Chuck Vadun is the Communications Director at Fire Engine RED, a company that adopted a 100% virtual/distributed team approach from the day it was founded in 2001. They have 70 employees who work from 23 different states in the U.S., and in Ontario, Canada.
We were curious to learn more about what it takes to run a distributed company, what are the main challenges and benefits, and what are the values and culture of their innovative organisation. Our co-founder Ana Henneberke had a chat with Chuck to get more details about this very well established remote company!
Chuck, for those who haven’t come across Fire Engine RED before, can you start by telling us a little about the company mission and your role?
Gladly! Fire Engine RED is a marketing/technology/data solutions company. We serve the education market, working with admissions professionals at colleges and other schools. It’s my team’s job to get the word out to colleges about our services and technology, which helps admissions professionals “make their class” – that is, attract and ultimately enroll students at their schools.
When was the decision of having a 100% distributed company made, and how has Fire Engine RED built a company culture when all its employees work remotely?
Right from the beginning! Our CEO & Chief Creative Officer, Shelly Spiegel, formed the company in 2001. However, the people she wanted to hire didn’t live in Philadelphia, where Shelly is based. So she hired them anyway. My opinion about how our culture works is that we’ve gathered – virtually speaking – the very best people for our company without having to worry about geographical restraints. So that shared desire for excellence is a great foundation for a culture.
Fire Engine RED has over 60 employees, which is a considerable number; how have you scaled the team without screwing up the culture?
I think Shelly, our CEO, has done a great job of keeping our culture intact – by creating situations where our team members can interact and build great working relationships, friendships even. Every other week, Shelly gathers us all for a conference call, during which she gives us an update on company happenings. And just for fun, we have a book club, and a Fitbit walking group!
Personally I think communication is the most difficult challenge in an organisation, either co-located or distributed. How do you face the challenge of effective communication between team members?
We use the appropriate tools for different kinds of interactions. Skype (audio only) and instant messaging are great for real-time communication; email and other tools like Basecamp, Google Docs, Join.me, activeCollab, etc. all serve us well whether we’re collaborating in real-time or not.
I am very curious and I believe our readers will be too, in terms of how you approach hiring of remote employees. Can you describe how your recruitment process looks like and equally how do you on-board remote employees?
Many of our new hires are referrals by current employees. In any case, we have a fairly typical series of phone interviews … but what sets us apart is our “Why You Don’t Want to Work Here” call! When we’re about to make an offer, we set up a conference call with the candidate and four or five people from across our team. Those people discuss with the candidate all the ups-and-downs of working from home in an all-virtual company. Candidates love it, because it’s transparent and honest. With regard to on-boarding, new hires are contacted on their first day by our HR and IT people, along with their manager, and a “buddy” from elsewhere in the organization. They all stay in touch as needed, and provide the candidate with on-boarding guides we’ve written and refined with feedback from previous new hires.
Tell us your views on semi-distributed organisations, i.e., the ones that have a physical, co-located office and also have remote employees and what you consider are their main challenges and benefits.
This one’s a bit out of our realm, as we’re all-virtual and have no physical co-located office. My personal experience with other organisations that have had semi-distributed teams is that the communication and collaboration tools really, really have to work properly; having been in the office and on the remote side, bad connections can lead to frustration and poor results. Spending the time to “dial in” those tools will reward you with better output.
What is the organisational structure of your organisation? Do you have layers of seniority and management and how does that relate to decision making?
We’re a relatively “flat” organisation; most team members are within three steps of the CEO. With regard to my team (marketing), we collaborate with our CEO on a daily basis; as the Chief Creative Officer, it’s Shelly’s prerogative to make final decisions or to defer decision-making to our team.
From your perspective, what do you see as the main advantages of letting employees work remotely?
Oh, where to begin? I believe the organization benefits from having employees who are more focused and engaged, because of the many distractions that remote working removes. The employee benefits from the lack of a stress-inducing commute, and avoids the unnecessary interruptions that occur in an office environment. Also, at Fire Engine RED, we never have a meeting just to have a meeting – there has to be a real reason for gathering everyone together and a real problem to solve.
Can you elaborate on your views in regards to how pastimes, hobbies, and passions influence work?
Besides my family, I’m passionate about music, art, reading, sports … I think it’s key to put oneself “out there” and constantly absorb new ideas. For example, visiting a museum with my kids … playing drums in a band … reading a science-fiction novel … what do those have to do with being the communications director for a tech company? Well, nothing … and EVERYTHING. If you’re fortunate enough to have a “creative” job, as I do, everything you experience can be turned into a positive influence on your work.
What is it that you love most about your work?
Remote working allows me to do what I love – write, edit, and strategize about marketing – AND be there when my kids come home from school!
What practical actions would you suggest are crucial to thrive in a distributed organization?
Don’t forget to GET OUT! Seriously, even if you’re having plenty of “virtual” interaction, it’s still good to get out of your home office and have actual interactions with people. Meeting a friend for lunch, having a workout buddy to walk with or meet at the gym … even the most seasoned remote employees can feel a little isolated now and then. But that’s easy to fix … just get up and GET OUT.
What suggestions would you give to a non-distributed company that wants to leverage remote work to drive employee engagement?
I’d say give it a test run. Don’t have everyone do it at once, or make it mandatory. As great as I and many others think remote work is, it’s not for everybody. Try a pilot program with a few volunteers – but be sure to set an end date. Then regroup with your team, share your reactions, positive and negative, and map out a plan for implementing remote work on a permanent basis.
For those who want to connect with Chuck, you can find him on Twitter at @cvadun; for more on Fire Engine RED, follow @185red and visit fire-engine-red.com. If you have any questions for Chuck, feel free to comment below and he will be happy to respond!