20 Years and Counting of a Remote Business: Q&A with Alan Ritari of Agathon Group
In 1999, Prince’s prophetic party from the 80s was in full swing, Y2K was freaking people out, we were still 8 years away from the first iPhone, and . . . most people still had to commute into an office to work. But not Alan Ritari and his business partner, Peter Green, who would soon launch a new company without an office: Agathon Group.
As of 2018, nearly 4 million Americans work from home at least half the time, but 20 years ago--well before high-speed Internet and video conferencing was the norm--a fully remote company was far from common.
But that's exactly what Agathon was.
Not only did they start the company remotely, they stayed committed to a work-from-home infrastructure as the company grew the number of clients and employees.
I had good fortune to work with Agathon in the mid-2000s when our IT department hired them to build some new technology. At the time, I worked out of a corporate office, and I had a hard time grasping how the team could coordinate so well and stay on top of our ever-changing priorities and ideas without being with us--or each other--in person.
Remote work and even fully remote companies are much more common now, but many people still wrestle with how to work through the growing pains: How do teams stay connected? How can they trust one another if they can’t see each other? How do they know work is getting done well?
That’s why I reached out to Alan to tap his brain on some of the lessons he’s learned about building trust, setting boundaries, and getting good work done, on a fully distributed team.
Given that Agathon is almost 20 years old, and the average tenure of their staff members is 10 years…. I figured he had some pretty good street cred in this regard.
Here are five nuggets of wisdom I learned from Alan that often trip up remote teams:
1. How to hire good people you haven’t met
Most of the Agathon staff had a prior personal connection with the team--so they come with a good reference and an established level of trust. But even when that wasn’t the case, Alan has ways of testing the waters.
Agathon doesn’t ask dusty old interview questions; in addition to discussing their skills and work, they ask the interviewees about their lives and passions. Questions like:
Where do you want to be in a few years?
What’s important to you in life?
But one of the most critical ways they determine a person’s fit for the job is communication.
“Someone who can communicate clearly and persuasively says a lot--irrespective of their skills. Skills for the most part can be taught; but the heart for the work and an ability to communicate that clearly … you can’t teach that,” Alan said.
2. When is it worth meeting in person?
Given that the Agathon staff is spread across several U.S. states and Mexico, with clients around the world, travel isn’t small potatoes. However, there is tremendous value in meeting in person for very strategic times and purposes.
“Project kick-offs with clients that are central to your mission,” said Alan. “If this is core to what you’re about, don’t try to cut corners. Do this right. Then everything else will be easier; you can and will save money down the road.”
In fact, Alan said that Agathon has actually turned down projects because the client wasn’t willing to fly them in. Agathon determined that the risks were too great without that in-person time, so they declined the projects.
“It is in everyone’s best interest to manage those risks. If (the client is) concerned about spending a small portion of the total budget for a trip at the start, it doesn’t bode well for how they’re going to interact [over the course of the project]. And we don’t want to be associated with failed projects.”
With long-term partnerships, however, Agathon meets with the client in-person every year or two, because it’s helpful to re-group. “But for most projects,” he said, “if there’s a start or end point, the kick-off is the only essential time to meet together.”
3. How to build rapport on a distributed team
Although Alan and I had this conversation by phone, I could tell his eyes lit up at this question. Building and cultivating relationships is a huge part of Agathon’s culture. And that culture is firmly rooted in good communication.
“Our communication is so much better than anything in the office, because the communication is intentional. If we don’t do it, it won’t happen. We can’t count on running into someone in the hallway.”
He had a few specific tips, including:
On a day-to-day basis, Agathon uses Slack a LOT. They use different channels for different projects, of course, but they also have a whole company channel where everyone joins in, and the conversations are all over the board. It’s basically the water cooler talk. “People chime in with anything from: ‘Hi’ to ‘bye,’ to ‘Ohmygosh did you see this movie?’”
Use the right communication tool at the right time
Communication is so critical that they have defined a triage order for conversations depending on the nature of the issue. “When we do have to figure something out, in person is best, but if not possible, then video, then voice, then email, then direct messaging (DM). We prefer the highest bandwidth communication possible in the moment.”
With emails and DMs, it’s often hard to get the nuance right, so, even though the team is distributed, they try to get as close to working together in person as possible. “There’s chemistry that happens there that we want to capture and replicate.”
Meet in person once in a while
Funny thing about many distributed teams: Many of them actually like their colleagues a lot, so in-person time--although perhaps infrequent--can be enjoyable and highly productive.
Agathon meets up in person twice a year: Once in Grand Rapids where a few of the staff live, and the other time, they go somewhere, often overseas. For the overseas gathering, they rent a house big enough for the staff and their spouses, they make meals together, and just live, talk, eat, and explore while discussing vision, company financials, and key projects.
Those times together make the work so much better, said Alan. Bonding over food is a great way to build cohesion, and spouses are included as well “because they are so invested in what we’re doing too. We have an amazing team, and we want them to be part of this.”
4. How to develop healthy boundaries
Some people assume that distributed teams should be available 24/7; they’re working from home--why wouldn’t they be available? But--just like those with jobs where you need to show up in person, healthy boundaries are critical to success.
For Agathon, the healthiest boundaries boil down to routine, process, and communication. Alan shared his own personal routine as both the CEO and the person who lives in the time zone farthest west--6 hours behind the team members on the East Coast,
In the mornings, he doesn’t plan to work on his own work; he’s in constant conversations. “People on the East Coast are getting ready to leave, so this is our window of overlapping time when we figure things out.”
Around lunch time, when most of his team mates bow out for the day, he focuses on the work that requires harder thinking--vision, strategy, and problem solving.
Then, after dinner, there are usually a handful of time-sensitive emails that come in, which he fields because he’s the only one awake at that point.
Alan clarified that his routine and boundaries are different because of his role and location. As CEO he does sometimes have to respond to the 1 a.m. urgent emails or text.
“For everyone else though, there should be systems in place where (a fire) gets handled appropriate to the urgency, and (the team shouldn’t) worry about it. If it’s truly a ‘fire’ situation, it should come through the system in that way to alert people who have to respond. I can’t expect everyone to be vigilant 24 hours a day.”
5. How to keep the team connected
Agathon’s process for building a healthy, connected team and doing good work doesn’t happen magically. It takes intentionality to keep the good going and nip the bad in the bud early.
“I check in with everyone on the team at least weekly about stuff that isn’t related to work. For instance, when multiple people went on Spring Break, I wanted to know how their trips went. Another bought a house… how is that going?”
He concluded, “We all take our work very seriously and encourage each other to high levels of excellence, but checking in is a critical reminder that we’re all people with outside lives too; we're not just cogs in the wheel.”