How To Build A Remote Team: Lessons From Unsettled

By: Jonathan Kalan, Co-founder, Unsettled  

This week, I joined one of our weekly team hangouts, only to find this:

Lala, who runs our experience department, kicked off the meeting with an urgent call to action. “You have 20 seconds to find an outfit better than mine. Now GO!”

Not your traditional way of starting a weekly stand-up meeting. But damn, did the Unsettled team show up. I never thought I’d see our Head of Community look (and try to talk) like Mario for an entire meeting. Then again, I’ve never worked at a place quite like Unsettled. In our virtual office, we’ve come to expect the unexpected.

Often times people ask me, “Isn’t building a remote team hard? or “How do you really feel like you get to know your colleagues?”

For two and a half years, we have built Unsettled as a fully remote, global company. We have no office. We call ourselves #TeamNoPants because let’s be honest, a lot of times some of us aren’t wearing pants.

True to our values, and our mission, we work from anywhere — and literally everywhere. Our team has joined meetings from chairlifts in between ski runs, trains across the American South, camper vans in the Serbian countryside, from boats in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Caribbean Oceans, and from every continent except Antarctica (working on that!).

At any given moment, the Unsettled team is spread out across 6-8 countries, and even more time zones. Even as Co-Founder, I still haven’t met some of my team — people I’ve been working with for over a year — face to face.

How We Make Working Remotely Work

So, the million dollar question is: How do we make it work?

It’s simple. It comes down to meaning and culture.

We believe that every single person on the Unsettled team is fully dedicated to the work they do, but more importantly, to why they’re here in the first place.

Running experiences around the world may seem like an ideal job, but the cliches of smoothies in a hammock fades quickly, and in the end, it’s work. We’re left with what individually drives us; our search for meaningful work.

I have no reservations in saying that every single person on our team is here because Unsettled adds meaning and value to their lives. Whether it’s sharing in a good cry on an admissions call with a complete stranger whose life is about to take an exciting new turn, inspiring people to live every day a little more Unsettled through our social media, or leading participants day in and day out on a co-created journey of growth, we all find personal meaning in the work we do.

When an employee’s work is rooted in personal meaning for them, not simply meaning for the company or institution, you don’t need to ask them to “show up”. They are doing it for themselves. You don’t need to check in and make sure they are getting their shit done. You trust them to lead themselves. You don’t always have to schedule calls during “normal” hours, because we all live flexibly and understand that coordinating between New York, Italy, Thailand, and Japan is really, really fucking hard. Staying up late for work? Sleep in. Up early? Take off early. If Patagonia’s policy is “let my people go surfing”, then Unsettled’s is something like “let my people roam”.

And so back to the costume game. Why did this stand out for me?

Because when the lines between work and life are blurred in our hyper-connected world, where we’re in constant movement, we need to be able to bring our whole selves to work. We must make time for play. For fun. For experiments. For creativity. For understanding.

The office cooler is not a physical space; it’s a space for conversation. The lunch break with colleagues is not a dip out to a local cafe; it’s an impromptu cooking lesson where my Co-Founder holds a Google Hangout to shoot the shit while making an eggplant pasta in his kitchen. The after-hours beer is not at the local pub; it’s a taco crawl on a 6-hour layover when two of us happen to be in Mexico City.

We make a point on our weekly calls to not only dive into our goals, challenges, and accomplishments but to also dive into our lives. This authentic approach to building culture (anyone can pose a question, or throw an idea out there, at any time), allows us to be exactly who we are. It means we all show up to the work, without having to ask it.

Our company culture, like culture in general, is not something that is “fixed”. It can’t be written down in company values (though that’s a part of it). It’s not just the leaders who create it in a formal meeting (though we do contribute to it). It’s something each of us contributes to. It changes with each new person we bring on, and each time someone moves on to their next adventure. It’s living, and thus we get to have fun keeping it alive. Together, we co-create the culture of Unsettled.

They say it’s hard to run a remote team, but I’ll say it here first: I feel more connected to this remote team than any team I’ve ever worked with in person. We build a strong remote culture by being vulnerable, by sharing what gives us meaning, and making sure that every single day, we can show up, have fun, and still get shit done.

Interested in joining the team? Check out some of our open positions

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