February 1st, 2015
In the last five years, I’ve been a founding member of three New York engineering offices for companies based in the Bay Area (Meebo, eBay, and now Dropbox). Along the way, I’ve learned some of what makes a remote office successful, and often, what doesn’t. The ideas I’ll share in this post come from firsthand experience and discussions with coworkers at headquarters and in remote offices around the world.
A successful remote office works on projects that are impactful and directly tied to the success of the company. Offices that focus on obscure optimizations or moonshot projects are not top of mind for the company, and neither are its employees. Take on projects that are important and deliver on them.
Having concrete, consequential areas of focus is also helpful for recruiting. It provides a story to tell candidates about the work the office has done and will do in the future. Seeing that a company trusts an office with meaningful work inspires confidence, which is especially important when you’re just getting started.
Unfortunately, finding the right projects for a remote office is somewhat of a chicken and egg problem. To get the projects, you need to hire, but to hire, you need to have projects. In the past, we’ve addressed this by hiring generalists who can work on a number of different areas to work on projects that are impactful, yet small enough to be done by only a couple of people. Such projects aren’t easy to find, so it’s important to know the organization and keep your eye out for these opportunities.
Especially if your remote office is a company’s first, the processes used for development may not be conducive to remote development. Decisions may be made desk-side with no documentation. Meetings may be held in rooms without video conferencing, or those on the other end may forget to dial in. Even if they do dial in, folks may talk too quietly or on top of one another, making it impossible for you to understand what’s happening. This is frustrating, but it stems from habit and forgetfulness, not malice. Speak up. Interrupt the meeting and ask for sentences to be repeated. You’re not being a jerk, you’re improving the process for yourself, your office, and future remote offices.
Working remotely requires trust. The tools we use (email, video conferencing, and instant messaging) are imperfect substitutes for in-person communication, and it’s easy to be misunderstood. To build trust, those working together should travel among offices frequently. Investing in face-to-face relationships over coffee (or, for me, tea) puts faces to email addresses and develops empathy between headquarters and a remote office. When having difficult conversations using imperfect tools, personal relationships with those involved go a long way towards successful communication.
Optimize for the common case
Much of the workflows a company has developed implicitly assume that everyone is at headquarters. In remote offices, small, persistent inefficiencies build up and lead to massive frustration. Relentlessly improving these workflows leads to happier remote workers and a better relationship with headquarters.
Invest in your tools. Checking out a large codebase on a slow internet connection takes forever compared to doing the same at headquarters. If this is something that happens frequently, don’t settle. Get a faster internet connection. Work with the development tools team to get local mirrors. Similarly, if your VC equipment isn’t high-quality or reliable, fix it. Even small improvements add up over time if they affect something you do frequently.
These lessons learned are inherently intertwined. Improving workflows leads to better communication, which can lead to getting better projects. Improving communication can minimize the frustration of working with inadequate tooling. Building the foundation for a remote office brings new challenges every day, but the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and the autonomy entrusted to you and your team make the job exciting and ultimately very rewarding!