[email protected]
Engineering

Remote But Not Forgotten

We have offices on two continents and we’re growing. How do we keep everyone together?

By

Illustration by Stephen Carlson

Last week, we introduced Postlight Lebanon, our outpost in Beirut. We were able to get it up and running pretty fast, but first we had to have a lot of conversations with ourselves about how we were going to do this successfully.

This is probably obvious, but managing teams across oceans and time zones, on fast shipping cycles, can be really, really hard. We needed this expansion to be a great experience not just for us and our clients, but for the people we would be hiring. As Rich said in our last piece, we were determined to keep the quality of our work high and the culture intact, so we approached this growth with as much intention as we could.

We might never have a perfect solution, but here are a few things that are working for us, in the words of some of our remotes.

Time Zones Are a Gift

Usually I arrive at the office at 8 am Beirut time, and while drinking my Turkish coffee, I start reading whatever my colleagues in the U.S. were discussing on Slack while I was sleeping. I go through all of the channels: social discussions, #music and #watchables, #random, administrative announcements, and, finally my project-related channels. This is where I find everything that was implemented while I was asleep, what problems have cropped up, and what still needs doing. (I also have a good sense of how my New York colleagues are feeling, best represented by the heated debates in #music about whatever’s playing on the Sonos.)

Next, I make the same rounds through our issue tracking applications, primarily Jira and GitHub. By the time I’ve updated myself on everything, I have a meaningful list of what I need to work on and how to organize my time.

Now that I’m caught up, I can start with implementation. Because everybody in the U.S. is sleeping, my day is wonderfully free of interruptions or last-minute meetings. I can experiment or make big changes and migrations without guilt, because I know no one is dependent on my work at that exact moment. Asynch communication can really work in a developer’s favor!

At around 4–5 pm my time, the U.S. is awake, drinking vastly inferior non-Turkish coffee, and I overlap for a few hours with my fellow Postlighters. The first thing I do (after saying hi!) is pass my questions to colleagues that are working on the same projects. If there’s a question or a blocker that’s been in my way during the day, someone will investigate, leaving an explanation on Jira, Slack or GitHub for me to see tomorrow.

Finally, I take calls and do stand-ups, all scheduled between 5pm and 6:30pm so I don’t have to do overtime. If there’s a meeting I can’t make, I always receive highlights and notes of the meeting afterwards.

For me, it’s a great situation. I can have discussions and mix ideas and views within our open culture. I can brag about Lebanese food, wine and sunny beaches while my American colleagues are dealing with snow. And I get to walk the astonishing streets of New York few times a year, listening to ‘Empire State Of Mind’.

Alexi Akl, Senior Engineer, based in Beirut, Lebanon

Make It About You

Postlight is a remote-friendly company, but it’s not all on them to make things work. There are habits that any far-flung developer needs to build, even if they’re only armed with Slack and a webcam. If I were advising someone about to take on their first remote assignment, here’s what I would recommend:

  • Ask questions early and often, and ask them in public channels. If you’re hung up on a tricky part of the codebase and ask a coworker for help IRL, someone in earshot might be able to interject a quick fix. Slack DMs and emails don’t allow for ambient knowledge— if you keep your questions public, you can get help from unexpected places. (And the public answer might save the next person to run into the bug).
  • Give status updates often. It’s easy — and tempting — to hole up with an assignment and go quiet for a week until it’s complete. In the office, your coworkers would know you’re busy, but if you’re just silent in Slack or Github, it’s hard for them to tell if you’re stuck, working on a different project, or went for a walk and never came back. Save them some worry. Give a short daily update, even if it’s “still working on this PR, and the timeline looks the same.”
  • Show and tell. Did you read a good post about API design over lunch? Have you seen a good screencast lately? Share the link and write a summary. The best discussions in our #engineering channel are often prompted by a pasted link.
  • Let #random go. One benefit of tools like Slack is that they provide a digital water cooler, a place where everyone on a team can chat about what’s going on outside work. This can be great for remotes — but don’t feel like you need to be part of every conversation! Give yourself permission to miss out on some of it. Decide which channels (or email lists, or forums, or threads) you want to treat as ephemeral, mute them, and drop in when you have the time or energy.
  • Find equivalents for body language and gestures. We say things with our faces and posture in the office: “I’m trying to concentrate.” “This is going really well!” “Mind if I interject?” When you’re at home projecting these same vibes to a laptop screen, it can feel like you’re sending bizarre signals to your coworkers. Remember that you’re just a Slack avatar most of the time. It can be hard to give subtle micro-updates, but a Slackmoji here and a short status ping there can go a long way. Your co-workers can’t read your mind through WiFi. (Yet.)

Drew Bell, Engineer, based in Missouri

Save Your Sociality for When It Matters

Remote work has, for me, always been a pact between two Kevins. There is part of me — a large part of me — that enjoys a murmuring office, group lunches, kitchen beers when the clock strikes 5:02. That’s the first Kevin, who breaks silences. But there is another: one who often turns from his monitor to rest his forehead on the window of the home office, who closes Slack to go on walks, who keeps ASMR on in a background tab. I work remotely to keep that Kevin alive. The fact that Postlight helps me do this seems, every time I look out the window, like a small miracle.

It only works because the company fosters a loose, forgiving, and asynchronous style of work. It’s okay to not immediately reply to stuff in Slack. Even mentions. Recently a coworker observed that we’ve adopted a habit of skewing names to avoid pinging people: if Drew’s on vacation that day, I might talk about d.rew. ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode is encouraged. And our New-York based coworkers are always willing to hop in a Hangout.

Fundamentally, Postlight understands that when we’re forced to be in one place we may not be bringing our best selves. This let us leap easily to Lebanon, and it means that we carry the company with us to client visits. And, for the few times a year when the entire company does gather in New York, it means that the first Kevin gets to grab lunches, and chat, and break a few silences.

Kevin Barrett, Lead Engineer, based in Maryland