Working Remotely: Our Foray Into Building a Distributed Team

Last week, I wrote a post about the various tools we use at Mammoth to chat and track discussions with one another. This week, I’m writing about one of the reasons we need so many technologies to keep everyone in the loop: our remote workforce. On any given day, half to two thirds of our team are working remotely; either at home, in a cafe, or in an entirely different part of the country.

A little background

Starting in late 2011, we began growing our team from a core of 7 people to where it is today, at 20. Developers were in short supply here in Chicago, so if we were to grow the bench, we’d have to look elsewhere or risk losing business. We hired Jeremy, a front-end developer and UI designer down in Arkansas, and Waylon and Tyler, both back-end developers who live in San Antonio, Texas. All three of these guys were used to working remote. Indeed, it was a selling point for the job. They wanted it, but only if they could work from the homestead.

We also had a couple of people move out of state. Both Grant (back-end developer, to Fort Myers) and Jennifer (front-end developer, San Francisco) needed to make a hop out of Chicago for personal reasons. They’d both spent a good amount of time in our office and we would miss them dearly, but without a doubt we wanted them to take their jobs with them wherever they went.

Lastly, we have a remote working policy. Everyone in Chicago (or beyond) is welcome to work wherever they please. We worked on our network and security for six months to ensure that our entire team could do so without too much degradation in connectivity and with minimal security risk. Our only rules are that folks communicate clearly when and where they’ll be working remotely, and to make themselves available online or over the phone if needed. So, most folks work from home or a cafe once or twice a week to get away from the group and crank on a project or problem without interruption for a longer period of time.

What’s missing when you’re not here?

When we considered hiring outside of Chicago, it made us consider what the specific qualities are that make us We Are Mammoth, that give us an edge competitively, or make people want to work with us. How would a remote team member relate to these values, or would they need to?

Likewise, we considered the specific advantages to working together in an office compared to being offsite and physically disconnected from a team. Similarly, what advantages do we all reap when individuals work remotely?

Here are a few of the answers.

Soul is everywhere

We were assured that the values and vision of our business would reach beyond the front door of our office merely by the fact that so many people apply for our jobs. Moreover, once our remote team started working, they were just as productive as our local team. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that we spent a good amount of time in 2012 communicating our values and vision for the company and asking for everyone’s input and participation in crafting it. Er hrm, we also didn’t hire slackers. Question answered.

Working on-site

One big advantage to working on-site is serendipity. We work in an open office layout and it’s inevitable that everyone will be privy to most discussions happening in the shop. While this can detract from focus and productivity at times, it helps get the right people on the right problems more quickly.

Don’t be a hero

We also don’t like going it alone. Peer review is an important component of a project’s life cycle, especially in a tight situation, and there’s really no better way of doing that than sitting down side by side with someone to review work, troubleshoot, or discuss alternative plans of attack. When you’re out in the field by yourself, there’s no one there to bounce an idea off of or critique your approach to a problem.

I saw that

One incredibly valuable quality of being in person at work is that you don’t only hear someone’s voice (or read their text), but you see and can interpret their body language too, which paints a fuller picture. I’ve expounded on it before, but for every medium we communicate on, there’s a unique persona the person on the other side ends up creating of you; “you when you’re texting”, “you when you write your quippy, terse emails”. Being in person is natural. We’ve been doing it for thousands and thousands of years. This makes it a lot easier to pull someone aside for a chat when they’re visibly irritated, or when an “I understand what you’re talking about” is accompanied by a some pretty obvious body language indicating the contrary.

Let’s just figure this out

We all type quickly. But, we speak even more quickly. There’s a certain advantage to putting an email exchange between you, your thoughts, and your recipient, for sure. But when quick decision making is crucial to a project, all of the above advantages make it that much easier to come to terms as a group if you’re under the same roof.

Integrating a remote team

While we did have our concerns about creating a remote workforce, we knew that most of them were elements we could keep tabs on in a couple of different ways.

First off, we only hired remote programmers. Would we want an office manager to work out of Minnesota? Or a UX designer to phone in from Paris? There are jobs which are more difficult to do from afar because of the physical need to be on site to perform duties adequately. Everyone benefits from extended periods of uninterrupted focus, definitely, but it’s essential to a programmer’s productivity. This ended up being an advantage in many ways.

Second, we flew every remote team member to Chicago for every month in 2012. These 2-3 day trips gave everyone a chance to connect personally and take care of any work which benefitted from being on site. We arranged their travel, picked them up from the airport, and tried as best as possible to make it a comfortable trip.

Last but definitely not least, we leaned on chat rooms (HipChat) and video conferencing (GoToMeetings, FaceTime) to facilitate constant streams of communication for everyone around the country. It’s safe to say that most everyone knows, understands, and can interpret everyone else’s dynamic on these platforms by now. Put that together with emails, conference calls, Basecamp, and DoneDone, and we’ve covered every style of communication we need here, save for the occasional smoke signal or hug.

How’d it all work out?

Everyone who started out working remotely is still a Mammoth team member. While the monthly trips helped, we’ve scaled back to once quarterly for all existing folks and will only do monthly trips for the first few months of any new team member’s tenure. The feedback from them has largely been positive as well. We’ve managed to extend our culture and values outside of the office to the extent that each member feels productive and tuned in to the broader team’s needs. Would it be better to be in house? Sure, there’s probably opportunities everyday where it’d be of value. But, in the same respect, these folks are generally more productive by virtue of their being remote.

For the couple of folks who moved out of Chicago, it seems to have been a bit more challenging for them personally. Jennifer and Grant were both happy being in the office each day (and of course, having their lives here in Chicago), so when it came time to pull up roots, the absence of daily interactions at work were missed on both sides. They’ve both remained just as productive, though, and as they settle into their new digs, they’ve begun reconnecting in different ways to get the value they need out of the team here in Chicago, and vice versa.

Go the extra mile

Building a remote team has its advantages. The pool of candidates is exponentially larger. The need to constantly expand an office (or move) is much smaller. There’s no relocation costs, and remote workers cut out their commute and instead spend that time working more or being with their families. Likewise, it’s got it’s downsides. It’s hard to tell when someone is struggling. We can’t hear them hit their keyboard or yell “shit!”. In terms of productivity, it becomes an exercise in constant evaluation to make sure that each individual has what he/she needs to get the job done, and is doing so in just as efficient (or more) a manner as if they were working onsite with the team.

I think at the end of the day, it’s the specific job and person filling the position who’ll make or break this type of arrangement. I personally would go stir crazy and end up in a coworking space within two weeks. Thankfully though, we’ve been blessed with a small but productive team who are mostly familiar with the remote working lifestyle and have the independence and initiative to be just as much a part of the team as if they were on site in Chicago.