How we make remote working work

Our remote team

Now that, according to a recent study, over half of employees work remotely at least once per week, remote working is no longer considered an exception. Companies that recognise the benefits and work hard to support effective remote working are rewarded with happy and productive people.

This post describes how we’ve structured our team and processes in the development team at Venntro. It follows a chat with our remote team (naturally, over Slack) about their experiences working remotely with us, and I’ve included their comments.

The 100% remote

We have six people in our development team who are 100% remote: four spread around the UK and two in New Zealand. Of the six, all but one began working with us in one of our offices first and then switched to remote later on. This early face-time with colleagues helped build strong relationships and absorb knowledge before switching to full-time remote.

The occasionally remote

It’s not just the fully-remote who work outside the office. Any of the regular office team can also opt to work from home. When someone is expecting a delivery, has a medical appointment or needs to take their car to be serviced, it’s fine to work remotely.

We also encourage anyone to work from home if they’re starting to feel a bit poorly and not well enough to travel, but not too sick to work. Not only does this help with recovery, it prevents the spread of early-stage germs to avoid others being infected.

How we make it work

Chat: Like many other development teams, we make heavy use of Slack. We chat in chatter, discuss work in team channels and share things we’ve found in channels like newbie and ux. It’s the glue that binds everyone together, whether co-located or remote.

Video: Almost as vital is Google Hangouts for video conversations. We use a form of Scrum to organise our teams: every stand-up, sprint planning session and retrospective involves a Hangout. The integration with Slack means anyone can kick off an ad-hoc video conversation from within a channel, alerting and bringing together the whole team. We sometimes also use Screenhero for screen sharing and collaboration.

Web tools: Just like our company’s product, the tools we use are web-based, so can be accessed from anywhere. Source code is hosted on GitHub and we use its Pull Requests to collaborate on features and code-review. Stories are created and prioritised in Jira, mock-ups are reviewed in InVision and our documentation written-up in Confluence. Google’s GSuite handles our company email, calendars and office documents.

Equipment: Almost everyone in the team uses a MacBook Pro with plenty of memory plugged in to one or more big displays. And this includes remote workers. We also provide external keyboards, trackpads, mice and any other peripherals to make their environment comfortable and productive.

Management: Line managers hold scheduled weekly 1:1s and regular appraisals with remote people over Hangouts, in addition to ad-hoc daily chats over Slack.

Team: For each and every team event we get together via a Hangout. Each Monday I run a 10-minute meeting updating the whole team on what’s happening. When someone sadly leaves the team we gather for presents and goodbyes. Even our Secret Santa presents are sent in advance and then opened synchronously with remotes!

Company: And don’t forget company events and celebrations. For anything involving the wider company we set up a wide-angle camera and broadcast over a Hangout. It’s just as important to include remote people to hear from the CEO and other senior management.

Face-to-face: Each month we invite the whole team (including remoters) to our head office in Windsor for our regular company meeting. There is often a charitable or social element to the day, e.g. a pub quiz or sports day, and so the team can mix with colleagues they wouldn’t generally interact. We also organise team workshops or tech talks on the same day which are broadcast/recorded for those unable to attend.

Remote benefits our people

A common theme in feedback from our remote people was about their better work-life balance, especially no longer requiring long commutes which “drained” them and meant their only downtime was at weekends.

While some people enjoy open-plan offices, others find working at home more productive: “I don’t miss loud phone calls and blaring radios from other departments” and “Fewer distractions and better focus for me.”

Being remote hasn’t damaged career prospects. Three of our team progressed to senior positions after going fully remote. Appraisals are still conducted and promotions awarded regardless of location.

Remote benefits our company

Companies that support remote work have 25% lower employee turnover than companies that don’t. We’ve retained several of our most experienced people through embracing remote. By insisting individuals travel to our offices I don’t believe that would have been possible.

We see fewer employee sick days: as one of our remoters commented, “My health has improved since going remote. Much less exposure to the communal germ pool.”

While it doesn’t exactly qualify as “following the sun”, our two NZ developers are online and available earlier in the day to help react to emergencies or catch up with overnight issues.

Challenges to overcome

Staying in the loop: Where possible, we try to kick off ad-hoc Hangouts to discuss issues with everyone in the team instead of an in-office conversation. We don’t always get it right when fire-fighting and this can be a frustration for those offsite.

Being ignored: Our remote people say it can also be frustrating to ping someone on Slack when it’s important and not get a response. “You can’t just go over and kick someone!” We encourage team-based public channels rather than private channels or direct messages so that others can also jump in to help.

Culture: With remote people, it’s important to work even harder on company and team culture. This can be tough, but by reinforcing the attitude to always consider remoters’ needs in everything you do, the feeling of remoteness can be reduced.

Trust: It’s clearly essential that people that work remotely are trusted to do so by their team and manager. Our approach has been to start off with a trial period working at home to allow both sides to feel comfortable and establish expectations early on.

Pros and cons: Inevitably some things can’t be replicated through tools or process: “I miss pub lunches and the pool table. Oh, and the coffee machine,” but, “I find the convenience of working from home makes up for the loss of in-office benefits.”

Tips and advice

When chatting to our remote people I finished by asking them for their own tips and advice for making a success of working remotely. Here are their suggestions:

“Work out a routine ahead of time and stick to it. Don’t work near a TV. And you need a good chair. Also remember to take a lunch break away from the computer.”

“It’s important to have a quiet space free from distractions. Especially if you have children. And having the right equipment helps too (e.g. big monitor).”

“I think getting out of the house before or after work or at lunch time for some exercise is important.”

“I tend to take small breaks from the screen to grab a drink and talk to the guinea pigs. So maybe all remoters should have guinea pigs.”

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