Remote Work — the 21st Century Business Model
The challenges of running an entirely remote work company are relatively few compared to the many benefits in competitive advantage, employee happiness and overall productivity. Over the past 8 years, I feel I have learned great lessons and put excellent systems put in place that can be replicated.
Our ability to communicate over many different channels and distances has changed the landscape of how we work and socialise. When I was a kid we were unreachable until we got home near a landline phone. Now we have a myriad of ways of staying in touch. While this has annoying, distracting downsides, it opens up a new world for companies to engage in remote work solutions.
I started reinteractive as a 100% remote company. While not all businesses are suited to this model, I found that many software developers, including myself, enjoy remote work and creating a company that fully embraced this would create a competitive advantage.
Constant distractions that come from working in an office environment are the enemy of a developer or anyone who needs to be engaged in concentrated, detailed work. So I decided to build the type of company that I would want to work for.
At the time this was very new — there were no models, articles or books to guide me. Some companies had a number of staff working remotely a few days a week, but not what I envisioned. So, with some previous management training and experience under my belt, I got to it, addressed the various pros and cons, ironed out the problems and I feel we have achieved the right mix.
We are flourishing and a recent internal survey of staff showed that they also love remote working and the flexibility that it offers them and their family. Happy people are more productive. No one misses being stuck in traffic or being jostled on an overcrowded train for 40-plus minutes. If you have to put in some extra time on the job, the 2 hours saved on travel is a great option and you can still eat with the family, tuck your kids into bed and go the bed refreshed, not frazzled.
Australia’s workforce is changing and the Australian Bureau of Statistics most recent study showed there are now 1.3 million people working from home to save costs, take advantage of flexible workplace arrangements, for childcare reasons, and to spend more time with family.
I wanted to share some tips of how I have navigated the remote work downsides and the firm policies put in place to maximise the benefits of remote work.
Varying Degrees of Trust:
The first thing to note is that remote work is not an all-or-nothing activity. There are levels of “remoteness” and each comes with a different level of trust that is required to make it successful.
I came up with 5 broad categories for remote work tolerance in a company:
- Remote work prohibited
This is where all staff are onsite. Sometimes this is necessary if you are dealing with highly sensitive data, or you need access to specific equipment and the like.
- Remote work tolerated
This is where staff are permitted to work from home on occasion, such as when they (or a dependent) are sick.
- Remote work encouraged
This is a common scenario, where staff work 2–3 days per week in the office and the remainder at home.
- Remote work first
This is where a company maintains an office, but many people work from home.
- Remote work only
This is where a company does not have a formal office setup at all and all staff work from home with the option to work together in an office space as needed.
In this gradient scale of remote work, there is an increasing level of two-way trust required:
Trusting Your Staff
I have complete trust in all my staff. I choose the best there is and then I let them get on with it. I expect them to be responsible and to do their best work. If you have to constantly check up on someone, then you likely haven’t chosen the right person to work for you. There is no micro-managing (which capable staff enjoy) and they are a brilliant team who control their own workflows and are responsible for producing really high-level products. If someone needs help then they ask for it and we have a buddy system for new staff so they always have someone helping navigate through being new.
Having a strong care factor and pride in one’s work is an essential element to look for when choosing a new member of the team and getting everyone up to a high level of production is very important.
That strong trust extends out to our client’s faith in us. They pay good amounts of money to build business-critical software and they want to know that we have their back and will continue to provide top level service and be available to answer all their queries, no matter how small.
Establishment and Quality
We also have two important divisions in the company. The first is the Establishment Division and the other is the Quality Division.
The Establishment Division is responsible for many traditional “HR” functions of hiring, firing, staff leave, benefits and the like, but is also responsible to make sure that procedures are followed in the company, that communication occurs and is responsible for ensuring the team are producing and any ethics situations are resolved rapidly.
The Quality Division is responsible for doing technical quality reviews and monitoring staff training.
REMOTE WORK BENEFITS:
Accessing the best talent
At reinteractive, we require top level developers in the Ruby on Rails language, the primary language used in our custom-built applications. While our land mass in Australia is large, we have a small population and Sydney simply doesn’t have the quantity of available and ready-to-hire senior developers that we need.
A remote work set-up allows us to hire top-level developers and designers, no matter where they are located. If a client is in Melbourne, I don’t need a senior developer in the same area. The developer can be in Sydney, or Auckland or Los Angeles and provide superlative service to that client.
Our team is in all parts of Australia, New Zealand, North and South America and we just hired our first developer in Western Europe. This enables us to provide dedicated follow-the-sun operations support for managed hosting for clients, without our staff needing to work the night-shift. This level of support is often an requirement for clients who have made a large investment in their business-critical applications.
Distraction free work
While being remote means you can’t meet around the coffee machine for a chat with your co-workers, the advantages of uninterrupted, concentrated work far outweigh any negatives. It encourages focused work without the large distractions of an office environment. The amount of time saved by eliminating noise and distraction means projects get finished faster, with less frustration. And that spreads out beyond the workplace. The less stress at work, the better human relations can be all round.
The following expenses are reduced, or eliminated, in a remote work situation:
- fit out
We travel to visit clients as needed and provide staff with travel allowances to fly in for our regular Team Days.
We have a firm policy to follow the “Golden Rule” of treating each other as we would like to be treated ourselves — with tolerance, consideration and compassion.
Mistakes and errors usually result from a misunderstanding or lack of training, not malice. We hire our staff not only for their skills, but also their personality.
Remote work tends to nullify cliques, office dramas, incidents of harassment/bullying and personality clashes that can poison an office environment and result in work-related stress. If someone is having a bad day or a developer is completely stuck on something, then they are encouraged to take a break, go for a walk, chill out and come back refreshed. It is hard to take a bad mood out on fellow workers in a remote work situation. We have a results-oriented team who will go out of their way to help another team member on the job. They are professionals in what they do, they are respected, trusted and appreciated. And clients enjoy working with them.
A recent survey of our staff showed high levels of satisfaction with remote working. What do they like the most? Flexibility in schedule topped the list. Many are raising a young family and they can pick-up their kids from school or code with their 6-month-old next to them, without disturbing anyone. They work just as hard and do all the needed hours, but it simply allows for greater life flexibility. Again, not all companies could support this model, but it is especially workable for software developers.
REMOTE WORK TEAMS: THE PEOPLE SIDE
Communication is king
The number one thing to focus on is communication! Strong communication helps effectively manage the challenges of working remotely.
The more remote the team, the more deliberate and formalised the communication needs to be.
Here are some recommendations:
- Set-up a chat application — Flowdock / Slack / IRC / Whatever.
- Dedicate one chat room for all general communication. There should be no talk about work. This room is reserved for announcing your comings and goings, and general “water cooler” chat.
- One chat room per project for project specific communication.
- One chat room for the various divisions — marketing, HR, etc.
- Ability to have one-on-one private chats within the team.
- Make sure you announce all wins and successes loudly and often. This boosts team morale.
All team members must announce their comings and goings:
Make sure arriving at “work” and leaving “work” is announced and include lunch breaks and other random breaks. Team members become frustrated if they can’t find who they need. It helps if everyone knows what the other team members are thinking and doing.
Disagreements are not settled via email or in writing
This is an extremely important point. The bigger the disagreement between people, the closer you need to bring the parties in order to solve it.
Disagreements defuse in person or with verbal communication if you cannot be in the same space. They explode on long distance communication lines, e.g. “Is that a sarcastic emoji? Or a happy one?” Too many misunderstandings can result from arguments over text or email. Your team are humans. Meet in person or, at the very least, via video or phone call to settle misunderstandings or disputes.
In a traditional office environment, we would speak to our colleagues daily. A remote office should be no different.
Waiting a week to make sure that everyone is heading in the same direction is not enough. Each project team should have a daily meeting to coordinate their activities. These meetings should be kept brief and focus on deliverables planned for today, any blockers being faced, and deliverables completed from the day before.
Make sure everyone comes to the meeting with their information ready to go. One-on-one detailed coordination within the meeting should be banned beyond “I’ll talk to you after”.
How you hold these meetings is entirely up to you — each company has its own style. All that matters is keeping communication high between the team.
Remember: Meetings cost serious dollars — make them as short as possible, without cutting back on sharing needed information, so people can get back to work.
A weekly meeting with all staff is critical. They need to know what is going on, where we are strong, what needs improvement. It is amazing how many bright ideas various team members come up with that can be useful. Their pay packet requires the company to be prospering, so keeping them in the loop is essential. Here are some recommendations:
- The CEO or general manager gives an overview of progress and new upcoming projects or actions.
- Hold it at the same time every week, with little or no variation
- Go over what was achieved the previous week, with divisional heads also reporting to the team
- Go over what will be achieved in the new week by area
- Minimal discussion in the meeting, just focus on goals and targets
- Provide an opportunity for everyone to share their wins and for good news to be shared and work well done acknowledged.
Additionally, all meetings should be recorded so that absent team members can listen in and stay up-to-date.
Remote work culture:
Unlike an office environment, you don’t have birthday cakes, office parties, Melbourne Cup hats, etc. You have to work harder to build a company culture, but it is well worth your while to do so.
Encourage people to be creative: make themed days in your chat rooms, for example. reinteractive has Kitty Tuesdays, Corgi Thursdays, KFC Fridays. Be inventive and just play.
To learn more about the team culture at reinteractive, read this blog post on the topic.
Remote work get-together:
Make sure you get together often!
We do this every second month in Sydney. The team flies in and we meet at a hotel and hold our weekly team meeting. After lunch we socialise, hold tech talks, and/or pair program.
- Take the opportunity for team activities, such as WHS training.
- Take the opportunity for more thorough briefings.
- Encourage people to get to know each other and chat.
- Encourage individuals from the team to talk.
- Focus on the social aspect on this day, not the work aspect.
REMOTE WORK TEAMS: THE MANAGEMENT SIDE
Hiring the right staff for remote work
We are very exact about who works for us. We have a specific hiring formula which includes testing a developer’s coding skills. A resume is one thing, but the interview and skills testing are more important. An interview determines communication skills and whether they will be the right fit for our team. Someone may be a brilliant developer but may lack the needed skills to directly talk with clients, under all conditions.
Strong client communication
We meet face-to-face with the client as often as possible and will fly to where they are located for various stages of the work they need done, including the UX design of their application. Developers are on a project from start to finish, creating a strong relationship with the customer. Our developers and project managers attend daily stand-ups allowing clients a high level of control throughout the build of their application.
Not everything always goes exactly to plan, but if the communication is strong and fast, it can be resolved easily. It’s our high level of communication that is most commonly praised by clients, while contributing to the high levels of project success.
Provide clear expectations with Key Performance Indicators (KPIs):
When the team is remote, there is no way to drop past and ask for a progress report. Remote team members need clear KPIs or statistics to work towards. I developed the Envisage application specifically for this purpose. It is a statistics collection and graphing application. We use it internally within reinteractive, but it can be used by anyone within their company — https://envisage.io.
These agreed-upon metrics allow you to monitor the production of your team, providing an agreement between management and the team so that everyone understands what is expected of them.
It removes any uncertainty or office politics: people are either producing or they are not. However, remember that a KPI is exactly that: an indicator. If someone is not performing, there might be an underlying issue that is preventing them for achieving the desired numbers. Always give them the benefit of the doubt when opening a dialogue about performance.
Management needs to be approachable:
I also don’t hold with certain hierarchical management structures where a junior doesn’t feel they can approach management with a valid proposal or sharing new ideas and solutions to better our operations. I want to hear bright ideas. How to run this sanely is with the use of the “Completed Staff Work” principle of management. It originated in the military in the early 1940s (see http://govleaders.org/completed-staff-work.htm).
The aim is for subordinates to be responsible for submitting written proposals and recommendations outlying the issues and solutions, completed in such a manner as to require no further work on the part of the superior. The senior then simply has to approve or disapprove it.
I stay informed on all things related to reinteractive on a daily basis and talk to my managers each morning and throughout the day as needed and they know they can ask me anything.
This is a whole topic unto itself, but it is a primary factor in ensuring a secure work environment for our client’s intellectual property. We employ top-level security arrangements.
Remote work can be challenging, but also very rewarding allowing teams to be more focused and able to produce without interruption.
I would love to hear any feedback or input you have into the remote work issue, so drop me a line.
It’s been a journey to make everything work right. Sometimes we made mistakes. Sometimes we smashed it out of the park… but we always kept working towards making something that achieves the work / life balance nirvana. Are we there yet? No. But we are much closer than what we were and are striving to get even better.