Our guest today is Chris Lacinak, President of AVP.
Chris, many software companies work on a project basis. Is this why you decided to introduce remote work at AVP?
Remote work initially came about at AVP in a couple of different ways that were the result of seizing the opportunity. The first was a shakeup in our software engineering team, which was originally based out of New York City. We found ourselves with a large project and the need to bring in a new team in order to be able to take it on. We found an extreme talent in Adeel Ahmad who worked between Lahore, Pakistan and Chicago, Illinois at the time. Adeel established a team in Lahore and we all did Agile training together to formalize a working relationship. We used an agile coach to help us navigate the challenges of remote working on a software engineering project and the project went extremely well. We now have a team of 6 people out of Lahore that are an integral part of the team that we work with daily.
The second opportunity that presented itself was when Bertram Lyons, now Partner and Senior Consultant at AVP, reached out because he was in the position of moving from Washington D.C. where he worked for the Library of Congress to Madison, WI. The Library of Congress was not able to turn his position into a remote position, so he found himself on the job market. In this case, other than our software engineering team in Pakistan, we hadn’t yet worked with anyone remotely. It was clear that having Bert as part of the team was too big of an opportunity to pass up and we decided to make the leap to having Bert join on as our first remote consultant.
Fast forward a few years, and my wife and I found ourselves really feeling the pull of living in Wyoming so that we could be surrounded by wilderness and wildlife.
Being surrounded by wilderness is almost unthinkable for lots of people living in tiny downtown apartments. Remote work is a great opportunity to run a business regardless of the location but are remote workers as loyal as in-office employees?
I don’t think the remote aspect of people’s work makes them more or less loyal. I think loyalty comes down to culture, work environment, engendering trust, providing support, demonstrating care and concern for people, and being loyal as an employer.
Allowing people to work remotely may very well make them more loyal by virtue of the fact that it offers awesome workplace flexibility for any variety of reasons. But if your culture is otherwise out of whack and the work environment is poor then whether someone is remote or not is not going to make much difference in their loyalty.
Company culture and communication have a direct impact on team’s loyalty but what about productivity?
When good communication is in place, and roles and responsibilities are clear, then everyone stands on level ground with regard to productivity. If people are experiencing greater productivity from their in-office employees that work 9-5 it’s probably because there is greater clarity and more communication between them. Give this same thing to your remote workers and you’ll find that they can be just as productive. It may take more effort to provide this clarity and communication to remote workers but it’s part of the deal and it’s worth it in order to get the positive impact of remote working.
Living in Wyoming is exciting but isn’t it a challenge to manage remote teams?
I don’t think it’s necessarily easier or harder. It is definitely different, and each scenario (ie. remote and in-office) requires intentional and distinct care and consideration. Working with remote and distributed teams requires increased time for purposeful communication to make up for what you lose when you are not in close physical proximity to your team. Our team went from being fully in-office to an international distributed team. It took us about a year to get into a groove where we had the right balance of meeting time and communication flow. As a remote and distributed team, we found that we needed to have way more time dedicated to meetings and communication than we did when we were all sitting in the same room. In reality, the amount of time spent communicating was probably about the same. It’s just that when your in an office together, a lot of this communication happens between other moments. It’s a minute here and a few minutes there, but it adds up. When you are a remote and distributed team you don’t have these as much (no, not even with Slack) and it can create an information gap that leaves people feeling left out and not in-the-know. To make up for this requires more structured time to create this communication flow. On paper, this added up to about 20% more time spent checking in and in meetings compared to when we were all sitting in an office together. We also make a point to do 3 team retreats a year to make sure we keep a personal connection and have face time with each other. So it’s important to experiment and make sure you’re striking the right balance.
It also requires that:
1) people have good enough technology and bandwidth to support meaningful connection through videoconferencing (yes videoconferencing instead of audio-only calls), and
2) you show up and ask others to show up, to videoconferences with the same level of attention and focus that is brought to an in-person meeting. For instance, we switched from using Google Hangouts to Zoom because in Zoom there is a grid view that allows you to see everyone on the team all at once. This increases connection and improves communication.
You also have to incorporate vetting of people for their happiness as remote workers in the hiring process. Not everyone is happy working remotely. Make sure you flesh out this topic thoroughly in the hiring process and don’t try to talk someone into working remotely that really isn’t into the idea. It’s definitely not for everyone.
Do remote working arrangements allow you to tap into a diverse talent pool?
Absolutely. Setting geographic boundaries is undoubtedly a limiting factor in the number and types of people that you can reach. We can focus on selecting the best people, period. This opens up doors for us to bring on talent that we simply wouldn’t have if we were looking to hire only where we have offices. Having said this, remote working is not for everyone, so it’s important to understand that requiring people to be remote may also be a limiting factor to some extent, but much less so than a geographic boundary.