How to make remote working work

Server Density has always had a remote working model. My co-founder and I started the company whilst we were at university in the same city (Birmingham) but not the same institution. We didn’t have any money for an office and were still full time students.

Having the constraints of no office and defaulting to remote work is crucial to making the culture work. Everyone has to be bought into that approach, especially the CEO and leadership team. It has to be there from the beginning – you can’t retrofit remote working later.

This means all communication should start asynchronously. We’ve never really used email internally at Server Density – chat has been how we work, first with MSN Messenger (!) then as we hired our first remote team member – HipChat. Now everyone is using Slack.

Being in an office means the default is to speak to someone in person. This is how you build a good in-person culture and get to know people, but it doesn’t work for remote teams. It’s why adding a remote team member into an existing office-based culture usually fails – they’re isolated from the main group.

If you do the reverse – add an office later – then it remains important that chat is the default method of communication. It doesn’t mean that you should never speak to the person sitting next to you. You can build a great, informal culture within the office.  It’s just that you have to put in extra effort to ensure everything important is done via the async communication tools, and/or via video chat.

Being careful with time is a good precedent to set. Meetings are expensive and chat interrupts are distracting. For example, we always start our meetings on time – the calendar time is when the meeting begins, not when people start to turn up. And we encourage the use of Slack’s Do Not Disturb. You can’t avoid meetings though – work to make them efficient.

You can also replicate the spontaneous nature of chatting with people you might not normally do work with, but still see around the office. We recently started a weekly “mystery chat” where everyone in the company is randomly paired with someone else, and they’re given a 30 min slot to have a video chat every week. It’s completely unstructured and you can discuss whatever you like, but has proven to be a popular way to meet and chat to everyone in the company.

Another thing we’ve been doing for years is a weekly “roundup” for everyone in the company. It’s the one compulsory weekly meeting the whole company attends where I give an update on the company progress, goals and numbers, and then everyone has a minute to say something about their week. There’s space for questions after each person has spoken, and it’s an opportunity for everyone to hear what’s been going on throughout the company.

The biggest challenge is building a sense of togetherness. Remote team members can seem isolated, off on their own or appear as independent contractors who happen to be working on the same projects. Having that sense of all working together on a single goal is important in the early days of the company and can be difficult to achieve with a remote team. We do regular in-person meetups for the whole company and I always notice a big difference in how new members of the team behave once they’ve met with everyone else.

Remote teams are a great way to find excellent people who have different goals and approaches to their work compared to everyone living in a small, geographic area. But you can’t ignore real life. Combining the two is essential.