By Alex Notov
I am no stranger to making decisions about whether to work remotely or at the office. I have been a software engineer consultant for more than half of my career. I have always looked for the following in my gigs: less meetings, more focus on productive and creative activity, and flexibility to meet the needs of more than one client at a time. Over time, it became obvious to me, that the clients that did not require me to come into the office, valued the same, and surprising giving me the freedom to work on my own resulted in them getting the best work out of me. I began to see a correlation.
The decision on how much freedom to give employees, and how to structure a team is something a lot of startup and even big companies deal with today. Everyone wants to make progress, and build a close knit culture, but not everyone knows if it’s possible and the steps to put in place to make it happen.
At the start of BizeeBee, Poornima was bootstrapping the business. So we began by working out of out of Poornima’s apartment. Poornima was soon able to get the team into a very nice shared office space in downtown Palo Alto (this is when I joined). Though the office space was boss-status – right on University Ave., it was a 2 hour commute for me each way, from Berkeley. I told Poornima that it made much more sense for me to spend more productive time at home, while reclaiming some of my commuting life back in favor of personal life. It was a win-win. I mentioned that some people tend to be happier when they can do more with their lives, while still loving the work they do. I counted myself among these (ahem, I actually think that’s most people, whom are honest with themselves).
She agreed to my proposal. All of us eventually began to do the same – the office became a place where we all met about twice a week. Poornima then suggested that we move to Palo Alto into our own office space, we all decided to give it a shot. Her main concern was keeping the flow of communication in a young company, not actually office space. Good communication is an exceedingly important part of a successful and functional team, but it’s not made better just by having office space.
I can’t give you a recipe for success, because every company and every team has a different culture and needs. What I can tell you is what has worked for our team at BizeeBee and what is working for us now at Femgineer.
We spent a number of months in our own office space in Palo Alto. A few days there and a few days remote. We used this as an opportunity to fix our communication problems by establishing some very solid processes.
Here’s how we made it happen:
The key element to a successful team is a sense of shared and common vision. Notice that I didn’t say “the key element to a successful remote team.” That is because the subject of remote shouldn’t even be at the core of the discussion. The core of the discussion should be around how to bond intelligent self-sufficient and motivated individuals to work together to achieve a common goal – and, how to remove the barriers to the achievement of that goal, as well as to facilitate it.
Poornima has been awesome at building this sense of shared vision and making it clear to the team. It is fundamentally what has allowed us to get through all the communication issues, and focus on improvements over time.
Now that we’ve got the key element out of the way, let’s talk about more practical take-aways.
At BizeeBee, it took us a while to realize that we can all do very effective work without having to pay thousands of dollars on office space and getting there. When we did, we were all happier for it. Did I mention that it’s a pretty nice advantage that you don’t have to pay rent? Duh. This isn’t why you should encourage remote work, but it sure is a nice benefit. At a certain scale, you probably won’t get away without having an office, but until you get to that scale, get rid of as much unnecessary expenses as possible.
So what are some of the logistics, you might be asking?
The second core element is communication. This is what was missing, even when we had office space.
At BizeeBee we agreed that we needed to communicate on a daily basis. There are tools for that. Use Campfire for asynchronous communication among team members. Or, dare I say email? We got very good at talking about features, deliverables, and plans in quick 1-1 meetings, weekly team discussions, and having postmortems after each release. All of these techniques – which took place entirely online – helped us improve our communication and ultimately almost completely helped us eliminate the underlying problems.
The third core element is keeping track of progress and encouraging individual accountability.
We agreed that we needed to keep track of progress on work. How about using something sprint.ly, pivotal tracker, github issues, asana, etc? Pick one. The world of internet project management tools is your oyster. We used pivotal tracker for keeping track of features and releases, github for keeping track of commits, and campfire for daily scrum status updates. All of these methods helped us keep track of our work, and communicate better.
People execute faster when they have the flexibility to choose how they execute.
Attract the best talent starts with giving your candidates the flexibility to balance their lives with their work – and acknowledging that they are not automatons, but human beings, for whom work is one of the essential parts of their daily lives, but that there are others.
David Heinemeier Hansson had recently written an excellent article about creating an environment for exceptional people to do a-grade work that matters to them, and to the overall direction of the company. I could not agree more:
A star environment is based on trust, vision, and congruent behavior. Make people proud to work where they work by involving them in projects that matter and ignite a fire of urgency about your purpose. Find out who you are as a company and be the very best you. Give people a strategic plan that’s coherent and believable and then leave the bulk of the tactical implementation to their ingenuity.
But there are still traces of some old school thinking: there has been a lot of talk in the press recently about CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to force all Yahoo! remote employees to come into the office. Though I am a bit late to the game, I thought I’d weigh in and say that I find Mayer’s and Yahoo!’s decision absolutely silly. It’s no wonder to me that Matt Mullenweg of WordPress commented regarding Mayer’s leaked internal memo:
For anyone who enjoys working from wherever they like in the world, and is interested in WordPress, Automattic is 100% committed to being distributed. 130 of our 150 people are outside of San Francisco.
At WordPress, like at many other forward-thinking development shops, the founders and team leaders are realizing that their employees’ lives are just as valuable if not more so than their jobs. Sir Richard Branson recently chided Mayer and Bloomberg - New York’s mayor holds similar views to Mayer – about the foolish policies:
However, on this occasion I disagree completely. Many employees who work from home are extremely diligent, get their job done, and get to spend more time with their families. They waste less time commuting and get a better work/life balance. To force everybody to work in offices is old school thinking.
Don’t run a shitty company. Your employees will quit. And I really hope Yahoo has a mass exodus.
So, in closing, and to recap, to transition to a remote team, start with a sense of shared vision, give motivated individuals the responsibility to execute on parts of that vision by allowing them to take ownership, provide the tools and processes to make that happen, and then adapt to how your team evolves over time in the execution phase.
Oh, and, just one more thing: don’t forget to fire the true slackers. True slackers slack, regardless of whether they are in a cubicle watching youtube videos all day long, or in their pajamas watching a marathon session of the Walking Dead. There’s also nothing wrong with a bit of any of those things in between work. People – your employees are people not automatons – have lives and vastly varied interests outside of work. Encourage them to do what makes them happy and get out of their way.
At BizeeBee we realized it was time to stop paying unnecessary rent. We moved out, and all began to work from home. One of our guys even moved to a different part of the country, and we were still able to ship product consistently!
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