Nona Blog

Remote Working: Leadership and Teams

A deeper look into culture and values in the context of our move to remote.

Why we did it.

  1. NONA is a business based in Cape Town, South Africa and I’m going to live in Australia next year. I am convinced that being a remote CEO can work but had little evidence to support this belief so we set out to learn and experiment to find out more.
  2. We‘re moving towards being a global business but we don’t want the overhead and hassle that comes with having a base in each territory. There has got to be a way to do this in a more optimal way. Getting remote right could be the answer for us.
  3. We are a software development studio, so arguably our biggest challenge is attracting and retaining the best talent. We are always trying to have a more compelling offer to our current and potential staff and this is definitely in service of that.
  4. Access to a larger talent pool. By having a centralised workforce in a single location you are limited to the talent pool of that location only. By getting remote right, your talent pool becomes much, much larger.
  5. Future proofing. I firmly believe that we are not far-off an environment in which young talent coming on to the job market (particularly the tech job market), simply won’t entertain permanent positions that don’t have at least an element of remote working. The future of work is going to be very different to what we experience now.

However, as much as these were motivational reasons to begin looking at remote working very seriously, the reality of how it happened was a lot less planned and glamorous.

For those that don’t know, Cape Town had a massive drought problem earlier this year and we were staring down the barrel of a gun so to speak and actually counting down the days to ‘day zero’ where we were going to run out of water. Just take a second to think about what would happen if a city the size of Cape Town (around 3.8m humans) ran out of water, it wouldn’t be fun.

So, making lemons from lemonade, we took this opportunity to massively accelerate our plans to work towards remote and we began experimenting.

Our values are real at NONA and we rely on them to drive behaviour, decisions and improvement. We used this foundation to start this journey.

NONA values:

Be in it together.

Communicate often and honestly no matter what.

Be generous with your knowledge.

Continuous improvement as a way of life.

Take ownership.

Remote Experiment V1

We moved all of our physical tools into the cloud. For us this meant that the Kanban boards came down (which was painful because we loved them). More importantly it meant that our reliance and upskilling on Jira and 10000 feet (project management and visualisation tools) become fundamental to the preparation for going remote.

We defaulted to Google Hangouts meetings even if we were all in the office together to begin learning where the challenges would be when we become distributed. This was awkward but was a useful ‘testing environment’.

Each team got to decide how they would test the work from home option during this phase. Some did 1 week per month, some did 1 day per week. Again, this was to test the effect of being distributed and to get early learnings at low risk / impact.

Some initial findings:

  • Planning is a lot harder when you are not physically together. The ability to read body language and just walk over to people if something was missed was noticeable.
  • Easy access to peers disappeared. In software development it is really important to have access to peers. To get help, bounce an idea or just feel supported. This took a big knock when we first started with remote as it is a lot harder to initiate that contact when your only access is through a screen and the physical proximity is gone. This same thing however has an upside and that is that people are distracted less and one’s state of flow is easier to achieve and maintain in a remote environment.
  • Junior members lacked access to seniors. This is much the same problem as above but just exaggerated. Juniors really do need access to seniors in order to improve at the rate that we expect them to improve. We don’t have too many juniors but those that we do have, felt this intensely.

Experiment Version 2

Now that we had learned a little we designed the next step which threw us into the deep end:

  • Anybody can go anywhere. And they did…we had staff shooting off to Morocco, Canada, Malaysia, Portugal, Germany, London, Borneo, Dubai, Hong Kong to name just a few.
  • Each team’s working hours needed to overlap by at least 4 hours per day. This was left to the teams to arrange.
  • Meetings become gospel and not guidelines. The whole dynamic of meetings changed from what were loosely followed and almost ‘ nice to haves’, to the only time that everyone on the team knew that they would all be together at the same time. They morphed into the pulse of each team and they began to be taken more seriously and therefore improved upon.
  • Internet as a contractual requirement. We are not fans of lengthening employment contracts but this one was really necessary . If you are in the desert and don’t have good internet, you literally cannot contribute to your team at all. Interestingly, nobody pushed back on this.
  • We agreed that we would review this in 6 months and that if we called people back, we would give at least 3 months to make arrangements so as not to mess too much with people’s plans and lives.
  • Don’t be a dickhead! This is a really big one. There is no ways that this would work without everyone having the right attitude and following our values. Luckily for us we have amazing people and this didn’t end up being a problem. On a side note, I believe that this is actually one of the rules of the All Blacks rugby team, and they do ok…

Experiment version 3

Save the Culture, its on fire!

The next and current version of the experiment called for a hybrid model where we required everyone to be in the office twice per week. The main reason for this was a knock to culture that we felt intensely. Being a software development studio that follows agile methodologies, we redesigned our sprint structure around these in office days so that during these days we fill them with:

  1. Learning days. We built in dedicated time for learning. With continuous improvement being a core value, we need to support this by giving dedicated time for the same.
  2. Shared activities
  3. Interviews with potential new hires. We get as many staff as possible to interview potential hires and this is always going to better done in person. We are a small team of around 25 and sometimes up to18 people will be involved in a single persons interview process.
  4. Council meetings. We have 2 councils set up at NONA, the wise (senior devs) and the eyes (senior creatives). We chose to have these meetings during in-office days. These meetings are a recent initiative and as such, face to face will have a positive effect.
  5. Planning
  6. Backlog refinement

Remote is difficult.

  • Time zones present more challenges than just the obvious. There is a risk of creating first and second class citizens based on HQ time zone and remote time zone. This is something to keep an eye on.
  • Leading by example is tricky when nobody is watching you. This applies to leading up the chain of command as well as being a leader or CEO.
  • Punctuality becomes really important. I think this is more apparent because it’s awkward to make small talk over Google Hangouts, so when 5 people are on a call and waiting for someone, the time really gets felt.
  • We have a leadership meeting rhythm which is daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly, and we rely very heavily on it to keep the pulse going. Now it’s not that it stopped, but the lack of being being in the same room and reading micro expressions combined with the disappearance of the post meeting walk and talk was definitely felt and degraded the effectiveness of the meetings
  • Water cooler conversation stopped. This is particularly relevant to me. As the CEO, I rarely work directly with many of the staff and stayed connected to most by the silly random in office chats. This disappears unless there is a deliberate effort taken.
  • Lack of internet can be crushing.
  • Personalities get exaggerated. If you are A type and loud then it’s ok but if you have team members that are quiet and reserved, its very easy to drown them out over a call. A real effort needs to be made to keep meeting participation fair and balanced.
  • We built a culture on a physical space and its worked incredibly well. Take that space away and the culture takes a real knock.
  • Totally unintentionally and unknowingly we actually alienated those staff that just simply wanted to stay as is and work in the office every day. I was given hell by 2 staff members for this which really caught me by surprise and brought my attention back to making sure that everyone be treated equally.

However…..the results were really good.

  • Productivity increased.
  • Now, I’m not saying it’s because of these remote experiments but during this period our revenue has increased by over 30% and our team size has dropped by 20%…that’s a significant improvement by anybody’s standards.
  • Staff happiness increased and continues to. We use Google forms a lot to get feedback from staff and a constant theme is the love of remote. We have had staff write us pretty heartfelt thank you’s for this and we plan only to keep getting better at it.
  • Accountability increased. This was very unexpected, but because of the huge increase in the need to have all of our tooling and processes tip top, any team member that was not performing was very exposed. Luckily we have great people and the response to this was to get up to speed very very fast. On a side note, during this period a number of staff have significantly increased their remuneration as a result of stepping up the plate in a big way.
  • Meetings became fewer and much more efficient.
  • Existing clients really didn’t seem to mind or care that we went remote.
  • Prospective international clients really liked this. It was interesting to see that even though a client in London for example will probably never work directly with the staff member that’s in London at that time, the mere fact that we have staff there makes them feel more comfortable.

So, we continue to experiment and iterate with things like:

  • We change things A LOT so we now include and welcome feedback in between when we announce the proposed change and when we actually implement it. This collaborative approach has been very effective and makes people feel part of each change.
  • Implementing company wide stand ups with the view to staying connected, Everyone shares 1 thing about their week and we give a very quick update on anything that feels important.
  • I write a NONA CHRONICLES monthly mailer which aims to share as much of what I am seeing, reading, watching or hearing with a view to give a sense of what is influencing decisions that I am making or directions that we are taking. This will generally include conversations with prospective clients, what current clients are doing, saying and seeing, industry insights and opinions, books I have read and content I have consumed. I have had a lot of really appreciative feedback from staff on this.
  • I check in with each person in the business on a cycle and ask a bunch of questions with the simple view to stay connected. Some of these questions include:

Whats been the biggest win since we last spoke?

Whats been the biggest obstacle or challenge since we last spoke?

Where are you stuck?

What can NONA do to make you more successful?

How are you feeling and how is the morale of the people around you?

How happy are you (1–10), why?

If you owned NONA, what is one thing you would change?

What stood out as a contribution from another team member?

How can I be a better leader?

  • Compiling the NONA handbook. This is a central repository of everything that we do in the business, from how to apply for leave, to how we arrange our sprint, to tooling, to how lunch is served. It is really important to have as much information accessible as possible to help people be clear on what to expect and what is expected.
  • Massive focus on getting better with our tooling, specifically JIRA.
  • An ongoing focus that will never be complete on all processes across NONA.

Closing thoughts.

If remote is going work for us, we are going to need to communicate at least 3 times more than what was required when we were centralized.

Our tooling and processes need to be excellent and obsessively improving all the time. Without this there is no foundation and people will be lost and confused and therefore feel unsupported.

Without a high level of trust this will fail. This trust comes from having the right people in the team and that comes from having excellent and extremely thorough recruitment and on boarding processes.

I want to leave you with three of my main still unanswered questions:

How do we lead when nobody is watching ?

How do we protect and continue to build culture when that culture has been build around physically being together?

How do we maintain a strong leadership bond when we only see each other every few months?

I hope something in here was helpful for you and would love to hear what has worked for you in your journey towards remote.

Nona designs and builds intuitive software for FinTech businesses. If you’d like to accelerate your FinTech project, book a consultation with us!

Mike Scott

Co-founder and CEO - Nona