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Making remote and asynchronous work, work

This is the Engineering Culture Podcast, from the people behind and the QCon conferences.

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Rob Rawson about cultures that support remote work, finding the balance of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration and support.

Key Takeaways

  • Remote working requires a supportive culture
  • Getting the balance of synchronous and asynchronous work requires experimentation and learning
  • Remote teams should meet in person several times per year, at least
  • Asynchronous works requires intentional overcommunication
  • Using video for asynchronous communication provides a richness of message


Shane Hastie: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie from the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today, I'm sitting down with Rob Rawson. Rob is one of the founders of Running Remote and of an eight-figure SAS business, TimeDoctor. Rob, welcome, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Rob Rawson: It's great to chat with you.

Shane Hastie: Probably a good starting point is, who's Rob?

Introductions [00:52]

Rob Rawson: I'm actually, funnily enough, formally a medical doctor of all things, not particularly technical, but I did do some programming when I was younger and then I quit all of that. I actually got into business. I was always into business and started a number of software and other internet marketing businesses, so I kind of went down this track of internet marketing software and then also remote work. I loved the concept of trying to work from anywhere, having the ability to just travel around the world and work from all sorts of different locations. So that's how I got into remote work in the beginning.

Introducing Running Remote [01:29]

Shane Hastie: I'm aware of the running remote community, but I suspect very few of our audience would be. Do you want to tell us a little bit about Running Remote?

Rob Rawson: We started it before COVID when remote was not such a big thing and it's really to get the best practices from these companies that are fantastic ambassadors, remote work. You would've heard of companies like GitLab that have spoken in the conference and all sorts of companies that are really large in some cases, just massive companies, thousands of employees that are completely distributed, remote, all working from home. And it's a mindset shift, which has started a lot more during COVID, but I think people are still not there. They still kind of got this mindset of, "Well, it's the office, you've got to come to the office." A lot of people are coming back to the office now, but it's super interesting because I think there's a whole lot more that we have to go with remote work.

Shane Hastie: We've all experienced remote work now or pretty much every engineer in the world will have experienced remote work over the last couple of years. Why should we continue remote?

Remote working requires a supportive culture [02:34]

Rob Rawson: I think it does depend on the culture of the business. I'm not saying every business should be remote, obviously, it does depend on the culture that you want to create, but I've found personally, I thought that I was sick of remote at one stage. I wanted to go back to the office or at least have a bit more of an office experience and I ended up getting involved with the company in Australia and I bought into this company in Australia that had an office who was a software development company. And what I ended up finding is that I'd go into the office and then I was just chatting with my workmates on Slack in the desk right next to me. And I'm just thinking to myself, what am I doing this for? This is ridiculous. So I've come back to the idea that, yeah, I love remote work, I love meeting with people as well. That's super important. It's like human nature to want to meet with people, but I think if you do it in the right way, there's so many benefits to remote work.

Shane Hastie: What have we learned about what makes remote work good? And you have mentioned that you have written a book on Running Remote. What's some of the key lessons in there?

The importance of good asynchronous communication [03:38]

Rob Rawson: Yes, the book we wrote was really interviewing these people that had experience with remote work for many years and often of these larger businesses and they've got great best practices. So one of the key themes is about asynchronous and how to work asynchronously because when most people went into COVID, they were on Zoom all the time, right? Which is not the best way to work, especially for engineers, constantly on phone calls, you're not actually doing the real work, you're in meetings all the time. So the concept with asynchronous work is that you send the message out there and the person who's receiving it can watch it, listen to it, or read it in their own time. You've got all the modalities, you can still do video, you can still do audio, or you can do written messages and you've got your own time to go through it.

Often, that's a lot faster. If you're watching a video asynchronously, I usually put it on double speed because you could consume the information quite fast so it doesn't work for everything asynchronous work. But you find that the companies that are very remote and they've been doing it for a while, they're a lot more asynchronous, especially if they're across time zones than they have to be that even if they're not across time zone, even if they're in the same time zone, they're remote just within the U.S only, it's only a three-hour difference between the two posts. So you can meet fairly easily, but you still have that problem of the interruptions of all of these Zoom meetings. So I do think some meetings are important. If you're working completely remotely, having some in-person meetings, some synchronous video meetings, it's just a different feeling, but minimizing it and keeping it to a certain level is critical.

Shane Hastie: How do you find that balance? What is the right balance?

The right balance requires experimentation [05:22]

Rob Rawson: It's hard to say. It's like an experiment. We're actually doing something where we have a no-meetings week to try and figure out the balance. Because once you've had the no-meeting week, then you just see like, Well, do I really need that meeting? Have I done a whole week without any? It's not a hundred percent no meetings, because there might be something that you're just like, "Oh, I've got to meet about it." But you eliminate all of the regular meetings and then you go back to this base of just no meetings for one week. And I love this practice and it gives us a feeling of, "Well, do I really need to do this? Is this so critical?" And so I don't have an actual answer, but I think for a person who's managing a lot of people, it would be a lot more meetings I guess. But for an engineer whose work is to code, it would be a lot less meetings. And I mean, if you want to get into specifics, I think if it's more than 10 hours a week and the person's job is to do coding, that's probably too much. But it could be a lot less than 10 hours. It could be only a couple of hours. So it just depends.

Shane Hastie: One of the approaches though today to building software is a lot more collaborative, cross-functional collaborative team is whether we call it agile or lean or whatever, how does that apply in an asynchronous environment?

Collaboration and communication are key [06:34]

Rob Rawson: Well, you still have communication and collaboration. It's just a different style and you need to be more deliberate with the messaging. You need to be careful in the sort of things that you can say asynchronously some things if they're very emotional, obviously, you want to do that synchronously. So I think it is possible though to do a lot more asynchronously without having those interruptions. If you're doing pair coding, I think you'd need to do that as a synchronous meeting. I'm not sure how many companies are really doing that through Zoom and if they feel that that's effective. I haven't seen that practice, we don't do it in our company, but I'd be interested to hear more about other companies that do that. It's certainly the collaboration, you can do it asynchronously as much as possible.

Shane Hastie: What do you lose?

What is lost in remote working [07:20]

Rob Rawson: Well, the worst part of remote work, right? Is the fact that you're not feeling that same sense of connection. I think that that's just natural for people to be in the same room. And if you don't have that at all, you don't have any in personal connection, I do think it's a problem for you socially. I do think people that in the extreme, if they live at home, they work from home and they don't go out a lot, that's not healthy behavior. So if they live at home and they're with their family and they have other people in the house and they're going out and they're meeting other people, I think that could be okay as a balance. I think that to me what you're losing the most is that, a natural human tendency to want to be in the same room and connect with people.

Shane Hastie: As a people leader, how do I make sure that my people are staying healthy in this asynchronous environment?

Being aware of physical and mental health [08:13]

Rob Rawson: It's a tricky one because I think most people when they go to remote work, most, I'd say from my experience, it's over 80, 90%. They don't want to go back. They don't want to really work in an office just because of the hassle factor of traveling in and out. But I have experienced people that it just doesn't work for them because of that lack of connection, because of their personality and they don't feel really that happy. Even though they don't feel happy, it's hard for them to make that decision to go back to an office because it still feels almost like a hassle or a big leap. And a lot of engineers also are introverts too, right? So as introverts you can feel very happy being by yourself for a long time, but then suddenly it all catches up to you and you're like just miserable because you're really not getting enough human connection.

So I don't think you have to get the in-person human connection from your work. It just depends on the person whether they need that from their work or not. You do get a certain element from video as well, but I do feel it is lacking. I would never have a relationship with my wife over video, right? So I think the deep connections are more in person. And of course, the best practice for remote work is to meet up ideally several times per year. If you're completely remote several times a year, if you're in that situation where you're working kind of one day a week in the office, well, that's okay too, but I'm not a big fan of that particular situation because you're losing the main benefit of remote work, which is that you can hire and work with people all around different regions. And so if you have to be in the same city, the company is losing the benefit of being able to hire from anywhere, which is to me probably the number one benefit for the company itself.

Shane Hastie: So that breadth of hiring opportunities.

Rob Rawson: Yes.

Shane Hastie: What are some of the other lessons that the running remote community have learned?

Intentional overcommunication is important in asynchronous work [10:05]

Rob Rawson: It's about some of the things that you can do to work when you're creating that spirit in the culture asynchronously and how people do that. The constant reinforcement that you need with over communication in some cases because you don't get that bumping into each other kind of effect when you're in an office. So you have to be more intentional about the communication and it's a lot of work to really think about it and try to communicate it. And then also those things that you can do to try and create culture when you're completely remote. We have an all-hands meeting where we really get into the culture and also try to get into other things like playing games together if that works for your company, having some fun things that you do as well. There's lots of different ways that people do it. I don't think there's a simple formula, but just finding the right spirit for your company.

Shane Hastie: So thinking about the myriad of possibilities, ways to communicate that are available to us now. How do we choose the right modality? How do we choose which one to use, when?

Communicate in multiple modalities [11:08]

Rob Rawson: I think it's important to understand that you have to choose more than one modality, so you can't always text with people. It doesn't work for every kind of remote communication and because it's just so bland, it takes a while, it's just not effective for everything. So obviously, screen recording is great. I use tools like Snagit or there's all sorts of tools you can use for this that you can record the screen, you can record a video of yourself while you're recording the screen and the person can watch that at any time. And then also, you can use that for training videos later as well. So that's one thing that you need to have in your toolbox. I love also adding in audio recordings because it's very quick to send the complicated message and you can do that on Slack now, but there's all sorts of other ways.

Sometimes you might use WhatsApp, whatever you're you using. And it's just fantastic to do that as a quick message and you get more spirit and animation of your voice in the message. If you're wishing someone happy birthday and you're doing it on audio, it doesn't quite get there. Or if you're really telling someone how they did a great job, a video recording is a great option because it feels personal, it feels more connecting. And so I think that's great as well. And then of course, you've got the synchronous options of doing a video call, et cetera. I do think that having video interaction is important to try and get some of that feeling of being like you're almost in the same room. It's not there, but it's getting closer.

And so just sticking only to texts is a bit impersonal. But having said that, there are companies that do it in a myriad of ways and yeah, there's some really, really interesting examples of that. So there's one company, they told me that they had an employee who has never shown his face once. Isn't that a crazy experience? So Todoist is the name of the company and they've been working in that business for a while and everybody knows the employee and they've been working with him forever, but they've never seen his image once. It's a crazy extreme, it's almost like he could be a bot out there that you don't even know.

Shane Hastie: Well, a lot of our listeners have never seen my face. A lot of our audience will be moving into leadership positions in this new world, not too sure how to do it. For the new leader in a remote team, what advice do you have?

Advice for new leaders [13:46]

Rob Rawson: I think getting a strategy about hiring and hiring from anywhere is a really important, especially for engineers. I think a lot of people are demanding remote work now, so if you are not open to that and you're not open to letting engineers work remotely, you're actually going to have problems attracting talent unless you're the top echelon of company like Google. But I think even those companies are having to also let their engineers work remotely. So thinking more about that, thinking about how to hire from any location, that's really, really important. And just some really basic things like having that connection over a one-on-one meeting once a week, where you do have the video interaction, and then just having good management of your goals or OKR so that you can make sure that you're aligned with the goals and that everybody's working really well asynchronously because they're working towards those goals and they're motivated towards those goals. You need to be evaluating their performance carefully because you're not seeing the person as often. You want to actually make sure that you're able to understand what they're doing but not in a micromanagement way. Something that you can do very quickly or only when you're meeting them once a week and you can get a good sense of what's going on and what they need, et cetera.

Shane Hastie: Jumping topics, you a serial founder, you have found that a number of organizations and a number of SAS startups. I would imagine that there are a number of our audience who are thinking about this for themselves. What are the opportunities out there and what are the gotchas?

Founding a startup [15:23]

Rob Rawson: I think starting SAAS business is nearly interesting and it's great if you're an engineer, means you can start it on a lower budget. I think if you're not a technical founder, you'd actually need at least a million dollars to start a SAAS company nowadays because it is competitive. There's a lot of other companies out there and SAAS is incredible business model. It's just fantastic business model, but there's a bit of an economy of scale. So if having a small micro SAAS ... Yes, there are people that are doing it, but I do feel that there's some disadvantages to that. I mean, software has a lot of economies of scale, so obviously, the first thing is as an engineer you've got to really get into the market and interview customers and don't make the mistake of making your first step actually be coding. And that's what most engineers go, "Oh, I've got this great idea, I'm going to code it."

That might not be the best way to start. So the better way to start might be to actually interview and talk to customers and get into the nitty-gritty of what you're going to build. Are they going to like it? Are they going to buy it? Preferably pre-selling it even before you've built it is one option, but just talking to a number of customers in detail and then making sure that you're on the right track before you even build it. Perhaps doing screen grabs of what it will look like so you can really show them in more detail once you found out what they really need. But heaps of opportunities, especially in niche markets I think, for SAAS businesses still.

Shane Hastie: Rob, thanks very much. There's some really interesting stuff in there. If people want to continue the conversation, where will they find you?

Rob Rawson: You can go to Running Remote. We also have a book out on Amazon called Running Remote, so you can check that out and you can contact us through the website there.

Shane Hastie: I will make sure we include those links in the show notes. Thanks very much.

Rob Rawson: Thank you.



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