Sandy Ward, founder and CEO of Toronto-based Homezilla (HZ), fielded questions from columnist Mark Evans on managing remote employees:
Q: Why would a company want to hire developers who work in a remote location, be it another city, another state/province or country?
A: There are three reason HZ hires in more remote locations:
(1) Specific skill set: The skill set is often more important than location. Finding geo-developers two-and-a-half years ago wasn't that easy. Luckily, we found someone in Cape Breton who had the skills we needed.
(2) Cost saving: Salaries in an area are usually related to housing cost. You save anywhere from 20- to 80-per-cent by going outside the big cities.
(3) Different point of view: We are real-estate focused, real estate isn't just in Toronto. Having people in other parts of the country helps develop a product that works for rural communities and big cities. Often when a team is in just one city that is all they focus on ... and that can be dangerous.
Q: What are the advantages/disadvantages?
A: If you are willing to have a remote team you can have happier employees (they are living where they want) that can cost less. This is a huge win-win for companies and employees. The biggest disadvantage is speed of development; not having everyone in the same place can slow a company down. Tough coding problems often need three to six developers working on them. When it is virtual you lose some of the 'aha' moments because people aren't looking over each other's shoulders. Easier coding problems, like a WordPress blog, can be perfect for remote teams. All that said, if you have a remote team with the skills you need to solve the tougher problems, then it doesn't always matter.
Q: What are the keys to making sure these kind of employees are managed properly so they're productive, engaged and motivated?
A: Visibility! Visibility! Visibility! A remote work can feel isolated and alone, which will greatly reduce productivity. Something as simple as them running a monthly meeting, having their manager over-communicate some of their achievements, and impromptu personal calls to chat ( not check in) can all help. A big part of the visibility is connection to other team members; team members chatting in the hall over doughnuts doesn't happen to remote workers. But the impromptu call, if done regularly, can really help bridge this gap.
Q: How do you make them feel part of the team? Do you need to visit these employees from time to time to bridge the geographic gap?
A: Regular person visits are always good but a visit every three months isn't going to do much if there isn't ongoing support. Two tips: Find out a remote works love (sports team, wine, hobbies) and make sure they are discussed. If the team knows more personal stuff it is easier to build a relationship. But again, the impromptu personal calls go a long way, think of it as a 'hallway' chat for remote workers. Many people say IM is just as good but I disagree; a phone call builds relationships very differently than IM, texts, or emails.