Monday 10 December 2018

Startup diary: Having your staff work remotely demands a high level of transparency

 

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Stock image

Richard Rodger, founder of Voxgig

As a startup, one early decision was to adopt remote-working as a fundamental structure. How has this worked out after one year of execution?

Let's look at the reasons for that decision first, and the desired outcomes. We can then match this up with reality to see the quality of the decision.

Starting voxgig in Waterford meant I faced a mixed landscape with respect to recruiting the staff the company would need to grow. While it was relatively easy to hire non-technical staff, I still faced the issue of finding just the right candidates with just the right industry experience and contacts, especially for the early management team. This is much easier in a big city. Waterford does have a great technology community and an institute of technology. If you're a larger company this means you can hire and train graduates. I did take this approach, but discovered over time that I could not provide a suitable environment for graduates to grow - they require mentorship and support.

I decided to go all in on remote-working. This means that even the Waterford staff work from home or co-working spaces. It means that everybody is in the same boat, which avoids the difficulties of partial-remote teams. We have eight employees and two contractors, and all work remotely. We're spread over Ireland, the UK, Spain, Romania and, just this week, India. My office in the co-working Boxworks space in Waterford might count as HQ, except that as CEO I'm on the move so much that I spend less than half my time there. I'm writing this article in the comfortable lounge of the Sandymount Hotel - good wifi, so I'm happy.

To get our remote-working culture functional, I've had to focus on three aspects of the problem, to which I'll give fancy management consulting names: transparency, cadence, and tooling.

A remote working company has to be overly transparent.

How are we transparent? We have a company dashboard that everyone can review at anytime. This show the metrics that matter to each team. If you slack off in front of your colleagues, it's pretty obvious. But if you excel, that's obvious too - we celebrate all the wins publicly. Everybody get a chance periodically to demo their work and explain how it fits into the bigger picture.

Transparency doesn't end there. Almost all of our documents are available to everyone. Want to see how much travel your colleague is doing? You can check their travel expenses. Want to see if the newsletter is on track? You can see all of their planning documents. Anyone can join or observe any online chat conversation. We practice small and frequent changes to our codebase, so you can see in detail what each developer does during the day.

This key decision has worked out y well and we have not observed any negative consequences, whilst reaping the benefits of increased trust and productivity.

You will encounter some challenges with this approach. It really does not suit a smallish minority of people as a fundamental personality trait and they cannot adapt to it. You will also need to allow new recruits some time to get comfortable with the approach.

Without a deep commitment to transparency, remote working does become much harder, as you can will find it difficult to co-ordinate with micro-management. I think we've dodged that bullet.

The second aspect is one of those things that you discover by accident. I've never been particularly disciplined about schedules and processes. After a few early missteps and starting to drown in management tasks, I realised that I needed to very quickly design an organisation that could operate without me. Effective remote working demands it. I decided to try to establish a regular weekly "cadence" to the company. We would separately, and as a team, establish a discipline for doing the same regular things at the same times each week.

This really arose by accident from the production of our weekly newsletter, but has since permeated everything we do. It does more upfront effort to put this structure in place. You have to think more carefully about work processes. But it has a big payoff. I almost never have to 'check-up' on people to see if their work is done. That will be clear at one of the public demonstrations during the week, whether that be at the all hands, or in front of trial customers, or in public with our content audience.

Finally, use the right tooling. When you read about remote-working the tools used often seem to be the focus. They are secondary. You need video-conferencing: there's a plethora of options these days, many free. You need online chat. Slack and similar products provide the solution. You need shared documents: Google and/or Microsoft are your go-tos. And then each function can find multiple specialist online offerings these days to collaborate effectively: github.com for developers is a great example, hubspot.com for the marketing team, and so forth. Tooling is not the issue, and even the least technical can quickly get used to any tool.

(Newsletter update: 5,022 subscribers, open rate 15pc. We'll end the year with 5,000+ subscribers. I'm pretty happy about this - not just for the number itself, but what's behind the number - a repeatable process that we can leverage into over marketing activities. Podcast update: 18 downloads last week - four episodes up and we're about to start promoting the podcast via the newsletter - let's see how that goes.)

Richard Rodger is the founder of voxgig. He was co-founder of Waterford-based firm Nearform

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