CEO Jay Prassl on Distributed Workplace Best Practices

It goes without saying the pandemic transformed how companies, teams, and employees work. From remote shifts to a growing emphasis on work-life balance, the landscape of collaboration is forever changed.

We sat down with Automox CEO Jay Prassl to discuss how Automox is using lessons from the past two years to continue evolving how we work and innovate together.

What lessons have you learned over the past year or so?

There are a few important things we’ve learned after becoming a distributed company. The first lesson taught us about the adaptability of our teams. Becoming distributed is an interesting way to test the resilience of our leaders and employees. But the truth of the matter is we’ve seen our team members come alive and thrive in this environment.

When I meet with our new hires, I like to ask, “What brought you to Automox?” More often than not, the answer is that they wanted to join a company that really embraced a distributed culture and work environment.

After COVID forced offices to close, many employees enjoyed their newfound autonomy, flexibility, and the comfort of working from home. Now, frankly, it’s becoming a key criteria for many job seekers. Employees are also becoming more discerning in seeing through the “remote-washing” that’s happening within many companies.

Second, this shift taught us how important the onboarding experience is. We focused on building a thorough and intentional onboarding process and that has allowed us to thrive and position ourselves as being distributed-first. Onboarding plays such a central role in fulfilling the promise of a distributed company.

Our onboarding process is more than handing over a computer and showing people how to login. It’s heavily focused on providing the education and frameworks our people need to be successful. We take the time to immerse them in our culture, provide best practices for distributed work, and align them with Automox’s mission.

We also learned the importance of setting intentional times for groups to get together. Not necessarily just to work, but to create the durable relationships that are essential to ensuring that your employees can build strong connections within their teams.

For example, as the pandemic waxed and waned we looked for ways to bring people together and foster those relationships. This could be a company Kick-Off event, a virtual Hackathon, or incorporating team-building excursions into onsite planning. Of course, because we’re a distributed company, being in person is never required. But, for those that are comfortable with it, we want to support the ability to be productive while still having time to get to know each other.

It helps that at Automox, we don’t have a traditional, physical headquarters. Because of this, there’s no primary location you need to be in to understand what’s happening with the company – that’s intentional. It levels the field for our employees so no one feels like they’re missing out on something by not being in a main office somewhere. I think that will catch on.

Have any of these lessons impacted how teams work at Automox?

Being distributed puts an additional weight on how you communicate. In some cases, being distributed has made it harder for some teams to work together. We’re seeing teams overcome that by using asynchronous tools, such as Slack and Confluence, to collaborate.

A silver lining to remote work is that it helps us solve problems by challenging us to think and act differently than before. Some companies have gone awry in their remote work efforts by attempting to take in-person work norms and introducing them into people’s homes.

One area we keep a close eye on is our meeting. We believe that how meetings are conducted are an important signal for culture. Everyone being involved in making every decision doesn’t scale. As companies (including Automox) go through that transition, we find teams meeting to decide just about everything. The intention is great but it ultimately slows down decision-making.

To combat this, we don’t push meeting leaders to “get it right.” What we do is go to the other side of the table and enable everyone to what we simply call “Vote the Meeting.”

This creates a level playing field for all participants and opens up avenues for real time feedback that rapidly improves meeting culture. The key here is to ask the right question. We vote meetings on a 1-10 scale and don’t actually care why someone votes a 6. What we care about is what needs to be different for them to vote a 7. The answer to that is clear, concise, and highly influential to the leader of the meeting.

What is the future of work in our industry as a whole?

In our industry, if you think distributed/remote work is a fad, that’s ill-informed. If not fully remote, hybrid environments will be the preference for knowledge workers going forward. This means being intentional will be important. The remote-washing of office cultures will cloud it. Employees are getting smarter as they learn how to work well in a distributed culture.

Automox’s commitment to being fully distributed has changed the diversity of the company. Our distributed workforce has expanded to more than 40 states across the U.S. and Canada. [add other stats]

What does work look like at Automox right now?

We bring Automox to great people wherever they are geographically, not the other way around. Our vision is to have people all over the country working for Automox, and across the globe as we grow internationally. There’s no headquarters, which levels the playing field and allows all employees to participate equally regardless of location.

Durable relationships are the foundation of the company. We’ve invested in bringing people together in very targeted engagements to allow those relationships to survive over time.

Automox will earn a cult-like following because people haven’t seen what we’re doing or how we’re doing it before. We’re merging a new way of working with a massive opportunity and cool people, giving our teams the flexibility to work in a way that is optimal to them.

What’s your advice to other CEOs adapting to the future of work?

Start listening and reading as much as you can on the topic. I began consuming concepts like asynchronous work and being intentional about the frameworks and tools we brought into the company.

For example, we took a page out of GitLab’s book and adopted a handbook-first approach. When you’re distributed, institutional knowledge gets stuck in people’s heads, but a commitment to a handbook-first environment cuts down on meetings and CYAs. That’s the intention – we’re still working toward perfecting it.

Reading about how others are doing it is only one piece of it. Listen to your team members to understand what’s working and what isn’t. Employee feedback is so vital – if that runs dry, it’s a signal something’s wrong.

Succeeding in a distributed environment requires consistent communication. You need to touch base with the whole company way more than you think you do, even if those meetings are short. We would be hurting if we weren’t keeping everyone informed and involved.

Automox is challenging the status quo: How does this commitment show up in our workplace culture and philosophies?

A dedication to principled entrepreneurship, or ownership of your path forward and ambitious pursuit of growth, shapes our culture.

At Automox, a principled entrepreneur is self-directed, self-motivated, embodies our company values, and is empowered to make an impact.

We instill in newcomers the notion that everyone is an entrepreneur at this company. It is a commitment to how we view one another, and there’s a set of principles that guide our entrepreneurial engagement. When you have a lot of people doing a lot of high-value work, and taking significant risks, this view of your co-worker as entrepreneur has become a powerful framework.

We encourage people to consider the attributes of an entrepreneur and how those attributes surface. Our values shape this principle, from being customer-obsessed and humbly courageous to the willingness to go first and fail quickly. Our values aren’t something to hang on a wall, they’re a guide for how we lead and communicate.

Anything else you’d like to share?

A lot of people think culture spontaneously erupts. Culture can surface on its own within a company, but when you provide a structure for it to adhere to, then you can guide it.

Our culture allows us to unlock the potential of our employees and bring that talent to our customers. Our principles and frameworks, both borrowed and developed, make Automox what it is today. Couple that with our commitment to each other, and it's impossible to deny the opportunity and radical changes we are creating in the market.

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