In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses around the world to abruptly pivot to remote work. Many adjusted, but with costs, among them decreased engagement, loss of connection among coworkers, and loneliness.
But having been fully distributed since the company set up shop in 2012, Marco Polo didn’t miss a beat. Even as we all navigated new routines, stopped working from our favorite coffee shops, cared for young kids suddenly home all day, and worried for loved ones, we maintained the cohesion and momentum necessary to successfully launch not one but two major products, Marco Polo Plus and Marco Polo Channels.
“Our trust in each other sustained us and helped us grow stronger, making 2020 a year of unprecedented growth and increased connection,” Marco Polo CEO and Co-Founder Vlada Bortnik recalls in her end-of-year reflection.
So what exactly makes “the remote thing” work so well for Marco Polo and by extension, nurture the company’s success?
#1. Intentional connectedness creates a culture of well-being
Some team members admit that before starting at Marco Polo, they weren’t sold on remote work. Intellectually they understood that a lack of commute would save time and money and even lower their carbon footprint. All good things. But they worried about the potential cost of losing day-to-day connection.
“I was concerned that my relationships with co-workers would be less full or less rich than in the past,” says Willem, a program manager. “But actually, with remote work you typically see each other in a more private environment, often including family or pets, which can spark more personal conversations.”
The work environment at Marco Polo is unique compared to most work environments. There is utmost respect and kindness flowing between colleagues. There is a passion for the mission that is universal. The goals for everyone are relatively clear. The commitment to make remote working actual work is obvious. I’m grateful for the effort on that front. –Employee submission in quarterly Peakon survey
At Marco Polo, non-work chatter is not just allowed throughout the day but encouraged. The #mildly-interesting Slack chat gives people a place to drop random topics of interest. A virtual watercooler thread teases out playful personal insights about favorite childhood video games or people’s most satisfying recent snack. If someone sets their status to “Away” for a walk, a trip to the pet groomer, or just a brain break, no one judges.
These seemingly small daily expressions of caring add up, and complement the measures that leadership has put in place to ensure that well-being stays at the forefront: All-company retreats bring the entire company together several times a year (albeit virtually since the pandemic started). Quarterly surveys keep a clear read on the team’s outlook. The company offers ongoing access to personal coaching and other wellness resources. Small teams hold weekly reflections. And daily all-team standups, led by Vlada, start with celebrations and appreciations to help everyone feel seen, heard, and cared for.
I’ve spent years sitting next to people in other jobs and never knew they had a dog or cat. –Bill, Long Beach, CA
#2. For work and for play, Marco Polo uses Marco Polo a lot
Being distributed means that clear communication needs to stay at the forefront, so team members communicate transparently, frequently, and even excessively – no shame! – throughout the day. Slack and Zoom figure prominently, but Marco Polo lies at the heart of both productivity and lasting connection.
When kicking off a new project or developing a feature, the engineers, project managers, designers, and researchers start a Polo group where they can brainstorm organically, share ideas and visuals, and jump in for questions or clarifications that might be more efficiently addressed face-to-face.
These project-specific Polo groups also help document decision-making for folks who join a project mid-stream.
Marco Polo is absolutely essential to having the much needed connection with your team, especially early on. It keeps the process spontaneous, agile, and inclusive. –Marlow, Seattle, WA
Marco Polo is also the tool of choice for building friendships around non-work topics, starting when every new employee receives a warm, fuzzy “Hello and welcome!” Polo from people across the company.
There are kid groups, home improvement groups, grilling groups. A bot randomly pairs two people for a Marco Polo conversation every two weeks. And the All-Teamily Group is for sharing anything and everything about life outside work. The whole company is in on it; no shop talk allowed.
Yet even as Marco Polo improves work efficiency and encourages personal connection, it also helps team members maintain healthy boundaries and avoid the burnout that can come when work and personal life blur. People respond to Polos when it’s convenient, making for more effective, energized communication – the opposite of Zoom fatigue.
#3. Freedom leads to productivity
More than just convenient, remote work at Marco Polo is liberating because life outside work is not something to “work around” – it’s something to celebrate.
Allie, a software engineer, once relocated to Costa Rica for six months and has plans to head to El Salvador for an extended period later this year.
“I love to surf, and this gives me the freedom to work from anywhere with stable internet,” she says. “It also allows me to visit family for weeks at a time.”
The company provides just enough structure to ensure that everyone is online and available during core connectivity hours (9 am-3 pm PST). Folks are also asked to participate in the all-team standup each morning. Beyond that, the work day runs on trust and accountability. And team members find that when company leaders and coworkers give each other the autonomy to organize their work in a way that makes sense for their lives and the people they love, everything gets done to a mutual standard of excellence.
I have distant memories of past jobs where I felt like I was stuck on a tricky problem but also felt like I needed to “look busy” because I was in an office with others. Nowadays I get up and take a break, and oftentimes come back to my desk with an idea how to fix my problem. This is actually more efficient. –Joel, San Leandro, CA
For more nuts and bolts insights into how Marco Polo stays productive, check out this article by Vlada Bortnik.
#4. Wider reach nets the best hires
The success of Marco Polo’s team starts with hiring. It’s a thorough process because in addition to bringing on people who are smart, talented, and have the right experience and skill set, the company seeks people who are purpose-driven and who want to work joyfully.
And because the company isn’t limited by geography, it can seek the most talented people, and allow those people to work where they’re happiest.
When experience and passion for our purpose no longer have geographic constraints, then the talent pool becomes tremendously more diverse. That’s one of the best advantages of our remote culture.” –Thea, Austin, TX
Meagan from San Diego, CA, will soon celebrate her fifth anniversary. Having joined the company when there were just eight employees, she’s seen the company grow and speaks to the power of being able to “live and go where we feel called.”
Prior to the pandemic, Meagan regularly traveled to spend time with family and was able to work from those locations without missing a beat.
“It’s very special that we can do that, versus ‘I need to give up my job and give up what I love doing because I want to move to another location and they don’t have an office there.’”
Interested in learning more?
At Marco Polo the purpose of the company – to help people feel close – has a profound influence on the way we operate internally. Believing in the power of healthy, authentic relationships, presenting the most genuine version of ourselves to the world, and finding happiness in the connections we help create, are all ideals we share with our user community and with each other.
If you’d like to find out more, take a look at our jobs page, www.marcopolo.me/jobs.