Meg from MailerLite

Meg24 min readRemote cultureOctober 16, 2020

Our remote-first approach: Q&A with Ilma, COO at MailerLite

Our remote-first approach: Q&A with Ilma, COO at MailerLite

Over the past 10+ years, we've evolved into a remote-first company, and we learned some pretty cool things along the way.

Our journey to remote working didn’t happen overnight, and we’re still discovering new ways to improve our work every day. Now it’s time to share some of that knowledge and experience with you. 

Ilma, our COO, recently hosted a Q&A session about remote culture on Quora. We received some great questions from people who are interested in working for a remote company and others who are curious about the best ways to manage a remote team.

We posted the best questions for you here, covering a range of topics including:

  • Managing a remote team
  • Creating an awesome remote work culture
  • Remote hiring process explained
  • The future of remote working

Plus, we’ve added a bonus section that includes Ilma’s greatest piece of advice for your business.  But you’ll have to wait until the end to find out what it is...


The thought of having colleagues and employees spread all over the world might sound overwhelming at first. We’ve been there! These questions talk about overcoming challenges, managing productivity, and the best collaboration tools for running a successful remote company. 


How can you best manage productivity in remote teams?

The success of managing a remote team starts at the very beginning: the hiring process. Make sure you choose the most talented people that you also trust. Do they have the maturity to manage their own schedule and workload? If you’re confident that the answer is yes, then the rest is simple.

Give your team challenging tasks, communicate your expectations, and then leave them in peace. People take on more responsibilities and become more creative when they feel trusted and safe.

In our team, every team member has their tasks with time frames. We only care about the result. But at the same time, we let people know that the team is always here to help them.

To track how things are going, we send out monthly surveys to the entire team. Team leads are responsible for reviewing them and giving feedback. This is the space where people write how they feel, and share if they have any issues or ideas. I’m surprised to see how well it has worked for us. I believe that written communication goes deeper and is often more sincere than talking.

For extra tips on how to shape a remote team that’s uber-productive, check out our article on team productivity below!


What are the best tools for running a remote-first company?

There are 4 main tools that we use on a regular basis:

  • Slack - for daily communication
  • Notion - for our company handbook and documentation
  • Zoom - for video calls
  • 15Five - for our monthly check-ins

But there are tons of other great remote tools for distributed teams. Most of them work well, as long as your team agrees to use them, and everyone stays on the same page on how they use them.

To give you an example of setting ground rules for a tool, here are some of our written rules on how we use Slack for instant messaging:

  • We encourage our team members to reserve time blocks for deep work throughout the day. However, while they are in focus mode, they should set their Slack status to ‘Do not disturb’, and enter the time when they will be back (including the time zone). The same rule applies when they are on a food or coffee break (we use the status ‘🍒 Lunch’, for example).
  • We have lots of different channels on Slack, so we ask everyone to star ⭐ the channels that are connected with their team and they use the most. That way, they won’t miss any important information.
  • Anyone can create a new Slack channel, whether it’s for work or socializing. It’s better to have more channels with specific topics. This way, it’s easier for team members to find the information they need. If there are too many different topics in one channel, it’s best to separate them.
  • Don’t be afraid to over-communicate. People who are no longer interested in the topic can easily leave the channel.

We encourage you to read this article on the top 7 tools we use to run our remote company with ease.


Why can’t I be productive at home and how can I change it?

I know it takes a lot of willpower to stay productive and work from home, but here are some of the habits that I’ve picked up over the years.

  • Physically separate your home and work life: If possible, designate one specific place where you work. You could even take this further by changing into ‘work clothes’ that you wear during ‘office hours’, to get yourself in the right mindset. You can be creative with this, but whatever you decide, set up consistent habits for how you start your workday—and stick to them.
  • Plan your day ahead of time: This will help you to get the job done. Most importantly, set aside several hours of uninterrupted time. It’s essential to go into a flow, a space of deep working where we are our most productive.
  • Break your work down into chunks: If you can’t focus, this is a good way to make your tasks feel more manageable. Some colleagues use the 90/30 rule, where you work for 90 minutes and then take 30 minutes off. Others have found success using the Pomodoro timer to plan smaller tasks, where you assign 25 minutes for a task and then have a 5 minutes break. Whichever method you choose, the trick is to take that time completely off your emails! Take a walk, watch a video, meditate… anything that will take your mind off work for a bit, so that you can come back feeling refreshed.
  • If you feel unmotivated, start small: We all have bad days, and that’s ok! Just try starting your day with tiny tasks that take less than 2 minutes to complete. You’ll get instant gratification and go into work mode.

How can I be more productive without a private room?

If you are sharing a space, I think it’s important for everyone in the space to agree on a set of rules. For example, perhaps it should be a rule that people take phone calls in a meeting room, or outside. Or you might designate an hour of uninterrupted silence during the day. If you’re finding it difficult to work in an open environment, a good pair of noise-canceling headphones might help you too.


How do you run a smooth operation when everyone is working from home (some living in a city and some in a small town)?

Communication is the key to a successful remote team. Standardizing your communication guidelines isa good start.

Do you have a set of guidelines that everyone follows? People are more at ease when they know how to communicate and what to expect, especially new members. We use Notion to share all our information on how we work.

Some questions you should address:

  • Can people work flexible hours or do they work during specific times of the day?
  • What tools do you use to communicate?
  • Is all communication asynchronous? If not, how fast should people answer their messages, calls or emails?
  • Are there any meetings that people must participate in? What and when are they happening? Could you plan ahead?

Take a look at our article on how to keep remote communication effective.


What challenges does a company’s IT department face when transitioning to remote work?

The biggest challenge is that it’s harder to get help fast. In the office, your colleagues can come to your screen and explain anything face-to-face. In a remote environment with different time zones, it takes more time to resolve things. Therefore, we hire people that have the experience, knowledge and confidence to solve problems and work on their own.


How do we address compliance when our teams work remotely?

Even though our team works from different countries around the globe, we make sure that every team member knows their roles and responsibilities. We accomplish this by having a dedicated team with contractual obligations that bind parties to act according to our documents and rules. Our internal policies are based on the best practices of the industry to ensure that all of our team members know how to attain and maintain compliance.


What do you think should be the KPIs for measuring the remote team’s performance compared to colocated teams?

In a remote team, the results are all you see. Did they complete their task or not?

Your only concern is to create a space where people can work independently, whilst also communicating what they should do if they struggle. This is different from an office environment, where you can always ask your colleague a question, overhear what’s going on with a new product, or have a quick chat with your manager over lunch. In a remote team, you have to be more intentional about how people get information, ask for help, or find out about future plans.

If you’re curious to know more about how we manage our remote team, check out this article below, where we share 9 tips on how to do it effectively.


Let’s talk about culture! How can you define your company culture, when everything is done online? We’ve got you covered with top tips on building a remote work culture from scratch.


How can you create a company culture when your employees work remotely?

Your company culture will emerge, even if you don’t make a conscious effort to create one. But if you let it grow without a clear direction, it might look very different from what you imagined.

At MailerLite, we are intentional about building a successful remote work culture. We start by defining what matters to us, and why. And most importantly, we write down these values where everyone can see them, so that they are lived out on a daily basis.

Values should illustrate how your team works and lives, and they should be reflective of your current situation, rather than a desired or projected outcome. Keep it realistic and relevant to where your team is now.

There are 3 things that you should remember when establishing your values and company culture:

  • Be as clear as possible. For example, one of our values states that ‘We take care of ourselves’. Now, this statement might mean different things to different people, but ultimately we want everyone to take care of both their physical and mental well-being. To put this value into action, we make sure that everyone takes at least 2 weeks of uninterrupted vacation per year. And once every quarter, we take a creative day, where we go out and experience something new. We then go back and share our stories and photos on Slack. We love creative days, because they allow the entire team to connect and learn new things about each other.
  • Take time to notice who you are as a team. What are you and your colleagues passionate about? What do you want future colleagues to know about what matters to the team? No team is the same. Recognize your team’s uniqueness, and channel that when you are defining your values and company culture.
  • Create spaces for people to connect. Our remote team is spread all over the world, but we have virtual meetings every month, where we spend an hour with random colleagues in online breakout rooms. Before the call, we all get the same questions to help us start the conversation. We believe that video meetings to socialize with team members might be even more important than work-related calls. Our projects can be managed asynchronously, but human connections are so much better in real-time!

In the article below, we talk about 7 steps that you can take to build a remote work culture.


How do you conduct online team-building activities?

This year we had planned to spend our in-person team meeting in Miami. But obviously, that didn’t work out! So instead, we planned a virtual retreat, called a Staycation (here’s the video of our 4-day online team building).

Here are some of the activities that we tried and liked via video conferencing:

  • Pecha Kucha presentations: This is a presentation that uses 20 slides or images which are displayed for 20 seconds each. We have a tradition where we ask all of our new team members to do a Pecha Kucha presentation about themselves. It’s a good way to onboard new colleagues, and find out what we have in common. While people were presenting, lots of team members were commenting and having positive conversations in the chat.
  • MailerFair: This is a trade show format where every team presents what they’ve been working on for the past 6 months. People can see each other’s latest projects and ask questions about them. This is useful because, for example, my questions as a COO can be much different than those from a Developer. These different viewpoints help us reveal blind spots and improve projects.
  • Online concert with a singer: Ask a musician to perform live on your online call. Then, have everyone switch their microphones to ‘mute’ so that they can sing along as loud as they want!
  • Invite any speaker you like: Amazing people from around the world who usually speak at conferences are now suddenly available online. Never before has it been so easy to access an external speaker and invite them to your online event. Use the opportunity!
  • Guided meditation session: Yes, it might sound weird to some, but once you close your eyes, you quickly forget that the meditation is happening online.
  • Jackbox games: There’s a ton of online games that everyone can play all together. All you need is a smartphone, and you’re off!
  • Online poker: Get your poker face on, and challenge your colleagues to a casino-style online tournament. You’ll learn a lot about each other in the process.
  • Trivia night: Test your general knowledge by preparing a trivia quiz. Each team has a certain amount of time to answer before the next question is asked.
  • Counter-Strike evening: This is an online game where teams compete against each other in a multiplayer shoot-out.
  • Online party: Get out the wigs and the drinks, and start conversations with random team members in break-out rooms.
👉 Pro tip:

The more people that contribute to the activity, the more they enjoy it. It’s called the IKEA effect, where people place a higher value on things they helped to build or create.

Check out our article on what we learned from hosting our first-ever virtual workation.


Do you buy gift cards for your employees?

I did give gift cards to our team members once. It was a Christmas gift and people could choose an experience. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but the majority of the gift cards were left unused.

Annual benefits, motivation and perks are important topics. We want it to be connected with our lifestyle and company values. We initially thought about buying meditation apps, Kindle Unlimited accounts and such. But then we decided to give people the freedom to choose how they learn, how they develop themselves and how they grow.

Today, everyone gets a $1,000 budget to set up a home office. After 2 years with us, they get allowances for personal development and paid trips to international conferences. After 5 years our team members get $5,000 for any trip they wish. And after 10 years, they get $10,000 to travel with their loved ones or on their own!

I believe we cherish things that we are able to choose. Moreover, I think experiences should have a longer impact than simply giving things. That’s why we believe that companies should spend money on experiences, not things.


What could you do to improve the employee experience in your organization this year?

I’m thinking about this every single day. Due to the situation in the world, our team hasn’t met in-person for more than a year now. We’re a remote team, but the bi-annual meetings with the entire team are a big part of our culture. This is how we create memories and bond together.

In November, we plan to have a second online staycation/team retreat (here’s our staycation video from the first one). I want it to be memorable and inspiring, especially for the people that joined our team just this year.

Another goal is to make sure our team has the best work conditions. This month the entire team got a budget of $1,000 to set up or improve their remote work environment, like buying an ergonomic chair for a start. I can’t want to see the photos of my colleagues’ upgraded offices!


Navigating the hiring process can be tough. Fortunately, we’ve hired more than 100 people. While most have worked out, some were not great fits.  We’ll share our insights on hiring remote employees from all over the world, as well as some advice for those who are looking for remote jobs.


What are the best practices for hiring for a remote job position?

At MailerLite, we look for candidates who meet these requirements:

  • Experience in working remotely: If they’ve never tried it, they may have a very different concept of what it’s really like to work remotely, based on all the glamorous remote work feeds that they see on social media.
  • Technical skills in their discipline: They need to have the right competencies to fulfill the requirements of the role.
  • Motivation to join our company: We especially notice candidates who are inspired by our values.
  • Ability to express their ideas in writing: 95% of our communication is written, so this is very important to us.
  • Ability to take constructive feedback: We’re all learning from each other, and that’s how we improve!

If someone wants to apply for a job with us, they have to do things slightly differently. Instead of submitting a CV and cover letter, they have to create a newsletter using MailerLite and answer our questions. For example, we might ask questions like, ‘Why do you want to join our team?’ or ‘Do you have experience working remotely?’

The extra work that they put into creating the newsletter will show their motivation, as well as their skills in written communication. After submitting the newsletter, the candidates will get test assignments. Following this, the team leader who will work with the person then conducts an interview and makes the final choice.


What is some good advice for employees looking for remote work?

We post all our jobs on our website and on weworkremotely.com. You can sign up for updates at remote job boards and get new job listings in your inbox every day. You can also check FB groups for remote work. It’s also helpful to know the best remote-first companies and proactively reach out.

In this article, we share the 79 remote-first companies that are actively hiring.


Are you looking to hire product managers who are willing to work remotely?

All positions that we hire for are 100% remote.


What are the prerequisites and work ethics required to get into your company?

People, trust and respect are essential in our company. We put people first. We don’t see ourselves as a SaaS or B2B organization. We are a people company. At the end of the day, we are dealing with people, and we care about them. When we focus on adding value to people's lives and making them feel special, everyone wins.

Moreover, we are an amazing multicultural team—not a faceless corporation. We all come from diverse backgrounds, cultures and have different personalities and skills. We believe that you should treat people as you want to be treated. That means showing respect and empathy for every person, regardless of their situation.

We want everyone to read through our company values before they apply for a job with us so they can better understand how we work and what we expect from our team.


Will you hire people who don’t have any experience or degrees?

I hire people that have experience in their field, with a strong motivation to continue learning and join our team. I don’t ask about their degrees during our hiring process.


What’s next for remote workers? This question is hovering in everyone’s minds, especially since COVID-19 disrupted our work patterns and changed how we operate. Although we don’t have a crystal ball, we’ve seen where remote work is heading through some of our own experiences.


What is the future of remote work in a post-pandemic world?

I believe that many companies will offer a hybrid model, where people will be able to choose whether they work from the office, or remotely.

My hope is that more businesses will realize that the world is full of talented people that don’t live in one place! This would help to close the opportunity gap. Anyone, regardless of their home country, would be able to join remarkable teams and excel. Imagine how local communities around the world would benefit from these new economic opportunities.

To show you more about what this model looks like, we wrote this blog post about overcoming the challenges of hybrid teams.


Will remote teams skyrocket because of COVID-19?

The coronavirus situation was an involuntary experiment for the whole world. Some people realized that they prefer to work remotely, and that they want to have a choice on where and how they work and live. I believe that many companies will have to offer a hybrid model to retain their team, where people will be able to choose to work from the office or remotely.


Aside from pandemic preparedness, what else are we not paying attention to that we need to take action on now?

I believe that companies should invest in people more than in their office buildings. People should have the freedom to choose how and where they live to do their most productive work. Talented and motivated people are the biggest asset you can have in your business! Trust, freedom, responsibility and creativity all come together and impact our evolution as a business and a society.


Last but not least, it’s time for some bonus questions! Ilma will talk about everything from personal heroes to the greatest business secret in the world...


Who are your heroes and heroines in history, mythology and religion?

I can’t select one hero or heroine. But I love books about myths: “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell and “Women who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype” by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I believe that we are all the heroes of our lives. When we get a call for adventure, we should walk into the unknown to evolve as people.

There’s one more necessary element in every story about the hero and their quest - the protagonist always has a guide or mentor to help them overcome the various obstacles in their path while keeping them on track to reaching their destination. Luke Skywalker has Obi-Wan Kenobi, Neo has Morpheus and Harry Potter has Dumbledore.

We do need heroes and we might be inspired by them, but the truth is that behind every hero is a mentor. And that is true leadership. My goal as COO is to grow leaders in our team that inspire team members to accept quests that come their way.


Is there anything about your current role that is aggravating or bothersome?

I have to confess, I wasn’t very sure what my role would be. We have never had a COO. Before becoming a COO, I was in charge of marketing and felt comfortable doing it for several years. With an ever-growing team, I noticed that we missed opportunities to collaborate. The team was increasingly siloed by their functions.

Now my job is to connect the dots inside the team, to notice what could be improved in our process and what needs to be done today to be able to grow our team tomorrow. For example, I have to see connection points for marketing and customer support, marketing and HR, etc. Moreover, we have to learn to grow leaders inside our team today to be able to grow and decentralize our company in the future.

Do I know how to do it? No. But I believe it’s essential to think about growth beforehand. We are doing great today because of the things we did years ago. And it’s much more simple to make changes when the company is performing well. If something doesn’t work out, we’ll call it a failed experiment and will continue trying until we find what works for us. My job today is to find ways to help us grow and work in the years to come.


What is the greatest business secret in the world?

Nearly everything is possible if you set your mind to it and work hard at it… until it becomes a reality. We’ve been working on it for 10 years and we’re still loving it!


Phew! We whizzed through those questions like lightning! How are y’all doing? In case you need a recap, here are some key points to remember when you’re remote working. 

Our remote-first checklist ✅
  1. Hire people that you trust, and then give them the space and independence they need to get on with their tasks.
  2. Make use of tools like Slack and 15Five to communicate effectively, and set rules about how you’ll use them.
  3. If you’re struggling to be productive, start small, break down your workload and try different time management techniques.
  4. Define your company culture with clear values and communication.
  5. Use online team-building activities to help your team members socialize and have fun.
  6. Invest more in employee experiences, rather than things.
  7. When going through the hiring process, values, trust and respect are essential components of the ideal remote working employee.
  8. Remote working is here to stay, and hybrid teams are becoming more popular. Stay open-minded about what could mean for you and your company in the future.

Are you a remote worker? Or have you ever tried it in the past? What were your experiences of remote working? Let us know in the comments below. 

Meg Bouton

I’m Meg, Content Writer at MailerLite. I was named after Megan Follows, the lead actress in ‘Anne of Green Gables’ (which tells the story of a budding writer). As fate would have it, I’m now following in her footsteps. When I’m not writing, you can find me sailing, skiing, or trawling through Parisian bookshops.