetera, from big tech companies from all around the world. The twist is that you’re hosting the dinner in a Chinese restaurant, and as the host you get to pick the fortune cookie message. Yes, I’m the guy with the Chinese restaurant question in his podcast. This has always been like this, this is the hill that I’m dying on so I’m not changing it.

Tom Willmot:

Okay.

Luis:

I’m not changing it.

Tom Willmot:

Okay.

Luis:

Anyway, as the host you get to pick the message in the fortune cookie. So knowing that these people are going to be talking about remote work and the future of work, what is your message?

Tom Willmot:

It’s a fortune cookie message that I am writing to the world’s tech CEOs?

Luis:

Yes.

Tom Willmot:

I think it’s tied to remote work, because I think remote work is the world to make the world better. I think my message would be think more deeply about how you’re making the world a better place.

Luis:

That’s a good message, I accept that. I accept that, that’s actually close to mine. That’s actually close to mine. In my own case, I just …

Tom Willmot:

What was yours?

Luis:

I just quote the Prophet and say, “Be excellent to each other, dudes.”

Tom Willmot:

I like that. Yeah, I like that. Something we should all do more.

Luis:

It goes well with yours, I think. Okay, this was a fun time. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Now is the time where I would like you to tell people, tell our listeners, how they can reach out to you, how can they continue the conversation with you, and how can they learn more about your business?

Tom Willmot:

Sure. Yeah, a couple of places. People can connect with me directly on Twitter, I’m just at @TomWillmot, all one word, T-O-M-W-I-L-L-M-O-T, always happy to chat there, my DMs are open as well. Especially something I’ve found I’ve been able to do that can be valuable now is if people are running into specific challenges around remote work at the moment, or agency life generally, drop me a DM or a message, I’m always happy to share what advice I can, or what experience we’ve had.

Tom Willmot:

Then, you can check us out as a company, humanmade.com. Also, altis-dxp.com, which is a product that we’re working on at the moment, a WordPress digital experience platform. We’re really excited about that, so check us out there, too.

Luis:

Okay. Well Tom, thank you so much, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

Tom Willmot:

Awesome. Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.

Luis:

Okay. That’s it, ladies and gentlemen. This was Tom Willmot, the co-founder and CEO of Human Made, and this was the Distant Job podcast, a podcast that’s all about building and leading awesome remote teams.

Luis:

So, we close another episode of the Distant Job podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please, you can help us out by sharing it on social media. That would be great, it’s how we reach more listeners, and the more listeners we have, the more awesome guests I can get in touch and convince to participate in this conversation that are a joy to have for me, and I hope they’re a joy for you to listen to, as well. You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes, or your podcast syndication service of choice. Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast get to more listeners.

Luis:

Now, another thing that you might want to do is go to distantjob.com/blog/podcast, click on your favorite episode, any episode really, and subscribe. By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up, and whenever we get the transcripts of the episode so you can actually peruse the conversations in text form.

Luis:

And, of course, if you need to find a great employee for your team, a great remote employee, you should take the whole world into consideration and not just look to hire locally, not just look to hire in your country. Look around the whole world, because that’s the talent pool that contains the best talent. To help you with that, again, distantjob.com is the perfect place to start. You will tell us who you need, and we will make sure that you get the best possible candidate 40% faster than the industry standard.

Luis:

With that, I bid you adieu. See you next week on the next episode of the Distant Job podcast.

 

More ways to listen:

Writing the values and goals of a company is easy. The challenge is building a company’s culture around those values, with a team that believes in them as well.

In this podcast episode, Tom Willmot shares his experience in building a remote company from the bottom to the top. He shares some of the difficulties co-located companies might be experiencing when transitioning to remote due COVID-19. And his optimistic belief of the remote business model.

''You're placing a lot of trust on people, you're giving them a lot of freedom in return, you're requiring them to take a lot of responsibility, and those values are a hugely important part.'' Click To Tweet

What you will learn:

  • The meaning and importance of having a resilient business
  • How to support your clients during COVID-19 times
  • Strategies to communicate efficiently with your distributed team
  • Video versus written communication dilemma on remote teams
  • Creating your company’s values, policies, and principles
  • Employees mental health and isolation challenges due to COVID-19

 

Book recommendations:

Don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE so you won’t miss all of the other interesting episodes that we have coming up in the next few weeks!

 

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