Meet Brian Thomas: VP of Product at Customer.io, an entirely remote company. We caught up with him to talk about how he leads a distributed product team and how remote work forces you to be more introspective.
Fast facts about Brian
- Transitioned from in-office to remote work 2.5 years ago
- Currently managing a team of 6
- Works from his in-home office, coffee shops and different cities 🏙
How long have you worked remotely?
Two and a half years. Before that I was in an office.
How many direct reports do you have?
Six direct reports: three product managers and three product designers.
What’s in your tech stack?
Notion, 15five (for weekly check ins), Slack, Zoom and Figma. Figma’s cloud-native files are amazing for remote design collaboration. The Slack/Zoom integration using the “/zoom” command is one of those tiny things that makes a big difference. I’m five characters away from talking to you face-to-face.
What’s your biggest challenge working remotely?
I think there are two different answers to that question. One is about managing your own energy levels. There’s something about being in person that creates a different type of energy. It’s very different from, “I’ve been alone in my house all day.”
Then there’s managing the energy levels within my team. How are they doing? You don’t get as many signals as you would if you were in person so this is something you need to pay more attention to when you’re remote.
What’s the biggest advantage of working remotely?
I think it’s a more healthy way to work. Work-life integration actually happens when you work remotely. You’re allowed to show up and be there for things that you might not otherwise be there for when working in an office. Things like driving your kids to school, seeing their plays, traveling. Every person has something in their life and remote work allows you to show up and be there for that, whatever it is.
Where do you actually work?
I have an office space in my house. I balance that with coffee shops and working in different cities. I think it’s important, ergonomically, to have a comfortable space to work in. And that will differ from person to person. At Customer.io we’re given a budget to make whatever workspace we need that removes distraction and makes us most productive. One thing you need to do working remotely? Get a good chair!
How do you start your workday?
I start with a routine that eases me into work. Get up, make coffee, breakfast, do my daily routine around the house. I typically work as quickly as I can because there are people working overnight in different time zones and I’m eager to see that. For me, the beginning of the day is the most intense collaboration time. It wakes me up and gets me excited to dive right in.
Would you ever go back to working on site?
Yes. What motivates me more than anything is what I’m building. That matters to me more than working remotely. That being said, there are clearly things I would lose going back into an office. All that time I gained not having to commute, I’d lose. I would likely end up listening to a podcast or something, instead of using that time for me.
What’s one piece of advice can you give to someone who is about to go fully remote?
You’re going to have to change more than you think you are. Leave yourself the room to experiment in what works for you.
If you go about your normal routine and start work every day when you would be commuting, you will burn out. You’ll end up working 12 hours a day because you now have all of this extra time on your hands.
Be intentional for what you need and put your needs first; Build around your schedule. Rather than using that time you just gained to do more work, give that time back to yourself instead and do something with it that will benefit you in your life. Don’t force yourself to be productive.
Do you feel like being remote hinders your career growth in any way?
Overall, no. Certainly, there are some managers that would say you lost an opportunity, but that goes to the association of remote-only being a lifestyle company. There’s a perception of remote work not being ambitious for some reason, or that you can’t be successful as a remote company. But I think there’s a lot of companies out there (and growing, including Customer.io) that prove that perception wrong.
On the topic of loneliness, do you ever feel lonely or isolated working remotely? If so, how do you combat it?
When there are entire days when it’s just you at home, yeah, but it’s not a simple answer. It’s definitely a more lonely way to work, but as a product manager and people manager, I don’t feel lonely. There is a human connection. I can see, though, in different roles where you have an hour or two of collaboration a week and the rest is writing code, then yeah that’s where loneliness can come up. And to that, I’d say find people in your life that can meet you at a different time. It doesn’t have to be a problem if you embrace a different work schedule. It’s the same situation as if you’re exhausted. There’s something wrong that you need to tweak.
Remote work requires you to be more introspective. If there are things that aren’t working, there are fewer constraints and a lot more options in terms of running your life. Paying attention to those signals is the most important thing you can do to overcome any obstacles you’ll face.
How do you build a remote culture?
We use things like donut, but I think it’s important to use discretion when saying “everyone will do this,” in order to create a culture. Instead, I try to encourage openness and lower the barrier for when something is Slack-worthy or mention-worthy. When you’re in an office at the water cooler, the bar for what you can mention is super low, but the bar for something you deem worthy for Slack is higher. In a remote office, you have to lower that bar on places like Slack. Encourage people to share, but don’t force it.
We have Slack channels for “our people” and “our weekends” where you can post cool photos of the past weekend. Find things that lower the bar. Foster openness. Fun rituals emerge from doing that. Twice a year we do all-company retreats. We try to find that human connection in smaller meetups as well. These short face-to-face interactions anchor relationships.
One thing to emphasize is that remote work is a much more natural way to work, but there’s a lot of fear around that kind of freedom and an undue importance placed on face-to-face communication. Trusting people to make a business successful, to take pride in their work and forcibly extracting that from presence is healthy. Being remote forces you to learn how to be a better communicator and collaborator. I’m a better employee because of working remotely. Pay attention to yourself and how to be most productive.
Learn more from remote leaders like Brian:
- Remote Leaders: Why GitLab’s Head of Remote “unchained from a life of commuting”
- Remote Leaders: Dana Doswell of Sidepart on why habit building is the key to remote work
- Remote Leaders: Marcus Wermuth of Buffer on overcommunication and isolation
- Remote Leaders: Shreyansh Sanghani of Founder of SKS Enterprises on building a partially distributed team