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How Human Made’s values guide our approach to remote work

Human Made has always had a culture which values openness, transparency, accountability, and a can-fix-it attitude. This was true when we were just a few people hacking together websites and it remains true now as we create digital experiences with our platform, Altis DXP. As we’ve grown up as a company, though, and as more people have joined, we’ve found that we need to be much more clear and intentional about our values and cultural norms. Our first version at this was back in 2018, when some of our company leaders met up and we defined a set of core values:

  • Start with trust, and be trustworthy
  • Act with kindness
  • Our culture of freedom relies on accountability
  • Have the courage to aim higher
  • Work in the open, welcome discussion
  • Learn continuously and grow together
  • Everything is driven by people
  • Focus on the positive, face the negative
  • Good today is better than perfect tomorrow
  • Strive to be globally conscious
  • Have a meaningful impact
  • Take responsibility for the whole company’s success

These values have remained the same since then, but in recent months we’ve had an influx of new humans into the company and I decided it was a good opportunity to share some background about each of our values and to talk about how each one affects behaviour and practice within a distributed company. 

What are company values for?

Our company values are those standards that we hold ourselves to in terms of our behaviour and how we take action. When you read through any company’s values you should get a basic understanding of their culture and some of the parameters for behaviour (at Human Made we also have more specifics around behaviour in our behaviour framework). They articulate the type of company that we are and differentiate us from others. 

There are many ways to use company values

  • when we are recruiting it tells people about our culture and lets them assess whether we are a company they want to work for; 
  • they can help new hires to get oriented with cultural norms;
  • when we make decisions we can use the company values to make sure that they are aligned and appropriate; 
  • they guide the terms for our behaviour with one another and allow us to reflect upon how we act;
  • they lay the groundwork for psychological safety.

Why are company values important and how can they guide behaviour?

In listing out our values, we share those things that matter to us most. However, we are all flawed and we don’t always behave in ways we want, and we won’t always live up to our values either as individuals or as a company. So we should use them to guide our behaviour but avoid beating one another up with them. 

We should also be open to our values growing and developing, and we should change them as we change as a company. Human Made has changed a lot in the two years since we first put together our values. We’ve gone from primarily working with people from the open source community to welcoming humans from more diverse backgrounds in terms of expertise and industry. There ways of working in open source that become second nature to open source contributors but that are unusual in other organisations: 

  • in most instances we default to openness, including around things like finances and expenses, which can be a surprise if you’re not used to regularly seeing your employer’s finances; 
  • people are able to jump in to any discussions that they want across the company which means that there can be lots of discussion (sometimes to our detriment!); 
  • we solicit a lot of feedback which can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to receiving feedback all the time; 
  • and we have a very high level of communication across multiple channels that it can be very hard to stay on top of.  

The other aspect of our values that is different to some other companies, is that we have created them specifically for a fully distributed company. The values that are required to support an effective remote work environment, with its tech stack, timezones, text communication, and its multiplicity of cultural backgrounds and language differences, are different to the values of a traditional organisation where everyone is located in the same space. 

It’s true that over the past year many people have been working remotely, but it’s also the case that those people aren’t working for companies that are intentionally globally remote. We need to bring people on board to our values in a way that is empathetic but that also allows space for us to evolve as each person brings their own knowledge and perspective into the company. 

Human Made’s values

I’ve listed out each of Human Made’s values, providing some background on why each one is important, and also how to practice this value within a remote work context. 

Act with kindness

This may seem self-evident – what sort of person doesn’t act with kindness? – but it’s important to state the obvious in a remote organisation where kindness needs to be a default. When we communicate in text we lose most of the signals that allow us to empathise with one another – tone of voice, demeanor, facial expression, body language, etc. Those loss of social signals can be disinhibiting, and so it’s important to remind everyone in the company that kindness should be the default, that there is a person on the other side of the screen, and to think beyond the text that you see on the screen. 

Our organisation uses Slack very heavily and when we speak to one another through this platform, all we have is the bare text in the chat room. This means our capacity to feel empathy is reduced. It’s much easier to dash off a few thoughtless words in text, and much more difficult to see whether those thoughtless words were sent by someone who is actually in pain themselves. When we communicate through text, there is a much higher level of interpretation than there is in in-person communication and there is a tendency to inject our own prejudices, mood, and perspective into what someone else has written. Including kindness within our values is a reminder that it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume best intentions when reading what they have written. 

In practice

  • If someone says something in text that annoys you, take a step back from your emotion and question your interpretation
  • Be kind and thoughtful in your interactions with others
  • Be conscious of how you write and phrase sentences. Are you leaving your words open to interpretation?
  • Remember that people can be dealing with things that you have no visibility of (either at home or at work) and you are much less likely to pick these things up than you are in an office environment. I sometimes see people say things that are a bit brusque or poorly thought out and a week later I often find out that they were dealing with a difficult situation. Assuming best intentions can help to counter this. 

Our culture of freedom relies on accountability

Again, this is critical in a remote company. We are afforded a lot of flexibility in our work: We can flex our hours, work when we want and where we want, and approach our work in the way we best see fit. In order for this to be successful, it requires that everyone in the company has a high level of accountability. This means delivering on your commitments, or being clear about why you haven’t been able to, and being accountable for both your work and behaviour. We all have jobs to do and the company only works effectively if we get those jobs done before picking up other things. And it goes beyond individual accountability but taking accountability for the success of the whole company, both in terms of our business goals and in creating a positive work environment for everyone. 

In practice

  • When you say that you are going to do something, do it. If you can’t, tell the person why and help them figure out an alternative.
  • Accept that there will be parts of your job that you don’t enjoy, and get them done just as well as the things that you love doing.
  • When setting your goals or thinking about professional development within the company, think about how these contribute to the company goals

Work in the open, welcome discussion

This is one of the values that I find people from different career backgrounds struggle with the most when joining Human Made. Its origins are from open source software development – the concept that “many eyeballs make bugs shallow.” In layperson’s terms, this means that the more eyes you can get on a problem the more likely you are to find a solution. By being open about what we are doing, we can see things from a perspective we might not have considered before. 

In a remote organisation, openness has an application beyond how it’s thought of within open source development. When working remotely, it’s very easy to feel isolated and focused on just your area. An open culture allows everyone in the company to see what’s going on around the company and how work connects together. 

To achieve openness we use a number of different tools. Most of our work is logged in Github – this includes non-development work. We open issues for anything we are working on, and individuals and groups organise their tickets into project boards. We also have a network of blogs where we have open discussions and post decisions, our main GDrive is accessible to the entire company and most of our Slack channels are public. There is a lot of information so we try to filter this by having leaders post regular updates that synthesize what’s going on around the company.

The second part of this value is that we are asking everyone to welcome discussion. This means discussion of our work, but also of our practices, processes, and norms. One thing that we are working on improving is clarifying expectations around what to do with the discussion that you’re asked to welcome. While we work in the open and are open to feedback, the person doing the work is ultimately accountable and it is their decision whether to participate in a discussion or incorporate feedback from others. Although it can be immensely useful to get a different perspective on something, there is a danger that you have to get drawn into a long discussion (bikeshed) or have to justify what you are doing. These types of discussions are non-productive and can be draining for everyone involved. 

In practice:

  • Opening tickets for your work in Github
  • Discussing work in open channels on Slack
  • Accepting that although suggestions are welcome, the feedback you provide may or may not be incorporated into a final product or outcome
  • Being open to being questioned on your own practices and seeing how you can iterate

Learn continuously and grow together

We are, all of us, always learning. It’s a part of our personal and career growth. While learning can happen through taking courses, going to conferences, or attending workshops, we encourage everyone at Human Made to think about the learning that happens every day through their work – the things that you read that add to your store of knowledge, the problem that you encounter and what you learn from overcoming it, the perspective that someone else brings that shines light on a problem and makes you look at it differently, the thing that you failed at but you’ve learned to do differently next time. 

Learning happens all of the time, which is something we wanted to capture in this value. But we also wanted to capture that we learn more when we learn together. This could be through sharing information with one another, being curious and questioning how we are doing things, being open about failures and setbacks, and being open to the possibility that things could be done differently. I suppose what this really comes down to is having a growth mindset, both individually and as a company. 

In practice

  • Carry out retrospectives and feed back what you’ve learned into organisational processes
  • Write updates on our internal site or post in Slack to share things that you have learned
  • Look outside of Human Made to see what other solutions are out there that can enrich the company
  • Regularly reflect with your managers and your peers about whether things are going well and what can be improved

Have the courage to aim higher

This is one of the values that I really see coupled with learning continuously: you need to be ambitious in what you do, stretching yourself so that you grow beyond any self-imposed limits. I see this happening all the time at Human Made when people go well beyond the expectations that anyone else has of them. It’s also something that we do as a company, working to deliver some of the most complex WordPress instances in the world. I’m always blown away by what our delivery teams can achieve for our clients with something which is just some bits of PHP that grew from a bare bones blogging tool. 

I also see the shift towards Altis and our push into SaaS markets as being underpinned by this value. It has been a risk but we have always been the best at delivering for our clients so why not take what we know and see what else we can be great at? I realise that this hasn’t been the most comfortable transition, and that it still has its growing pains, but if we can be courageous then we can take ourselves so much further and learn so much more than we would if we remain within our comfort zone.

In practice

  • When setting your goals, think about how comfortable they are. Can you push them 10% further? 20%?
  • Take calculated risks and don’t be afraid of failure. Through failure we learn, and without taking risks we fail to grow
  • Encourage each other to stretch, to experiment, to take risks, and try new things

Start with trust, and be trustworthy

Remote work only works when there is a high level of trust between employer and employee. There is no manager sitting over your shoulder checking in on you and no requirement that you clock in and clock out. This relies on the company trusting you to get on with your own work and deliver upon expectations. But we also need to trust each other as individuals, both old employees and new ones. 

Trust is a word that is thrown around a lot, and it’s often much harder than the word would imply. Why should you trust someone that you’ve never met? Why should you trust that someone’s process works just as well as your own? There are a few things that we keep in mind when it comes to trust: 

  • We trust that everyone in the company has got the best intentions of Human Made at heart – we see this happen all of the time in the way that people interact and the way they talk about the company. 
  • We think that someone has got it wrong, we trust that they should be able to try things out and either succeed (in which I learn something) or fail and they learn something. 
  • A high trust environment in which people are trusted to do the roles that they are given is a psychologically safe space, as opposed to an environment built on skepticism. 
  • Finally, this value says “start with trust” rather than something like “default to trust” because sometimes trust is lost, and while we always strive to rebuild trust sometimes it’s not possible and we have to learn to work within those parameters too.

In practice

  • Trust that the people in a specific role know what they are doing
  • Welcome new humans to the company and be open to the change they can bring
  • Resist thinking that your way is the only way, and be open to people trying out new things

Everything is driven by people

People are at the heart of Human Made. Nothing in the company happens without the people whose knowledge and expertise makes the work happen. Those people need to be happy and motivated. Not only is this the right, empathetic, thing to do, but when people are happy and motivated they produce better results for the company

We do want to stress that keeping people at the heart of the business doesn’t mean giving everyone everything they want all of the time. Sometimes what individuals want conflict with one another; sometimes what an individual wants might conflict with what the business needs. It is always a balancing act to keep in mind the needs of individuals, the needs of all employees, and the needs of the company as a whole. What feels crap to you might be in the best interests of the business, which is ultimately in the best interest of all employees as it means continuing, secure employment. What matters is that everyone in the company is treated and respected as the humans they are. 

In practice

  • Consider the impact of your actions on other people in the company. 
  • When putting together processes and policies consider how they are going to impact different people

Focus on the positive, face the negative

When we first wrote our values this was particularly important: at that time we were doing a lot of focusing on the positive and a lot of avoiding the negative. We needed to find some balance and make sure that we were tackling those issues which had been rumbling on in the background. We did that, and we’ve gotten better at it, but there are times that we have forgotten that we should be focusing on the positive as well. We need to actively praise success so that we all know what success looks like and try to achieve that ourselves, and we need to be empathetic individuals who are willing to face problems in a candid, compassionate, kind manner. 

In practice:

  • Praise frequently in public
  • Deliver critical personal feedback in private
  • Deal with difficult issues early on
  • Challenge each other and be open to being challenged

Good today is better than perfect tomorrow

This is a fairly common idiom: we shouldn’t let perfectionism get in the way of getting things done. A problem that we have faced in Human Made in the past is that engineers will look for the perfect solution rather than the one that just achieves the required outcome. This does, however, have applicability well beyond engineers. I am personally guilty of it myself at times: I’ll want all of the conditions to be perfect before I get something done. 

Aiming for perfectionism we can get in the way of things moving forward with decent velocity. Often perfectionism just means the final 5% that doesn’t have a meaningful impact on the outcome of the work. Or it can mean looking for the most elegant solution rather than the most efficient solution. We need to approach our work with a certain practicality, keeping an eye on what we want to achieve and not getting bogged down in the details.

In practice

  • Focus on the outcome you want to achieve and figure out the most efficient and effective way to get there
  • Ask yourself if what you have done is good enough: if it is, move on
  • Take an iterative approach, trying something out and making improvements as you go

Strive to be globally conscious

I remember when we came up with this value, it was a catchall for a few different things: 

  1. We want to be aware of our impact in the world, through our open source work and through our clients; 
  2. We need to be aware of the cultural differences which are woven through our company and how what we do or how we act can hold different meanings for different people. 

These things are still true, but we’ve been thinking about it in even broader terms more recently. Being globally conscious means being aware of the world around us. Human Made is a company that is embedded in a world and in a market. We have always been very much embedded within the WordPress open source community, but in the past we were also part of an agency community and now with our Altis platform, we are part of the SaaS community. We need to know what is going on out there in the world, our position within the market, what the trends are that are shaping the landscape. We should be globally curious and go in search of those things that we can bring back to the company to enable us to grow.

In practice

  • Remember linguistic differences. Not everyone has English as their first language and even those who do might struggle to articulate in text.
  • Remember cultural differences. What might be self-evident in your culture may be completely alien to someone else.
  • Default to curious. Look outside the company to learn something new and bring it back to help us grow. 

Have a meaningful impact

Meaning is subjective. For myself personally, the meaningful impact I have is on people within the company. I want everyone to feel fulfilled and motivated by the work that they do and by the environment that they are in. For someone else, your meaning might be creating a seamless experience for our clients, and for another person it might be delighting our client’s users, and for someone else it might be the satisfaction of a difficult problem well-solved, for someone else exceeding revenue targets. What is captured for me here is that you aren’t just grinding away at your work, but that you want to have an impact and that impact should be one that is meaningful both to you and to those around you. 

In practice

  • Consider the impact that you have on those around you and people further afield. What do you think they would say about the impact that you are having?
  • Always consider impact. If your actions are not going to effect change somewhere or for someone, why are you taking them?

Take responsibility for the whole company’s success

Every single person at Human Made contributes to the success of the company. This is true whether they are managing others, making sales, writing code, managing projects, recruiting new humans, or however you contribute. We are in this together. We all need to take responsibility to make sure that this thing is successful. We can do this by trying to succeed in our roles, but we can also do it in the ways that we behave and work with others. When we are thinking about the success of the whole company, we’re not just thinking “what is in this for me” or even “what is in this for my team” but “how will this positively impact Human Made.” 

  • Think about how the decisions made by you and your team impact other areas of the company
  • Collaborate rather than just doing things yourself – this way others can learn along with you
  • Keep in mind the ultimate company goals whenever making decisions

Iterating on our values

We talk a lot about agile within Human Made, both about organisational agility and about agile practices. We wrote the first version of our values back in 2018, back when we were a professional services agency that had a product; now, in 2021, we are a SaaS platform company that delivers professional services. Our values themselves need to iterate to reflect both the company that we have become and the company that we aspire to be. This is something that I’ll be working on over the coming months. But even if there are iterations, many of the values will still stand. The company may have changed but we still remain a place that values openness, learning, collaboration, courage, trust, and accountability, and that, perhaps most importantly, has people at its heart. 

Want to find out more about our company culture? Check out our open handbook.