Writing: The silent teammate behind Help Scout’s success

Writing isn’t just a part of Help Scout’s culture—it’s a major pillar.

Published: Oct 26, 2021

Help Scout’s employees are used to reading what their CEO and co-founder Nick Francis has to say. For the past 96 Fridays (and counting), it’s been his tradition to send out weekly notes spanning topics from company updates to whatever is on his mind.

As Suchada Stevens, Help Scout’s People Ops Business Partner, tells it, reading one of these “Friday Notes” solidified the importance of the company’s writing culture for her.

Nick wrote, “Writing catalyzes clarity of thought. When done well, it demonstrates a certain mastery of the information being shared. If you understand every angle and nuance of a deeply complex topic or project, you owe it to others to share it in a way that's clear and easy to understand.”

“It captures a lot of what I've observed coming into this organization,” explains Suchada, who joined the team earlier this year. “Our CEO is a creative, and he’s always going to foster an environment where our vision is communicated and shared through writing.”

Help Scout is a fully-remote organization, and has been for the last ten years. So while most companies are just beginning to discover the nuances of remote communication, Help Scout has quite literally built their company through writing. As Suchada puts it, “We often have no choice but to default to asynchronous communication, and in order to do that well, we have to have a strong writing culture.”

While writing permeates each part of Help Scout’s business, it’s most evident in three key areas: planning meetings, sharing specialized knowledge, and growing the company.

No pre-read, no meeting

Not only is Help Scout a remote company, it’s also a global one, with employees from Australia to Ukraine.

Because of the vast differences in time zones, meeting times that work for everyone are scarce. In order to make meetings as quick and productive as possible, the organizer is expected to provide a pre-read for attendees to review in advance. If this isn’t provided, “people will let you know,” says Suchada.

Pre-reads cover any background context that meeting attendees will need, as well as an agenda and a summary of what the organizer wants to accomplish during the allotted time.

“[Pre-reads ensure that] what’s discussed in meetings is exactly what needs to be discussed. Everyone goes in understanding what we want the outcome to be,” says Suchada. “And if I’m 48 hours out from a meeting and am still missing information that should be included in the pre-read, it forces me to cancel that meeting, and cancel it early.”

"[Pre-reads ensure that] what’s discussed in meetings is exactly what needs to be discussed."
Suchada Stevens
Help Scout

This approach also forces employees to think critically about whether there needs to be a meeting at all. “Sometimes I’ll get started on putting together a pre-read and realize that what I have to say could easily be communicated in a Slack message,” says Suchada.

Documentation: the silent teammate

As Help Scout’s CEO put it in that storied Friday Note, writing culture is a necessary part of “catalyzing clarity of thought.”

Many of Help Scout’s employees are experts in their field, and are the only people who do what they do. In order for these employees to share their knowledge with those who need it, good writing is essential. “You have to provide a lot of information to bring people along with your thoughts,” says Suchada. “It’s an adjustment for people, the amount that you have to write in order to give people the right context. Sometimes you feel like you’re overdoing it, but when you’re on the receiving end of that knowledge sharing, there’s never too much.”

"Writing is how we move things forward. The way we communicate has to capture that clarity and mastery that our experts have."
Suchada Stevens
Help Scout

Because of the amount of writing that’s needed—and expected—in order to share knowledge, Help Scout’s head of customers started calling internal documentation the “Silent Teammate,” and the term stuck.

Suchada has learned to always look for documentation first if she has a question. “It’s been helpful for me to type what I’m looking for into the Slab search bar, and more often than not, the information I need is already well-documented.”

Information that isn’t documented never stays that way for long. Per Suchada, “a good rule of thumb that we use is if someone asks you for something more than once, it should be documented.”

Operating this way isn’t just a byproduct of being remote; it’s an intentional choice that allows Help Scout to truly thrive as a distributed company. “I'm on the west coast, so when I start my day, there are people who are getting ready to sign off, or pick up their kids from school,” says Suchada. “If we didn’t have a really effective system for writing and reading, we just wouldn’t be able to get anything done.”

Help Scout’s future is still being written

Help Scout is growing, and inherent to that growth is a commitment to keep their writing culture strong.

It’s even built into their hiring process. Candidates are given a project to complete, which includes a presentation. While the presentation helps to gauge the candidate's mastery and thoughtfulness, it’s also a great way to get a read on their communication skills.

It’s not necessarily a formal consideration in the hiring process, but the way a candidate communicates over email during the hiring process can provide helpful insight into what it would be like to work with them. “Things like how quickly they respond or the level of thoughtfulness in their response mean something more, given how much we rely on written communication,” says Suchada.

"We don't have that luxury of always being able to meet face-to-face or pop into people's offices."
Suchada Stevens
Help Scout

New hires are immersed in Help Scout’s writing culture from day one. Whether it’s setting up their “Player Roadmaps” with personal and professional development goals or looking through the onboarding material available in Slab, it’s understood and well-communicated that if there’s anything new employees need to know, it’s available for them to read.

Suchada says that writing will always be an outlet for creativity at Help Scout, and a channel for introducing and solidifying processes. She sees the company using documentation to add more guardrails as they continue to grow. For now, though, her team uses Slab to communicate standard employee documentation like handbooks, policies, processes, and action plans.

If anything else changes at Help Scout in the future, Suchada is sure she’ll read about it first.

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