Recently the tech team and I met in Moscow over a weekend. Our tech team does not sit in the office with me, nor are they in Sweden at all. As a global company with a global mind set, it was difficult to see a purpose struggling with the current recruiting situation in our small town or Sweden overall. So, we have built up a team that is very diverse, both culturally and geographically.
I chose Moscow because it was the easiest city for everybody to travel to without extremely long travel times, and I met one of the tech guys there last year so we both knew the area which is basically just less stressful than being in a completely unknown city.
Since the beginning of this company I have tried building everything related to the tech side with a remote-first approach. Partly due to making my own life easier, but also partly because that feels like it is how things will be in the future. Why focus so much on location, when the job that is done is really location independent?
But remote-first has its difficulties, some of which I would like to write about in this blog post that you are currently reading. First problem is that most people don't really know what it means, even when they are working remotely. For me, it means that there are no rules when it comes to the when, how or where. A developer who expects constant supervision and feedbackwill have a hard time, since that doesn’t really work if you assume people to be in different time zones, or travelling, or doing something else. This means that the developer must be empowered with taking small decisions, it means that the team is autonomous in such a way that even if someone is missing, decisions can be taken anyway just as well.
This does not however mean a lack of leadership or full blown anarchy in projects. Nobody thinks micro-management is a good way of managing teams either, but it’s easy to fall into doing it anyway. With a remote-first approach it is nigh impossible to micromanage because you will never get the chance to do it. You will however still be able to steer teams in the desired direction, you will have chances to tell your vision and your ideas.
The second problem is that even though there should in theory be no difference whether you sit in the same office or not, but in practice it does matter. Having a small chat about other things, or water cooler talk as it is often referred as has a big impact on teams. The social aspects of working together become a bit trickier. It can be lonely working remotely. It doesn't feel like you have colleagues, it’s just someone sitting somewhere else, equally lonely. You don't really know if someone in your team has had a rough time and needs to feel someone has his back. You don’t feel close enough with your team to tell them that you had a rough time either, trying to keep things just professional.
The third problem is that it is difficult for the team to understand the longer-term goals of the company/supervisor/CEO/team leader. These are difficult to convey over a skype meeting, where you have allotted 10 minutes for “talking about the future”. And during that time, you throw out all the jargon that you expect people to want to hear, but nobody really cares or listens. To properly understand someone’s long term goals you mustunderstand what motivates them. And to understand what motivates a person you need to get to know this person deeper. If you only communicate through email, quick video chat or daily chat on slack about current issues and problems – you will never get to know the other person well. If you want to really understand the long-term goals of a company, you need to get to know the leadership and/or owners.
Alright, time for the punch line. In my view, there is no replacement for face to face meetings. It solves all of these three problems listed above. It is important when recruiting, and my style of recruiting is very relaxed – never whiteboard coding or curve-ball questions. I just want to get a feeling of the person, what motivates him or her, what does he or she like to do on their spare time. The little things matter more, since a good person will learn new skills and show unexpected talents in areas you didn't even realize you were lacking in skill. And you get a chance to have a casual conversation about company culture, what is expected, what will the upcoming challenges be.
It is equally important after some months have passed, in those early stages of team forming. To get people to bond, relate and relax in each other’s company the best way is to eat dinner together. There is a weird difference between dinner and any other meal of the day, that I cannot explain. Lunch is during “work time” and a lunch with co-workers feels like you’re still on the clock, still working. Breakfast is less but has the same characteristics. But dinner, in theevening, it is personal time. You stop working mentally, and you are with these people that you realize you barely know. And sharing a meal with someone is like teambuilding on steroids, you can suddenly fast forward from being strangers to having personal and intimate conversations about life. Teams should always schedule in dinners if at all possible, at least once a year.
Alright, time for me (CTO), Thomas (CEO) and Alex (Support) to head out to town and find some nice restaurant to eat in. Take care!