20191009 - LASCOT2019 - The space in between - a tale of remote teams and distributed working, Nick Maidment @tsNickMaidment

by Thierry de Pauw on


The space in between - a tale of remote teams and distributed working, Nick Maidment @tsNickMaidment

about: a small startup in Cambridge

going from co-located to distributed

it is not a finished story: they are now fully distributed

How remote is remote?

there is a spectrum: fully co-located -> 1:many -> many:many -> fully distributed 1:1:1

1:many: some are not co-located
many:many: small groups are distributed
- if you don't have shared goals => the different teams go in different directions

Flow: if I have to break flow, I need to think on how I can communicate better with the team

Back to the startup

fashion-tech startup

different kind of engineering teams all co-located in Cambridge
the other teams: marketing, sales were located in London

most of the engineering teams had product managers, and if you were lucky, they had a designer as well

every team was free to use the process they wanted: Scrum, Kanban, ...

How things were

I was engineering manager for one team:
- 2 remote engineers: disconnected with the company
- product manager in London: very engaged, but did not enjoy we were split on different geographical locations => no timely response on slack
- rest of the team in Cambridge

we were using something that looked like Scrum

all of our meetings were run on Skype

Remote retrospectives: tried lots of different tooling, nothing that really fit our needs => used a shared spreadsheet

The experiment - a remote sprint

The product manager was so frustrated.
I tried to ask him to empathise with the engineers. He recognised he didn't have done that.
=> I suggested an experiment: whole team 100% remote

we were lucky enough all engineers were in the same time-zone

hypothesis for the experiment:
- we guessed we would miss our serendipity conversations
- we guessed that it would impact the organisation

we communicated heavily towards the organisation we were going to work 100% remotely to make the org aware of it.

working agreements to make the transition as smooth as possible:
- slack as primary way of communication
- if slack does not work, we use skype
- we would inform when we left our keyboard
- when we were on a call, make sure to have video and headsets on
- basically we tried to communicate on everything we do
- if there was a problem engineers should turn to the eng manager or the product owner
- check we could access all internal resources through VPN

we did some trials before

The experiment - how it went

the biggest problem was really meetings between the team and the rest of the organisation that was co-located
=> mics losing bits of conversations in the meeting

more often than not we tended to feel like second class citizens in meetings. @tsNickMaidment

there were occasions where video cameras were not turned on: a huge part of conversations is about body language! @tsNickMaidment

The experiments - learnings

we did a retrospective at the end of the week:
- we acknowledged the company was still running
- the pains our remote engineers went through every day: mics not on during meetings, meeting starting late and remote people not being informed

We went through some changes:
- we lost some contractors

15 engineers: 25-35% of them were working 100% remotely

Note on hiring remote people

every company has different hiring practices

when screening CVs look if they mention remote work

At your first remote screening interview with a candidate observe if the mic or video are turned on. If not it's a red flag. @tsNickMaidment

ask questions about where they usually work

if they went through the first screening, invite them in the office to observe how they communicate with others

if you think to hire your first remote people, think of contractors first, so you can limit the period if it does not work out

Changes - Contractors

our first digital nomad .. by accident

started in Canada, came to Portugal, went to India, came back to our offices, went back to Canada, then Mexico => every 2 weeks he came back to our offices

timezones: if he was in a 4-hour window, reaction time was ok compared to being in Sanfrancisco

=> communication is key!


we found out we needed to put more work into prioritisation and writing that down
- how do we know it is a success
- what are the artifacts
- ...

once a week we did that prioritisation

A couple of social things

installed a free slackbot: donnut => pairs team members randomly to do social things together

remote dev bash: end of the day, you could join a conversation with the beverage of your choice and the only rule was: you may not talk about work

Office move

more people started to work remotely

instantly people got more reactive on instant messaging

we still had conversations inside the Cambridge office, but as soon it involved a remote person, everybody jumped immediately into a meeting.

we freed up all the meeting rooms in the office and ran meetings online

Tools for distributed working

there are so many tools out there for remote work (see Lisette Sutherland's list)

I will not suggest any tools as it depends on your context

The benefits

for employees:
no commute (an hour or two per day)
reduces your carbon footprint

for the business:
you do get access to a larger pool for recruiting
at the start, you won't be able to recruit from around the world

your office overhead will not go down immediately over night


get a headset

turn your video camera on

make sure your work environment is right (don't work from your coach => your back will hurt)

make sure you have social activities