Retro-fitting remote working

I wrote my last post about remote working on my way to Gran Canara almost 4 years ago. It was the first time I had attempted to work remotely from the team based in London, and the reality was – remote working was really hard!

We aren’t a “remote-first” company, and I knew working with the team when they weren’t used to having to deal with a remote team member was going to be challenging.

Even a slightly flaky internet connection became massively frustrating during calls. Reverse engineering context from discussions that were happening ‘offline’ was a constant challenge. And trying to engage the team in the work I was doing from Gran Canara.

On the plus side, there were no time-zone differences, I met some awesome people, we redesigned the FundApps branding, and I was living one minute from the beach!

However, the challenges of growing a team in person in London were enough that I hadn’t really attempted it since.

How does it look now?

Roll forward several years, and FundApps has grown from 8 to approaching 50, has offices in London and New York, with remote workers in Toronto, Darlington and Auckland.

Now, whether we like it or not, we have to get good at this! It’s still hard, but we’re inching closer to this being a better experience:

  • A decent video conferencing set up. Sounds obvious, but it took us much experimentation to find something that worked for us. We’re now using Zoom and a proper speakerphone that works over USB too. If someone has a dodgy connection, they can join the call by phone instead.
  • If there’s one remote person in a meeting, then everyone joins a call from their desks. We don’t do this for everything yet, but it does level the playing field significantly.
  • Face to face time is invaluable, particularly for new starters. Our remote workers had the advantage of having worked in our office for some time – they knew the team, and the culture. Our recent recruits in New York didn’t have that luxury though, and so making the time for them to visit London, and their colleagues visiting New York to build those relationships have been super valuable.
  • Increase signal to noise. We’re trying to separate discussion from actual decisions so it’s easier to keep track of what’s going on – we’ve had some success using dedicated project channels in Slack (for chat), while ensuring core decisions are recorded more explicitly in GitHub or Google Docs.
  • Preferring async communication, if you have team members working on different time zones – try finding a time that works for folks in Canada, London and New Zealand for a call!

Starting a remote working journey

Today I head to Gran Canaria for a month. Not for holiday, but to work. I’ll be leaving my friends and work colleagues back in London, whilst trying to convince them that this isn’t all about sitting on a beach and surfing all day long.

I’ve always read with admiration and a fair dose of jealousy the stories from various digital nomads around the web. Free to go where they will, work as they please. And yet I’ve never felt able to take the plunge.

While I’m only dipping a toe in to start, this is as much a company challenge as a personal one. At FundApps, we’ve grown to a team of 8 so far, all based in London. We want to foster a great place to work, and realise creating a remote-working friendly environment is a big pull for many people (as it is for ourselves). We’re also planning to expand into the US, and so we know we’ll *have* to soon deal with the practicalities of asynchronous working with a remote team in a different timezone.

We’ve grown as a clustered, centralized unit based in London without having to address these kinds of questions up front — so we’re now having to retrofit a remote-friendly culture. Working from home a day or two a week is pretty easy, when there’s still enough in person interaction to cover up any cracks in your approach to remote working. But when you take away that regular in-person contact, all that effortless information you pick up in the office fades away.

How do you make sure everyone knows what’s going on? Feels included? Feels part of a coherent company culture? How do you keep learning and sharing knowledge? How do you hire and interview? On a personal level, how does the reality stack up? How do you replace the personal contact that you’d normally have in the office with colleagues?

I know to do this well will be hard, especially with the rest of the team still being a core coherent unit back in London. But I’m hoping this will be an opportunity to learn a lot — and share the experience, both from a personal standpoint, and as a startup founder.

Onwards! I have a flight to catch.

PS I would love to hear your own thoughts. Do you care about remote working? What have you tried? What’s worked or not? Or what’s putting you off, or holding you back from trying it — either personally or at your company?