Running a distributed team throws up certain HR challenges. This post goes into more detail about those and how we resolve them.
Here’s the thing with a distributed team – even though you don’t have people working in an office, you are still responsible for their wellbeing while they work for you. And of course, it’s an old adage in recruitment communications (my stomping ground of old) that hiring is the most expensive thing any company can do, so keeping people happy and healthy is a sensible thing to do. It’s preferable to them leaving, and even more preferably than them suing you after they have left! So, with that in mind, here are some of the things we do here at Code Enigma to ensure people are happy, healthy and safe in their home workplace.
Health And Safety
If you work for a big company in a big office the chances are someone has come around and checked your desk is OK, your computer works, you seat is comfortable, your monitor is at a sensible height, etc. If not, then they should have. The employer is responsible for the working conditions of every member of staff. In fact in France, where we have three employees, the employer is practically obliged to send people to a “medicin du travail” – a work doctor – every year or so, to make sure there are no medical conditions arising from or being exacerbated by their working conditions. (It's not a legal requirement per se, but if you haven't done it and an employee sues you because they got a bad back at work and now can't do anything, you'll be in trouble – it happens.)
Big brother? Maybe, but the point is this. Just because your staff work from home, doesn't make you any less responsible for their conditions. Even if the law is not quite so strict in some of the countries we hire people in, it's no good to us if people do not have appropriate conditions. They'll simply burn out, they won't be able to concentrate, they won't enjoy their work any more and they'll leave.
So we check. In France it's automatic, the “medicin du travail” checks for us. Everywhere else we check carefully at interview the candidate understands they will be working from home. We specifically ask what arrangements they have in place for that. While we haven't previously, we intend to begin physically checking the conditions of new joiners while they are still in their trial period and, if those conditions prove unsatisfactory, work with them to make sure they are acceptable before the end of the trial period (if they cannot work from home in acceptable conditions and cannot make arrangements to improve their home work space, they need to either find an affordable alternative solution or be realistic about the job they have taken on and their ability to do it).
We use a buddy system. It's fairly simple, everyone in the business is assigned a buddy and they are responsible for checking in on that person periodically. It doesn't have to be formal, it's just a “hey, how's it going?” when the opportunity arises. Your buddy is there to make sure you're not struggling with your work, environment, social life, family situation, whatever really. It can be as open or closed as you want it to be, that's up to you to feel out with your assigned buddy. All we ask of buddies is they keep a communication channel open to their assignee and be ready to talk to them if they need it and, just occasionally, get proactive and ask how they are.
Your buddy is also the person you can turn to if you think your manager is not the right channel. There are some things affecting your work you might not want your boss to know. There are some things you might want to raise, but don't feel you can do it directly. Your buddy is there for that too. They are able to raise issues on your behalf with your manager or a director, should the need arise.
We're just starting to look into getting together more frequently – not everybody, but people who live near each other. For example, I live in France near Avignon and my colleague Pascal lives in Lyon, so meeting half way for the day makes sense, similarly, James is in Gloucestershire and Jamie is in Cardiff, so they're pretty close together, Alasdair and Salva are both in London (although Al is currently touring the USA), Matt's in Bradford and Steve is in Leeds, and so on... It's early days, but we're looking at setting a formal budget allocation for this type of activity, per person, so people can travel to meet each other and work for the day if they wish and the company will cover the cost.
We're also looking for a more flexible solution to have hotdesks around the UK we can drop into, although that is proving surprisingly hard. Regis charge per person, per year, which makes the cost astronomic for us. Techhub won't have us because we don't fit their profile of business, they want start-ups making products, not service agencies. If anyone knows of a national chain or collective of workspaces that offer something like this, do let us know!
More generally, we are absolutely fine with people getting out and about. If you just need to see some other faces, go visit the family or sit in a café, by all means! As long as you have good Internet, you can take a call (if you know you need to) and you can concentrate, we don't care where you are.
Collaborating to fight “developer belly”, as Steve calls it, is another initiative the team started. I no longer remember whose idea it was specifically, probably James, but the team can earn 'points' for engaging in activities for keeping fit during office hours. Because we operate flexitime, people have the opportunity to have a 2 hour lunch if they want to, giving plenty of time to go for a run, go to the gym, take the bicycle out, walk the dogs, whatever really. As long as it's in working hours, active and good for you then you can count it towards your total. There are whispers of plans afoot to collectively run from John O'Groats to Land's End for charity by adding up our collective miles, and other such frivolities, but whatever we do with it, it's great to get people away from their desks and also builds a sense of team – not doing things alone.
We try to get together, as a business, as frequently as possible. Typically we meet once a business quarter – we don't specifically plan it like that, it's just how it works out. (Frankly, we need to get better at planning it around DrupalCamps and other relevant events, so we can kill two birds with one stone.)
We're also moving the meet-ups around. Our last meet-up was in Cardiff, we're thinking of doing the next one in Barcelona where Koen lives, the idea is to keep things interesting and give everyone a chance to show us the delights of where they live. We'll even go to Stoke to keep Dan happy. Though Preston is a stretch, sorry Chris.
Finally, while the interim meet-ups tend to be a couple of days long and staff only, we always try to do a Code Enigma summer getaway. We rent a massive house somewhere (the last two years have been in France, as is this year, but we are looking at UK options for a change for next year), hire a chef so no one has to cook and get everyone along for a week of workshops, discussion and team exercises.
We always hire somewhere family friendly and with a swimming pool, and the working day tends to consist of four one-hour sessions, so it's a leisurely start in the mornings and an early finish in the evenings, leaving lots of time to just chill out and chat. Families are welcome – we set a travel budget based on the cost of getting the member of staff to the venue, but if people want to supplement that and bring kids, girlfriends, mothers, that's fine. Everything else is paid for.
So that's how we try to combat the potential personal issues of being a home worker. If you have schemes and ideas of your own then we'd love to hear them. What we do here is an imperfect art, still being worked on by the various organisations like ours who practice the telecommute. We're always keen to hear from others who run a similar system to see how you do it and what we can learn from one another. That's all for now. Next time I'll tackle some of the issues around international hiring.