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How to Build a Strong Remote Work Culture: An Interview With Christy Schumann

Christy Schumann, Toptal’s SVP of Talent Operations, discusses the future of work and what it takes to lead a fully remote and globally distributed team.

Christy Schumann, Toptal’s SVP of Talent Operations, discusses the future of work and what it takes to lead a fully remote and globally distributed team.

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Christy is the SVP of Talent Operations at Toptal. She earned a BS in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from Columbia Business School.

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Christy Schumann, Toptal’s SVP of Talent Operations, is responsible for matching some of the world’s greatest freelancers with companies who need their skills. She spent more than a decade in management consulting at Bain & Company, before joining Rackspace as a general manager of its security business.

In the following Q&A, Schumann discusses her shift from an office environment to a fully distributed and remote company—and what it’s like to lead a team responsible for matching Fortune 500 companies and well-funded startups with the best talent in the world.

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Prior to joining Toptal, you worked at Bain and Rackspace. Those jobs were fully or mostly location-based, and now you’re working for a fully remote company. Take us through how you worked and how it changed.

When I started at Bain, we were very location-based. Probably to the extreme. Like most consulting firms, they have a four-day client set requirement. And so, not only was I in an office but I was traveling to someone else’s office, which either required a plane or, in many cases, a one- to three-hour drive each way. I did that for a number of years. I actually spent the last two and a half years or so at Bain in an internal role where I was able to be remote. And it was life-changing.

We had a full team I met with probably once a year. And it was really the first time I was able to see how productive a remote environment can be. It was the same Bain team and the same smart Bain people—and the frameworks and the slide decks and the Excel models. I was just doing it from the comfort of my own home.

As I continued my journey, I actually left that remote role. I got an itch to kind of explore outside of Bain for the first time. So I went to Rackspace, where I was in the office from probably 8 to 5, 8 to 6, every day. It was different. There were trade-offs. It showed me that there were a lot of things I missed about the office: coffee chats, in-person meetings where you can really get body language—there’s probably nothing like it.

But after returning to remote work, I can honestly say that I don’t know if I can go back to a full-time office environment ever again. In my personal life, I’m actually much more productive when I am working from home. There are benefits to having impromptu conversations, tapping on the shoulder of your teams, your boss, other people outside your function. But I think, in general, there’s a certain percentage of those that are not as productive as they could be: You have an impromptu chat over coffee, no one writes anything down, and you go on your merry way.

In the remote environment, every meeting has a purpose. Every meeting has an agenda that is documented. There’s usually an initiative deck circulated across a number of people and time zones. So I think the remote productivity aspect of it is a stark contrast to what you find in the office. And it’s something that I’ve really come to appreciate.

You brought up a really interesting point about the transition to working fully remote: the tools you use and the way you communicate. What tools does your team at Toptal use to enable real-time communication?

Interestingly enough, we do have a number of in-person [video] meetings. Before that in-person meeting, it is everyone’s responsibility to look at the documentation ahead of time. So it is up to the initiative team or whoever is hosting the meeting to have some form of documentation—even if it’s a few bullet points on an agenda they are going to tick through. People come to meetings more prepared. It’s a little bit easier in the office when you just get together and say, “Hey, let me throw up some bullets on the whiteboard on the fly.”

We use Zoom for all video conferencing. Slack and Google Docs—those are where we house most of our documentation. Moreover, Slack is literally where all the knowledge exists and is the single source of truth. When you leave a meeting, you can always go back and refer to exactly what was said or what is going to be covered in a meeting.

You have a large team, you’re managing complex workstreams. How do you track productivity and measure success? How do you make sure that everyone is productive and the key initiatives are tracking?

Maybe it’s because I come from a consulting background, but I’m still a fan of red, yellow, green. Just because you are remote doesn’t mean that you don’t have decks with red, yellow, and green—and a project management office that is tracking your key initiatives and the health of your business. In the remote environment and at Toptal specifically, we rely on data and dashboards. Having live dashboards that are dynamic allows you to determine the overall health of your business—revenue, cost, volume, or other performance metrics at the company or function level—at any given time. Additionally, we use them to diagnose operational issues—anything in an operational function that sets off a number of flags if something is going haywire. Lastly, I think metrics are critical for performance-managing your teams and individuals in a remote environment.

I’d like to make sure that everyone in our organization and talent operations knows what a good day looks like, how success is defined in terms of both qualitative and quantitative performance measures. That’s really how you get everyone aligned with the direction across countries and time zones without having to speak to them multiple times a day.

Toptal has been a fully remote company for more than a decade. What makes it special or different from other remote companies?

Toptal is 100% distributed. It’s the first time that I’ve been in a fully distributed remote model. When I talked about my time at Bain where I was remote, I was one of a few people who were remote; everyone else was in the office.

Having everyone remote puts everyone on a level playing field. When you have some people who are remote but the majority of people in the office, the most important things are discussed when you hang up the call. You go through the entire agenda. Everyone says, “OK, nice to talk to you.” And then, all of a sudden, the next steps and the action [items] are made on the walk back to your desks or the walk to the coffee shop after the meeting is over. So that was frustrating. I think, when sometimes I did have to be remote, I wasn’t really sure if I was gathering all the context. So Toptal doesn’t have that.

The second thing is diversity. We are spread across 100 countries. It’s been proven that greater diversity leads to more effective and more successful businesses. And being 100% remote, we truly do make that effort in our recruiting to post in multiple cities and countries across the entire globe, so we can get the best talent for the role.

The third is a secret sauce that’s really hard to describe. It’s just such a strong culture. Since I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who is not driven or not ambitious or not helpful. Everyone is all of those things. And I think that comes from a very strong recruiting process, which includes a culture interview that focuses specifically on the tenets that we have on Toptal’s culture page. The candidates get asked: “Hey, are you ready for this? Are you ready to be remote? Are you self-motivated? Do you rely on your office for your social life? Because if you do, this kind of 100% distributed model might not be for you.”

Having a strong hiring process, a clear vision of what a good cultural fit looks like is something that drives Toptal. And it’s impressive that we have been able to scale as fast and as large as we are with such a strong, consistent culture globally.

What advice would you provide to other executives and managers who are trying to figure out how to run their teams as efficiently and as successfully as possible in a remote environment?

I think what many organizations are afraid of is that everything they know works in the office doesn’t work in the remote environment. And one thing I’ve really homed in on since I joined Toptal—being 100% remote—is that many of the best practices that apply in the office also apply when you’re remote. Organizational structures don’t have to change. They may appear flatter, because anyone and everyone communicates on Slack, but that doesn’t have to change. Remote working, the rise of the talent economy—it’s no longer the future of work, it is now.

You should, in the office, be managing to metrics. Your teams and team members, front line—up, down, and across—should know what a good day looks like. They should have performance metrics and KPIs. All those things emphasized in a remote environment are really best practices that you should have in the office anyway. So I would say my greatest piece of advice is don’t be nervous. A lot of the things you know already apply. It just so happens that you’re talking over Zoom instead of being together in the same room.

The other big piece of advice is trust your teams, trust your people. Don’t be nervous about your talent not working. Because if they’re not doing the work, whether they’re in the office or out of the office, you’ll know. I think one of the biggest transitions is valuing results and not valuing face time. When you see someone at their desk from 8 to 5, you think they’re working that whole time and that they’re being 100% productive. I think that’s probably wishful thinking.

You have to trust your people and make sure that you have milestones, deadlines, and metrics, so that you’ll know if someone’s not performing—which you would, in theory, do in the office as well. So you’ll be able to help the underperformers improve and help develop personal or team performance improvement plans if necessary.

The last thing I would say to organizations is to embrace the ability to have a global talent pool. Companies are being asked and forced to go remote at this point in time, which probably seems scary because it’s uncharted territory. It’s actually an opportunity in terms of them being able to expand beyond the talent pool that exists 25 to 30 miles from their headquarters.

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Let’s talk a little bit about your role as the SVP of Talent Operations. It must be a complex job to manage talent with clients in over 100 countries, 24-7. Tell us what a day or a week looks like.

A lot of people think that we are recruiting talent. But Toptal’s entire business model is sourcing, screening, and then matching freelance talent with clients, based on their needs. That is talent operations. This is the team that creates our network of thousands of people who are ready, willing, and able to help clients on a remote basis, largely based on their needs from across the world.

So there’s an entire operation of people who are supporting this expert pairing to ensure that the client and talent both get what they want. It is complex because in many businesses, you have one end customer and you have a product or a widget or a piece of software that you’re selling. In this case, it’s unique because we have a two-sided marketplace where, on one hand, you have a number of global, well-funded startups or Fortune 500s. Then, on the other side, you have the most highly skilled talent in the world.

And you have to figure out how to make both sides happy. So we have two customers: the client organization in need of talent and the talent—the freelancer. It’s important that we deliver both of them a client-centric experience where they feel like they’re getting the value that they sought out in the first place when coming to Toptal.

A lot of people think of the talent economy and the various talent platforms as if there’s just an algorithm that takes care of the matching. How does the operations process work?

Our process is fairly complex because we’re dealing with clients who have certain needs and talent who have certain needs. You have to have this expert pairing. We believe it requires a really special human-curated process. So we’re not HR. We have an entire operation that is dedicated to sourcing the talent, screening and vetting the talent. That takes away all the need in terms of “Let me narrow it down to the final five. Now, the final three. Now, we do an assessment.” We’ve done all that already for the clients and the talent. We get to know the talent during that process as well—what they’re looking for, what their skills are. And when it comes down to placing talent in real time on demand, we can do that very quickly because it requires a certain level of complexity that algorithms can’t deal with. We have humans helping to make that expert pairing. And we’ve also done a lot of upfront work and research so that we are able to have a match in a less-than-24-hour window.

A lot of the Fortune 500 companies are location-based. How do you bridge that last mile connection?

For us, it really depends on the client. We have a number of startups, smaller companies, or even midsize, midtier companies. And we find oftentimes that our customers actually appreciate the fully remote model. If we’re promoting a network of remote talent that can work effectively for you three time zones away, then we should be able to work with you remotely as well. We should be able to maintain that same level of client experience and responsiveness as we would if we were on-site, embedded into your recruiting team.

That being said, we do have a number of enterprise clients, where face-to-face interactions and relationships are still very important. We’re all still human. We want you to trust your partners. Therefore, we do make those in-person trips in certain situations. Our client model is not really one size fits all.

As an executive leader, how do you help people who might be new to remote with work-life balance?

It’s a really great question. I have a number of friends who look at me in a completely remote environment and say, “Oh, you must be working 20 to 30 hours a week because you’re working from home. You get to have lunch, do your laundry, and go grocery shopping during the day.”

The perception is completely false. I think for many, it’s actually harder to create boundaries when you’re working from home because your home is now your workplace. There are no boundaries, like your phone—I mean, we’re all attached to our phones. Slack notifications are going off during the day, even when I am in the kitchen making my tea for the three minutes I’ve stepped away from my desk and my headset. We actually work a lot, though our leadership team works to make sure that we are promoting the flexibility of what Toptal is all about.

I am a pretty open book with my team. I like to think that I lead by example. I make sure that I take advantage of the flexibility in terms of not missing those special events with my family, like the Halloween parade or school performances. And when I’m going to those, I’ll let people know, “Hey, I’m offline from 2 to 5. I’ll be back on after the kids go to bed.” And I’m always online at night, but it allows me that special time from probably 5:30 or 6 o’clock until 9 o’clock to have uninterrupted time with my family.

And I think leading by example—just showing people that I am able to get things done while also maintaining this sense of flexibility—is at least something to show them that they should be doing the same thing. Because it’s really up to each individual to be proactive about how they set boundaries.

Most of us are available I think during the core business hours. But if there are a few times when you’re not, no one is alarmist about it. Whereas, if you didn’t show up to the office on a Thursday after lunch, people would start asking, “Where are you?”

If we look at the way work has changed for large companies and midtier companies, what do you think represents durable change?

This is a monumental, unprecedented shift for the global workforce. Looking ahead, I think most companies will offer some sort of remote program. I do think that many companies will go back to the old ways of working—they all have offices, they all have real estate investments there. And it’s not just going to be an empty office. But I do think that they’ll have their eyes open to some sort of remote program. And as they figure out how to retain people, much of that will be around remote and flexibility. Allowing your people to go remote would increase your retention. Why would you want to lose that talent only due to location? That doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that all of the tools and technologies are now available to companies, big and small, to allow for a productive remote environment.

The second thing I’d add is that the talent side will be freer and looking for more flexibility. They will get used to this rise of remote and say, “Hey, I like this. I like this flexibility. I don’t want to go back into the office for 10 to 12 hours a day away from my family.” I think the talent and the teams will start to realize that flexibility is indeed attainable. Maybe you don’t go into the office five days a week. Maybe you go in two to three days a week, and you have a handful of days that are remote. I think it will just change the model for many companies.

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Understanding the Basics

  • What companies allow remote work?

    An increasing number of firms allow their full-time core staff to work remotely, some for part of their week (“hybrid”) and some entirely remote. Even companies that still enforce in-office work for their core staff usually permit contingent workers—freelancers—to work remotely when appropriate.

  • What does it mean to work remotely?

    Remote workers use apps such as Slack and Zoom to connect with managers and teammates worldwide. They share documents online, and collaborate through project management apps like Asana and Welcome. Some remote workers set up home offices, others rent or share office space, and others work while traveling.

  • What are the benefits of remote working?

    Remote workers enable flexible schedules, and reduce relocation and overhead costs for their companies. For workers, increased job satisfaction and family/work balance are two key benefits. Moreover, talented people with disabilities or travel limitations can become superior performers through remote work.

  • Is remote working effective?

    With global talent management strategies based on trust, remote workers can not only meet but exceed in-office productivity levels. Remote workers are happier and more likely to report higher job satisfaction levels than their office-working peers.

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