These days, it seems like everyone is asking about working from home. Turns out we’ve been doing it for a while, and loving it. Over the next couple blog posts, we’ll detail the technical and emotional logistics of how Tidepool makes remote work work. You can read the second blog post focusing on culture and employee wellness here.
Tidepool is a 100% remote, distributed organization. We will soon have 50 employees and contractors in 13 states and 7 countries. We don't have an office. Everyone works from home.
We used to have a small office in a startup co-location space in San Francisco, but as we kept hiring more and more remote people, it made less and less sense for us to keep paying rent on an office that very few employees used. Bay Area housing prices and office rent, especially for a small nonprofit, made it even more crazy. We finally gave up our office and went 100% remote and distributed in 2017.
A side note about the terms “remote” and “distributed”: There doesn’t seem to be a completely consistent way these terms are used. I sometimes use them interchangeably, or sometimes use both. In our case, even when we had an office, we all worked from home half the time, so I’ve always said, “We’re a remote team.” Now I say, “We’re a 100% remote, distributed team. Everyone works from home.”
There’s a case to be made for not using the term “remote.” I’m OK with the term, especially since we don’t have an office, so no one is a second-class “remote” citizen, but I can understand why some might want to avoid it.
We love being 100% remote and distributed. While remote working may not be for everyone, we find it to be an incredible way to work. In fact, we think it's the only way to go for any organization that has no good reason to be co-located. We think the mechanisms we have in place for remote work allow us to be more focused, be more productive, make better decisions, and at the end of the day, more thoroughly and thoughtfully fulfill our mission of delivering software that helps the diabetes community. Plus, we spend way less of our time stuck commuting and polluting.
Here’s a rundown of the tools and services Tidepool uses
Zoom for video conferencing
We’ve used them all. Google Hangouts, then Google Meet, both of which suffered from dramatic performance issues at about 20–25 people. Jitsi was pretty cool for a while (and also free!), but got sluggish at about 30 people. We tried GoToMeeting, and the user experience was awful. We use WebEx and Skype when our partners insist, but their user experience stinks, too. One of our cultural pillars is that our video chat is always on. It’s a way to foster our team connection — even though we are working remotely, we are still looking each other in the eye throughout our meetings!
Zoom also has some features we love:
- We really like “The Brady Bunch” view, where everyone gets equal screen space. (And wow, WebEx gets this user experience so very wrong…).
- Zoom also offers HIPAA compliance, which is pretty nice when we want to interact with clinics and users.
- Screen sharing and annotations are great for quick collaborations and demonstrations.
- We’re also working on leveraging the recording feature to produce some product demos and webinars in the future (when we’re not accidentally hitting the button in our All Hands meetings).
Zoom has been pretty great for us with 40–50 people. Here’s hoping we’ll feel the same a year from now.
Seems like everyone uses Slack these days, so I won’t extol its virtues here. I will say this: Use of Slack can be evil if it creates an expectation of “ping anyone anytime and get an answer right away.” See below for how we combat this.
Old: Trello. New: Jira and Monday
We really liked Trello, and it served us very well for about six years. But we were definitely pushing it to its limits, and eventually switched to Atlassian’s Jira (right around the same time that Atlassian bought Trello, ironically). Jira is our official project tracking tool — it’s actually the official tool of record for our regulatory quality management system, or QMS. Monday.com is our virtual war room — like a big room you might have with tons of sticky notes and whiteboards to get a big picture or project status. But since we’re fully remote, we can’t have a physical war room, so we use Monday.
Old: Google Docs. New: Confluence
We still make a lot of Google Docs (especially for ephemeral, draft documents, and for taking notes), but we’re slowly transitioning more to Confluence. Google Docs has much better collaboration tools (e.g. suggest mode and comments), but Confluence makes it much easier to organize documents like team meeting notes and employee resources in a coherent way.
Old: Sketch + Zeplin. New: Figma
Zeplin is a tried and true tool for hand off between Design and Development teams. But we are currently transitioning to Figma in large part because of the transparency it offers on the design process to the entire team. It has Google Docs-style multi-person editing, and it provides view and comment access for the whole team without additional cost.
Paper and sharpies
One thing I truly miss about being in an office environment is being able to just grab a pen and start drawing pictures on a whiteboard. I still do it, but now I use blank paper and sharpies. We’ve tried document cameras and even iPads with screen sharing. And individual team members have a variety of whiteboards in their home offices for quick notes and ideas, too.
Here are the other important tools and services we use
- Google G Suite — Email, Calendar, Docs
- GitHub — Source code control
- AWS and MongoDB Atlas — Cloud hosting
- Zenefits — US-based employee administration, FSA, and payroll
- Bill.com — Vendor payments
- Expensify — Expense report tracking
- Quickbooks Online — Accounting
- Netlify and Contentful — Marketing website
- Miro — Some folks on the design team use this for share whiteboarding, too
- You can see all of the tools and services we use at https://tidepool.org/documents (look for the “Tools” section)
One thing you’ll note: Not only are we 100% remote and distributed, we are also 100% in the cloud. Remember: “The cloud is just someone else’s computer.” Everything Tidepool does is stored on someone else’s computer. But we also make sure it’s all backed up…on someone else’s computer.
Hire the best, wherever they are — and pay them fairly!
Far and away the best part of being completely distributed and remote is that we can hire people wherever they are. No need to uproot your family and move. No need to suffer insane San Francisco Bay Area housing prices. And it means we can find and hire just the right person for the job, wherever they are. Not everyone wants to work for a nonprofit, open source startup that helps people living with diabetes. But there are a heck of a lot of people who do, and we can hire the best, wherever they may live.
Hiring the best means that we can set the expectation that the work gets done — period. We have created a culture that is not concerned with proverbial “bed checks” and the hours you are sitting in your office. Instead, we clearly communicate benchmarks and schedule check-ins along the way, allowing everyone to focus on the work getting done. If life happens and someone needs to adjust their schedule? No problem.
We pay people fairly. How do we define “fair”?
We pay at the 50th percentile of the Radford Global Technology survey for US national jobs, which excludes the crazy San Francisco Bay Area and Manhattan. We do not pay differently depending on where you live. Overall, this means that folks who live in rural areas with a lower cost of living feel pretty great about their salary when working at Tidepool. Folks who want to live in San Francisco or Manhattan may have a tougher time finding affordable housing, since we aren’t competitive with Uber, Twitter, Google, Apple, or Facebook.
How does Tidepool get health insurance for people in every state in the US?
In this case, Tidepool is a bit lucky. Since 51% of our employees live in California, it means we are eligible for BlueShield of California. There are a few carriers who offer US-wide plans, but they weren’t right for us. We may have to revisit this if our balance shifts.
Do you pay for people’s broadband at home?
No, we don’t. We also don’t pay for their electricity, water, or sewer, but those are also required to work effectively from home. It’s 2020, and we figure that high speed broadband is just one of those services that everyone has to have anyway. Plus, we already pay people fairly, and offer a productivity and wellness stipend (which I’ll detail further in our next blog post).
How do you pay international employees?
Technically, all of our international employees are independent contractors. At our size, it would be too onerous for us to try to set up international subsidiaries in seven different countries. Our international employees all have their own entities and invoice us monthly. Most use TransferWise so we can easily pay them in US dollars without crazy wire transfer fees.
Remove distractions and let people focus
When I think back to all of the jobs I’ve had before, I realize that when I really, really wanted to get something serious done I had to either lock myself in a conference room, or — wait for it — work from home. What’s up with that? If you want to get work done, you have to avoid the work environment? I see why Chris Herd called them “distraction factories.”
When Tidepool was smaller, we used to have a “standup” scrum every day (well, Monday–Thursday anyway, because Friday was actually Saturday for Jamie in New Zealand and Lenny in Australia, and that would have just been mean). We slowly pared that back. Now we have just two all-company meetings per week:
- The Tuesday All Hands
- This is when we all get together and talk about how things are going with our finances, product, marketing, regulatory, customer support, and engineering. There’s usually one or two highlighted topics, and one or two updates (e.g. customer support gives a monthly update on ticket stats). We block off 90 minutes for these, but we often end the meeting early. (It’s OK to end meetings early!)
- The Thursday Standup
- This is not an “everyone go ‘round and give an update” or a scrum standup. It’s just a convenient place where folks can bring up topics for discussion that have large potential audience. If the topic only involves a subset, we create one or more breakouts after the main meeting.
- Show & Tell
- When the Thursday Standup is over, we do a “Show & Tell.” This demo time is a way to proudly show off something cool you’ve been working on. It can be anything — a new mobile feature, a new automated test harness, a new way of looking at metrics. We also ask all of our interns to do a Show & Tell at the end of their internship. (I’ll admit, I sometimes get a little verklempt at these — I love seeing interns thrive!)
This is from a show & tell presentation at the end of last summer from one of our interns, Anna Quinlan.
For both the Tuesday All Hands and Thursday Standup, we prepare an agenda ahead of time. We used to do this as a standing Google Doc that we just kept adding to, but recently switched to a templated Confluence page.
We also encourage the use of “Do Not Disturb” on phones and Slack. I often will put Slack in “do not disturb” mode indefinitely, and only check it a couple of times per day. If someone really needs to reach me urgently, they can call my phone, twice. Each Tidepool team member has defined their own escalation policy in case they absolutely need to be reached in case of emergency or urgency.
We also encourage people to block off time on their calendars to get real work done. Some people call it “focus time.” Some call it “DND” (do not disturb). And we encourage people to “bulldoze” their calendars regularly, to make time for the important stuff.
Trust each other to get the job done
How do you know people aren't just slacking off at home? How do you know they aren’t napping on the job? You don't. You don't know if they are slacking off at the office either. Just because someone is sitting at their desk and staring at code or a spreadsheet doesn't mean they are actually being productive or effective.
I heard of one company that actually insisted that remote workers keep a second laptop camera pointed over their shoulder showing them and their screen at all times. That sounds awful. If your company does this, I suggest you leave. They clearly don’t trust you to just do your job — that’s a horrible way to measure productivity.
Here's a little (not so) secret: I occasionally take power naps. That’s right — sometimes I get up from my desk, and go to my bedroom, and lie down and go to sleep. Usually it’s for 20–30 minutes. Sometimes I turn them into coffee naps. Try it, you might be amazed at how productive you are when you wake up.
Asynchronicity means writing it all down
One of the things that being completely distributed encourages you to do (I almost wrote “forces you to do”), is to be really good about writing stuff down. When fewer people are in a meeting, but people still need to know, you need to write stuff down.
Narratives, not presentations. We almost never make Keynote, Powerpoint or Google Slides presentations. I won’t say “never” because sometimes slides are what partners want, or sometimes they are better for storytelling. But if we have information to convey, or a decision to make, we are far more likely to do it in a 5–7 page narrative form. Google Docs is great for this, because it allows for collaborative suggesting and commenting. I learned this technique during my days at Amazon, and grew to really appreciate it. (More on this in references.)
Meeting agendas and meeting notes. We’ve always been good at taking notes in our meetings. In fact, Brandon and I have amassed literally thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of Google documents on nearly every meeting we’ve ever had. Having them all be easily searchable comes in very handy.
Writing it all down also makes it much easier to accommodate worldwide perspectives, and allows people who weren’t at a meeting to get up to speed on a decision, or information they may have missed.
Radical Transparency, Inside and Out
Openness and transparency are core values of Tidepool’s. This is especially important for us as a radically transparent nonprofit organization. Our core value of radical transparency jives with our default of writing everything down.
But when you work from home, and folks can’t just walk past your desk and see what you are working on, how do you let folks know internally what’s going on? We’ve tried a few things here, and I would say it’s still an area where we are experimenting.
When we were small, it was easy to have a daily standup, and have everyone share what they were working on. After about 8–10 people, this became unwieldy. Then we tried using a service called WorkingOn (which appears to have since gone away). WorkingOn was cool, but also turned into a fire hose that was impossible to keep track of.
Recently, we’ve tried a “#highlights” Slack channel. Inspired by Make Time, it’s a place for folks to share a highlight or two from their day. It can be pretty inspiring.
This is a pretty thorough look at the technical logistics of how Tidepool makes remote work work. In our next blog post, we’ll get into how we manage the emotional logistics of a completely remote and distributed team.
Here are some of the resources that are mentioned across both of our remote work blog posts:
- It doesn't have to be crazy at work
- Make Time
- Five Dysfunctions of a Team
- Technically Wrong
- Blog posts
- Asynchronous Communication: What It Is & Why You Should Care About It
- Distributed Teams Vs. Remote Teams: From the Physical HQ to the 100% Virtual Office
- Modern Engineering Teams: On-site vs. Remote vs. Distributed Teams
- Is There a Difference Between Distributed Teams and Remote Teams?
- The Joys and Benefits of Working as a Distributed Team
- How to Transition Your (Engineering) Team to Remote Work | Arc Blog
- Ending the Stigma of Remote Working — Travis Bogard
- Why the 2020s will be the Remote Work Decade
- Amazon’s Narratives
- What might Amazon’s six-page narrative structure look like?
- Amazon Shareholder letter on narratives
- Writing Docs at Amazon