In Lookback, we’ve had the notion of being able to work remote as a baseline since day one. Here are some of my thoughts on the deeper end of working remote, on personal levels.
This is from our jobs page:
We’ve chosen to build a distributed team. We don’t want anyone to move because of us. On the contrary, we want to empower people.
Where in the world are you the most productive and creative? That’s where you should work from.
Working remote is a thing many (often smaller to medium sized) software companies pick up these days – Basecamp (formerly 37signals) are huge fans, so huge they wrote a book on it. Companies sort of realise that all talent necessarily don’t want to live in San Francisco, New York, Stockholm, or some other tech hub. At Lookback, we often call it distributed work, since it implies that there should be no centralized office where everything is orchestrated from (even though half of the team resides in San Francisco at the moment).
Some friends of mine often ask how we maintain personal relationships and keep a great workflow in order to churn out high quality work together. I think these two things are tremendously important:
- Put in the energy, tolerance, and love, as in any relationship
- Realise it’s a neverending process
From my own experience, relationships demands a lot of energy. Not in a bad way, just a lot of dedication, will, and determination. Even non-romantical ones, such as friendships, needs some love once in a while in order to maintain that friendly bond you have with a person.
The same is with job relationships when working remote. If a successful company is to be built, where the employees create great products, they need to be closer to each other than just a chat avatar in Slack. Your mileage may vary of course; some people don’t have this need. I’ve realised these things have worked well for us in Lookback:
Have physical meetups
Obvious but easily forgotten. So much fun, and can be really productive! Eat food, hang out, talk about high level things as company culture, long term goals, “soft subjects”. Last meetup, we had a typical team building activity involving cooking food together at a restaurant (we actually got to make our own sausages completely how we wanted them). Then we discussed really deep personal subjects, such as priorities, workflows, and assumptions. This was so fruitful, and brought us closer on a new level.
Have an Emotions chat room
One day, our CEO Jonatan created an Emotions chat channel in Slack. It was for “venting stuff”, which we had seen a pattern of people doing in various other channels. So this channel’s purpose would solely be for expressing things like you would often have at a physical office, perhaps 1-on-1 with a co-worker. Again, some people are in more need of this than others, but even if you’re not writing in there yourself, just being able to tune in others’ mood is really helpful in day to day work. For instance, if a co-worker has a hard time at home with the kids, he or she might be really drained on energy. That wouldn’t be exposed anywhere else in a team wide way if it’s not clearly communicated in an Emotions channel.
Having this room has given us the notion of that it’s okay to feel and express yourself to your co-workers even if you’re remote. It’s a safe zone for good and bad moods. People around me can automatically adjust to me if I ventilate that I’ve had a really bad week due to X, and have that in the back of their heads when they’re discussing product features and planning on Trello or whatever.
Constantly tweak it
Remote workflows are complex. Async communication is great for some and hard for others. It demands understanding, tolerance, and over-communication.
We need to understand each other’s way of working, and one another’s needs. One person might need more coaching and 1-on-1s, while another person communicates like a natural born remote worker on Trello/Slack/forums.
This needs to a constant circle of always-be-tweaking mindset, where we never settly. Everybody should be able to voice their opinions about the remote workflow in order to make it better, even by saying this thing X isn’t working out for me.
Example: we used Flowdock for chatting in the beginning. It’s a great chat platform: it has got everything Slack has with slightly different UX. Our main thing was the use of threads. Instead of having everything in the same bucket (a channel) people could start new threads to discuss a single topic within a channel (this might come to Slack soon, a bird tweeted in my ear). Anyhow, this was getting more complex to maintain as the company grew to twelve people, and we moved over to Slack just to ease the communication for everybody in the team. We moved over to Discourse from GitHub Issues for our internal forum, since GitHub worked well in theory but wasn’t meant to be a forum in the first place.
So easy to reason about but hard to pull off! It’s an art, practiced in many contexts: on Trello, in Slack, in the forum. A rule of thumb I’ve got is to really voice all relevant information I have in a certain situation. That is, bring up stuff like future blockers, opportunities, future steps, and so on. If you work in different timezones, as we do, this is even more important, since a day’s work might be slightly blocked or boosted just by your ability to share information before you go to bed and your co-workers continues the joint work.
Repetitions are fine, since they prevent future misassumptions. Have a single source of truth, whether it’s a document, Trello card, or forum thread. And to me, few things beat face-to-face, synchronous voice chats. Talking with each other in voice brings out another layer of subtle communication patterns, rather than speaking with each other in a text chat.
Have personal retrospectives
We’ve got weekly retrospectives, where we rate these topics on a scale 1-10:
- Happiness. Our general happiness level during the week. Are we happy with life? Why/why not?
- Restedness. Are we drained or tired? Why?
- Productivity. Did we feel we achieved a lot during the week?
- Team spirit. Did we have fruitful 1-on-1s, or some other breakthrough feeling of being close to the team? Or just a general notion of hell yeah we’re the best?
We keep this in a Google Docs spreadsheet, and it’s completely open to read each other’s ratings and comments for anybody in the team. This is another, recurring layer on top of the more impulsive Emotions chat channel discussed above.
I think much boils down to the notion of that individuals that are close to each other can build better products (beware, totally un-scientific theory). Yes, remote work demands energy. Yes, remote work needs constant love, tinkering, and individual adjustments. It might not be for everybody. But when you achieve this cool equilibrium remote work in different time zones can bring, it’s pure bliss.