It’s now three months since our UK business went legit so to speak and moved into a physical office in Milton Keynes, about 30 minutes north of London. Among other things, I’m pleased to report that I wasted zero time in executing against our strategic growth strategy, starting with branding up our own version of the famous Milton Keynes Concrete Cow.
Apart from a short-lived rental agreement on a cupboard in London that Xero co-founder Hamish Edwards used in 2008, our UK business ran virtually for the best part of three and a half years.
Today, twelve weeks in to our new home, I have to say that I hardly recognise our UK business. Not least in the sense that our staff numbers have doubled from eight to sixteen since we moved in. So, as a seasoned veteran of remote web working but with the benefit of a little objective distance since we opened our office, how do I feel about virtual working and what have I learned?
Firstly, I should note that as an overseas subsidiary business, we benefitted greatly by not having to locally house a number of core Xero functions like finance, dev and operations. That said, we have the added challenge of operating at great distance and at the opposite end of the clock from HQ, which meant that our UK business was in effect virtual both upstream to the mother ship, as well as virtual in country.
When I joined Xero three years ago there were five of us in the UK. If your team is that small (and awesome) then individual contributor roles generally lend themselves well to working remotely. However it was a little more challenging managing a virtual team.
Unsurprisingly we leaned on web tech as much as possible to facilitate remote collaboration, helped enormously by the fact that our own back end line of business applications are all in the cloud, but we also quickly became power users of Google Apps, Skype and Yammer to negate our disconnected physicality.
Of the three, the one remote collaboration tool we just could not have lived without is Skype for a number of important reasons. Firstly, the combination of presence awareness and unobtrusive chat meant it was very easy to jump into an ad-hoc voice or video chat with someone to discuss an issue. But for this we’d have probably relied much more on email, which I’m sure would have slowed us considerably.
Secondly, while Skype’s conferencing capability also provided us with a platform for hosting our weekly team meetings, it also meant that if a 1:1 call required input from someone else half-way through the call, it was easy to drag and drop participants in and out. Skype’s screen sharing capability also made it easy to discuss product issues between colleagues.
We still use Skype today as a few people remain remotely based in the UK, but an interesting new use for Skype has emerged since we opened our office.
While having a whole team working remotely disadvantaged everyone equally, I sensed a risk that an ‘us and them’ divide might emerge between office based Xeroes (and more acutely so as we grow) and those in the team who are still based remotely. So, we now rely on Skype’s persistent chat room capability to create a back channel for all of Xero UK meaning that office based staff and remote based staff don’t forget that either constituencies exist, and we keep our UK team spirit strong. So far that seems to be working.
While we’re now well into a new chapter in the UK and you can’t beat physically bringing teams together, I’m still blown away by how modern web technologies both empowered and augmented our fledgling operation, enabling us to punch way above our weight for so long.
Could we have pulled this off ten years ago? No way.