Perspectives on Remote Work: Shane Pearlman, CEO of Modern Tribe
Mar 7, 2022 · 8 MIN READ
For many companies, the shift to remote or hybrid work was a quick and stressful transition due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been working in this new remote world for two years now. But, for some, remote work wasn’t a transition at all.
Modern Tribe, a digital agency, has been remote since it was founded in 2006. The Modern Tribe team has a remote-first mindset when it comes to their company. In fact, their CEO is running the company from the Canary Islands—no formal office needed.
Shane Pearlman, CEO of Modern Tribe, joined Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, to chat about how Modern Tribe has always been a remote-first company and how they’ve continued to thrive and tackle challenges as more companies move to remote and hybrid workplaces.
The remote-first mindset
Shane Pearlman started Modern Tribe in 2006 as a fully remote company and never looked back. For Shane and his team, what matters most is the results that his employees produce, not where their offices are. By removing the barrier of having to be in-office, Modern Tribe has access to a global talent pool, which really increases their opportunity of attracting top talent. “We made a decision really early on that it didn’t really matter where you worked. We were willing to pay for results, and so we set a benchmark that was location independent,” said Pearlman.
In addition to the top talent from around the world that they have access to, they’ve also given themselves a retention advantage. When it doesn’t matter where you live, what time zone you work in, or what hours you choose to be online, you allow your employees to design their own workdays in ways that work best for them. This means they’re more likely to be happy at work and stay a part of your company for a long time.
“It allowed us to design a workstyle around flexibility. There’s a lot of people who believe work is 9-5, but when you don’t care about time zones, it frees you up to design your work around your best life.”
Tackling challenges with remote-first work
There are many benefits to remote-first work, but it comes with its own set of challenges as well.
One key challenge faced by Shane and his team is fostering empathy between people at work. When you’re not face-to-face, it’s harder to create close connections with your coworkers and even harder for companies to create opportunities for coworkers to connect. As a remote-first company, Modern Tribe leaders spend nearly as much time and money on culture building as a fully in-person company would. They’re able to go on retreats, have company and team activities, and they’ve built their own internal system for people to highlight one another’s achievements.
Another key challenge of remote work is accountability. A common misconception is that if you can’t see your employees and you don’t know what they’re doing, that they must not be getting their jobs done. This is not true for the team at Modern Tribe
The leaders at Modern Tribe hold their employees accountable for getting their own work done, on their own time, within the proper timelines. Not everyone is built to work at a fully remote company, but at the end of the day, accountability and self-management are the keys to success in a remote environment.
“I have a lot of people ask me, ‘Can anybody work remote?’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, but not necessarily well or happily.’ It takes a certain amount of self-management,” shared Pearlman.
Although Modern Tribe has been remote for over a decade, now that more companies are moving to fully remote or hybrid work, they have more competition. Today there are more opportunities than ever to join a fully remote company and work from wherever you’re happiest. Luckily, the Modern Tribe team was able to make lemonade out of lemons and turn the challenge of competition into a positive.
“We never fished in the same ponds until suddenly… we did. And that’s genuinely created a business challenge for me organizationally. What it did though, was force us to get more creative as a result. We have a much more diverse applicant pool because we’ve had to go fishing in places we originally didn’t.”
Maintaining a fully remote culture
Building and maintaining a remote culture isn’t just about happy hours and Zoom meetings. For Shane and his team, building a fully remote culture around the idea of flexibility is an obsession. For Shane himself, he prioritizes his best life around work. He blocks off his calendar to focus on family and to make sure he gets to surf every morning, and he encourages his team to do the same.
“I have other things. And these are things that I make sure to put those big blocks in first because the urgent will always fill the rest of my calendar. I have to put the important in before the urgent just goes over it like a tsunami.”
To make their remote culture sticky, they look for people who are happy, helpful, curious, and accountable, so that they can build a healthy environment for their team—even remotely.
While they’re working, they set rules for communication by creating team charters. Figuring out how to communicate with one another, when things can be escalated, who they go to, and how fast you’re expected to respond to a message is critical for team success. If these boundaries aren’t clear, there can be a lot of friction across a team. So, Shane and his team suggest that each team sets clear workflows and expectations for communicating.
“In our case, we allow our teams to work differently. It’s fine if one team wants to communicate in a way, take time off in a different way, that’s fine, as long as it’s well-coordinated,” shared Pearlman. “And so that practice talks about things like, if I have a question, how do I ask it? How long do I need to wait until I know that it’s okay to ask again?”
Tips and tricks for being remote
As someone who has been fully remote for a long time, Shane Pearlman knows how to build a remote company. For those who are looking to build or improve upon a remote environment, here is some great advice for you.
First and foremost, be clear about outcomes. “Be real clear about outcomes, get your management, your leadership aligned. I know a lot of companies where the leadership has given one set, but the management is trying to run it with a different set of tools or practices. And that conflict is just causing harm everywhere.”
When you’re building your culture, be intentional. “Consider that whatever culture you have now that you got from presential probably has about an 18-month to two-year shelf life. You can probably run on that. At that point, there’ll be enough churn that you’re going to have to intentionally design whatever’s next. And don’t assume that the culture you design for a presential organization should be one-to-one with a remote organization. There are tweaks you’re going to want to make. And so thinking about those ahead of time, rather than trying to react and change something that isn’t working.”
If you’re a split organization, create a level playing field for all of your employees. “Those fully remote people always feel ostracized, always miss out on key conversations, rarely get access to raises and promotions, in a way. And it doesn’t work. So if you’re going to create some kind of split org, even if you do have access to an office space, you need to behave remote-first. All meetings have to be online, even if person A sits at this desk and person B sits at that desk, you have to create a level playing field for everybody.”
The future of remote work
What’s the future of remote work? Well, for the Modern Tribe team, it’s just work. As priorities are shifting and there is more focus on flexibility and work-life balance, we will likely see a dynamic shift in what work looks like. We no longer need to be working in an office or even near an office location. More companies are seeing that people want to work in different environments with good schools, good medical care, and that is affordable for them and their families. Shane Pearlman’s advice for the future of work? Think like a retiree.
“A friend of mine and I often say, ‘If you want to see what remote workers do, look at what retirees do.’ If your income was not tied to where you are, what would you do?”