Building a distributed team at Elementary Digital

UK company Elementary Digital build beautiful websites and create digital marketing solutions for their clients. We spoke with Managing Partner Gyles Seward about building a successful distributed team.

Interview by Lucy Elkin, myworkhive

Hi Gyles, Can you tell us a bit about Elementary Digital?

We’re a full-service digital agency. So that means we work on digital strategy and marketing, as well as the nuts and bolts of website design, website development, and e-commerce. Our technical team are experts in Magento and WordPress. We have a distributed team; some of the team work out of our offices in Leeds and London, while some team members work remotely for much of the time.

Why did the company decide to go the distributed route?

When my partner Andy and I started the company, in those early days, working remotely saved us lots of money on office costs. When we needed an office space – to meet with clients, for example – we used a local coworking venue.

Andy, who is the company’s technical lead, had read the book Remote [by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson], which is a guide to remote teams, written by the guys who started remote firm 37 Signals – now Basecamp. A lot of the ideas made sense to him, and he was really keen to build a distributed team.

I come from a background where I was used to working in an office, so at first I wasn’t sure it would work. But I could see the logic of investing in great people rather than more office space, and he convinced me to give it a go.

What benefits have you seen from remote working?

It’s really helped us with recruitment. For developers especially, working remotely is a key perk; lots of developers just prefer working remotely. It also means we can hire from a much wider pool of people. We had a large tech employer open up close to us, who were hiring all the local developers. So offering remote roles meant we could look further afield.

We aren’t a totally remote team; we want team members to be close enough to come along to meetings, or get together for social activities. But it means that our Leeds office can still recruit from a pretty wide area including Manchester, Liverpool, Hull and so on – as long as they can get to the Leeds office when needed.

We’ve also found that working this way has really helped with productivity. Our developers found it harder to concentrate in the office and were often interrupted. Working remotely makes it easier for them to block out time to really focus.

Working remotely also sends out the message that we value productivity, instead of having a nine-to-five mentality. It doesn’t matter so much when or where someone is working, as long as the work is done really well. We find that if we send out a team message in Slack outside of office hours, people will often respond.

Gyles Seward

Gyles Seward

Managing Partner, Elementary Digital

What tools does your team use to keep in touch and manage workflows?

We use a real mix of tools. For example, we use Trello and an internal job management system to keep organised, and we use Slack and Skype to communicate. Most things are cloud-based. For example, we use Xero for our accounting, an online timesheet tool called Harvest, and we keep documents in Google Drive.

“Working remotely sends out the message that we value productivity, instead of having a nine-to-five mentality”.

What challenges have you faced, building a partly remote team?  

I think our main challenge has been how to make sure people are sharing and collaborating. We’ve found that Slack has helped us with this. We also get together for social events in real life, which really helps too. We’ll pick a location and all meet there.

Although we trust our team to deliver what we need, we’ve also found it helpful to bring in some guidelines around remote working – for example, making clear when people need to be online and contactable. And as we expanded, we also found we needed to bring in more project managers to help coordinate work – although that’s not unusual, and not just related to us being a distributed team.

Occasionally, we will work with a new client who finds our setup unusual. But this way of working is becoming more and more common for tech and digital businesses.

Many thanks to Gyles Seward. You can see current remote vacancies at Elementary Digital here or visit their company careers page to learn more.

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