Job van der Voort, VP of product at GitLab, explores the benefits and challenges of allowing your company's staff to work remotely, and offers his advice on the best tools to make the transition as smooth as possible
What do GitLab, Formstack, Team Meat and Buffer have in common? They’re all hugely successful companies that work remotely. It’s a choice that’s becoming increasingly common, and has worked for many. We investigate why it’s the best option in today’s global market and look at how teams can best collaborate in this new work environment.
Beyond the Office Buzz
The early days of every new company are frantic. Decisions big and small to be made, finances to secure, and day-to-day work to complete. In the past, a company in the development sector was founded, it grew, it opened one satellite office, then another, then another. Now, with remote working as a viable – and very attractive - option, founders must decide how best to organize their business.
There is undeniably a sense of togetherness in an office, especially during those days when every team member is putting absolutely everything into meeting a hard deadline. Long hours, caffeine-fueled meetings, shared successes – there’s a real energy about being part of a development enterprise, especially in the beginning when everyone is 100 percent focused on making the business a success.
But, by the time an organization expands and is in a position to open another office, the reality is that the employees will not be together anymore. That sense of energy may be gone. There are two options. One: Split the company into different functional groups, where employees in one location focus on one task and those in another deal with a different task. This is certainly a viable option, but that sense of togetherness won’t be the same. There will be no single space and colleagues must learn to collaborate with team members who could be hundreds of miles away. The second option is accepting that there is no single team anymore, letting go of the fact that there is an office, and embracing the many advantages of a remote working policy.
Others have shunned the notion of a traditional physical office space from the outset. Team Meat, the guys behind smash hit Super Meat Boy, met online as kids when they each made games for Newgrounds. Fast forward a few years, they were working together remotely using Skype and IM, and recruiting family members for ad hoc playtesting.
“Let’s be honest, no-one enjoys commuting”
The practicalities of being remote are especially compelling from the perspective of hiring new employees. There are no visa issues, no relocation expenses, and no risk of employees not fitting into the new culture and leaving after a few months. Plus, let’s be honest, no-one enjoys commuting. An employee who is settled, content, and engaged is one who remains in the organization. An employee who is burnt out and unhappy will shortly be moving on or performing poorly.
A host of tools is available that facilitate remote working, designed for anything from the organization with nine employees, to the organization with 999 (and beyond). Want to communicate with other team members via live chat? Collaborate on a presentation for your investors? Manage multiple workers on multiple projects? All possible, and more.
RemoteOnly make the point in their manifesto that remote working requires intense communication: “Remote doesn’t mean working independent of each other.” To this end, there is an array of apps and online services that make communication easier. Skype video calls and IM are the preferred communication tools of many - including Team Meat - while project management apps such as Trello and Asana ensure team members can organize their workload efficiently. Achievements can be documented and shared with colleagues using iDoneThis. The Google suite of productivity apps - Google Docs, Sheets and Slides facilitate collaborative working.
One of the benefits of remote working is hopping onto the computer at a time that works best for you; if you’re a night owl this is great, but there’s no denying that the glare of a screen at 11pm is a pain. F.lux is an app that adjusts the tint of the screen according to the time of day. Those who like to work from coffee shops should check out Workfrom - an app that allows you to find and share the best coffee shops and work-friendly spaces in their city.
Whatever tools are adopted, the key to successful remote working is putting clear expectations and ground rules in place and ensuring that every team member is aware of them.
Remote = Better
Global companies who are remote enjoy the advantages of having access to a pool of talent all over the world. It requires a special type of person who can operate effectively in the fast-paced, exciting, often stressful environment of a development company. Restricting the location of employees to a city, state or even country means that the opportunity to succeed is also restricted.
Customer service is no longer a nine-to-five occupation. Ensuring customers are satisfied is essential, whatever the time. Having people located globally means that issues can be addressed quickly, 24-hours a day. Moreover, an employee based in, for example, Brazil will have a greater understanding of the needs of customers in their geographical vicinity. It’s a no-brainer - organizations who are remote are in a position to engage more authentically with customers and prospects all over the world.
The Problem with Satellite Offices
Up until this point, the thoughts we shared are relevant to gaming teams of all sizes. However, if we take large gaming studios into account, there are some additional scenarios to consider, like how you tend to satellite offices. People often wonder, what do teams do when there is buzz around meeting a deadline or when a team gets that big sale? There are some elements of working in the same space as colleagues that can’t be replicated for the remote employee. There’s an energy and a motivation to office life that can be exciting. It’s necessary to schedule a video call or go to an event to get that human contact.
Remote workers are not the only employees who can feel isolated. Those based in satellite offices often feel like secondary citizens. They miss out on promotions, not because they have failed to achieve, but because their manager is in head office and unaware of their achievements. It can also be the case that those in satellite offices have been hired for a particular kind of work, and promotion is simply not on the agenda, no matter how they excel. Additionally, the awareness that a satellite office has been set up for the duration for a project and could be shut down when it has been concluded makes for poor morale.
Decisions are made at headquarters. This centralization of decision-making can have an adverse effect on employees in satellite locations. They feel as if directives are pronounced from HQs that they have had no part in forming. There is a real danger of a ‘them and us’ mentality developing, which can have negative consequences for the company as a whole. Employees who work remote do not have the sense that they are valued any less than other employees, and are assured that they are enjoying the same benefits as their colleagues around the world.
A Truly Global Mindset
Games sell across the world. They’re often localized in a variety of languages. However, the game development team tends to be concentrated in a single location. Gaming is global and global companies should maintain a global mindset.
The challenge lies in the logistics of being in enough as well as the right locations. Global companies tend to have headquarters and tech hotspots, where they prefer employees to be located. Satellite offices are spun up and down. Expanding this relatively limited preview of the world is possible by embracing remote working. There are challenges, but the benefits to the individual and the organization are immense.