Remote and Back Again: Reflections on 20 Years of Working Remotely

In 1999, I worked remotely in Sweden, Europe, and Latin America for a Minnesota tech company. My work eventually landed me an H1B work permit and the opportunity to come to the United States in December of that year. Twenty years later as I sit working remotely from my home in Marin County, CA, some of the lessons I learned during that time are as valid now as they were back then.

Myself, along with my 600 MentorMate colleagues and the rest of the business world during the age of COVID-19, are working proof of one of the biggest of those lessons:

Where we sit matters far less than what we do.

During the early years of MentorMate, our operations consisted of myself working out of my bedroom in Minneapolis and a handful of technologists in Sofia, Bulgaria. Remote collaboration tools were limited to non-existent at that time and yet, we still managed to build our company despite an ocean between us. Video conferencing wasn’t a viable option and international phone calls were quite costly back in those days, so for a very long time, I didn’t actually speak to the team in Sofia. For our daily communication, we relied heavily on a chat client, I remember using ICQ and MSN chat — though it was far from as reliable as the applications we have available to us today.

Prior to the current circumstances, remote work often still had some in-person or on-premise component to it. In those early days of MentorMate however, we were under tight budget constraints and travel between Minneapolis and Sofia simply wasn’t in the cards. After working remotely together for a couple of years though, we finally reached a point where we could afford to have a handful of Bulgarian team members visit Minnesota. It was a very special moment that really solidified the team and many of those people are still with the company today, 20 years later.

Thinking back, the key attributes to us successfully working remotely then are still true today.

  • Daily Check-ins Have multiple touchpoints with your team throughout the day.
  • A- and Synchronous Communication A combination of live conversations and chats as well as email and document uploads.
  • Personal Chats Don’t just talk about work with your colleagues.
  • Travel While this is harder now, it will again be possible in the future.
  • Respect Explain your reasonings and listen openly to feedback from others. Seek to understand first, then to be understood.
  • Communication of mission, direction, strategy, purpose, it all matters. Humans need meaning.
  • Organization Keep your workspace neat and tidy and your work on time and detail-oriented. It feels good.
  • Positivity Stay upbeat, looking ahead, looking up, and celebrate your successes
  • Transparency with clients, not hiding offshore or Bulgaria, we created direct client contact with our Bulgarian team members and clients. We also encouraged clients to do in-person visits to the Bulgarian office(s). It’s always a good ROI for all involved.
  • Honesty Admit fault when you’re wrong and take responsibility, including financially, but by the same token don’t be a pushover and insist on fairness.
  • Persistence Stick with a problem until it’s solved, don’t give up on a client
  • Speed There is no time to lose, and time is almost always of the essence
  • Pacing Take time to rejuvenate and disconnect

In other words, DAPTRCOPTHPSP for short!

Remote Within Remote

Since MentorMate’s founding, we’ve been a remote team by definition with offices in Bulgaria and Minnesota. We’ve posted blogs in the past that cover our process and steps we take to consistently deliver on projects using that remote model.

https://mentormate.com/guide/agile-redux/
https://mentormate.com/guide/agile-redux/

Today, we have offices in five cities across Bulgaria so we’ve pivoted to more of a “remote within remote” model. We made the decision to expand within Bulgaria after the IT sector in Sofia became saturated with competition, making the talent pool grow more scarce. We also wanted to allow people in smaller Bulgarian cities the chance to have a great job in technology without having to relocate to Sofia and leave their family behind.

Combined, our four satellite offices now have more employees than our Sofia headquarters. While we had some initial challenges as we established and grew those offices, they now are more stable from a retention standpoint, have excellent management teams, and are extremely productive members of the company.

All of the lessons we learned from working between Minnesota and Bulgaria apply when working within Bulgaria as well. We adapted with more frequent travel, especially during the initial build-up phase. This included a number of grueling road trips performed by U.S.- and Sofia-based executives to all five cities during a single business week. We’ve since evolved to a more virtual town hall format and “round-robin” travel to cover more ground with more frequency in a sustainable way.

Remote Work: The New Normal

The phenomenon of remote work has received a mandated mega-boost due to COVID-19. Organizations large and small are adapting and discovering the benefits and drawbacks compared to the traditional in-person work environment. While the idea of remote work isn’t new, the current scale is. Further, the concept of working remote 100% of the time is new to many, particularly those who previously only practiced it sporadically, rarely, or perhaps not at all.

At any rate, remote work is the new normal for the foreseeable future — and likely beyond. As we all become more comfortable working remotely, there’s a high likelihood that we won’t go back to the same balance of on-site vs remote work that we had during pre-pandemic times. For companies who have successfully implemented remote work capabilities, why not continue the practice when things have returned to “normal” in the world?

After all, fostering remote work in an organization means the talent pool is no longer restricted by geography. It also means retaining existing employees who decide to relocate — something with which I have personal experience.

In the summer of 2018, my family and I relocated from Minnesota to California. I continued my work remotely with MentorMate and commuted back to Minneapolis for about one business week per month. I maintained this schedule for about a year and a half until COVID-19 made travel more difficult. This structure worked just fine and didn’t hinder my ability to work with our teams in the least. And, while the monthly trips back to the office certainly helped maintain facetime with my colleagues, I feel I still would’ve been successful in my work if I didn’t travel as frequently.

But now, we’re all working remotely. And that’s working just fine too. We’re able to rely on social capital that we built during the pre-social distancing era to help leverage our remote interactions. This is critical as this is the new normal for the coming weeks and months, or even longer. While we may not be able to easily form new bonds as easily for a while, there are plenty of existing ones on which to build.

By branding my workspace, I’m able to keep a sense of normalcy in my workday as well as maintain professionalism on calls.

As we’ve all become used to working remotely full-time, I’ve discovered a few additional letters to add to DAPTRCOPTHPSP (we all remember what that stands for, right? Good.)

  • Dress for Work I believe in keeping routines as a way of staying productive and motivated. In a way, the less that changes, the better.
  • Mind Your Environment What kind of impression do you leave? I imprinted our company logo on the back wall of my little office shed as a reminder it is business as usual. The front-facing part is more personal with family pics and a limited, productive desk mess. For those early morning calls when it’s still dark, I have a desk lamp to illuminate my face for video.
  • Home Office Set up a dedicated, comfortable working environment. If you’re fortunate enough to have space and budget consider a climate-controlled office shed separate from the main house. There are many prefab options if you have a backyard. This is especially nice if you’ve suddenly found yourself with kids home from school during all of this.
  • Work Through Your Backburner Items If you find yourself with time on your hands, work on important but not urgent things that have been sitting. They will help your business, and they will help you feel a sense of motion and purpose.
  • Enjoy the Perks that come with this territory whether it is more time with kids or more time to work out, or reflect. I recommend Letters to Stoic by Seneca.
  • Find New Outlets for social interactions with colleagues and friends. I’ve taken the opportunity to play “War Room” (an elaborate WWII board game) with a dear old friend in Tokyo (I believe I am winning btw). Friends in Hong Kong and London are joining for a weekend video wall. Virtual happy hour. Etc. You make up your own.
  • Personalize what works for you. It might mean different hours, different places, different routines, feel free to experiment. It’s usually quickly obvious what works and what does not.

DAPTRCOPTHPSPDMHWEFP really does have a ring to it, now doesn’t it?

I converted an existing garden shed into a backyard office but there are a number of other ways to get creative with your workspace.

Final Thoughts

My point in all of this is to say that humans are adaptable. We will adapt to this too. And then, once we wrest back control of the world from the virus, we will adapt to whatever new normal faces us.

For now, if you are new to working remotely, there has never been a better time to learn about it. We want to help in the current situation by sharing our experiences with remote work to help others to transition more successfully. We’ve recently posted about the different collaboration tools we use and initiatives we’ve enacted to maintain our company culture during these unprecedented times.

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out. We’re here to help.

Stay safe and stay productive.

MM

Original post can be found here.

Authored by Björn Stansvik:

As founder and CEO of global software development firm MentorMate, Björn Stansvik has steered the company’s vision from inception to over 600 full-time employees, accelerating digital ideas with end-to-end technology services since 2001.

Björn remains a guiding force for MentorMate, constantly challenging the team to explore the boundaries of new technologies like AI and cloud computing and to pioneer digital innovation in healthcare. Under his leadership, MentorMate has grown its technical capabilities across industries. MentorMate was named a 2016 Top ICT Employer in Bulgaria, and in 2017 the Star Tribune included the company on its Top 150 Workplaces list. The newest of its seven offices opened in AstraZeneca’s BioVentureHub in Göteborg, Sweden in 2016.

As a recognized technology innovator, Björn has won the following distinctions: Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 and Titans of Technology (2014), Minnesota Business Magazine’s Real Power 50 (2014) and EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Program finalist (2015, 2016).

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