Comsysto Reply has had multiple distributed teams and employees working remotely for quite some time. In 2013 an office was opened in Zagreb, Croatia. This made our company not only international but the Zagreb Office fully remote since all Croatian employees worked with colleagues from Germany from day one.
Through the years we went even more international and distributed: today we have offices and employees working from home offices in 4 different countries (Germany, Croatia, Austria, Poland) and 9 different cities (Munich, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Rosenheim, Bonn, Berlin; Zagreb, Vienna, Wrocław).
Over 40% of our employees are working remotely or in distributed teams, with a tendency for growth. Our clients helped in making us even more international and distributed: we worked in teams with experts across Europe - from Great Britain to Belarus, but also across continents (e.g. the US and India).
With such a setup comes a large amount of experience in all things remote, as well as a huge sense of responsibility. The idea of being a remote-friendly company is one that should be turned into practice with careful preparation and awareness of all the benefits, as well as challenges it might bring. But at the end of the day, one of the keys to a successful transition into a remote-friendly company is having the right (open) mindset within the company. It is also highly important to have clients who appreciate all the advantages of going remote, while continually maintaining a high level of mutual trust.
Where the motivation lies
It is 2019 and you have probably already heard of the term “Remote work” before, right? We will try to make it clear to you, and share some information, experience, and advice we have so far. We will address both advantages and challenges.
Before we do, have these two in your mind:
- Do not mix it with the term “working from home”, as it is a subset of remote work.
- Do not mix it with the term “freelancer”, as it is not an option for freelancers only.
Remote work is definitely on the rise. It is going to become a normal way of working, to those willing to adopt it. Let us try and see different views.
If you are a potential remote employee, imagine these benefits:
- working from a location which currently fits you
- easier relocation while staying at the same company
- working with colleagues from different countries, cultures and time zones
- improved work-life balance and more flexibility (reduced commuting time, working from home to avoid traffic jams or snow storms, taking care of an ill family member, waiting for a handyman to fix something at the employee’s place, renovation work at the office...)
If you are a potential employer or client willing to have remote teams working for you, imagine these benefits:
- wider market and access to more partners
- finding more talents and being a popular option (for people from other cities)
- having more productive employees
- optimized costs
Where to start
As an on-site company, you might start with turning some of your local teams into semi-distributed ones by adding a few remote team members. While doing this, pay attention to the following: the team should be aware before it happens, it should be clear to them what exactly is going to change as their readiness is a very important prerequisite for this transformation to work. The dynamics of the team will have to change a lot, not just the technical prerequisites and tools used. Not everybody is keen on such a shift. It is always better to acknowledge that a team is not really willing to go remote rather than enforcing it on them. Furthermore, when joining your company people agreed on having their teammates close, discussing issues around the water cooler, and having post-it scrum and retro boards. While most of them enjoy doing occasional home office, they might still not be fans of a distributed teams setup you choose as a default.
The other very important thing to keep in mind is that if the on-site, local part of a semi-distributed team is the majority, you have to grow and nurture a culture of correctness towards the minority. In other words, although a team has the freedom to democratically decide about its remote setup manners, the number of votes is less important than the fact that remote team members face different challenges than locals.
Your ideal approach, however, would be to start with a fully distributed team from day one of the project. You should be very transparent about expectations from such a team before forming it. Questions like co-location frequency, coordination and others should be answered prior to project start.
By defining your company’s default (recommended) setup for distributed teams at the very beginning of this transition you do not only communicate expectations transparently to your employees. You also help them to understand best practices while saving them from frustration, frustration which comes from starting their trial-and-error process from scratch instead of building upon the experience of others.
How we do it in Zagreb
Of course, if possible, it is always easier to start with remote work at the very beginning of a company. As already mentioned, our company in Zagreb is a pioneer in remote work at Comsysto Reply. In the beginning, a few of our colleagues have been working remotely from their homes for clients in Germany. As we started to grow, we rented an office. Actually, every employee who joins the office in Zagreb becomes a remote worker from that moment on, regardless of the office. You must be wondering: how is that possible? Well, our clients are still abroad.
A lot of us did not have remote work experience before. But once we joined Comsysto Reply in Zagreb, with the remote work projects, needs, and everyday work, we simply started forming the remote mindset and building trust, which are crucial for remote work.
Inform in the early phase
We inform potential candidates at the job interview, where we mention how we work remotely, what is expected for successful remote work, what the challenges are - in order to have people aware of this at an early stage. We also communicate potential travel frequency, which depends on the client, team, agreement, etc. Our usual travel frequency is once every 2-3 months because we experienced that a sound remote setup usually does not require traveling more often. But there are always exceptions.
Why so early? Some people just feel more comfortable working in a local setup, prefer sitting in the same room with other team members and communicate face to face. So why not mention it early enough to avoid potential issues and people feeling uncomfortable? Nobody wants to push people to work in an uncomfortable setup.
Transparent and open communication
You are not sitting in the same room with the entire team if you are working remotely, right? It would not be fair to have information relevant to the entire team shared in the hall, in front of the water cooler, in the restaurant or at someone’s desk. Simply keep it transparent. Use your communication apps and write facts you align on in collaboration software.
You probably need to track your team's progress on a daily basis, right? Have a digital board to track it. Share it in a sync session.
Be open to having regular knowledge sharing sessions. If some of your team members handle certain things very well and have specific knowledge about some topic, they should share it in such sessions, if the entire team can benefit from that. You do not want to have knowledge silos and keep the team blocked if that person is absent.
(Experience of a colleague) That was exactly what happened to me at a project. I was the only remote team member. A lot was discussed in the office where the others were sitting. I felt left out and missed a lot of information needed to work on tasks. We even had Slack, did “code review” and “knowledge sharing” but still too much information kept missing. You cannot simply throw “tools” on people, you really have to build a mindset. Before the “on-site” members start a big chat about stuff, they should think if it is also important for remote colleagues? If yes, do a quick remote session and actively invite them. Actively ask in Slack if they want to join.
We tell our candidates during the interview that we expect proactivity. Remote work is not the way of working where your boss, project lead or someone with a title comes to you and tells you what to do. You need to pull the work and collaborate with the team. Very often it is expected to take initiative. If you need to clarify something, you need to initiate the clarification. For remote work, this means reaching out in chat or requesting a call with your colleague or any other party you can get information from.
Trust - in all directions
When sitting far away from your clients, stakeholders, even the team members, they cannot be sure what you are doing currently. Nobody wants to have people in the team who are not productive or not so keen to become productive. Some companies are afraid of remote work. The main reason seems to be lack of trust in their own people. If you think that your employees will be at a bar or at home sleeping or watching TV, you as an employer should ask yourself if you are ready to have remote employees. If you are a customer, you also need to have a certain amount of trust in a company and it’s employees.
From our experience, it is highly recommended for a distributed team to go agile - whether it is picking a suitable agile framework or just pursuing to follow the agile manifesto. If you do not have a scrum master who will help to remove your remote work impediments, you still can pick a team member to be your dedicated impediment remover. Another neat thing to have is a recurring retrospective. Even if you follow your company’s setup guidelines, not everything that works for others will work for you: inspect and adjust through time.
Internet connection? You need a good one. Period. If you are working remotely, you cannot communicate with colleagues by going to their desk. Their desk is actually the application you use for communication. Whether you start an audio or video call, you need a good internet connection.
The majority of communication happens in calls, and the rest is written communication. In the calls you do not want to spend time on reconnecting, asking people to repeat, debugging failed calls. All of these moves the focus away from the purpose. So, keep in mind, good internet connection!
Once our candidate is hired, he/she gets appropriate hardware equipment. We found it very important for every employee to have a laptop with a solid camera and even better headsets. Using one-mic-one-cam-per-person (like all big and cool companies do in meetings) instead of a table microphone is not only a huge investment into audio quality, but also supports equal opportunity of participation in the meetings for all participants, regardless of the participants’ location. It is also easier (and less expensive) to scale out by getting a new headset for a new team-member rather than by adjusting and adding expensively equipped meeting rooms with turning cameras, microphone systems, smart boards, and soundproof walls. Our recommended setup might seem strange at first when people sitting in the same room are talking to each other through headsets during a distributed call, but as it happens, people accept it happily.
Except for the proper hardware, it is important to provide decent meeting software. What is important in this segment? Well, the first prerequisite (and the most important one) is that it works on every operating system. Even the web version, if supported, will not work on every operating system, trust us on that one.
The meeting software should provide support for calls, where you can share the screen and camera, where the number of participants fits your needs. Some chat options inside of the meeting software are also welcome. But be careful when leaving content in the integrated chat which does not provide an option to access it later. We are trying out different options here, it really depends on the team, preferences, and needs.
Some of the options are Slack (which we use for regular communication as well), GoToMeeting, Zoom.us, AppearIn, Skype for Business, Cisco WebEx, etc., but the comparison of the mentioned tools is a topic for another blog post.
What we prefer is using meeting software and, in parallel, the same chat tool we use for our regular communication. Usually, we go with Slack as already mentioned, but any favorite tool of yours should work.
Video or audio calls?
This is still an active and recent question in our company, in different teams. Sometimes it is nice to see your remote colleagues in a video call, you can read emotions better, you can see if your team member is focused on the call, or doing something else, etc. It also eliminates the feeling that you do not see your colleagues.
However, we are handling most of the calls without video, which seems sufficient for us. What is more important here than a camera: to share some board or collaboration tool. But sometimes it is required to have video. Feel free to go with a video option as well. Just do not overload your Internet connection.
Life of a remotee
It is a sunny morning in our Zagreb office. Time for the Daily Standup. We join the usual video call. Colleagues from our room and the one next door join too. Each and every one of us has headsets on. Even those sitting in the same room do not gather around one laptop. Half of the team joins the call from our office in Germany. Every second week we meet with our Product Owner for the Sprint Review and Sprint Planning via video call. The Product Owner used to come to the Munich office, but since half of the team is sitting abroad anyway, she decided to reduce the commuting time. The Retrospective is done in a similar manner the same day or the day after where we enjoy exploring new Retrospective tools every now and then.
It is a good feeling to have one camera and one (headset) microphone per person while having those meetings, even if people join from the same office. We used to do it differently, with half the team sitting in a conference room, huddled around one table microphone. If you are the person joining that meeting remotely, it might happen that you feel “impaired” in such an asymmetrical setup: you cannot hear them properly (because of suboptimal connection quality and subpar audio equipment), you do not really see the faces of people in that room (even if there is one camera), you might get overheard and overlooked frequently, being an observer during those refinements and discussions you would prefer to join as an equal.
Once it is obvious to everybody that this is not working as intended, the team starts to experiment. You move away from having one part of the team on headsets and the other part sitting in a conference room (behind some audio device, speaking far away from it) and see what happens when all people turn to headsets. Yeah, it is a bit strange at first. But with good headsets, which cancel the noise in the same room, it is more efficient from our experience.
And now we can concentrate on picking the right software. Personally, we cannot imagine our lives without Github, Jira, and Confluence. Github is where the code goes and peer review comments as well. Jira keeps our Backlog and Scrum Board up-to-date, while Confluence is used for additional documentation. We also find Slack calls convenient for pair programming and knowledge transfer sessions. Besides, Slack with its call option and multiple project-related channels is where most of the communication happens anyway. Now we even have a special “TIL” (today I learned) channel for knowledge transfer and clarification sessions far away from the water cooler and coffee machine.
Once you understand your company’s motivation for remote work and if your culture and goals align, the education process can start - as your next step on the journey towards efficient distributed teams. It is a great help to arrange experience sharing sessions on remote work, to invite experienced colleagues as guests into your team meetings (for instance retrospectives), to get coaches who can ease the transition with their expert knowledge. And of course, do not hesitate to consult all the resources out there: posts, talks, and books dealing with this complex topic will be crucial for your success.
Feel free to let us know how it goes. We are always ready to exchange experiences and provide support to the community on this matter if needed.