Living the Dream vs. Working the Dream

What’s it like to work at AirTreks?

A virtual meeting at AirTreks

article by Riel Manríquez, AirTreks CEO

A few years ago, I thought that working at well-funded startups in Silicon Valley with talented colleagues would give me the lifestyle I wanted. I thought I was “living the dream.” But now after working at AirTreks for a few years, I suspect I was merely “working the dream” instead of living it.

At Creative Wonders (the EA+Disney company I worked for) we doubled our productivity and cut our production costs almost yearly. This was great for our work efficiency, but I’m not so sure it was great for our personal well-being. I remember dreading the coming of the weekend because I wouldn’t get to work.

At iPrint.com, I remember the excitement of going public, but I also remember how distracted I felt sharing a small space with 5 other web producers and blasting music in my headphones to block them all out so I could focus.

Some other things I remember from my office jobs, which are now distant memories:

  • Working from a cubicle.
  • Two hours in traffic per day.
  • Constant interruptions during the day.
  • Taking my work home at night and on the weekends.
  • Relaxation meant web-surfing or social media.

Working at AirTreks is different. I don’t experience the intensity of Silicon Valley, which I miss. But my quality of life is better. I’m accomplishing important things in an environment where I feel good. I have a rich and satisfying personal life with family. I’m not looking around for my next job because, even after 6 years, I want more time here!

AirTreks is a 30-year old company that at one time received Silicon Valley funding and had a big office in downtown San Francisco. But in 2014, AirTreks left the concept of the traditional office behind and is now a 100% distributed company with colleagues in 10 countries.

At AirTreks, we work from all over the world!

It wasn’t easy for all of our colleagues. We actually kept a tiny office for a year because we were worried we couldn’t go “paperless.” We have by now: we officially closed that office last year.

Types of Remote Workers

Sara at her home in Arizona

Some colleagues jumped right in and left expensive cities for more livable ones. Sara moved from a Sacramento-to-San Francisco commute to Tucson, AZ. She went from living with her parents to living in her own big house with pets, a garden and a pool. She found a local community and runs a film festival.

We have slow-travelers, like Dorin who is traveling through Asia now with his partner. I see him under his mosquito net in the dark each week. Aurelie is also in Asia, helping her partner establish a hostel. Last year she lived in Canada.

Kate, on a cold beach

We have colleagues who use their remote worker flexibility to provide flexibility to their family. A Lithuanian colleague moved her family to Belgium to follow her spouse’s job interests. Kate in Minnesota, moved to Michigan for her husband’s job, and then to Montana where he plans to pursue an advanced degree.

Riel and Tycho

We have “happy parents” of which I’m one. These colleagues have young children at home. They work from a quiet room in their house. They get to see their kids many times a day, be there during their first walk, eat meals together and run to the rescue when the family needs that extra help. They have time to attend dentist appointments and school meetings without any fuss.

How do we do it?

So, how do we run a successful 100% remote company?

First, I think that a company which works 100% remotely is probably easier to navigate than a company which works partially remotely. I heard this at Yonder conference for distributed companies and I’ve come to see the truth in it. We don’t have to create different guidelines for communication for remote and local folks: everyone is always remote.

Second, you need someone in the company who cares about people and process to implement a company operating system like Rockefeller Habits which is supported by Gazelles or Traction by EOS.

Third, you need great collaboration. People have to want to work together to do hard things and invest daily in building the relationships that allow collaboration to happen. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of AirTreks’ core value is “make meaningful relationships.”

Dorin working in Indonesia.

Our Structure

A typical day is similar for everyone in that we all meet online daily for a short 7-15 minute huddle. Video conferencing software has improved in the last 5 years. We use Zoom.us. It is reliable, easy to use and affordable. In our meetings I witness and experience the full range of human emotions such as joy, sadness, confusion, apprehension–not just frustration over the quality of the call.

After you get used to online meetings you realize how much they are like real-life meetings, but I believe they are actually less emotionally demanding. You don’t have to get dressed up. You also don’t have to be responsible for considering as much body language.

For example, you don’t have to think about things like where to put your hands because your viewers can’t see them. You don’t have to feel awkward about holding the gaze of the speaker or listeners because it’s not part of the meta-communication in online meetings.

Over time, I think it’s easier to be yourself. You don’t have to work as hard to maintain an image or work persona. You can use this excess energy to focus on your results at work.

Everyone also has one or two weekly meetings to stay on track and stay connected with their team. Other than that, everyone is free to meet as needed. We just reach out over email, Slack or Google Hangouts; or make an appointment. We have as many conference rooms as we want and set them up as reservable resources in Google Calendar.

We also all work hard to have a company that does not require us to all be in a meeting in order to get things done. We strive for asynchronous communication where possible. We respect our synchronous communication time, our meetings, by being thoughtful about how we use it.

We have structure in support of our core values. We live by our purpose and core values, and use them to make important decisions on everything we do. We have a quarterly ceremony in which we recognize awesome feats in the company to help us define what our core values mean.

We hire and fire by these core values: make meaningful connections, embrace change, work and play with passion, love learning, and own your experience.

I believe that having common core values helps us to collaborate better and gives everyone confidence to make decisions knowing that others will support them. More personal ownership and decision-making should lead to less need for meetings.

Work & Play With Passion

I used to think our company core value to “work and play with passion” meant we value working long hours and bungee jumping on the weekends.  But through discussions with my colleagues, I now see it as a dedication to doing world-class work while also keeping a healthy and satisfying personal life.

We cherish work-life balance. We want everyone in a healthy place so they can be doing the best work of their lives. I believe the remote work, the effort we put into structure, and the emphasis on our core values is how we make it work. It’s how we are able to create something different from my work dream of Silicon Valley. It’s my dream of a sustainable meaningful remote job.

Riel Manríquez is CEO of AirTreks.