How can a team function well when it is dispersed across different locations? How can it work productively and co-operatively on a project, when its members aren’t in the same place? And, in all honesty, are there disadvantages to having the flexibility and freedom to work from anywhere? We talk about all of this with the team from TimeBro, where employees work remotely most of the time – and this isn’t always advantageous.
As a team, you tend to work remotely. How did this come about and in your opinion what are the greatest advantages of remote work?
Mislav: We initially worked in an office in the University of Munich’s start-up incubator and the SCE (Strascheg Centre for Entrepreneurship). When our funding ran out, we had made enough sales to afford our own office, but we had other spending priorities. So we just tried working from home. At the time, TimeBro was still a weekend project running alongside our full-time jobs. We were pleasantly surprised by the results.
Niclas: Any employee who has ever worked from home knows the advantages: there’s no need to travel; you enjoy more flexibility by independently planning your schedule; and you definitely spend less on food and transport. A huge advantage for the company is, of course, the absence of office costs and greater access to talented employees: our working students are currently based in Maastricht, while our developers live in Croatia and Slovakia. But there is another, more important factor…
“Any employee who has ever worked at home knows the advantages: there’s no need to travel; you enjoy more flexibility by independently planning your schedule; and you definitely spend less on food and transport.”
Basti: With the tool that we have developed – TimeBro – we complete more tasks in a shorter period of time. On the one hand, this is because flexibility often leads to motivation. But it’s mainly due to the fact that work isn’t interrupted. For the classic, hip start-up company with an open-plan office and shared communication, there are constant interruptions from colleagues wanting your attention – even if you’re wearing headphones – as well as conversations you unintentionally end up listening to.
Arne: Absolutely. Interruptions have the worst impact on performance. That’s what we always say at TimeBro. Anyone who regularly interrupts their work to track the time, rather than checking at the end of the working day, essentially throws their productivity out the window.
Maybe, as an example, you could outline your everyday working arrangements? How is remote work different to the traditional office model? Do you still work eight hours a day, within a fixed period, or do you actually make use of the flexibility?
Klaus: The main difference is that nobody has to ‘play the game’ when it comes to work. Over the past 20 years, I’ve had employees who have wasted time on some days. That doesn’t help anyone. With the remote work model, there is a strong focus on results. This means that, outside of appointments, I work when I’m feeling focused and want to. This can of course include weekends and evenings.
“Outside of appointments, I work when I’m focused and want to.”
Mislav: Before I go to sleep, I look at the calendar and prepare for the next working day. If I don’t have any appointments in the morning, I prefer to use the morning to run errands or look after my young daughter. On those occasions, I am still accessible if my support is needed for an inquiry or if I need to communicate with the team, which is always important. Customers’ business hours must also be considered. My most productive working hours are normally later in the evening, because that’s the time when nobody bothers me. In the end, you actually work more, but you have full freedom and control in return. It’s often enough to know that, if I want it to, the working day can end at any time.
“My most productive working hours are normally later in the evening, because that’s the time when nobody bothers me.”
Arne: I have a different approach and instead very clearly separate work and leisure. I get up at 5:30, go out to exercise and then – if there are no specific deadlines – work from 9:00 until 20:00. The only interruptions during this time are to make food and to break for coffee. I’ve never had a problem working many hours straight. Because of that, the evening is my time – every day, I make use of it to go out, socialise or do something for myself.
There must also be disadvantages, when all employees are rarely together in the same place. What are the biggest challenges you have encountered so far?
Basti: Not being in the same place has just as many downsides as being in the same place. In the end, it all comes down to communication. Remote work actually reduces the amount of it – there’s no need to consider facial expressions, gestures, body language, or the need to head directly for someone and get an instant reaction. Instead, communication is all digital and takes place at different times. We can only really see the benefits of this, but maybe that’s a generational thing. For me, having a record of communication is most important. If I’m not sure of something and everyone is busy, I have a central database where I can always find answers.
Arne: What’s important is that you regularly communicate and make good use of tools for online conversations and video conferences – and always respond as quickly as possible. When appointments are made, they must be kept, because cancellations demotivate other members of the team. It is also essential that tools for task management are used and maintained in a very disciplined way.
Klaus: Because I had become so used to personal interaction at work, I missed it at first. For example, if you want to think together about half-baked ideas, video conferences aren’t always suitable. On the other hand, it’s good that all team members are forced to ask themselves, “Do I really need feedback on this? Is that not already documented somewhere? Or maybe I can use Google to find the information in a few clicks?”
“Because I had become so used to personal interaction at work, I missed it at first.”
As a company that at first had a traditional way of working, you probably didn’t just decide overnight to switch completely to a remote model. For this to be achieved, new processes have to be adopted and the necessary tools put in place. From your own experience, which tools in particular can you recommend?
Basti: Many companies have long since adopted the processes necessary for remote work. What’s the difference between five colleagues sitting in a meeting room and two colleagues on Skype, and seven colleagues on Skype? I think processes are less of an issue than trust. All the tools in the world won’t work if the company doesn’t believe that a remote worker will perform at least as productively as a colleague in an office, where there are constant distractions and interruptions.
“I think processes are less of an issue than trust.”
Niclas: That’s absolutely right. But what many still lack is a tool for task management. With such a tool, tasks are distributed, scheduled, discussed and ticked off. This means effective self-structuring and few conversations and meetings. We’ve been using Asana for three years. A good alternative is Trello and, for developers, JIRA is also a very attractive product. The major advantage of these tools: communication does not need to be synchronised, is always task-specific and can easily be found again.
Arne: When someone wants something, they don’t need to start a conversation on Slack and can instead create a task in Asana. Often things can wait – even if you don’t always realise that at first. We only ever use Slack for urgent topics that require immediate feedback. For voting via video, we use Team Zoom. We have chosen join.me for our work with customers, because it doesn’t require installation. For tools that provide support, we can recommend Teamviewer and Zendesk.
In general, are there any other experiences you can pass on to those who would also like to work remotely?
Nicolas: Never neglect culture. Tools and processes do not alone make for a functioning team. Everyone has to be understood and treated well. This means taking advantage of the greater scope for recruitment and having a strong focus on personality. And regular events are important. We normally meet every few weeks in the evening to eat and drink together. This in particular doesn’t do any harm. If you’re all too far apart, online gaming can also bring people closer together.
“Regular events are important. We normally meet every few weeks in the evening to eat and drink together.”
Arne: And a further tip, which might sound banal at first: you should always get up at the same time each morning, take a shower and get something healthy to eat. Otherwise, you soon get stuck in a rut and that negatively affects self-esteem and productivity.
Particularly for smaller companies, such as agencies, the remote work model is relatively easy to implement. Do you think that, eventually, small companies won’t have offices at all?
Klaus: It’s probably not even a question of being a small or a large company. Employees generally fall into two groups. For those who work better in the presence of colleagues, or require supervision, a shared office is better, whereas those who are more independent and like to work undisturbed achieve more in a home office. I believe it makes sense to offer shared office space for around 50% of employees. Microsoft, for example, has adopted a similar idea in Munich.
Mislav: I can’t imagine there not being any offices at all. You probably need to provide employees with opportunities to work together in one place during a particularly demanding phase of a project. But an office that you rent monthly is certainly not necessary.
Basti: How about this: the future means offices on call. Or smaller offices.
Also published on Medium.