Many thanks to Kristofer Rolf Söderström and Jeremy Boom at WeAdventure for interviewing me about working remotely. They are at the early stage of building their startup and are exploring ways to do this with a distributed team. Check their blog or read below to see what they found out:
Access to better and faster technology has changed how we interact with the world and each other in countless ways, but there are still several aspects of life that are slower to adapt, one of them being the working day. Does the traditional 9 to 5, work from the office, day that has been dominating the work life still makes sense in our current technological age? If not, how do you structure it for you and your team according to everyone’s needs and wants?
I want to make a distinction because there are several professions that have never really been subject to a fixed time and location. Even some types of organisations would still not benefit from a different working routine. Instead, I’ll focus on technological companies for partly selfish reasons. Jeremy and I are currently trying to figure out what is the best approach for structuring weAdventure, and one of the questions we want to answer is how to structure the working day.
Jeremy and I have learned a lot working together and we are constantly trying to improve upon our dynamic. Currently, this involves a mix of working remotely and having face-to-face meetings every week in which we measure our progress and plan for the future. This flexibility has worked great in our favour and being able to decide when and where to work has been critical in our accomplishments. However, we are aware that what works now in a two-man team might not necessarily work in the future.
We decided to read about how other companies have worked on these issues. Buffer has been a good source of initial inspiration, their approach to transparency makes it so much easier to take in their experience and learn from it. We decided to take it a bit further and set up a call with one of their previous team members to understand that experience on an individual level.
We reached out to Karim Osman; he has worked remotely since 2010 at Automattic (WordPress.com), Buffer, and currently works as Operations Director at Mapillary. Our conversation covered fascinating topics regarding his personal experiences. Karim was happy to share his insights (and some photos). We figured that other people might be having the sames questions as us and, in the spirit of openness, we decided to share our conversation.
Karim enjoying the view in San Francisco
Here are the topics we covered:
We all know that motivation is critical. This is not exclusive to remote working, but it might be more delicate to achieve than usual. Karim shared that being attracted to what you’re working on is key to feeling motivated: either the product, the team, the values and direction of the company, or being able to fulfil personal challenges and growth can be essential. For Karim, working on things that challenge him and finding personal growth in them is crucial for motivation. Complementary to this aspect is to be recognised for your work and getting a sense of appreciation for your efforts.
Motivation is tricky to achieve in a distributed team, but you can create an environment in which you can support each other and celebrate accomplishments. As Karim puts it: “You can even send someone a physical gift…like a chocolate bar or something physical, nowadays you can send almost anything”.
As anyone can imagine, procrastination seems like an obvious downside to remote work. You could be thinking to yourself how to accomplish anything with literally millions cat videos on YouTube alone. Karim told us that maybe it’s not so much of a bad thing. Of course, you need self-management to be able to do remote work at flexible hours, but his experience was maybe counter-intuitive.
“The most difficult thing when I first started working remotely was to feel guilty about having the advantage of flexible working as oppose to working fixed hours at an office. I felt like I had to do extra work in return” Karim continues, “It’s a weird thing, but sometimes you simply end up working too much and being out of balance”.
You should manage your time in such a way that you do not burn yourself out during the day, and procrastination might help with the much needed distraction if you are able to control it.
The conversation flowed naturally to daily routines. According to Karim, it mostly depends in which point in your life you are now and how you interact with people closest to you, including your teammates. However, remote work gives you the possibility of changing your daily routine accordingly, and that can be a liberating experience.
Karim likes to work in short, intensive burst of productivity with some rest in between, but other people he knows prefer to work from 6 am to 3 pm without much rest, and then enjoy the rest of their day doing other things. There is not one routine to follow for the remote worker, you have to find your balance and embrace the flexibility you are being offered.
A great example of the flexibility of a remote worker is that it can also be seasonally adjusted. Prefer to work at night during summer so you can enjoy the nice weather with outside activities? No problem! Want to sleep in because it’s winter and freezing and dark outside, like here in the Nordics? No worries! However, with the caveat of your routine being compatible with your team.
On the topic of free-time, we quickly jumped to vacations and time off. Taking time off should be pretty straightforward and simple for everyone, but somehow it isn’t. People will have drastically different experiences in less regulated countries where time off is not guaranteed and/or paid. It’s a tricky subject, but somehow it feels like it shouldn’t be this way.
Remote work is no exception to the rule. It’s usual to hear that startups tend to offer unlimited vacation: take as much time off as you want and when you feel you need the most. It sounds very attractive but, as usual, reality is somewhat complicated. In most cases, Karim mentions, you have to check with your team to make sure it won’t hurt their schedule. You could also feel pressured to not take days off, or sometimes you have the feeling that you take too much time off.
Company culture can have a big impact on what you feel comfortable doing. If no one else uses their vacation time and there are no reminders or friendly nudges to get it, then there’s a chance that you won’t feel up to it. You have to encourage people to do so. Some companies give employees a holiday allowance, or make friendly reminders, which Karim has experienced personally. Anything helps in that sense.
A good way to promote team building in a remote organisation is the startup retreat. A retreat is a recurring trip to bring all team members together, which has seen an increase in market lately. The right combination of work and play is vital to strengthen the relationship within teams and a retreat could help smooth this along. Karim tells us that every three or four months seems like a good threshold to see the rest of the team for most remote workers.
The opportunity of seeing new places and doing new things is a very appealing activity. Usually, the team does a light activity together coupled with some work, and then smaller teams can decide to do specific activities, like surfing or skydiving for the most daring.
Karim does mention that picking the right place for everyone goes beyond the actual location. You need to take into account the accessibility and travel time for all team members. Jet lag can be quite harsh when you have to work and play for a week straight and then head back home, straight to work. So, take a note for the sake of your team’s comfort.
Trust is essential in any type of organisation. Trust on your teammates, the company, leadership. All of it is necessary for a well functioning project. It’s critical to generate trust and freedom for everyone involved, and this can be achieved by using the correct tools and perhaps most importantly, with choosing the right people. If you surround yourself with the right people, you can trust that they have the skills and drive to solve problems, come up with new ideas, implement them, and give feedback whenever necessary.
Karim tells us that transparency in a company helps build that trust in a sense that everyone is involved and has influence in what’s happening. There is, however, a need for balance in this way of internal communication. Receive too much feedback and there will be a lot of information to process that will slow down action, close yourself off and risk losing that invaluable trust.
We learned a lot about remote working and gained invaluable insight from Karim’s experiences, but he gave us one last piece of advise before signing off. There are no ground rules or definitive answers to remote working and distributed teams, and how to operate them. You should always be mindful of your environment, your team and their needs. Although there are best practices to follow, there is no golden rule to heed or to avoid at all costs. The tech industry evolves and changes rapidly, and in order to survive one most be able to adapt.