Working remotely has multiple benefits for the Tes Technology team. These include improved engagement and happiness of our team members, a flexible and dynamic workplace, and the best possible situation for team members to find and decide where/when they can work most effectively.
One key challenge for working remotely at Tes is the blend of remote & office workers. This leads to a set of challenges that, were this a 100% remote team, would not exist. This document covers some of the key components/guidelines for running a successful remote-first team in a blended situation. Through experimentation, and some degree of failure, these guidelines are continually evolving as we find new and different challenges. One thing is certain: remote working in a blended environment cannot succeed without continuously focusing on collaboration, engagement, and a positive, trusting team.
The document is separated into broad areas and lists specific guidelines with a general indication of the importance of each guideline using MUST, SHOULD, and COULD keywords.
Styles of remote work
There are several styles of remote work that we support/encourage at Tes. All styles of remote work are supported equally.
Remote work: Any work done outside of the London office. This can include working on the train, working from home, or working from any location in the world where a team member is able to deliver their work.
London Employee: A Technology team member who spends most or all of their working time in the London office.
Digital Nomad: A London based employee who has chosen to forgo the comforts of London and the office and work from wifi hotspots throughout the world.
Remote Employee: An employee of Tes who does most of their work away from the office, e.g. from home, a co-working space or the beach.
Remote Contractor: A member of the technology team, who, due to location, we are not able to employ directly. These members will generally not be located in the US or UK.
Team members who work in the office each day are just as crucial to the success of a remote working policy as those who work remotely. The overall culture of the team will contribute massively to the success or failure of a remote policy. The following guidelines are meant to ensure that the culture required for remote working is enabled.
When you allow any members of a team to operate remotely, you need to have the entirety of that team adopt remote working practices, even if the bulk of the team remain in the office. If teams aren’t prepared to work this way, then allowing one or two members to work remotely (even part time) is very likely to fail.
Email still has its uses in the business context. For example, communication with people external to the organization, or critical communication where delivery to the recipient is important. However, it is not possible to use email effectively as the primary communication method for a remote first team. Persistent chat rooms provide fast and reliable real-time communication while still supporting an asynchronous workflow that enables a more flexible working style. We use Hipchat1 at Tes.
Teams members must always have at least a 3 hour overlap of timezone with London. While the core of our business is London based there is always a crucial part of communication that may need to happen synchronously. We have an expectation that those further afield adjust their working day to ensure there is this overlap. This will ensure that there is an adequate amount of flexibility for organizing meetings where most or all of the team should be involved.
While HipChat and other asynchronous tools are great for enabling dynamic and constant communication there is a need for team members to have face to face calls to discuss things that are too complex or time consuming to discuss via a chat tool. Additionally, disagreements and tensions that can arise during the normal course of interactions are more easily resolved via voice or video conversations.
Supporting a full remote-first environment requires all team members to have the flexibility to work remotely and move around as needed. A laptop with a headset and a functioning camera provides this flexibility.
Teams in the office should have an external, high quality microphone readily available, so if a meeting does occur with the majority in the office and they choose to have the meeting co-located, that the remote person can hear the conversation. If you do this type of meeting you should start the meeting with a sound check to ensure all those who will be speaking during the meeting can be heard by those on the video call. Additionally, if it is a presentation/demo, the presenter should repeat all questions as the speaker may not be close enough to the camera.
We use snowball microphones5.
Remote meetings can be hard and while there is an expectation that when/if a remote attendee will speak up if their situation is not ideal (ie: they can’t hear people in the meeting, etc) it’s also important for the co-located members of the meeting to reach out to their colleagues to ensure that everybody is able to contribute effectively. It is not acceptable nor encouraged to create a two tiered meeting structure where those in the room have a disproportionate impact on decisions. Our meeting guide6.
Trust & Communication
It is best to have general team conversation via a chat tool - we use HipChat - in a room accessible to all members of the team to ensure that those who are remote have an opportunity to listen in, as they would if they were also in the office and able to overhear a conversation.
It also provides the benefit of recording all of the conversations in a searchable way, and providing history that remote workers can read to catch up. Managers & those who have less time overlap can also use it to stay abreast of decisions and progress without delaying the team for status updates.
If a decision is made during a voice or in-person conversation this should be written down somewhere. While this is important for team-work in general, you can no longer rely on team members overhearing a conversation and having an opportunity to provide input.
The team is free to decide on what tool is most effective for this. We have found a decision log in a Github wiki or simply tracking the conversation and decisions via Github issues is a low friction option. Github has the added benefit where everyone can contribute asynchronously, and where we can record the outcome of any discussion.
Where the decision influences the team as a whole we try to add that to the engineering guide, so that future new starters can quickly absorb the working practices of the team.
Where remote workers are not in the office, they should still take part in the weekly demos to the wider company. If the demo time is outside of their normal working day, pre-recorded demos can be accommodated.
In order to support a remote and flexible team, meetings must be planned considering the schedules of all required attendees. There is an expectation that all team members are aware of recurring meetings and try to avoid non-essential flexibility during these times. However, due to vacation, illness or other unforeseen circumstances it is likely that people are unable to attend and in this case the teams must show a degree of flexibility by recording (via video, diagrams or notes) or rescheduling the meeting as needed.
In order to allow team members working flexible hours to be able to work when other team members or leaders may not be working, it is critical to use a tool to keep track of the tasks that individuals can/are working on. A combination of GitHub & ZenHub has proven to be very effective for the Technology team as it provides a clear and consistent workflow to ensure that there is always work to be done by all team members. The other benefit of this is that it allows the team members to show progress on their work without the need for status meetings.
In order to ensure that the team is able to plan around unforeseen circumstances if a team member does something that is out of the ordinary they should let their team know. This includes days off, remote team members working from the office or office based team members working from outside of the office.
VPN access is required to access most of the Tes network (such as MyHR and other systems/infrastructure), so it is imperative that fully remote workers are able to connect.
Social Interactions & Isolation
Remote working can increase the feeling of social isolation for team members, but this can be avoided by a focus on social interactions and team interactions.
In the absence of continuous social/professional interactions between colleagues, it is even more important to have regular, scheduled, and consistent one-to-ones with team members. Issues in this style of working can take far longer to be raised and can only be discovered via one to one conversations. It is critical that mentors or managers are able to address issues before they become an issue that impacts the entire team.
There is no perfect replacement for face to face communication and our initial experiments indicated that replacing the daily standup meeting with a tool impacted team morale negatively. These meetings should be scheduled at a time when all team members are available to take part, usually the beginning or end of the day. They should not take more than 15 minutes; participants should be limited to people whose work impacts each other and should be focused on work completed the day before, work to be completed that day and anything preventing work from completing. An end of day ‘stand-down’ is quite useful for teams where there is a wide variation in timezone. This stand-down can be useful to debrief team members who are starting their day with work completed during the day and plan the overlap period.
With a normal office being a social environment it’s important to maintain that camaraderie and spirit of friendship between remote workers and/or office workers as such, a friendly hello from each member of the team in the morning really sets up the day well. As does a goodbye in the evening, not least to let people know you are no longer available.
There is value in teams taking a step back from specific issues to chat about successes and areas of improvement as individuals and as a team. This is especially true for remote workers, who cannot get this through incidental in-office interaction. A retrospective is a good time for team members to offer assistance and feedback outside of mentorships, and organize effectively on current epics and future projects. It is also an opportunity for team members to recognize each other’s successes, which improves team bonding and helps to establish best practices.
Recorded sessions (eg demos, strategy sessions with Clifton, etc) allow remote employees to give presentations in their own time and in-office employees to schedule sessions without having to account for remote schedules. This also builds a library of resources that new employees can reference at later dates.
One of the most important aspects of a functioning team (regardless of remote work or not) is the concept of personal responsibility. Each team member is expected to take personal responsibility for the success of their team and the successful delivery of the requirements derived from other members of the business or our users. This responsibility is required for the Trust & Communication outlined above to be fulfilled.
We need to accept that not all roles are suited to remote working all of the time. Where a role has a requirement for face-to-face interaction with another department, where that department hasn’t been equipped to interact with remote workers (e.g. they don’t have laptops with video cameras or headsets), then you will need to be in the same office for the bulk of your working week.
It is the responsibility of you as an individual to make sure you only work remotely if it makes you as - or more - effective than being in the office. If it isn’t working then you will need to discuss alternatives with your line manager - be that a change in role to one that is more suitable to remote working, coming into the office each day, or changing to a formal flexible working agreement with different time expectations.
Some people find it easier to stay motivated when working from the office. In order to make a remote working culture effective, it’s important that you are able to replicate the motivation you would receive in the office at home. Motivation for a particular task (as opposed to general motivation to get work done) is multifaceted and complex. A few techniques that you might want to consider are:
- Ensure the work you are doing is well defined. If required, discuss the task with your colleagues until you have a clear idea of what is required.
- Work on a task with another team member (pair programming in the engineering world).
- Set personal deadlines to achieve tasks.
- Be sure to ask for help from your team members before you become demotivated by a particular complex task.
- Discuss the situation with your mentor or line manager. You may find yourself more motivated on a different team or with a different style of work.
- Consider a visit to the office to help you rediscover your motivation
If your environment at home isn’t suitable to remote work, you may not be able to work in this way. Things that could impact your ability to work effectively from home may include a child for whom you are the primary caretaker, house mates or house work that tends to distract you during your work day or any other situation where you are not able to focus on your work. If this is the case for you, it is critical that you organize an alternative such as working from a co-working space, working from the office or finding another suitable location that works for you.
When a team member works remotely it can be difficult for other team members to know where or when they are available. To ensure that communication is as frictionless as possible all team members should try to respond to messages in the chosen chat tool within an hour or two. The caveat to this is that chat tools tend to be disruptively distracting. It is encouraged that team members experiment with which levels of notifications balance distraction with engagement best for them. Depending on their role, it can be fine if they only engage with the chat tool on an hourly schedule. For people with broad view across many projects it would be much better to be continuously engaged to prevent others from becoming blocked.
Travel & Costs
For individuals who choose to use the ability to work remotely to travel, this is absolutely fine, provided the conditions above are all still valid. You need appropriate places to work, the responsibility is on you to ensure overlap with your teams and it is crucial that any travel be performed in a way that doesn’t impact your team. You are responsible for any travel and all accommodation and other costs as this is not travel conducted at the company’s request.
For those workers who are hired full time as remote workers, a non-commutable distance from London, we will factor in a set of fixed trips to London each year - somewhere between two and four times per year - to ensure there is adequate face-to-face time with the whole team. We will arrange a single week each year where we seek to get the majority of remote workers together in London at the same time.
Use common sense, remote working needs to work for you, your team and Tes.