Richard Harris - AutoAlert

AutoAlert was originally founded to provide security services to car owners -- notifying them by mobile phone if their car had been tampered with. But because most people tend to just buy insurance rather than proactively protect their cars, the company pivoted and put their monitoring and tracking tools to use for fleet management. This year, they also launched a job tracking and automation app aimed at service industries called Okappy.

AutoAlert's software tends to be used by companies that manage remote teams or work outside of traditional office settings -- delivery companies, plumbers, electricians, car services, etc. That's why it's not surprising at all that AutoAlert itself is a distributed team, with a small group of employees working across three countries.

Company director Richard Harris answered some questions about building a remote team and working across geography.

Tell me about AutoAlert and what you do there.

I’m one of the directors of AutoAlert (and now also Okappy). AutoAlert provide simple vehicle tracking software to companies ranging from haulage operators to transport and logistics companies through to companies operating in the trades. Our aim is to make their lives easier, letting them see what is going on in their business.

We’ve also launched a new “market network” called Okappy which we’re spinning out from AutoAlert. This combines the benefits of a market place like Uber, with a social network such as Linkedin and our job management software as a service. We’re targeting electrical contractors initially as they have big issues with communication and often find it difficult to see what their remote engineers are doing. We allow companies to connect with each other, send and receive jobs and share the status of those jobs as they’re updated by the engineer out in the field.

How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?

We have 6 people, there’s usually 2 of us in the office with the rest working remotely. We have a developer in Tolyatti, Russia, a developer in South Africa, one in Manchester, England and the rest in London.

Why did you decide to start working remotely?

I started AutoAlert after completing my MBA at Cranfield School of Management. I got together with three other students from the course to help develop a product that my brother had invented. Cranfield is in Milton Keynes, so from day one we were distributed around the UK with Asheet and I in London, Jim our other director in Bournemouth and my brother up in Manchester.

As we developed and our team changed we continued with the idea of maintaining the flexibility by combining a small office with work from home. This not only helped saved money, it has also meant we’ve been able to hire people from a wider pool, i.e., it would be difficult for Andrey to commute in from Russia every day!

How do you keep everyone feeling connected?

Admittedly, it is difficult. For those in London we try and ensure we are together at least once a week. We also arrange nights out as much as possible at different locations where we can all attend. Apart from that its emails, Skype, WhatsApp and iMessage. We can see each others calendars, which helps so no one feels that they are left out of the loop.

The software developers tend to be happier working on their own anyway.

What are the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you overcome them?

It's often little things that you miss. I.e., if you get some nice feedback from a customer you often want to just turn around and let everyone know. Sending an email or message is not the same and by the time you meet up the moment is lost. Its also easier being able to ask questions when you’re all together. You can ask questions by electronic messages, but often you end up just turning Google anyway.

What is the biggest benefit that working remotely has afforded your company?

The biggest impact is working on a global scale with only a small team.

Do you think you lose anything by working remotely?

I think you lose the cameradie of working together. The company doesn’t feel as complete or “concrete” when its virtual.

What do you think is the most important thing a distributed team can do to ensure successful collaboration?

Meet up regularly and formally. Agree to set aside a day or half a day at least per week when we have to meet and then stick to it. It's often too easy to postpone meeting up, which can often lead to weeks without seeing each other.

What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?

As we’re quite a small team we don’t really analyze or benchmark too much. We try to keep in touch especially by meeting every week or on the phone. As we all know each other quite well its often easy to see when things are not right mentally.

Operationally it is easier especially as we’ve been developing our own job management software (now Okappy). This helps us keep track of jobs and communication. As we’re promoting, it's probably good that we practice what we preach and have the operational side sorted!

What sort of work culture are you trying to build at AutoAlert? Is it harder to build cohesive culture across geography?

We want to build a flexible team who enjoy working together and share in the potential of AutoAlert and Okappy. We have big ambitions and aim to be a global company so its good that we start off early with people from different cultures and backgrounds. It is hard to build a cohesive culture when people are in different locations, as often communication will be channeled through the same people. I.e., Andrey and I tend to speak the most as we’re looking at similar things.

Meet up regularly. It's often too easy to postpone meeting up, which can often lead to weeks without seeing each other.

What do you look for in an ideal remote employee? Are there any qualities that make someone more successful at working remotely?

Good communication and a self starter is key.

Describe your personal work environment.

I’m often traveling to clients, so I’ll be in the car, which is a nice place to be, especially in the summer with the windows down and the radio on. Most other times I’m in the office. It's easier to work there as I have everything I need. We’re based out of an out Pill Factory. It's quite funky with a gym and cafe. There’s a lot of small companies based here, which is nice. A lot of them are also in the creative space, which I like and find interesting. Hopefully it rubs off on us when we’re developing our software!

How do you manage work/life balance? Is it harder, do you think, for people who work from home?

Before we had the office, I was working from home and it is definitely a lot harder to segregate work life from home life. You end up thinking about work all the time, as its a lot easier to switch on the computer and do some work.

Having the confidence to benefit from it helps, i.e., enjoying the flexibility, not feeling you have to work 9 to 5. I also find cooking in the evening helps split up the day and provides a natural segregation of work and home.

How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?

I don’t really have many more distractions at home or in the office. I also don’t try and measure personal efficiency. Often I think you can worry too much about ensuring you do 7 hours of work per day. This is probably a habit left over from more formal work experience. I think if you don’t worry about it too much, enjoy the flexibility, take time out to do other things, then you probably work more effectively anyway and get as much if not more done.

What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?

Email, iMessage and the two most important tools, along with our own Okappy software!

What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?

I think its important to provide flexibility and allow people to work both remotely and in the office. I think you need to ensure you meet up regularly and, of course, keep the communication alive.

Josh Catone
Josh has been the Content & Community Manager at feedly, the Executive Director of Editorial Projects at Mashable, the Lead Writer at ReadWrite, and the Lead Blogger at SitePoint.