In the last month we’ve gone from a company with everyone working out of the office in Derbyshire to a company with people working remotely from diverse locations around the globe. We’ve got Paul on the east coast of Brazil, Daniel on the west coast of the USA, Noel in Zurich, Theo who recently swapped Matlock for Melbourne and not forgetting Matt working from exotic Nottingham (see his Working Remotely blog post).
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On first impressions it looks like this should be a huge change to the way that we work. There are now timezones to consider, not to mention the challenges of keeping lines of communication open, exchanging ideas when we’re not face-to-face and collaborating remotely.
However, we already have many elements in place. We’ve always had global clients, often in a different timezone, so the challenges of regular communication across continents are already familiar. We’ve been collaborating regularly with Noel in Switzerland and also with some of our freelance colleagues on past projects. The main challenge is formalising this and making it more part of our everyday work.
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Paul and Daniel are old hands at remote working and we’re hoping that they’ll bring us up to speed with some of their best practices. Paul has been working remotely as a solo freelancer for 3 years with clients in different countries – mostly US and Europe. Daniel has come from a team with a dozen people distributed amongst Portland, SF, NYC, Wisconsin, Bulgaria, UK, Italy, Canada, etc. We’ve all been giving some thought to how things are working so far and what is important.
Making the decision to be remote
Being distributed only works if everyone is of the same mindset and works in the same way, whether they are physically in the office or not. You can’t be half remote as people start to miss out on things. Making the decision to be remote has meant going for it whole heartedly as a company and embracing all the process and solutions to make it work.
In the words of Daniel, “communication is the oxygen of a distributed company. Communicate well, and the company is healthy. Communicate poorly, and, well, the company is starved of oxygen.”
Writing things down
Face-to-face conversations in the office are now being replaced with written communication in a shared medium. This has been a noticeable change for the company, but one that everyone seems to be embracing. “Writing things down” doesn’t just apply to conversations. It is also about being more explicit in documenting anything we are doing; important in providing a paper trail for decisions or changes.
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When you don’t share the same physical space it becomes more important to actively schedule in periods of working together, particularly if you are in different time zones; making time and space to do a specific task with a specific person. Sharing calendars, making appointments within the team and sorting out the time zone working windows have all been part of the our solutions.
Finding the right tools for collaboration
We’re still finding our way on this one to some extent. Using collaborating tools for development or project management is nothing new but finding the best method for keeping in touch is still a work in progress. We’ve had our first team Google Hangout which was enlightening (sharing everyone’s first websites). It was great to put images (if shaky webcam ones) and voices to names.
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For internal communication we’ve been using P2 with a number of plugins including Markdown for P2 and P2 Resolved Posts. Daniel has just completed a fab new plug-in called P2 by Email, that allows us to receive our team updates by email. This is now available in the WordPress plugin repository. Also Matt is working on another P2 plugin to sideload external images on publish.
We also use IRC and Skype for meetings, general chat and coding collaboration.
Company culture and working practises
This is another work in progress. How do we get across what Human Made is all about in terms of everything from attitude to coding best practices when people are not in the office?
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Meeting up in person
We all agree that this is really important; nothing can replace meetings in real life. Luckily getting together for conferences and retreats is a very much a part of Human Made culture and something that will become more important as a distributed company. We’re all looking forward to WordCamp UK and our next company meetup later this year.
Overall it’s so far, so good. We’ve learnt a lot and made some key changes to the way we work, probably with more changes to come. However, we’ve also realized that many of the important things were in place already and that working with global clients has provided the ideal foundation for working as a distributed company.