September 26, 2012

Remote Teams: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Running our Remote Team on Google Hangouts

As we were starting our company we had some glaring disadvantages that we saw could be solved with a remote structure as well as opportunities to turn them  into advantages.

  • Cash – We just didn’t have it.  So $1,400 / month in savings was helpful.
  • Focus –  We needed more focus and to move quicker.  We saw a remote structure as a way to save 1.5 hours of productivity usually lost in the commotion of a commute.
  • Recruiting – We can appeal to the best talent in the world at competitive prices as opposed to competing in the Valley so long as they have the same values as us ie freedom and not money.
  • Support – Having our CTO in Tel Aviv means we’re 10 hours ahead of PST and therefore have 24 hour support with two people.  Having our development in Vancouver means we can save 75 cents on every dollar we spend on R&D.
  • Culture – We saw an opportunity to exemplify our culture by spending as much time as you can in the places you love.

But having a remote team can also go really bad in a hurry.

Like exponentially bad.

The Things We’ve Learned and are Still Learning about Remote Teams

One of the biggest challenges we’ve seen was the pushback against remote teams from advisors and potential investors. The pushback came mostly from three reasons:

  1. The opinions were coming from someone who has a small sample size of poorly ran remote businesses.
  2. They believe you are missing out on serendipitous exchanges and impromptu collaboration.
  3. A tiny percent of companies with venture type returns have remote structures.

Our justification:  Let’s take a look at two companies that operate at different ends of the spectrum in terms of proximity to their teams: IDEO and 37Signals.

IDEO is as an award winning global design firm who’s revenue and progress is directly tied to smart and creative people being in the same room with a table, chairs and a whiteboard.

37 Signals is a world renowned business that creates wildly successful simple web applications like basecamp and highrise. 37 signals has around 20 employees that are all over the World with headquarters being in Chicago.

Learning about Serendipity from IDEO

IDEO’s products are conjured up from a room of smart and creative people sitting around a desk with whiteboards, markers, sticky notes etc. If we use IDEO as the benchmark for who collaborates and uses serendipitous exchanges the best, then we ask:

how can we replicate this and create more serendipity without being in the same office?

One of IDEO’s process rules is ringing a bell if an idea is criticized too quickly. The bell is there because we all have a natural tendency to react emotionally to the ideas of others too quickly. We also have a tendency to blurt out ideas out of excitement without taking just one more step to formulate a thought or supporting bullets.

So if  we can simulate this environment where fresh, radical and crazy ideas are welcomed, encouraged and have breathing room before they run into the emotional reaction train of someone else, then theoretically we may allow for more volume of ideas and more serendipitous exchanges.  Or at least, that’s the goal.

Working for “8” Hours like 37 Signals

Lets take the environment of 37signals. If you can work for 4 or 5 hours without interruption you can get amazing work done.

This just seemed impossible for me to achieve at a real office and one of the main reasons is that I’m really annoying. If I see someone at the office I assume they are there and can’t wait to talk to me.  It’s easy to be undisciplined when you show up to an office.  I realized I had a false sense of productivity just from arriving and being at an office.

Being Annoying at the Office


It’s very easy to just waste eight hours and wonder what the hell you did in between coffee and lunch breaks.

When you’re not sitting next to each other, the only thing that you see is the work. If the work is not there, there is nothing.

To treat the remote structure as an advantage, we had to take a shot at putting out more quality work from being focused longer and more creativity from a consistent stream of ideas.

The Bare Minimum to Operating a Remote Team

Your mission and vision need to be ironclad. You won’t be there to oversee everything and if you want a culture where you give the team the freedom to test quickly and take small risks, the only parameters they can use are your vision and your mission statement. They need to be better than crystal clear.
Personality – Don’t assume you can do this. You need the personalities that are comfortable working in this type of environment. Some people prefer the office setting. Steve jobs tried to put the bathrooms at pixar in the middle of the office to encourage more collaboration. We don’t use email internally to communicate. The tradeoff is in evaluating what you miss in those serendipitous exchanges at the office vs. the two hours or more you can get out of a day by not being in the office. Get people that don’t need managed. Take 10 times longer to evaluate talent by giving them small projects to see how they do before you offer them full time positions. Make sure they have the personalities. It very well may be that the personalities at your company and that make up your company thrive in a setting that’s routine and in an environment where other people are around. In other words, you could be doomed before you start.
Be Better than Excellent at Communicating. There’s no faster way to sink this idea than by having poor communication.  Knowing this has been a great motivator for us. We make sure we schedule calls with bullet points of ideas as opposed to just calling.  When in person, you take for granted that someone understands because you’ve told them in person and they looked you in the eyes. But when that happens, those concepts have a tendency of not being written down or left up to too much interpretation. When working remotely, it’s just impossible not to document all ideas with supporting bullets.
Sample Schedule Set your schedule and processes that ensure opportunities for collaboration and the exchange of ideas and be disciplined about it. Here’s ours:

  • No emails internally – We only use email if we’re cc’ing each other on communication with an outside party or to send an invite for a call (we have text message notifications set up for when an invite happens).
  • We use Flow – to contain ideas, projects, tasks and exchanges to track and evolve them. There’s consistent peace of mind that nothing is slipping through the cracks. Communication among our team is more important than any other communication in our respective inboxes so we can assure that working in Flow instead of our inbox means we can react the quickest to the most important items for the business as opposed to going through many emails to find one from your team.
  • Feedback from our customers is the only thing that is just as important to internal communication so we use to notify us when something comes in from a customer and therefore do not worry about checking email more than once a day or even once a week.
  • What about emergencies Phone call or text.
  • Shared Assistant & Office manager In the cost savings from office rent, we have what I believe to be one of the greatest productivity boosters known to man. Her name is Becky. She manages all of our schedules and takes off our respective plates those things that are not mission critical to the task at hand. She communicates to us via text message or by assigning us tasks in flow with a specified date when they need to be completed. Becky has a 3 page document that she references for how to handle about 90% of situations for scheduling calls or meetings/booking travel/accounting/banking among many other things. I think it’s best practices to groom this person to one day be your COO. When you have an additional person at the company with that level of detail and the familiarity with the minutiae of the company, there’s an azmazing amount of insight that leads to Becky finding opportunities for us which is otherwise overlooked. For example, Becky can say things like, “One of our best customers and most active with support is next to your meeting next week. You should stop by and say hi”.
  • Weekly Meetings After each weekend, we get an email out to the team which is structured as: What did you do last week? What are you doing this week? What do you need help with or what do you want to talk about? Then we get on a Google Hangout every Tuesday morning to go over everybody’s plan.
  • Collaboration We have three ways to ensure we are collaborating and making sure we still have an environment to let ideas flourish: We have hipchat open during times of the day when we’re answering emails or doing other tasks that are not core to the main tasks for the day. So if you see me on hipchat then I’m happy to freely collaborate or just talk about some crazy ideas. 2. Send an invite for a call with someone or the team with bullets of what you want to discuss. If I call someone from my team and say, “Hey do you have a minute?”, I hope their answer is “No I’m not sitting around waiting for you to call me and ask me that”. The point is you’re excited about your idea that’s not yet formulated and you distract someone else so formulate your thoughts a little more and send out an invite. We also use the phone. If anyone from the team calls, I’m picking up everytime. It’s either an emergency or just important enough to talk about. IF you have the aformentioned controls in place then you can confidently answer the phone knowing it’s really important and no one is abusing your accessibility.

Team Chemistry – This is a real thing.  The closer the team is to one another and the more that it feels like a family where a stronger bond exists.  There’s a value of seeing your team on a daily basis that we miss out on, but we recognize that this is important.  We do things like NoV where we can all be in the same physical location once a quarter in a creative environment.  As much as we try not to pack these times with work, it’s difficult not to feel inspired and creative.  This is also a great time to make sure we’re still in line with the vision and the mission and set the quarterly and annual goals to focus on.  We also learned that sometimes people just want to have an office to meet at and to get away.  This is not something we anticipated seeing so we’re setting up an office in Vancouver so that members of the team can go there for a change of scenery or when they’d prefer to be in the same room.

The Upside and Why We Do It

We value quality of life above all and believe that we should eat our own dog food. Our software says we add a day back to your week so you can focus on the things you love doing, in the places you like being and doing it around the people you like.  It didn’t make sense for us to go against the “why” and so far it seems to be working out for us.

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