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Remote working is often about practicing what you preach. Sell an online meeting product? Of course your workers should put it to the test by working while traveling. Have a brand that’s all about breaking the mold and getting outdoors? Then you can’t expect your employees to be chained to a desk. Built your company during 3am coding binges? It’s hard to tie your tech team to a nine to five schedule. But what if you’re company is all about tracking time? What sort of effect does that have on how you run your distributed team?
For the answer, just ask Harvest. A New York-based company founded by a couple of designers fed up with the tools available to track time and bill clients, six-year old Harvest now has 22 employees, a third of whom are spread around the country – and a unique approach to management and communicating without being co-located, as co-founder Danny Wen explained in an interview.
The heart of Harvest’s method is a pair of tools. First, the one they sell – a product to help professionals easily log where all their minutes go. But they also built a second sister product dubbed Co-op which is available free online (though presumably will be of more limited use without it’s paid-for sibling). Together they function as Harvest’s virtual office. “Co-op is essentially a private Twitter for business. In this case, the product in integrated with Harvest, so throughout the day when somebody’s updating a status about what they’re working on, they’re actually starting a Harvest timer as well,” explains Wen.
But before you think of this set-up as just a way to monitor that no moment is wasted, Wen explains that everything, even the most frivolous of office activities, gets logged. “Co-op provides the informal channel for sharing things that are interesting around the web — articles or lately it’s been a lot of animated gifs just to help people kind of kick back. You have the work updates but there’s also this layer of general cultural sharing,” and that, he argues, has been key to gluing distant members of the team together.
“We realized a lot of stuff that may happen in the office — for example it’s somebody’s birthday and we do some sort of celebration — we think is all fun and games because we’re caught up in the moment. We’re here in person, but what we don’t realize is our remote team are wondering what happened to everyone on Co-op. And it’s our job to bring that mix back into Co-op,” Wen says, disagreeing with others who have argued for keeping different streams of work-related and off-topic chat segregated.
Co-op is a virtual space for team bonding, but it’s tracking function is also a valuable way to help management allocate tasks. “One of the guys on the team recently started to train two of our younger developers,” Wen offers as an example. “Through Co-op and Harvest and having the knowledge of where the time is going. We’re started to assess just how much time it takes to train a new person. Having the knowledge of how much time is being used for something you might have initially thought is no big deal, has really helped us to have more realistic expectations.”
The Co-op-centric work style at Harvest means a facility with communicating at a distance is key to getting hired. So if you’re looking for a gig there, put a little effort in to demonstrating you can express yourself across tech channels. “When we start the process of interviewing for somebody remote, in the extreme cases where they’re building a web page just to sell themselves, to say here’s my story and here’s why I think Harvest is a great fit for me, it’s great. I think that automatically put them in a certain funnel,” says Wen.
So worry about how you present yourself, but not your location. “We just search for the people who are the best at their craft wherever they are,” Wen says. And if you do manage to get hired, don’t expect to be handed a ream of rules and regulations. “We have this really lightweight employee handbook. It states people should work the hours where they find themselves to be the most productive,” explains Wen.
Besides Harvest’s data-driven remote management style and integration of team building and time tracking, the company also relies on modern updates of old-fashioned institutions to tie distant employees together. Take the ‘Harvest Reading Club,’ for example. “We use Instapaper, where when we find interesting articles and we star them. It gets aggregated into a daily email and distributed to the team. So somebody is in New York commuting in on the subway reading an article that somebody in Montana might have found interesting the night before,” says Wen.
They’ve also adapted old-fashioned training for their spread-out team. “We’ve set up what we call the Harvest Academy. It’s basically a resource for anybody within the team to write something internally about something that they’ve learned or if they attended a conference they can share some thoughts,” Wen explains. “It is just an internal WordPress blog, but it really helps people to feel like they’re part of the team.”
All tech toys aside, Wen still feels, like many of those we’ve spoken to for Tales from the Trenches, that occasional face-to-face gatherings are invaluable. Harvest brings everyone together for twice yearly summits in New York. “We think it’s hugely important to take people offline because after those few days of getting an understanding for each other face to face, people really have a different way of bonding and therefore a different way of working with each other when everybody goes back to their remote posts,” he says.
That being said, Wen doesn’t agree with Zaarly exec Shane Mac, who recently came out against the idea of remote teams for early stage startups, saying distance is a break on serendipity and creativity. Harvest has been remote right from the start, and Wen believes the structure never stunted idea generation. “Yesterday we were working on a design for one of our Harvest branded screen wipes and I happened to be working from home but I was working with a designer that’s here in the office,” he offers as an example. “We could sketch ideas back and forth very easily using sketching applications like Paper for iPad and just using HipChat we could iterate quickly back and forth, using Skitch to show ideas to each other. For us collaborating remotely is using these tools in the right way. It’s not about the remote situation but the tools and the people that can make that process work.”