Introduction

I came up across a youtube video (see below) and decided to share my experience with setting up a remote office.

The experience comes from 9 years working in completely remote environments (two US companies one with a team in US and the other with a team shattered across Europe) and from starting my own company (SoftwareMill) 4 years ago and deciding not to have any office whatsoever.

I am not gonna write here about pros and cons of remote working, cause you might find hundreds of TEDs, youtubes, articles, blogs and what-not about that subject. I am gonna write about few practical things which I see are not obvious to people who have never worked remotely.

Before getting to those let me just write about two different types of remote offices

Dispersed Team

In this case all members of your team sit in different places. Most probably everyone is sitting at home. This is how our company is set up and this is, paradoxically, the easiest situation – there’s no fall back to traditional communication channels like “discussion having a mug of coffee in the social room”, so every one *has to* communicate in the remote way.

Remote Teams

In this case there will be few teams in different geographical locations that have to work together and are collocated in groups. In my (very humble) opinion the only way to make them work efficiently and with as little communication problems as possible, you must pretend those groups are not collocated. If you stick to that, then most probably you will succeed.

Communication

OK so the first thing I usually hear when someone tells me how he’s going to set up his remote office is that “he bought a very good conference call devices”. One like this:

Conference Call UFO

So what is the problem with it, you might ask? The problem is that it is a totally wrong idea that you can depend on a communication that

  • Requires everyone to drop whatever they’re doing and go to the conference room
  • And because of that it has to be arranged specifically. Every time. Imagine you need to ask you colleague about something he has put into the repo. Via Instant Messanger it will take forever. And you won’t wait for 3 hour to have that conference room free for you.
  • And lastly the idea that the corpo-like, lets-gather-present-how-bright-we-are-while-drinking-coffee meetings can actually help you work. Oh come on!

So the result is usually (remember I mentioned a youtube ?) like this. If you have ever took part in one of those call-in meetings, I highly doubt you have not seen any of these:

What to do, then?

Bear in mind that your duty is to give your workers communication channels, not the ability to communicate once in a while. Instead of giving minimal possibility, try to mimic real shoulder to shoulder working. But how, you ask?

What we did at SoftwareMill is we used teamspeak which originally was designed as gamer’s software for in-game communication. So how it works is that we have project rooms on the server in which people are sitting, who work together on same portions of software. It has a push-to-talk functionality, which means if I want to talk to other team members I just press some key combination and start talking. No ical invites, no calling in, just press and talk. And this makes a huge difference. The good thing about it is that you can always mute if you have something you really need to focus on. Win-win.

There are alternatives to teamspeak – Mumble for example, but we’ve discovered that sound quality of teamspeak and echo reduction are unbeatable. And teamspeak is really cheap – annual license for 32 slots (users) is just 30$.

And If you want oldschool meetings, which sometimes make sense, remember the ability to focus on them grows a lot if people are able to see each other. Google Hangouts might be a good idea, but for more then 10 cameras you might need something else – we use BigBlueButton to use cameras for everyone in the company (23 people at the moment) and it works well and is free.

Allow Process Change

The important thing about remote working is that it is getting a huge momentum and becomes more and more popular. And when there is a demand, ther is supply. Every couple days there’s a new Web 2.x application release with the sole or partial purpose to aim remote workers.

Very often those apps are crap but every now and then there’s something cool and really handful. Allow you workers to try those out. Something that worked just fine might sky rocket with new tools. And it brings this exciting change to your work environment, without which you loose people.

And, honestly, stop blocking all the facebooks, news sites etc. etc. If your workers want to slack, they will slack – having access to facebook has absolutely nothing to do with it. And if you have someone slacking, you just fire him. Easy as that.

If you do block, on the other hand, then there is 100% chance, if you’re hiring developers, that they will do absolutely everything possible to hack your firewalls, filters etc. And that is – instead of bringing you business value. And guess what? They will most probably hack your protections 😉

What you will loose as well is the ability for them to find on some website, blocked by you, inspiration how to make his work better. Think twice if you want to do that, before blocking their internet.

People are Humans

One last thing. You cannot pretend that humans aren’t humans 🙂 Your duty as an “remote office manager” is to allow your guys to meet from time to time in person. And it is not just meeting – they must have fun, so they can make up for all those things that would have happened in a physical office.

We do it once a month and every time it includes going out for beers or clubs. And from time to time we do it bigger (like get together with whole families for a weekend, or a weekend in Berlin).

If you are dispersed across continents – then it is gonna be more difficult. Probably because of the costs and the travel time, you will have to make it less often, but I think *at least* once a year is an absolute minimum. If you can’t afford it (but you should – you’re saving on the office space 😉 ) – talk to your guys. Maybe they would want to take part of the costs on themselves, just to be able to see the others.

Hope you found some of that blog useful!

How to setup a remote office

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