d.labs’s remote-first culture: values, initiatives and tools that paved the way

If you told me in early 2020 that d.labs is going to become a remote-first company, I would not have believed you. We were office animals. We loved to come together, there was a real energy to our offices and we often stayed after work to hang out, play video games, chat or go to the bar across the street for beers. We took pride in our teamwork, relationships, and connections.

But like everywhere else, the Coronavirus hit in 2020. We reacted quickly and were one of the first companies in Slovenia to vacate our offices and move our work into our living rooms and kids’ bedrooms. I already wrote about our first months in this article titled Lessons we learned as a newly remote company, but that was just the beginning of our journey.

The experience of working from home, prompted by the pandemic, made us realise that we love a lot of what remote work has to offer. We relished in the flexibility it gave us and we embraced the options we found in it. We learned to hold effective video calls and realised that team dynamics did not suffer. Even though the situation also brought hardships, such as loneliness and the anxiety that was the year of lock-downs, our employee survey showed that if the pandemic stopped then, more than half of our coworkers would choose to work from home for three or more days per week and nobody would like to work from the office every day.

So, the people have spoken and we in management agreed: in June 2020 we announced that the company is going remote-first and becoming a truly distributed team.

We have defined ‘remote-first’ simply: the work location is the decision of each employee, not their manager. This gives our people the flexibility and autonomy that frees them to do their work however they find best for them. It is very much in line with our values and the belief that such flexibility enables our diverse coworkers to each find their perfect work dynamic. This means that some people come to the office every day, others will never show up again and most of us will find our personal balance between the two. This is also enabling us to expand our range of hiring and with every new employee, we are living up to our name more and more.

As organically as this happened, it was still a huge decision that we did not take lightly. We knew it will have a profound impact on our company culture and that if not addressed, it has a big chance of going terribly. We realised we have a difficult task ahead of us: nurturing remote culture takes more deliberation and drive, there is a barrier present that was not there before, much less happens spontaneously and serendipitously. But we were committed and we knew where to start.

When we tackled our new and transforming culture, we relied strongly on our values. d.labs has always been a relaxed, flexible company with a strong focus on good teams and good feels. We knew to lean into that, but we also knew that simply copying our existing rituals into virtual space is a recipe for disaster. So as big proponents of lean development, we started experimenting. We tried a lot of different initiatives and tested a lot of tools. Some of these experiments stuck, some didn’t, and we are actually still experimenting with some.

Here are some initiatives and tools that proved useful for us:

  • Our daily comms go through Slack: We are relying heavily on Slack, encouraging informal stuff and sharing lots of gifs, jokes, etc. I have recently heard that our Slack is much more lively than in other companies, it’s a place where our culture can be felt all the time.
  • We foster inclusivity through Zoom: We have adopted Zoom in a big way. Our remote-first rules actually state that if only one meeting member is not present at the location, everybody should connect to the meeting with their own camera. This is super weird at the start but gets pretty cool after a while, and it ensures that not being in the office is not a disadvantage - which is what remote-FIRST is about after all.
  • We swapped whiteboards for Miro: We started using Miro a lot more for workshops, brainstorming, etc. I now actually much prefer Miro to a whiteboard and post-its. We have also used it in a great way to improve our onboardings by having a Miro template that breaks down the first week at d.labs. We have recently shared this with the community, you can check it out in Sara’s article titled New Employee Onboarding For Product Teams: A Success Template For Welcoming New Team Members.
  • We chose Wonder for all our informal hangouts: Wonder is a video call tool that enables people to jump groups and allows conversations to develop organically. We held several parties there, such as our Welcome Drinks (parties for welcoming newcomers) and a pretty fun New Year party.
  • We are sending our coworkers packages via mail: So far we sent beer or soft drinks before events, thank-you packages for amazing work, fruit and vegetable baskets for long sick leaves, and an especially designed December gift package with custom stickers, socks, cookies, and other cozy items.
  • We doubled down on our communication: We are placing an even bigger emphasis on communication, both on the company level and also tribe/department level. We are inserting new formal and informal events and tweaking the content so it informs more about what other teams are doing and what our goals are.
  • More focus on one-on-ones: We have made one-on-one meetings that tribe leads have with their people more of a priority in order to keep those relationships strong and open.
  • We revamped our recruitment process: The intention here was to make it effective and enjoyable even when 100% online. You can hear more about this in my webinar Build your remote team - a proven process for recruitment in the tech field.
  • We have established so-called competence leads: These are coworkers who focus on employees’ skills development and organise educational meetings across tribes.
  • We have taken up a huge renovation of our Ljubljana offices: We are thrilled to be moving into a completely new space in a few weeks! The new office is designed to be remote-first friendly, with cosier and better-equipped meeting rooms, a huge hang-out place, and fewer desks - we will be using them as hot desks, not allocated per person.

Looking back, our company and our culture have changed significantly in the last year. We are still that relaxed and friendly bunch, but I can’t deny that our bonds are a little less strong and that we miss seeing each other in the flesh. It has not been the easiest of years, but I am very proud of what we have achieved.

One of our values really shone through in all this: trust. The trust of our leaders that their coworkers will do great work no matter the location, and what is more, the trust of our coworkers in us, the management. They have been with us every step of the way, understanding, giving feedback, presenting ideas, helping out, and cheering us on. We could not have done this without them.

That is why I am beyond excited for the future and I can’t wait to see what we can do now that the world is slowly allowing us to come out of our living rooms a bit more!

As always, we'd love to welcome new people, so if you would like to become part of d.labs story, please check out careers section of our website.