When we founded our company in 2016 we all happened to be in Berlin and to this day most of our 26 employees come to the office each day. While people are free to work from home, we’re still very much an on-site company.
That is about to change because a few weeks ago Sev, one of our most experienced developers, announced he was moving back to his home country for personal reasons and therefore he had to reluctantly quit his job with us. Our immediate reaction was: Absolutely not, we’re not letting you go this easily. We’ll make this work remotely!
And so we set out on a journey to better understand the implications of having full-remote employees, taking the first steps of the transition to a partly distributed team.
The benefits of remote working are fairly obvious …
Tools have evolved: Most of our work happens in digital tools anyways and the need-to-be-physically-in-one-room whiteboarding session is becoming the exception. Slack, Figma, Github, Dropbox, Notion, etc make collaboration across space and time easy. With Zoom there even seems to be a stable videoconferencing tool now … the future has finally arrived. 🙃
The best people are not necessarily in Berlin: If we can change our processes to be more asynchronous, we suddenly have access to a much larger candidate pool when hiring.
Remote friendly processes are good for all employees: Everyone benefits from being more thorough when it comes to documentation and more asynchronous when communicating. It means more things are written down, resulting in easier on-boarding, more focus and more clarity about our work. We can also then enable more flexibility for all employees, e.g. through workation periods.
Increased productivity: Real gains in productivity are not achieved through the next to-do list app or a more structured morning routine — they happen when you’re able to truly focus on your tasks and get in the zone. Which is much easier remotely or from your home office.
A lot of our work happens remotely already: Most of our clients and occasional freelancers are not based in Berlin, so they also benefit from us having a better understanding of remote work, leading to deeper collaboration with everyone involved in our projects.
Flexibility: This is clearly the big one — more flexibility for our employees in blending personal and professional life.
We’re under no illusion though: This will be a tough. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve all been more alert regarding shortcomings in our current way of working: Many times we’ve forgotten to invite remote/home-office people to meetings, we had to upgrade our internet line to increase reliability of video conferencing and many meetings still end without a written summary. We’ll have to do better.
Also our current positive experience with home office is a bad proxy for what it will be like with a partly distributed team. Dealing with occasional home office is easier because you can postpone communication-intensive tasks to the next day, when you’re back in the office. Also creating a sense of community is easier when everyone gathers in the same place and can chat over coffee. Things that happen naturally right now will need deliberate initiative in the future.
Learning about remote working …
To prepare for what lies ahead we had an internal meetup with two remote workers (Scott from InVision and Tobias from Grilli Type) and had conversations via call with three more people: Marcus from Buffer (a full-remote company), Matthias from a Tokyo-based studio which operates half-remote and Johannes, who’s the only remote person in his company.
Below is a summary of their advice and observations:
- productivity is generally through the roof when working remotely
- it’s important to separate work and living, have an office, be able to close the door or go to a co-working space
- employment across country borders is an unsolved problem, most remote people are freelancers
- all remote companies get employees together for retreats (1–4 times a year) for a sense of community
- companies provide hardware to use remotely, e.g. screens, sometimes chairs and desks
- salaries are usually adjusted for people’s physical location
- the whole team needs to make an effort, not just the remote people
- there is no best way to do this, everyone is learning as they go and solutions must be specific to the individual company
- camera/screen placement in meeting rooms matters a lot for video calls
- no beating around the bush, timezones are a big problem … if your team is in vastly different timezones, it can lead to positive effects of “passing the baton” in the mornings and evenings though
- isolation when being remote: you have to take it seriously, develop a routine that includes social time … remote workers are much more prone to burnout and depression
- in remote meetings when you’re the only person on call: sometimes hard to jump in, often not part of the decisions flow (everyone on the other side needs to actively work to support the remote person)
- tools are rarely the problem, communication is
- everyone recommended Zoom for video calls … there’s a free version limited to 40 minutes per call, so “zooms” become a unit for measuring time, e.g. “can we solve this in two zooms?”
- it helps to have everyone on the video call, even on-site people sitting in the same room … everyone has their laptops open and joins the call, making it equal for everyone and giving everyone the same perspective
- Google Docs is still the best for collaborative note-taking … but whatever you choose, stick to ONE documents service
- make your daily routine obvious in the calendar, put your daily working hours in your Slack profile
- Threads.com for non-synchronous, deep discussions
- having a Slack channel for “check-ins/check-outs” is helpful, so that remote people can indicate when they are available (checking in their morning and checking out when they finish work)
More interesting bits
- keep meetings small — three people is fine, above five is tricky
- do remote days where most of the team goes remote, to learn and empathize
- move away from fixed working hours if you’re distributed across many time zones
- it’s important to share very openly how you feel, e.g. after meetings, reflection and retrospective is key
- clear values are important to establish a shared culture
- when more people frequently work outside the office, there’s generally less tolerance for a noisy office
- have an open slack channel during mixed meetings, in case the connection breaks down
- when having a call at your desk (which will happen more often), use a headset, keep voice down, be respectful of your coworkers
- Buffer pays for co-working space membership and monthly coffee vouchers
- Buffer also pays or a tax accountant to deal with the increased freelance effort when filing taxes
- good to have remote people in the office first, get to know each other, then let them go remote when the culture and connection is established
Coming back to our situation …
Starting in September we’ll be a partly distributed team and we’re very excited about what lies ahead. At this point the goal is definitely not to become an all-remote company, but we’re excited to integrate a few remote people over time and to give existing employees more flexibility. We’ll keep you posted about our progress. 🙌
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diesdas.digital is a studio for strategy, design and code in Berlin, featuring a multidisciplinary team of designers, developers and strategists. We create tailor-made digital solutions with an agile mindset and a smile on our faces. Let’s work together!
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