5 things we learned at EmailOctopus by going remote

Categories Startups

Last month, my wife and I moved from London to Vancouver. It was a great opportunity for us: to see new places, meet new people and take a break from our hectic London commutes.

But for me, it meant saying a reluctant goodbye to the EmailOctopus office and our small but mighty team in the UK. With the team now split across London and Manchester in the UK, and Vancouver in Canada, we’d be going months without seeing each other.

I’m a huge advocate for the possibilities of remote working, but I knew the shift – plus an eight-hour time difference – would bring as many challenges as benefits.

One month in, here’s what we’ve learned:

1. Communication is everything

We’re a small team with a lot of projects on the go, so keeping talking is the key to maintaining momentum. In the past, we’ve relied on chatting throughout the day but now, with just two working hours of overlap each day, we need to make every minute count.

The most important part of my day is 8am to 10am, when I’m on a call with Ben and Tom. They debrief at the end of their day, raise any issues and we work through challenges together. Investing those two hours always pays off.

We thought communication across timezones would be our biggest challenge, but we’ve found ourselves becoming much more effective in how we talk. Fewer hours together means that when we are speaking, we’re incredibly productive and we make quicker and better decisions.

2. This wouldn’t have worked a few years ago

We’re using so many new tools to keep things running that I don’t think we’d have been able to do this when I set up EmailOctopus in 2014.

Slack keeps us talking throughout the day and the updates feature is useful for showing where we are at any given time. Geekbot manages our daily standups on Slack and lets me know if there are any blockers. And Spacetime – a handy Slack plugin – makes it easy to see the time in our different locations. (It shows the weather, too: sadly for Ben, it seems to always be raining in Manchester.)

We also rely much more on tried and tested tools like GitHub project boards and Trello to manage work between us and keep sight of what the team’s doing.

3. It’s making us do things better

Because we’re no longer in the same timezone – let alone the same room – we can’t ask questions all the time. So we’ve now taken responsibility for documenting our work and keeping it organised in a team wiki, using Slite. We’ve also stopped saving important docs on our personal drives, making sure they’re easy to find in Google Drive.

We’ve been lazy about all of this in the past, so it’s been great to have the extra motivation to get organised. And this means we’re now much better set up to grow and train new hires.

4. Remote working brings surprising benefits

Working remotely means we can all be more flexible and manage our time like adults. Ben sometimes works from Wales to spend time with family, I shift my hours to travel in Canada, and Tom’s spent the last month flying to and from Russia for the World Cup.

Working independently and choosing our own hours means that we have the flexibility to work around our personal lives. It also means that our next hire could join us from anywhere in the world, which opens up a huge amount of talent and puts us in a great position to build a stronger team.

5. We’ve not got it perfect yet

We’re constantly learning what works and doesn’t work for us as a team. And getting it right is a matter of practice as much as it is about finding the right processes. For example, I still spend too much time writing and rewriting messages to the team, conscious that written feedback can feel totally different to hearing something face-to-face.

We’re also finding that some pieces of work are just too hard to manage remotely, like our current project to redesign our user dashboard. I’d taken for granted how easy it is to point at things and ramble through feedback verbally – it’s much harder over email. So we’re still putting off some projects until I can fly back to the UK.

Ultimately, I’ve realised that change can be easier than expected.

One of the things I’ve loved about running my own company is sleeping in and starting late (I’m not a morning person). Moving to Vancouver has meant being up at 7am so I’ve got time to talk to the team in the UK, which I thought would be painful. But you know what? It’s been fine.

At the end of the day, making this work is a responsibility we all share. And as long as we’re all invested in taking time to communicate and keep up momentum, the benefits of working remotely are bigger than the challenges.

If you’re thinking about taking the plunge: do it. And don’t worry if it takes a while to find your feet as a remote team – it’s all a matter of keeping talking and finding out what works for you.

Feel free to get in touch for advice, or comment below with tips on what works well for your team.

(We’re also hiring for talented developers. If you’d like to work on some exciting projects, from wherever you want in the world, then please also get in touch)

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