Distributed teams can have big benefits for both employers and employees, but there are many challenges. Being successful requires changes to work practices, communication, and style — and not just from the remote people. Everyone will experience changes. To better support your team, it helps to be prepared. In this talk, we will look at the challenges and rewards of working in a distributed team setting based on several years of experience growing large distributed engineering teams.
[00:00:00] Hello. Good afternoon. So as VP of engineering at FreeAgent, a big part of my job is to develop and support the running of the day-to-day of the engineering team at FreeAgent. And we do this so that we can execute product and technical strategy in our work. I do so in the context of a distributed team building popular SaaS product that over 50,000 businesses rely on. So if you're not familiar with FreeAgent, we build accountancy software for freelancers and small businesses. And what we want to do is remove the stress of managing your business finances, and our customers agree. They think that we're solving that problem and they absolutely love the product.
[00:00:47] So we currently have a Net Promoter Score of 72. I don't know if you are familiar with the measure, but it's pretty impressive. And it has been consistently in the 70s for over two years. So there's two things at FreeAgent that we care about the most. One is our customers. And it shows. And the other one is our team, the people that make FreeAgent possible. So we are at about 140 people company-wide, and of those, about 50 are in the engineering team. So one of the three guiding principles for the business is that we believe that having a high performing, diverse and happy team will make us more successful. And as we work towards growing and developing the engineering organization, successfully supporting this healthy and distributed culture is very much part of our strategy.
[00:01:40] So our offices are literally five minutes away from here, though I don't know which way we're pointing. And a large part of the team works from our beautiful offices overlooking the castle, but not everyone. So home is office to about a third of our engineering team, and they do so from all over the UK. And those in the office, they also have the flexibility every so often to work from home if they need to.
[00:02:09] So a little bit of history: FreeAgent celebrated its 10th anniversary a few months ago, almost coinciding with the company going public in the London stock market last November. We've doubled the size of the engineering team since I joined, about a year and a half ago, and of those team members, over 40 percent — almost half of the people hired in last year and a half — work full time from home. That has not happened by chance for neither FreeAgent or myself as an engineering leader. These here are our founders — Roan, Ed and Olly. And this is them about 10 years ago. And the reason that I'm showing these pictures, is because working from home for a few years from London, Edinburgh, and the borders, was how FreeAgent was able to happen. That's where the founders started to get together and work on the product. A couple of years later they decided to move to Edinburgh and open offices and start hiring staff. But at the time it was a little bit difficult to get engineers, so in some cases they continued hiring people for the engineering team working from home. So I said that it wasn't by chance for myself either, and that is because for the past 17 years I've experienced all sorts of distributed teams set ups, and I've learned a lot about the benefits and advantages of working in that way.
[00:03:52] Technical skill is evidently very crucial in any engineering organisation. But what I've learned is that without healthy teams who collaborate and communicate well, the most skillful engineers will fail. So I moved from Barcelona to Edinburgh in the year 2000, and after a year doing a master's degree here I got my first job as a software developer at Scottish Equitable, Aegon UK. Now I don't know if you are familiar with it. I was working in the Edinburgh offices but I had to collaborate a lot with outsourced contractors in India. After a few years, I decided to move to a smaller software company with a co-located team, building mobile games and the platform that distributed them. And this was way before the iPhone was a thing so it was all in text. But a couple of years after I joined, we were bought over by a big global games company that had offices in New York and in Israel. So we had to completely change the way we used to work.
[00:04:56] In 2008, I decided to join the Adobe developer technologies engineering team in Edinburgh. I was part of a global team building Creative Suite extensibility and had to work every day with Creative Suite product teams from all over the world, from San Jose, to Seattle, Hamburg, Beijing or Noida. Finally, almost seven years ago I decided to join LivingSocial's engineering team. And at LivingSocial, I was not only responsible for making sure that I could collaborate successfully in a globally distributed environment, but as an engineering leader I was also responsible for shaping our distributed engineering culture. So I joined the company when there were about 30 engineers, and we grew to about 180 engineers at one point. About 80 of those engineers were in my organization. My team was based all over the world, so some of them were in our head office in Washington DC, or the engineering offices in Boulder and Portland. But a large number of engineers were working full time from home all over the US, Scotland, Australia, India, Brazil. And I was leading our Product Platform team from my house in Fife. And I was only travelling about once a quarter to the head office of one of the engineering offices. It was really busy. Maybe I would travel every couple of months. So ultimately FreeAgent's business, outlook, and their support and appetite for the distributed workforce, were some of the key reasons that I joined the company in January 2016.
[00:06:36] But when I explain our set up, still today I hear that it's impossible to make human connections and keep those relationships when you are not working with somebody next to each other, and therefore distributed teams are never going to be as effective as collocated ones. We've heard that in a few talks yesterday. Well, as you might gather from all of this, I don't necessarily buy that. It's not just my work experience that has shown me otherwise over the years, I've also learned that human connections and relationships happen when you are really committed and invested in that connection. And when you feel safe and you are willing to make yourself vulnerable with other people, location has very little to do with that. And you could argue that today with technology it's a lot easier to do. But I learned that lesson when I was only 14 years old and I started to correspond with my first pen pal through school. She was a girl my age from Denmark. We used pen and paper back then and a language — English — that was foreign to both of us. Yet, we were able over the years to become incredibly good friends. So, choosing to build or join a distributed team ultimately requires commitment. So half hearted efforts, will result always — like in anything you do — as a worse experience.
[00:08:06] So, company leadership and every engineer — whether they are the ones in the office or the ones working from home or in satellite office — they all have to fully support that effort to make it successful. And there's a few practices that I've learned over the years and that I think really work well to demonstrate company — or individual contributor — commitment to make that happen. So let's start with the first one. So for me, the most important one is having critical mass of remoting members. If you just have one or two remote people in your team that will definitely build friction and resentment that comes from having those special snowflakes. So some companies might decide to let one person at work from home, maybe they've got a maternity leave, and then when they come back they want to be empathetic and flexible and create that opportunity for them. Or maybe you have a very very valuable engineer that, for whatever personal reasons, they want to move to another part of the country. And you really don't want to lose them so you decide to keep them and let them work from home. You sometimes will give them a more overseeing role, like an architect or something, because you already know that is probably not going to work well to have them working with the rest of the team. So if you're in a company doing that, or you're an individual contributor in that position, I give you six months. In six months you'll be looking for another job. At least that's been my experience. And I've interviewed a lot of people in that exact position. So if you don't have critical mass of remote people, they won't have sufficient voice in the culture-building process. So as long as remote folks feel like second class citizens the balance is way off and you have a lot of work to do.
[00:10:05] Equally important to critical mass is to remove any perceived glass ceiling for remote workers, or at least make it as high as possible like at exec level, and even then I don't think it's ultimately necessary. If employees feel that their location is a barrier for their career progression, they will move on and you will likely lose the most talented engineers, those ones that are seeking new opportunities and ambitions. So because of this I believe that is extremely important that you have managers or technical leads working remotely or in satellite offices, if that's what you have, but also so that management are really understanding the issues and complexities of working from home firsthand and can be more motivated to fix them. So while I was LivingSocial I was able to progress over the years from a technical lead role to a senior director of engineering working from home full time from another continent. And that was what everybody saw of me every single day [photo on screen]. And I wasn't the only one. This is what a meeting with part of the engineering leadership team looked like. I was in Scotland, Ryan, our SVP of engineering was in DC but worked from home every couple of days, Steve here was our director of data platform and he worked from home from Kentucky, and Glen at the bottom was our director of technology platform and he worked full time from home in Dallas. And this is me today having a one-on-one with Anup, our mobile team lead.
[00:11:49] I believe culture grows through shared experiences, and that's why it's important that office space people have the opportunity to also work sometimes from home, so they can really empathize with how everybody else is working. So I try at least every Wednesday to work from home so I can see what that experience looks like. Eventually what you want to achieve is that the whole team needs to work in the same style, whether they are local or remote.
[00:12:18] So aside from those fundamental things, you shouldn't aim to treat everybody equally but you should treat everybody fairly. So each group will have perks and challenges that the other group doesn't have. And that is perfectly fine. As a manager, that means that you need to be aware of practices and policies that unfairly favor one group of employees over the other one and try to balance.
[00:12:46] So a very simple example. During our health and well-being month at FreeAgent we set up a number of initiatives to do with the people in the office. But we also set up seminars aimed specifically at the challenges of working from home. When you do things like that you are telling your employees that you care about them as much as anybody else. And another way to show that you care is by creating opportunities to get a team together face-to-face. But you should always fight the temptation to use that time to maximize productivity. So the best use I believe for face time for a distributed team is to really get to know each other, so that then when you go home and you continue working together it's a lot easier and you have improved that empathy and collaboration. So at FreeAgent we get together four times a year. One for our summer barbecue, that was a couple of weeks ago and it always raines, and the other one is our Christmas party, and then we organize two two-days [inaudible] days a year, where all the company gets together to work on the projects that they want. And we do those ones in February and September. So pretty much every quarter we get the whole company together.
[00:14:06] As an employee, you can also show your commitment. You can do so by taking advantage of all those offering opportunities to build connections, but also by making sure that you are set up with a suitable environment to do your work from home, and you really can concentrate and work away from any distractions. So this is a quite impressive setup from one of our engineers, Matt.
[00:14:38] Now that both parties, employees and employers, are committed, how do we get the work done? From a pragmatic point of view, you do it by communicating intentionally, full stop. So on a distributed team, communication won't just happen. So people are great at communicating face-to-face, so great that it happens automatically in ways that we don't even notice sometimes. But that is not always a good thing, especially in a growing business. So communication is ultimately how we build trust within a team, and trust is the foundation to any healthy organization. So when you trust your team, you feel accepted and you can be vulnerable and ultimately be more predictive, more resilient and happier at work.
[00:15:34] So whether we like to admit it or not, most of us would agree with Ken Beck here. He says that the key to his happiness as a programmer is moments of human connection. And the way you feel that connection is through daily interactions. So from my experience, video is your best friend here, so you should be using it all the time for regular one-on-ones — whether they are with your manager, colleague, or somebody in the business that you need to learn more about — team meetings, planning meetings, stand standups, retrospectives et cetera. Our whole office at FreeAgent is set out with televisions and cameras everywhere. And you also do that not just through the hardware but also through a well-defined set of tools that you use to collaborate and monitor the work. So don't underestimate the value of well thought out written communication as well, so it's not just videos. It's important that you keep things in writing and you communicate clearly.
[00:16:39] So as an employer you should be investing in the best hardware and tools that you can afford and make them available to everybody. Not just to engineering for example. Everybody in the company should be sharing the same tools so that there is no barrier to communication. And it's notenough to have the best tools, they need to be used properly. Information needs to be accurate and readily available and people need to be very clear on how those tools should be used so that everybody uses them consistently. And as an engineer on the other side, it is your responsibility to be an expert on using those tools, and helping if you are seeing people in your team struggling using them. So for example, you have a call with somebody in sales and maybe they are not familiar with how to use this screen or one of the other tools, you help them and get past that so that you can collaborate successfully.
[00:17:35] So once you've figured out the tools, based on my experience, these are the traits and behaviors that successful remote workers share and that help build that trust every day. So the first one is simple: being present and visible. Out of sight shouldn't be out of mind. And what that means is that people know that you're out, around, doing stuff.
[00:17:58] The next one is to be an honest and open. So show your integrity, say what you think in a constructive way and also show your hand when you make a mistake. Being responsive and accessible is extremely important. And that doesn't mean that you have to respond to Slack messages every second, but people should have a good idea when to expect to hear from you and know when you might review a pull request or other information that is expected.
[00:18:26] But ultimately, this all boils down to one thing: delivery. Doing what you say you're going to do and being accountable for your work. And you need to do all those things consistently over and over, all the time. And the way you prove that you are delivering consistently is by showing your work. Simple. So the way you show your work can be creating pull requests early and inviting others to provide feedback and follow your work; pair with others and ship to production to show visible progress that you are getting things done; participate in team discussions — so don't just get contained to the team that you're working with, collaborate in engineering-wide efforts; and don't hesitate to present what you've learned or the issues that you've come across with the wider team.
[00:19:22] So at FreeAgent, for example, all engineering teams meet on a Thursday to share things that they've learned. We raise issues that impact all of engineering, we review our KPIs, we talk through our incidents and we talk about the resolutions as a group. And we also meet company-wide at the end of the day every other Friday to demo the progress that we make during the period. In that case it's across the whole business, it's not just for product and engineering. Sales, marketing, support, everybody will talk as well about what they've been doing.
[00:19:55] This morning, Anna and Mike — I don't know if you saw those talks — were talking about this. When collaborating with others I can't highlight enough how important it is to pay attention to the way we share feedback and opinions with others. Most of the issues that I've seen in distributed teams all comes down to poor choice in ways to shed a point or to communicate with others. It's really important to focus on respectful, collaborative and inclusive language at all times. My rule of thumb is that you always, always need to try to assume the best intentions and remove judgment from any interaction.
[00:20:37] But one of the good things about all of this and working in this kind of environment is that managers have to, they absolutely have to, learn to evaluate productivity by actual results rather than by the perception of busyness of people. And that is good news. If you are a manager you need to set very clear expectations about how work is measured and evaluated and you need to review it regularly. And when it comes to setting those expectations it's very important that leadership, managers, do their homework, otherwise you're going to end up having a lot of problems in a distributed environment. And that means deciding what roles need to be in the office for example. So at FreeAgent we don't have junior engineers working from home, especially if they are very early in their careers. But if we have junior engineers in the office and there's no senior engineers in the office, what's the point? There are people that are hired to work in the office and we expect to come there, and we'll be flexible but we can't leave certain people not being supported. So you need to be very explicit about what the expectations are there.
[00:21:49] You also need to know who you can actually hire based on that location. So not having a good understanding of differing countries and states can be a problem. If you are in the US, intellectual property employment laws or tax laws can really get you into trouble, especially if you have an exit, you want more investment, IPO, et cetera... those are things that can kind of be a problem if you haven't done your homework. And the same goes for your budget. You truly need to understand the goals of a distributed team, including salary models — like how much are you going to pay people if they are in different locations? Are you very clear about that? What happens if they move from one location to another? Extra travel costs is very important as well, especially if you're team is really growing. You need to know how much it's going to cost to buy all those tools for a much larger organization. So there should never be any surprises in that respect. And companies need to start setting those clear expectations in that recruiting process so that people know exactly what they're signing up for. And if you are an engineer looking to work for a company that has a distributed work culture, you need to use that interview process as well to really know how they're going to support you and what you're getting yourself into.
[00:23:06] So I'm sure after all of this there's no hiding that I'm a big fan of distributed teams. So, what will you get out of this? Why would you go to all this trouble? LivingSocial was able to build an extremely talented team that went from 12 engineers to about 100 in less than a year. And in large part that was because we cast a wide geographic net. A distributed team strategy today can be a big strategic competitive advantage for your engineering organization, and that's especially true if your company is located like ours here in Edinburgh, outside a tech centre. But it can also be a big win if you are in one of the tech centres like San Francisco, London, et cetera. Those cities are usually extremely expensive and there's a lot of competition for good employees. So a distributed team strategy can reduce cost and increase retention of employees. And as I said when discussing communication strategies, even though that seems like an awful lot of work, every team — absolutely every team — would benefit from thinking hard and being more deliberate about communication, even if you are just collocated. So the work that distributed teams put into this can produce improvements throughout the organization. And these best practices come extremely handy. For example, when you are dealing with an outage the way the team are going to have to work out of hours is no different from how they do their work every single day. And that would make things way easier and less is stressful to handle.
[00:25:03] And I left for last what I consider as potentially the biggest win. We were talking in the panel earlier on air about diversity. I believe that a distributed team strategy can help you build a more diverse and engaged team. But almost seven years ago, this happened to me, and at the time I was commuting everyday to an office. After a few months of maternity leave I went back to work and I really, really struggled with the fact that I wasn't with my little baby at all, all day. So my husband and I considered different options. One of them was going part time. It was then that I had the opportunity to join the LivingSocial engineering team working full time from home and they took it well. I am 100 percent sure that my career would be in a very different place — no doubt about that — had I not had that opportunity. And this is applicable not just to mothers. It's applicable to anybody that needs that extra flexibility because they are either their family's main carers, or because they have a disability that prevents them from commuting easily to an office, or they have a disability that makes it difficult for them to work in an office environment. And I know this because I've seen it and continue seeing it everyday with my teams. And I have a few examples for you.
[00:26:34] So Angela joined our team only a month ago. She is a very experienced engineer, but decided to join us working from home for reasons similar to mine. She was finding it extremely difficult to balance her work and three-hour commute everyday to the office with raising her two young children.
[00:26:55] Thomas is our head of infrastructure and has been with the company for over six years working from Cambridge. And Thomas' wife is a midwife and works twelve hour shifts two to three days a week, so he needs to work from home so he can pick up the kids, drop them off or be there when they come back from school when she's working. If they didn't have that flexible arrangement, his wife would have not been able to do the job that she loves.
[00:27:23] And I introduced you earlier to Anup. So he leads our mobile team here from England. He's been with the company for four years and he finds this working arrangement extremely beneficial, not just because he's able to spend more time with his family, but also he's saving a load of money. Financially, he was telling me last week that he's saving £500 every month on commuting. So even though he might have a lower salary than when he was working in London, he is saving all that money in commuting and gaining a better life balance. So Anup is originally from India and he can visit his family and work from there without having to use all of his holiday, and that benefit is also available for those that work in the office.
[00:28:11] Like me, Eva is originally from another country — in her case, Greece. Because her team is so used to working in a distributed fashion she can work for a few weeks every year from Greece without having to use all of her holiday allocation.
[00:28:26] And we've had impact in the work of the team. So I don't know about you but I love my parents dearly, but when I go to visit them it's not a holiday. So if you care about you or your people, give them time to relax and to switch off because they'll do a much better job. And these are just a few examples but the numbers don't lie. So both at LivingSocial and at FreeAgent retention and job satisfaction has been consistently higher with those more flexible working arrangements. Since I joined FreeAgent, none of the engineers that are working from home have chosen to leave the company. And in recent company surveys, just a couple of months ago, they score consistently higher — almost perfect scores — in key questions like, "I rarely think about looking for a job at another company," or "I see myself as still working at FreeAgent in two years time." And across the whole engineering organization, we had perfect scores in questions around, "am I able to arrange time out from work when I need to" and "My manager genuinely cares about my well-being." And as leader of that organization, this is music to my ears.
[00:29:44] So my recommendation is not that all businesses should do this or that it's suitable for all employees. Not at all. But if you want to do it, you really need to make an effort and commitment to do it right. Employees value everyday more and more personal flexibility, social justice and sustainability. And just now we can all make a choice. I am not sure for how long that is going to be true without having a considerable impact in your ability as a business to hire and retain employees and continue being competitive. So don't underestimate the importance that every policy, every decision that you make, every engagement with each other — whether it's as a company or as a colleague — has on building your company culture. Be intentional. Thank you.
With over 19 years of experience in the software industry, Maria Gutierrez is Head of Engineering and co-site lead at Intercom London. Maria was formerly the VP of Engineering at Edinburgh-based FreeAgent, one of the UK's largest and most popular online accounting software providers. She previously worked at LivingSocial leading globally distributed teams, and at Adobe where she worked in the developer technologies group. Maria is one of the directors of the Women Who Code Edinburgh network.