Remote Work At X-Team
* As of January 2016
X-Team Remote Company Q&A
Ryan Chartrand, CEO - Interview with Remote.co
X-Team provides developers you can trust, whenever you need them. We help companies scale their development teams by joining their team with extraordinary developers trusted by the world’s leading brands.
Almost entirely remote, but we did start with an HQ in Melbourne. The office environment was fun and collaborative, but ultimately our remote team was far more productive than us there. It organically made sense to go entirely remote soon after.
By focusing entirely on remote developers, we’re able to bring companies the best developers to help solve their challenges, rather than them relying on what’s left in their own location. Without remote being an option, our partners would be settling for less quality with their development.
Productivity, happiness from true work/life balance, and the power of documentation.
We’re infinitely more productive when we don’t arrange meetings for the sake of meetings, and every conversation we have is focused on moving things forward. You don’t realize how little work happens in an office environment compared to when that same staff then goes home at night and has privacy to get actual work done. There are challenges that come with staying productive when working remotely, but they’re much easier to solve than the infinite distractions that come with an office. It’s incredibly powerful when people have very limited distractions and only one goal: moving things forward.
The satisfaction level of our developers is incredible — more than 96% on our bi-weekly surveys. A lot of this is tied to how we constantly help them grow, but a big part of it is also simply because of the freedom that comes with remote working. Many of our developers travel the world while working (and still stay more productive than any other developers I’ve known!), and many also have children they get to spend more time with thanks to working remotely. Once you get a taste of freedom and flexibility, you’d be amazed at how grateful and more willing people are to work for you.
Finally, the power of documentation is one that you can only learn when you work 100% remotely as a company. We’ve limited our video meetings as much as possible so that all of our most important conversations and knowledge can be captured in Slack and stored for future use. When everything that is said in a company is documented, no one ever falls behind and knowledge can always quickly be accessed at any time.
Also, when you need to onboard new employees, most office-only companies don’t have onboarding documented — in a remote company, it has to be, there’s no other way to onboard people. This makes it faster and easier to onboard new staff, as it’s guaranteed to be a documented process that gets updated and can be referenced at any time.
We wanted to make it incredibly easy to get access to the world’s most extraordinary, proactive and selfless developers, and the only way to do that is to broaden where you hire from.
There are indeed, and we even wrote a blog post about our three favorite traits to look for.
Put briefly, we look for people who are…
- Confident communicators: Everyone sleeps better at night and moves forward with projects faster and more confidently when you hire people (yes, even developers) who can communicate with passion and confidence.
- Proactive and take charge: Developers who get bored…get bored on their own. Proactive developers can’t sit still, they can’t go without a task and they will create tasks if none exist. A proactive developer who takes charge is someone who is never “blocked.” They continue pushing forward to get answers to become ‘unblocked’ OR they find tasks that they can do in the meantime until they are unblocked.
- Selfless: If you want a team of developers who will always grow, dedicate themselves to quality, commit themselves to their teammates and moving forward together, then you need people with selfless values.
This is an important one, as you need to make your culture as tangible as possible online for them to see before considering joining. Our site is filled with content that shows our values in action, from our blog to our community page to videos to a culture book and more.
We consider this one of our differentiators to our competitors, as we prefer to do this on our own rather than use a third-party service like HackerRank or Codility. While those services are able to identify great developers, they don’t test for the experience that we’re looking for.
We want to identify talent that has survived in the trenches of some of the most challenging, unexpected situations that often come with projects in our industry. And what someone does in those situations can’t be judged by a 1-100 score or a right or wrong (as most services often grade them), so we like to see what sort of creative solutions they come up with before casting any judgment. As it stands today, only our own unique vetting process has been able to discover this quality of talent.
We don’t set specific norms for the sake of creating true flexibility. Once you start putting in rules like this, or even once you start creating spontaneous meetings, you remove that true sense of flexibility from the equation. We don’t require our team to have Slack on their phones either if they so desire.
That said, if someone starts falling off with their communication and it’s noticeable, it becomes a concern and is well noted. Trust is only built when you show your team that you’re helping to move things forward every day. Once that starts to go silent, the trust falls apart and the team might leave you behind.
There are many different ways that our team members ultimately meet some of each other in person:
- At conferences that we send them to
- At X-Team region-specific events (a few held last year in Mexico, Ireland and Poland)
- Meeting with their mentors who live in the same region
- Our clients will fly them out and they’ll work together in person
- Organized trips for traveling or fitness that they put together themselves
- “Hey I think I just saw you walking in the street…are you in San Diego right now?” 🙂
In 2016, we’ll also be kicking off a series of hacker houses around the world in exotic locations where X-Teamers can come and work and live together for a month.
We’re lucky to be in the development industry where there is a plethora of tools one can use for tracking, such as project management tools like JIRA where most development gets tracked in many ways.
Remote teams live and die by each person’s ability to keep things moving forward. It’s the only way to battle the timezone, communication and trust challenges that come with this setup. So although project management tools can be helpful in tracking productivity, you’ll want to be far more aware of each team member’s progress on a daily basis rather than waiting to find out in 2 weeks that deliverables are missing.
It goes back again to journaling and finding ways to have a deliverable every day, regardless of whether it’s something ‘tangible’ or a list of updates on progress made with some evidence to back it up. The more trust each person contributes by showing progress of moving things forward, the stronger the team will be and won’t have to worry so much about constantly tracking productivity.
It’s a bit of a tie for me — the two things I struggle with most are satisfying each person’s needs as a remote worker, and secondly, maintaining the trust you have in people.
Each person has different needs, and when they work remotely, it can be really challenging to satisfy everyone. Some people love working remotely because they prefer less human interaction. Others though can really miss the human interaction and get emotionally affected when you pull it away. Making sure you have opportunities for human interaction beyond text is important, but you have to balance it with those who want less of it by not requiring everyone to participate in it if needed.
Secondly, trust is always a challenge. As I’ve written before, journaling is the most effective way to avoid trust issues among your team, but even with journaling, you’ll have moments of concern that not enough work is getting done.
Sometimes these moments are well warranted, but often times they are unnecessary, especially if there are decently consistent journal updates happening. I’ve had to let people go who take advantage of remote working and deliver very little, but it’s important you confirm that your concerns are real and you’re not just having a moment of “Uh oh, I can’t see anyone working…are they actually working today?” Those moments will happen, and take note only when you feel that way consistently (as in two weeks in a row) about specific team members rather than assuming your entire team is unproductive.
We’ve evolved a lot on this one. It started as a quarterly Google Hangout where everyone got together to watch a presentation on progress made and where we’re headed together from the global level. Then as the team grew, we switched to a pre-recorded video since it was nearly impossible to get everyone to the Hangout.
And for 2016, we’re looking to both increase the frequency of these (to monthly) and use Hangouts on Air so that people who can make the live meeting can give feedback and talk through anything, and everyone else can still enjoy the recorded version on their own time. We’ll then take any further discussions from anyone to a room on Slack.
Our earlier years had one office, in addition to a remote team. But eventually the office became irrelevant and, if anything, a way to make us less productive. So moving to 100% remote was organic, but ultimately the best decision for achieving our goals of maximum productivity and being able to help change lives across the world.
This is a common critique I’ve heard — that a remote company can’t possibly have the same deep level of culture that a physical company has. What I find shocking though about X-Team is that the culture we have is exponentially more powerful and healthy than what I’ve found at any physical company I’ve worked for.
Culture as it turns out has very little to do with physical presence. You can’t even count the number of communities that have formed online (entirely remotely) with incredibly strong culture. Building a business remotely with a strong culture is ultimately not much different.
We’ve been able to rally our team around ideas like ‘unleash your potential’, and have found ways via chat rooms to constantly inspire people to want to learn and grow by showing them ways that each person in the company is doing just that. We also have chat rooms for fitness where the team challenges each other to grow with their health.
We also have a culture of high-fives, which means we’re always looking for ways to give each other positive feedback. All throughout the day, you’ll see people giving and receiving a “/five” (high-five) to someone on Slack for achieving something or helping them out or perhaps they just spoke at a conference. It’s such an awesome environment to be in when there’s so much positivity and warm, welcoming attitudes like this.
From the first day they meet us, they know we’re a company that wants to build a flatter world where every extraordinary developer can have access to great opportunities. That’s a mission that people in any part of the world can connect with, and they take it seriously because of how it changes others. We’re all bonded through these cultural foundations, and it’s incredibly powerful and creates great retention.
If I had to pick one piece of advice, it’s to be ready for trust issues and to know that it’s OK that you have them. The key then is to face them head-on.
Immediately, you’ll be up at night constantly worried that your staff isn’t getting enough work done. You’ll immediately not trust that your company is moving forward once you can’t physically see people working for 8 hours a day. This has to be addressed ASAP, and there are many ways to do so now.
We recommend something like journaling, which is a way for your staff to post an update somewhere (perhaps email or Slack) each day that puts in a few bullet points what they moved forward for that day. Your staff has to be held accountable to one deliverable every day, even if that deliverable is merely a progress update that’s detailed enough to show the progress made. As long as you have this sort of journaling in place and you hold people accountable to doing it, you’ll see trust being built constantly throughout your company.
I talk more about this concept and more advice in this post that you’ll find helpful.
Probably the biggest challenge was hiring extraordinary people…but who had no remote experience yet. This requires you to invest a lot of time, mentoring and training in how to properly work remotely.
For example, someone might come in with no remote experience and try to schedule 7 meetings/week with people in 4 different timezones. Within a week, we have to quickly explain to them that not only is trying to schedule meetings with people in more than 2 timezones a no-no to our flexibility preferences, but that meetings in general are a bad idea unless absolutely necessary.
It’s up to you to decide whether you want to hire people without remote experience, but for us, the time investment of training them is worthwhile compared to hiring people who aren’t extraordinary but do have remote experience. Just remember to have patience and allow people without experience the opportunity to fail and pick themselves back up a few times.
It’s interesting to look back on this, because everything we stood for and the values that drove how we operate still haven’t changed. The main things that have changed are just the tools and the ‘wallpaper’ so to speak.
- From our own chat tools, to Skype, to Slack.
- From Basecamp to Trello to JIRA.
- From one travel policy to another.
But the way we operated and the values that drove those decisions haven’t changed. The tools and policies have evolved with the growth of the company, but when we look back, it still feels the same way it did when it was only 10 people.
It becomes more challenging to engage more people the same way you did at a company of only 10, but that’s part of the fun in constantly discovering uncharted territories.
I’m currently living, working and traveling as a digital nomad with my wife. I’ve never been more productive, creative and satisfied in everything I do thanks to this lifestyle.
The key is working in 3-hour shifts throughout the day, which is incredibly liberating compared to the traditional, grinding 8-hours-straight day. It allows you to eat better, stay fit, see and do new things during the day, and more. It’s also a benefit for work as it allows you to meet a lot more people who can inspire your business (or even become a customer) than you would cooped up in an office.