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Remote: Office not required

Back in February I was interviewed for the new 37signals book Remote: Office not required. Here’s the transcript of that interview for those of you interested in how Brightbox manages a fully remote team.

How many of your team work remotely, and where are they located?

Currently the majority of our team are located throughout the UK but we have a couple of guys based in India. Everyone works remotely from each other and mostly from home. And we’ve worked remotely with contractors across Europe and North America.

We have an office in Leeds in the UK where one of us works from as a base and that gives the UK people a place to meet and work together once in a while. A few meet there once a week, the others meet once a month or less. It’s purely optional. I’m one of the co-founders and barely leave my house, which is just how I like it.

Do you hire employees outside your home country?

Yep, we’ve always considered applicants from anywhere. Everything else being equal it can be convenient having people nearby but it’s rare for everything else to be equal.

Are remote workers expected to work standard business hours, or is it a flexible work day?

For the teams that directly support customers, we need standard business hours, but otherwise we’re quite flexible.

We’ve found that having substantial overlapping working hours is quite important as it’s rare that someone can work several hours straight without needing input or support from someone else, at least the way we work.

So far, everyone seems keen to work our standard business hours, give or take an hour or two at each end. One team member in India has always worked to our business hours, at his request. He says it helps with his motivation, and says he’s never been a morning person anyway :)

What tools and techniques do you use to collaborate?

We started out with voice conferencing, email, redmine and a private jabber a conference room. The jabber conference room made a huge difference; we use it for work discussion, but also just casual chat which helps bring the team together more. It’s rare that we open a redmine ticket to find out what kind of music the team is listening to, or to track videos of our pets (though it’s not unknown), but that’s fair game in the jabber chat room.

We collaborate on code using git, and Github and more recently we’ve been using pivotal tracker too.

We use Dropbox to share some (non-sensitive) documents. Google docs to collaborate on some things more synchronously.

Skype has been of some use but we’ve been playing with Google hangouts recently which works very nicely.

So we use a lot of tools and they all have pros and cons. When it comes to sensitive or confidential information, we usually then fall back to tried and tested secure tech like email and gpg.

How do you prevent your employees from working too much? And how do you promote a healthy work environment?

Formally, UK law makes us ensure employees take a certain amount of holiday days, which we enforce. Employees are contracted for a certain amount of hours a week and we don’t pay overtime, instead favouring time off in lieu. That helps keep a good balance.

We’ve also got someone in charge of health and safety who does reviews of various things, to make sure people aren’t hurting themselves by sitting at their desks improperly, for example.

Informally though, we just don’t have a culture of working too much. We know that burning through humans can only ever be a short-term business tactic, and a pretty repugnant one at that.

When did you start allowing employees to work remotely, and was it an immediate success? If not, what were the initial stumbling blocks?

We started working remotely from day one with just the two co-founders. With only two people, with quite different roles, it was easy to work remotely. Tbh, I can’t remember if initial stumbling blocks were due to working remotely or just general problems with an imperfect workflow. I certainly don’t think it’d be easy to say “this wouldn’t have been a problem if we were all in an office together”.

I do recall us noticing that it felt a lot better after we got the realtime jabber conference room. I think that helped give everyone a more intuitive connection to everyone else.

How do you promote a company culture when employees aren’t in the same location? Is there a requirement to come into the office at certain times? A quarterly or yearly meet-up? Something else?

Cultures are promoted through communication, not through being in the same location, so not sure what to say there. We communicate throughout the day in both batch form, like email, and more realtime using jabber. All support tickets are in a shared system and we review each others’ tickets and discuss them often. Same goes for code. That all helps to teach each other the way we like to do things.

We have a yearly meet-up where we all go for a big meal together, though we’re planning to do this more often. And like I’ve said previously, some parts of the team already meet up more often.

How did you get past the “trust” issue (i.e., how do you know your employees are working if you can’t see them)?

We struggled with this but found that the majority of our productivity problems were actually due to bad work flow; people not knowing what needed doing, what was a priority etc.

We get enough work done that we make progress and make money. We’re always looking for ways to improve productivity but we know that just being able to see your employees doesn’t make them work effectively.

What makes a good remote worker, and how do you find these people when hiring?

We’ve found that the key thing is a good communicator. That’s generally a good thing anyway, but communication takes a bit more effort when it’s not face to face.

We conduct a large part of our hiring process remotely too; doing interviews over the phone, giving people a project to complete etc. Seeing how the communication goes there is as much a part of the interview as the questions or the project.

Finally, let us know anything special or unique about your remote work program.

One thing we’ve had trouble with is that for our workers outside of the UK/EU we have trouble hiring them as proper employees, so they’re technically contractors. UK employment law guarantees some rights and protections to employees (which we like!) but to make those guarantees to a worker in another country would require some rather extensive and carefully written contract terms. So we’re always worried how to make them feel equal members of the team in that respect and I’m not sure we’ve figured out how to do that yet.

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