Remote first: How Common Code went from in-office to a remote, global business
Common Code (an Ackama Group Company) is a tech and product development consulting business based in Melbourne. When 2020 rolled around, they made a change that put them on to a completely new way of working – 100% remote with a global team. We spoke with Tom Williamson, Chief Revenue Officer at Common Code about the change, how they went about it and some of the benefits and challenges of having a completely remote, global team.
Tom, has Common Code always been remote and global?
We had an office for a while in Abbotsford, Victoria, but we were always open to have people from anywhere work for us. It was never mandatory for people to come into the office, but most did. One day we had someone from the UK apply for a job and then after that, had three people from Nigeria work for us. They were all great and they really opened our eyes to what the future of Common Code could be, having people in different countries working for us and the benefits we would get from that.
Where are your team members located?
The majority of our people are in Australia and New Zealand, but beyond that, we have people in Indonesia, Europe, the US, Africa, Palestine, Israel and South America. We had a South American recruiter for a while, which meant we ended up having a lot of people based in South America join the team. We also get quite a few team members who spend some time travelling South America, but don’t actually live there. It’s a really interesting mix!
How did you go about the change?
When Covid hit, we were keen to get out of our lease. We were paying a lot of money for two buildings and all of the services that came with it but weren’t actually using it. So we said, “okay, if we’re going to make this change, let’s be more conscious about it”.
We discussed whether we should be hybrid or remote and what type of policies we need for these changes. The team was keen to try remote first, specifically because they found hybrid arrangements a little more awkward to facilitate – particularly if you had a call where some people were in the office crowded around one computer and others were on their screens at home.
By not having an office, we saved a massive amount of money that we were able to invest elsewhere – like an equipment allowance for our staff. We invested about 20% on space and equipment for our staff and our staff got a much nicer home office setup. They were really happy about that and it’s actually turned into a perk for new hires.
What tools do you use to keep everyone productive and accountable?
We trialled a couple of different things: async messaging, check in and check out and standup bots to name a few. While they were good for forming a practice and habit, what we actually learnt is that we didn’t need those tools. They were costing us an amount per month, per person and we didn’t really need to spend money on them when they only posted a notification in Slack – we could do that ourselves. So we took the habits we formed using them and continued them just using Slack and Notion, which we were already using before going remote.
If you develop a good practice of writing and recording your meetings, if you have a practice of creating agendas and storing outcomes of meetings, and in our case, if you use a decision log to help make synchronous decisions and review whether they were smart or not, you’ll probably find like us, you don’t really need any extra tools that you don’t already have in place.
How do you build a team culture virtually?
It’s the hardest thing and it’s the thing we don’t have perfect yet. As a remote company, it takes a lot more effort and you need to be a lot more deliberate about it. Essentially you’re scheduling free time for people to be together. It’s the same time you would use standing by the water cooler in the lunchroom, however it’s more intentional as we try to make sure that people are actually there.
We’ve trialled a whole bunch of things. The first thing we tried was scheduling an hour every fortnight to play games, which was the activity the team voted they wanted to do. Anyone could nominate a game and we went through a whole bunch of them – like Age of Empires where people would be on Discord and talking as they played.
We also did more social games like Jackbox, but we found you need to rotate through them as it’s hard to keep people engaged with the same thing.
We picked up and adopted Discord as a way to have something like a water cooler area in the business. With Slack, you need to be conscious about choosing to post something, the channel you put it in and you need to type it out, and in the end, you may not feel like it’s worth the effort. But with Discord, you enter an audio room and you press to talk. Everyone’s silent, so there’s not heaps of interruption, but you can talk when you choose and then people can join in the conversation if they wish.
Since we’re not paying rent on an office, we have found that we do have more budget to fly the team in once a year. It’s a real boon to the team and makes them feel special, it’s great to have everyone in the same space.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
A big one for us is around equality and fairness, especially with pay. We found ourselves in a challenging spot as when we first became remote, we weren’t thinking about pay beyond the Australian market. However, someone from Vietnam applied for a job and when they told us their salary they were after, it was a quarter of our average wage.
It’s a challenging concept to think about, especially when you want your team to feel that they’re being treated fairly and equally. In turn, we also started getting people applying to work for us from New Zealand, where the cost of living is higher and income is lower. Working out how to approach that is something that has been very challenging for us, so we ended up creating a policy about pay. We now pay top of the local market if it’s below Melbourne – Melbourne is our base point as that’s where we sell and our prices are influenced by Melbourne costs. This means that if you live in a lower paying market, we will try to be the best payer there, but we won’t go outside the realm of what the market will pay.
Our team’s location can bring up other challenges too. We have someone working in China at the moment and it’s an interesting situation because of data security policy. You need to take into account not just the client’s data security policy, but China’s too, which is harder to deal with. People living in China can’t work on Google services, so if the product they’re working on is built using Google Cloud or one of their many IOS applications, we need to make sure they have a really good VPN, which is fairly common for a lot of developers or we may not schedule them on the project, because we know they might have problems trying to complete the work.
What are the benefits of having a completely remote team?
The big one for us was when everyone really struggled to hire during Covid, we didn’t. We grew over 25% during Covid. Common Code also runs its own tech recruitment business and the difficulty we had finding candidates for ourselves versus the difficulty our clients had was very apparent. Because we didn’t have limits on candidate location, we had so many more options than the clients who wanted their staff in the same city.
In terms of staff retention, the average tenure at Common Code has gone up every single month since we went remote. The average tenure now is 3.5 years, which is really high for an agency. It’s almost becoming a problem for us as we don’t have growth pathways to offer, but we find our staff don’t want to leave. People want the freedom to go visit family and live in Europe for six months or sit by a pool in Bali for a few months and that is something we can support, so people are definitely attracted to the benefits.
What’s your policy on overseas employees’ work hours? Do they need to work Australian hours?
The general policy, and we do shift it when we need to and it suits everyone, is that you must have at least five hours overlap with your team – whether that be Melbourne time, New Zealand time, or wherever your team is located.
The centre of Europe is the hardest point to make that work, so for Europe, we ask “does change in timezone suit the employee’s project?”. If so, you can work whatever hours you need, but try and have a few that overlap so you can have a meeting. If not, we would say the most we could accommodate a staff member being over in Europe is about a month. We’ll almost never say no, but we might have more restrictions if it is really in non-contact hours.
That is one thing that has changed – we don’t think in geography anymore, we think in contact hours. We got some advice pre-Covid, from a company that had always been international and remote. Their rule was that every new hire must be within three hours of a current hire, so there is always some level of time overlap and we took the same approach.
Has this remote, global way of working impacted your clients?
They don’t see the benefits like we do, as they’re hiring us to do a job and complete work for them, which we do. The benefit for us is that we have better access to people to complete their work.
We have some clients that require us to be on-site and in the office on occasion. Having a remote work policy suddenly doesn’t mean that 100% of your workforce lives in another country, for us it’s about 30% of our staff that work outside Australia. We now have a little more complexity in scheduling for those clients, so if there’s any in-office work, we need to manage it. Ultimately, the client experience stays the same, it’s just easier and cheaper for us to do it.
Common Code is a part of the Ackama Group, focusing on great business outcomes and social value across the Asia Pacific region.
Keen to talk with Tom more about leading remote, global teams and how to transition to this model in your own business? You can connect with him on LinkedIn.