David Tate is a developer for Fusionetics, a sport science company based in Atlanta, GA that works with pro teams in the MLB, NBA and NFL. As the company grows its technology platform, many of its employees are now working from home, including David, who also writes a blog about working remotely.
But he wasn't always an advocate for remote work. In fact, he when he first started telecommuting for a consulting client, he hated it. David sat down for an interview with Pajamas to talk about how he came to love working on a distributed team and what he does to stay productive and connected.
What does Fusionetics do and what do you do there?
We are a human performance company that offers solutions for injury prevention, maximizing recovery, and increasing performance. We work with elite athletic programs, hospitals, and tactical units and are growing rapidly around our web and mobile products. I lead technical work at the company and have a team that works ~97% remotely, apart from a yearly company meeting and occasional lunch outings.
You've been working remotely for the past six years. Talk a little bit about some of the previous remote jobs you've had and what attracted to remote work in the first place.
I started working remotely by accident when I moved into consulting, with my first large client requiring no in-office work apart from a Tuesday Taco session. I hated everything about it (minus the tacos) and struggled through the isolation and productivity challenges and eventually rented an office for an entire summer to try to get stuff done.
Then my wife got ill, so quite suddenly my remote work was a requirement, not an accident. I started working only with companies that were ROWE and remote by default. Buckling down with increased focus, I improved how much I could get done and rebuilt my social life outside a traditional office. Now I think it would be hard for me to work every day in an office; it just feels very wasteful in terms of how much I can get done.
I feel like selecting to work with organizations that can support remote work means you work with people who are responsible, have established process, and have better work/life balance. It applies a big filter that reduces the bullshit and bad practices across the board.
Does your current company maintain a home office?
We don't currently have a physical home office but own a gym space that we use at times for meetings. We have no expectations for people coming there (it might be awkward if they did -- there wouldn't be enough room). About 75% of our workforce is in the greater Atlanta area; we are still in the everyone-fits-in-one-room stage, but the size of the room has been expanding.
[Remote work] applies a big filter that reduces the bullshit and bad practices across the board.
What kinds of things do you do to feel connected to everyone else at your company?
Flowdock for chat throughout the day, daily video standup, and email communication. As we continue to grow we will implement a Yammer/Slack/Flowdock system that includes the non-development groups to keep everyone on the same page for upcoming projects and what the other groups are doing. The people in Atlanta occasionally get together for beers and the entire company gets together socially at least once a year.
What are the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you overcome them?
At a company level its communication. As everyone knows, this problem shows up and then grows rapidly as you add people. Working with larger companies in the past they tend to go full-remote and away from email and towards a Slack/Yammer/P2 solution and with rabid use of a wiki for tribal knowledge. We will need to adopt this approach company-wide in the near future. Although this is going to sound weird, a good test for whether you are doing this well is to imagine that you have a developer on the team who cannot hear. Can they stay up to speed with everything?
At a personal level, the biggest challenge is staying as productive as possible. Working alone is harder; you build your own momentum and have to sustain it. My favorite thing about this manner of working is that I feel like I can organize my life to get more stuff done than I ever could otherwise.
What do you think is the biggest benefit that working remotely has afforded for Fusionetics?
Hiring the people we want, keeping startup costs low, and allowing massive gains in productivity in the product realm by hiring adults that can self-manage. You remove excuses when you remove distractions -- the filter applies here; if someone can't work from home, they don't have discipline and they don't share your values and mission.
Is there anything gained from working in an office that you don't think you can replicate with a distributed team? Do you ever miss it?
I think some separation from your family is healthy, so I sometimes miss that space. I think there is something positive about eating lunch with people every day, so I sometimes miss that (and just work harder to make it happen). I hate to admit this, but corny company parties are sometimes missed -- I don't eat cake nearly as often and always forget about holidays like St. Patrick's Day and Cinco de Mayo.
Working alone is harder; you build your own momentum and have to sustain it.
The point that people always make about what you miss with remote work is that you can't replicate a few smart people in the same room working at a whiteboard; that somehow this is the fastest way to build something from nothing. This is the reason many startups won't hire remote workers -- call it the "garage theory." I agree that for some companies (especially those that require 80+ hours of work a week), you need to be nearby physically, but it isn't the only way to exist or create great products. For teams that are intrinsically motivated and have healthy dynamics you can recreate this fast feedback loop with remote collaboration tools; the smell of the whiteboard markers is not part of some magic spell.
What kinds of benchmarks does your company use to make sure everyone is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?
Great question. No formal ones; we don't have a weekly insanity quiz. I wouldn't call them benchmarks, but throughout the organization we have weekly 1-on-1s in some parts of the organization and daily video standups in the other. I don't think that you can benchmark something like this -- it takes honesty and tracking to see if people aren't doing what they should be or if they are struggling with the typical remote work isolation All-Work-And-No-Play issues.
As a distributed company, what has Fusionetics done to build company culture?
We sort of cheated on this front as many of us have worked together previously and we are still small in the sense that every new hire can shift the company. We have very clear mission, values, and philosophy, and goals per quarter and per year for growth that keep us on the same page.
At larger other places, I have seen two things help with company culture when you work remotely:
Less default negativity. Gossip is reduced greatly; people don't gossip over email or IM like they do in person. I'm not sure why. This keeps things focused and positive as it raises the bar for people to object to the agreed upon plan.
Increased transparency. With remote work by default there are less words and more (public) actions. If someone messes up something and needs to fix it you don't pull them aside quietly and tell them; you instead post it to Slack/Flowdock/etc. (as well as more private feedback if desired). Everybody sees the wins and loses and it contributes to greater teamwork as people are less afraid to fail and everyone knows how things are going.
Describe your personal work environment.
My work environment is sacred space and I enter it with the respect given to the batter's box by both the pitcher and the hitter.
So thats my attitude: my physical setup is that I have a flexible workspace. Nice chair, two long desks up against a window, a standing setup and a sitting setup. I can move the desks around in a few configurations or use another chair to move things around and use the Hawthorne principle as a weapon to break the monotony.
I try to use a single monitor to reduce distractions from email or the desire to "multi-task." I have an entire wall of my office dedicated to a bookshelf, another entire wall to things that my kids have made, and some floor space for exercise.
For teams that are intrinsically motivated and have healthy dynamics you can recreate this fast feedback loop with remote collaboration tools; the smell of the whiteboard markers is not part of some magic spell.
How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?
I used to try really hard to separate them (as a father of 4, with 2-year-old twins in a smallish house), but now I have relaxed and realized that the more my work and home life are together, the harder I'm able to work. A twenty minute break helping kids with their homework is a gift and I need to unwrap it.
I do keep strict closing hours and never work from 6-9PM or during the day on weekends, apart from emergencies. I disable my phone and don't "look at any screens" when upstairs where the bedrooms are. I have a small 'begin day' and 'end day' routine to help me shift from one to the other.
You've written about the unique need for remote workers to monitor than own sanity, which I totally get (I spend a lot of time talking to my cat while working from home). What sort of things do you do during the work day to maintain your sanity?
Simple things that aren't socially acceptable in an office: getting outside in the middle of the day for walks or runs (actual running and coffee / doughnut runs are equally important), wearing comfortable clothes, running errands in the middle of the day, listening to music, and out-loud cursing.
I have built a network of friends that I eat lunch with to get out of the house and stop the inevitable hermit-ing that happens if you don't fight against it. I also visit coffeeshops and coworking spaces and work the entire day there about two days a month.
How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?
There are good distractions which are 'forced breaks,' and bad distractions which are called 'interruptions.' To minimize distractions, I track them and treat them as hostile invaders -- an unwanted email in my inbox or a knock on my door are enemies that must be made examples of.
But the real beast is internal distractions, the NADD-type stuff that you have to train yourself to not do. I use Pomodoro tracking of every non-work item to bring myself back on track when I get distracted.
I have an index card with my important tasks each day and write what prevented me from doing them each day. I also use iDoneThis to track how much I am getting done each day in a rough sense.
What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?
- Really really good headphones
- Google Hangouts
- Flowdock or equivalent
- Really good computer
- Really fast connection
- Coffee/tea of any form
What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?
Do it if you understand the tradeoff; only play the card if you understand the game. You will hire adults and treat them as adults so your hiring needs to improve and you will have to fire more people. Know what the minimum requirements for being able to support a remote worker are and make sure you measure up to them.
Some (humbly submitted) resources on this front: