Published 1st November 2016
It feels strange to be writing about remote working and distributed teams because it’s been my daily work environment for so long. I feel like everyone must know all the ins and outs on remote working and know how to do it already. There’s no rocket science here, yet I see all these articles giving tips and advice on everything from “Tools for remote teams” to “How to set up a home office”, then I remind myself I’ve been remote for a long time and things are considerably different in 2016. Nowadays the technology options for distributed teams are extensive and can be confusing.
I’ve worked from home for over 15 years and had a distributed team for the past 9. Skype was just a twinkle in a Swedish mans eye when I started, AIM was the happening chat system and file sharing meant twiddling your thumbs while you FTP’d files to a server that was constantly running out of disk space. Nowadays SaaS products make our processes simple with tools such as Slack, Trello, Google Apps, Xero, Dropbox and our own first born product Sneek.
I now work with a team of 13 wonderful people spread all over the world from the west coast of the United States to Northern Ireland. I’m based in London and my business partner Chris lives on the South Coast of England. Together, we run Analog Republic, a web and mobile app development company which works in all markets from music to healthcare and everything in between. Our team consists of front end, backend, and mobile developers, QA and PM roles and of course we communicate using all the “Tools for remote teams” available in 2016.
Over the years I’d hear associates talking about offices, especially other guys who were working from home running small businesses. They’d talk about their big dreams of building a team, getting a sweet office and having clients over for a coffee to discuss upcoming projects. They’d plan fun office activities like table tennis and pool, Friday drinks and affairs in the stationary cupboard. While this all sounds fun, the the reality is more like everyone listening in on your phone calls (then discussing it at lunch time), working in a morgue because someone is in a bad mood, pen tapping, crap playlists, no milk, puffing and moaning, chatterboxes, bad habits and general noise — too much noise.
At this time I was living in California and even though I loved working from home, their words drew me in and I found myself being suckered into the concept of having an office. After mulling it over in my mind for months I finally took a lease on a shared office with some lovely people who are still lovely people in my life to this day. Chris didn’t understand why I’d want to leave home, and my all knowing wife tried emphatically to convince me otherwise, but once I get an idea in my head it’s hard for me to let it go. My wife gave me a stern warning that if I signed a lease on a building I better go there every day. I promised her I would.
I put pen to paper on a lease and got pretty excited as I started designing my area, buying furniture and decorating. The office was a large warehouse space, I had a mobility scooter to ride round the office on (not sure that’s very PC, but it was a gift, so not my fault) and I could ride my motorbike right into the office and park it by my desk. You don’t get much cooler than that. On my first official day there, I sat down at my computer to start coding, and as I did, a chill went right through my body from the top of my head to the tip of my toes and at that moment I realised I’d made a huge mistake. I didn’t want to be in an office, I didn’t need to be in an office and I didn’t like it.
I tried to convince myself that I was enjoying it. I told myself it was nice leaving the office and leaving work behind, it was nice to come home for dinner and not have work waiting for me in the other room. That it was nice to have office mates, that it was the perfect start to every day getting to ride my motorbike in the beautiful California weather. I was just kidding myself. The truth was; it was a hassle remoting into my computer from home or using my laptop to work on when I had a client emergency in the evening, I didn’t like the routine of waking up, going to work and coming home for dinner, I preferred the flexibility I got from working at home, and much as I loved my office mates, if one person was having a bad day, it brought down the whole office. When the office was noisy I found it hard to concentrate, when it was quiet, it was deathly quiet. I just wanted to be back home, but I’d promised my wife and myself I’d give it a shot.
Chris was still working remotely from the UK, loving his home office and rubbing it in on a daily basis, so I hired Matt in the US to give the office more validity in my mind. I made him commute there every day. He’d ride a train and cycle 11 miles daily, but that didn’t last long, he ended up working remotely after a few months moving between California, Costa Rica and Washington. After 2 years and barely a single client visit I ended the experiment. I packed up my computer, sold off my office wares and set up my office at home again.
On my first day back in my home office I poured myself a cup of tea, I sat down at my trusty desk, turned on my trusty computer, dimmed my lights just how I like them, put on some Doves and breathed a deep sigh of satisfaction.
At that point I realised that if we felt this way about working from home, we can’t be the only people in the world who love it. Our company was starting to grow and after a very brief meeting, Chris and I decided that as we expanded we’d be a distributed team. We’d find other people who wanted to work remotely, people who didn’t want the hassle of a commute, perhaps wanted more family time or a more flexible lifestyle. The technology to support our idea was starting to come to fruition with faster broadband, messaging, project management tools, screen sharing and conferencing. So we became a distributed team.
We now have 13 full time team members plus a group of wonderful freelancers who pop in and out when we’re busy. We’ve learned a lot over the past couple of years as we’ve grown and it’s even lead to the release of our own product — Sneek. It lets you see your team mates all day and start instant video chats with a single click. It’s quite easy to feel lonely or detached when you work remotely, but Sneek really helps bring a sense of human contact to our team.
So when I preach about remote working and people ask me “yeah, but have you ever worked in a cool office”, I know I’m speaking from experience, because I’ve been there, done that, and don’t plan on doing it again any time soon.