As with many tech startup stories, Stuart started with a small team, working all together in a small office, side by side, doing whatever it took to move the project forward, to make it work. With a bit of time and a lot of effort we pushed it forward and the business started rolling. It was the time to start growing the team so we could really make it happen.
Finding talent is always difficult and even more so for a young startup with only a promise going for it. After running out of local market talent, we started looking for full remote roles on specific profiles that were the hardest to find. It was the only solution. I personally didn’t care at that point but in a couple of months my feelings about it turned out to be really negative. I loved the feeling of working in a little team, sitting with your colleague right next to you collaborating hands-on to solve a problem or create something new. The fact of having a distributed Engineering team, either in different offices or remote, was taking that away from me. There were some conversations around that with our CTO coming from different engineers, we had the feeling that sometimes for some specific problems or tasks, having a distributed team was blocking or slowing us down. We could not find the person who had the expertise in that specific topic and sit with them to work out the problem or discuss a possible solution. We didn’t want to change the team dynamic we had that worked so well, who would?
This team, our former “Backend Team”, started growing and growing. It was normal, they are the ones that were developing the core of the Stuart Platform. We were seeking ever more and better talent, so this tendency of finding talent spread around also grew. They soon became the biggest team within Engineering, one of the biggest teams at Stuart and they were almost 100% remote. What started like an alternative hiring solution became a norm.
Years passed, so fast that almost nobody noticed. We had plenty of work to make Stuart a stable and reliable platform from that initial MVP we built. They were years of not only evolving the code and services but also setting the base for defining processes, protocols and the structure of our teams. Some of them were easy to adopt, they almost went without saying, others were difficult to get used to and cost us many iterations. At the end we could look back and, for better or worse, we had defined our culture and the way we wanted to work together. To paraphrase the opinions I often heard from new joiners during their first weeks: “Not bad, you guys have got it well sorted out”.
We continued to evolve the culture and processes to better adapt to the team we have and the way we want to work. The Engineering team is now a bunch of talented people of different nationalities distributed in more than 30 cities. We share a project, where we collaborate, and we do so in mostly the same time zone, when we collaborate. This is the team and the culture we have built. The dynamics of the group gradually changed from a couple of developers working at the same time on the same code, sharing the same desk and keyboard to a much bigger team collaborating using tools in many asynchronous ways, and yet still in some synchronous ways too. The only way of working we practised in the early days of the project became just one more way of working today.
In this environment, almost all teams, meetings and collaborations have people joining from different offices and/or locations, so nothing changes when the ones that are used to go to the office everyday also take a day to work from home if we need so. I personally had done it several times, just occasionally when I had to stay at home for any personal reason. But most of us who were doing it occasionally, we were not doing it like the ones always working fully remote. We have laptops and the appropriate infrastructure, no problem with that but many of us didn't have a proper office or place to work at home so it was fine for a day or two, no more.
Suddenly, COVID dropped like a slap in the face. We hardly saw it coming. I’m pretty bad following the general world breaking news, I prefer searching for what I want to know so I kind of didn’t hear about it until the very last moment. I remember that last day at the office, some people were talking about the virus, a kind of hard flu they say, it was not the first day I overheard conversations about it. It started to seem pretty contagious so we were thinking that maybe it could be better to WFH and almost everybody took their laptops home that weekend. That weekend, the Spanish government took it seriously and announced what we all know now: We must stay at home. Lockdown happened.
Personally it was a BIG shock to me. I practise some outdoor sports and I liked to spend weekends out of town, all that was gone. Everything I used to do in my spare time was now forbidden. For some companies and teams not used to work in a distributed way it was a big shock too. For us, working remotely during a lockdown was not the same as working full remote under normal circumstances. Some people were not used to doing it, some didn’t have a proper office setup at home, some others had kids around… we were all a bit knocked about by the situation. Even under all these unexpected events, the tech team continued to deliver and the work dynamics didn’t really change that much even if we all missed other things that happened at the office like having some occasional coffee chats, eating or playing video games in the kitchen-area with our office mates.
As lockdown days passed by with no vision on how close was the day everything would come back to normal, if any, I started to think about a way of fooling myself in order to stay positive. I started training at home pretending that was the same as outdoors and that was easy (kind of) but I struggled to come up with something that would delude my mind. I got up one day with the stupid idea of having a list of good things this global pandemic could bring us and stick to them, good luck with that. I kept my mind rolling: Maybe I’m eating healthier, maybe I’m not taking days off so I’ll enjoy them later, maybe I’ll appreciate those little freedoms like going for a walk more after all this, maybe there’ll be a big crisis and with crisis opportunities come… maybe I would finally enjoy this lockdown way of living? No way. But maybe I like this remote way of working. Maybe, as a society, we are commuting less. Maybe commuting is needed for a doctor or a car mechanic but is it needed for an engineer or many other roles? Maybe COVID was a wake up call for remote working. For many of us to realise that there is this other way that could also work, that could make our cities less polluted and stop the problems associated with all the population moving to never-ending growing cities. Maybe we can come back to live in the countryside with the cows. I like cows. Cows are cool.
Since that day, I’ve been changing how I work, not really that much but I keep learning and improving how I work remotely. I keep learning about that skill as I like to learn many others (luckily, I have plenty of remote talent at Stuart to learn from). Working remotely is a skill, and as a skill you can learn how to do it and how to do it better - even if you have a love-hate relationship with working from home. Some people could be better or worse practising it, some can be more or less fast or autonomous learning how to do it. There are several abilities that you need to develop in order to work remotely but we could agree that autonomy and the right level of communication are key. You need certain autonomy in order to avoid being completely lost when you don’t have colleagues seated right next to you, this is why for some junior profiles it might be overwhelming to work remotely. Combined with autonomy, you also need to be able to balance being a team player and having the right level of collaboration with your team despite being remote, so finding the ways to collaborate is also very important. The needs of establishing proper protocols, documentation and being self-organised also get accentuated so everybody in the team knows what to do without the need of physically poking themselves.
There will be people that will be more comfortable working remotely and people that will prefer to stay at the office. To some extent, if you work for a company that has distributed offices, if you collaborate with colleagues that are working from other places or if you need to work with clients without visiting them, you are already using the same skills that remote workers use full time. In all of these situations, team dynamics evolve with the use of tools and processes to make work possible in this way so working from the office or from your office becomes a personal choice. Mine just started as a curiosity, turned to be a need and might become a way of getting the right work-life balance doing the same job that I love to do.
Are you skilled? What is your personal choice? When did you see your last cow?
Remote working has been a fact since some years ago at Stuart Engineering and is a hot topic nowadays so we plan to write more about it. Feel free to raise your comments or concerns so we can tackle them in the following posts.
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