The HRT Beat | Tech Blog

How HRT Approached Remote Work During the Pandemic

Jan 4, 2022

In March of 2020, everyone’s world turned upside down – and HRT’s offices were no exception. For a company that espouses core values like openness, collaboration, and togetherness, switching to an entirely remote work environment felt anathema to our whole way of working and interacting with our colleagues. However, another one of our core values is to always Make It Better – and in this case, our challenge was to solve the problems remote work presented to us in all aspects of life and work. Let’s talk about what we did, and how we successfully adapted to life as we now know it.

HRT is used to proactively looking for issues and thinking of creative solutions. And the Spring of 2020 offered no shortage of opportunities there. The first obstacle to tackle was how to maintain a productive and fully functioning trading environment. In late February of 2020, it became clear that there would be a broad shift to remote work of some kind, although it was still very unclear what the duration of that remote work would be.  From a technical standpoint, HRT was already in an enviable position for such a transformation: each employee had their own laptop, and we already had a well-working VPN system.  In addition, we had done the work in our trade ops and support tooling to handle lower bandwidth links and/or VPN connections due to previous remote work and disaster recovery planning.  There were a few hiccups, but with the help of everyone taking their laptops home and mass-testing the system in early March, we were actually in a relatively good position to transition to WFH. We then immediately transitioned to supporting employees by providing better monitors and helping build out work-from-home setups. 

The second hurdle to overcome was the preservation of HRT’s uniquely social and open culture in a remote environment. From a collaborative work perspective, employees already had wide access to our code, documentation, and other systems.  Nobody sat at home waiting for a bureaucracy to unlock whatever access they needed.  We have a high degree of trust and autonomy, so we didn’t feel the need to constantly check in on people or hold them in all-day Zooms – we knew that they would get the job done, and ask for help if they needed it.  This kept us out of unnecessary meetings and kept us productive.  However, culture is a tricky, intangible element of work life. Without shared lunches, casual conversations around the coffee machine, or after-work social events, we needed to re-invent what it meant to be a community. 

Foreseeing the importance of maintaining togetherness while we were apart, we began taking immediate action. On March 13th, 2020, one of our partners, Prashant, began a weekly “Prascast” (a live video broadcast) to the whole company, with rotating topics and a lively chat via Slack that kept us informed and entertained. Does a weekly broadcast staffed by your coworkers, hosted by your boss, and aired on a Friday afternoon sound like a drag? We were worried about that too… but when we put it together, what we got was something weird, quirky, unpredictable, and totally unique. Friday afternoons became a time to hop on the Slack channel, watch Prascast, and cheer on the people willing to put themselves out there by doing impromptu cooking shows or song parodies in front of all their peers. We also hosted virtual events, sent out short video spotlights on employees’ WFH lives, organized cooking and exercise classes, and held remote dog & kiddo playdates. 

We then encountered one final remote challenge: hiring and onboarding new employees. Protecting an internal culture in a remote environment is hard enough with employees who remember what it was like to be in person – but HRT didn’t stop or slow our pace of hiring during lockdown. We were able to shift quickly to prepping and shipping new laptops to people’s homes and to supporting seamless white-glove remote onboarding. So while we felt good about the mechanics of our remote onboarding process, we also needed to address the cultural aspects of onboarding. 

A critical aspect of HRT’s onboarding process in a typical year is encouraging cross-team collaboration. As mentioned, we allow broad access to code, documentation, and other information.  This low-friction flow of information to new hires makes them feel welcome and accelerates their learning and productivity.  Equally important is our process of constantly garnering feedback, especially from new employees: on training, the onboarding process, and our existing tech stack.  We fostered the acclimation of new employees through presentations on technical topics and the people who had responsibilities for those areas, alongside frequent check-ins from managers, non-managing mentors, and cross-team “buddies.”

We found that HRT’s existing culture of code review was particularly important for new, remote engineers.  While personal connections are also important, an engineer needs to understand the technical lay of the land; how they should approach changes in a large, existing codebase and interact with their fellow developers.  Training at HRT has two parts, one is a more general training that lasts for 2 months, and then a more specific training once you are matched to a particular team.  In both phases, constructive, respectful (and only sometimes voluminous) code review is critical for learning how HRT approaches technical challenges and maintains its codebase.  This and other technical feedback is critical for maintaining HRT’s focus on improvement. These feedback mechanisms translated very well to remote work.  They aren’t reliant on in-person discussions, and provide continuous learning opportunities as a new engineer’s responsibility grows.

Navigating the once-unthinkable waters of lockdown was – and continues to be – a challenge faced by everyone, everywhere. But what we have discovered is that the same aspects of HRT’s culture we already valued before the pandemic were possible to preserve given enough thought and effort. And it was largely those cultural aspects which were responsible for allowing us to become the larger and more successful company that we are today.  For the foreseeable future, we, like many companies, will continue to find a hybrid rhythm, with many employees splitting their time in some capacity between working from the office and working from home. Continuing to support that successful hybrid work environment will mean a commitment to remaining on the leading edge of technological advancement, and to upholding our core values.

Don't Miss a Beat

Follow us here for the latest in engineering, mathematics, and automation at HRT.