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In conversation with Mark Renney, Managing Director and cofounder of software company Wubbleyou, about becoming a fully-remote business

Tell us about your business and your role within the company

Wubbleyou works with scaling businesses and public sector organisations to bring tech, web and mobile products to market. It’s important to us that the products we build together create real world value for our clients and their users. We focus on return on investment and hitting business objectives. A common example is productising a service to allow for more scalable growth, and bringing a web platform to market.

We started the business during the UK’s last recession in 2010. Wubbleyou began as a web design company, but we pivoted the business when that market became saturated. We are on a scaling trajectory ourselves so understand and empathise with the needs of growing businesses.

I’m the Managing Director of Wubbleyou and one of its cofounders (having since bought out the other), and we have a team of 10.

When did you introduce remote working into your business?

We’ve been a remote team since about 2015, when we had team members in London and Newcastle. As the team grew this became more formal, with a remote working policy introduced in 2018 where we cemented our ‘remote friendly’ approach. We preferred office working, but the team could work from home two-three days a week.

Whilst we were ‘cool’ before it was cool, this was fairly common in the tech industry at the time.

When did you decide Wubbleyou would become a fully remote business?

It was in February 2020. We made the decision a couple of weeks before lockdown because there was a lot of uncertainty at the time. People were concerned about using public transport and giving their relatives covid.  

It was a fairly painless switch for us as operationally as we were geared up for this anyway, so we just made a snap decision to go fully remote and abandon our offices. In August 2020 we ended up terminating the office lease.

What are some of the operational changes you’ve introduced as a result of being a fully remote business?

It’s a little tricky to separate out what we’ve done because of moving to a fully remote model, and what we’ve done because of growth.

Tactically, we’ve certainly introduced software to cater for hybrid working and hybrid meetings, for example, replacing sticky notes with Miro as an online whiteboard. I think though, remote working requires high trust, and we’ve implemented more to check in with people, assess workload and output, and keep an eye on working patterns.

For example, not hitting targets, or hitting targets but working awkward hours are both negatives in our eyes. During covid the lines became blurred a little and working hours bled into down time.

I think it’s important to watch that to avoid burn out and provide support if objectives are not met. I think some people will suffer in silence if they are not provoked to speak. I think remote working can be harder on those people if they do not address this.

What positive changes have you seen in your business since going fully remote?

I think having a remote team allows us to employ people with more diverse skillsets and backgrounds. Whilst the core team is in the North East, we do work with people in Europe and Asia.

I also believe that flexible working must be seen as a win-win for employers and employees. People with young children can benefit from dropping a day or doing regular pickups, and some people benefit from exercising during the day, or knowing they can attend medical appointments. Equally, sometimes we need to release out of hours or work late, and someone in the team needs to stick around to do that.

Therein lies the win-win; flexibility works both ways. I also believe that if people are creating value and getting their work done - and more flexibility makes people happier - then what is the downside to this? Remote is one part of this.

In any case, this is increasingly becoming a right of employees and an expectation.  It’s not unusual anymore and businesses need to be aware of this.

Have there been any negatives, and how did you address them?

I think there is still high value in spending time with the people you work with day-to-day, and as a team we meet twice a week to that end. I personally struggle with meetings where others are camera off as it makes it harder for me to understand that person.

I think junior team members are less likely to want to work in person, and I think they are self-limiting without realising that because - like us all - they don’t know what they don’t know. Whilst I’m an advocate for flexibility and remote working, I think people in junior roles must try to be around others to learn from them and observe.  

It’s not uncommon to see someone’s setup and they are working hunched over a laptop on a dining table or in their living room. Through knowledge or circumstance, they haven’t learned or don’t have the space for a proper working environment. I imagine it’s difficult to appreciate how a proper desk and multi-monitor setup makes you more effective until you have seen someone be very productive with your own eyes.

From an operations perspective, businesses can form a perception of ‘how do I know what this person is up to when I can’t see them?’, and I think it’s easy to fall into a trap of monitoring activity and presence rather than objectives and output. Someone can be in the office pretending to work just as easily as someone who is remote working. We have to make people accountable for the right things, and challenge when they are not met, rather than validating they are merely present or not.

I also think it’s much easier to develop a relationship in person. It’s easier to go to the pub, go climbing, play badminton, or do various other things sporadically after work when you’re all together anyway. Supporting each other as people in a team is really important, and I think that is better with some in-person mixed in.

How do you continue to build a cohesive and collaborative team culture whilst working remotely?

This is a challenge, and we are still learning here. We’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to make people’s lives easier - listening to people to understand how we can improve as a business. In doing those things, and empowering and challenging people to operate on the edge of their ability, we’re creating healthy improvement. I think this should be done whether you are remote or not.

We focus on how we help the people in the team achieve their objectives in and out of work; whether someone needs flexibility to study at university or have a family.  

I think good culture comes from empowering your team to grow, do valuable work, and providing support out of work too. I don’t think this changes because we are remote; we just go about it differently.

What has been the most unexpected lesson learned from becoming a fully remote business?

On a personal level - as a someone who’s deep in introverted territory - it’s that I do want and need to spend a couple of days a week with others in the team.

As a business, it’s allowed us to provide people with opportunities they would never have had without the option. Some travel the world, or join us from somewhere else in the world. People align their working hours with what works best for them - inline with our flexible working policy.

There are situations where people would have simply left the role because they had no choice given their circumstances, whereas flexibility and remote dissolves that issue.

What advice would you give to other businesses looking to become fully remote?

Understand what you need to measure and have trust in your team without being around them. What outputs or results are you expecting on a weekly basis, which isn’t just a bum on a seat for 7.5 hours a day. If someone is achieving that, does it matter where they are?

Understand how to coach junior team members, and set guidelines for a good home setup. I genuinely still believe in person time is best here.

More tactically, gear your processes to allow it. Meetings need to allow hybrid working, and all notes/outcomes should use documents in cloud storage and Miro so everyone can see it in real time. Also, anything on paper or on one person’s computer is a risk, so incrementally move away from that. Consult with your IT team and ensure equipment is secured and encrypted properly.

In short, try it. See where you fall over and fix those things. This doesn’t need to be an all-in gambit. Test it on a small scale, fix what’s broken, and increment until you are happy. Find the win-win between the business and the team.

Find out how it benefits both groups and gear everyone to achieving that. Alignment can be created on one side of A4 for what this looks like as a guiding principle; it’s then everyone’s responsibility to achieve the win-win.

Do you think remote working is here to stay?

Unquestionably so. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way here. I know businesses that are fully remote, fully in the office, and those in between - in all cases the businesses are doing great, and the people love to work there.

I think you have to find the method that creates a win-win you for and your people, in your circumstance. It is not a binary option.

Access more help and support with operating and running your business by visiting the Operations Toolkit on the North East Growth Hub.