Technology company DADI+ is run on an entirely remote basis. Founding partner Chris Mair talks to Flexible Boss about the reasons for this approach and how it works in practice.
Chris Mair (left) with co-founders Will Lebens (centre) and Joseph Denne.
In his last role, DADI+ founding partner Chris Mair watched his team commute to an office where they were then unable to find the quiet and concentration they needed for coding work. When he and his co-founders set up DADI+ – which harnesses big data and machine learning to connect publishers with readers – they decided to embark on an unusual office strategy: they don’t have one.
“We thought long and hard about the role of an office in the kind of company that we are and decided to give it a go without a permanent base,” he tells Flexible Boss.
Initially the business kept a real estate toe hold, with ‘pay as you go’ office space in central London, but after a month Mair says there seemed no point in having it. “Everyone just began working from home.”
This wasn’t a straightforward decision. Like most organisations, the business has clients who it meets face to face. “We still had that concern over perception. Our clients are big names and international brands – do they want the bricks and mortar? Are they going to think we’re a bit ‘village’?” In practice, Mair says it hasn’t been a problem. “We quickly found that none of them cared. More often than not we meet on their premises or at another location. It’s infrequent that they want to come and see you,” he says.
How does it work?
The company now employs 30 people, meaning it needs processes and policies in place to handle both day to day work and HR on a distributed basis. Daily work is easily handled with the help of a jigsaw of technology solutions.
Cloud-based solutions can replace the functions an office used to provide, such as daily meetings, says Mair. “We’ve got all our internal processes covered off through some cloud-based solution.”
Most of the company’s communication happens through collaboration tool Slack – using public and private channels and messaging. “It’s really good because it reduces internal email by about 80%,” he says. It also uses Github as a code repository and collaboration hub for coding, and Trello as a project management tool that clients can also access. They conduct five minute ‘stand up calls’ every day for each project using Speek – a VOIP platform. Document collaboration takes place over Google Docs and Dropbox.
Software is important to the way the company works and Mair says it is not afraid to invest in solutions that will help but will quickly drop those that fail, such as a recent attempt to embed an HR software solution.
Culture and communication
While the technology can handle the nuts and bolts of the business operations, DADI+ still needs to ensure its employees are happy and there is a culture that binds the organisation together. The central key is communication. “We speak to each other a lot and collaborate more since working remotely than when we were in the office together,” explains Mair. “As individuals we are more proactive.”
He doesn’t see remote working as a risk to efficiency and success, quite the opposite. “Management think staff can’t be trusted to work when they’re at home on their own. That’s so far from the truth. The flexibility that working remotely gives them is a massive benefit – you wouldn’t want to jeopardise that. What we offer versus what 95% of other companies is a really favourable working environment.”
Happiness is everything
The philosophy may sound hands off, but operating entirely remotely requires a greater level of effort then most businesses put into well-being. For example, working from home means staff don’t automatically get the exercise and time out of the house they naturally got when commuting. “We realised we need to stay on top of it and understand from an individual perspective how everyone is getting on working remotely,” says Mair.
The solution was to introduce a head of happiness to make sure the team members are happy and that being part of DADI+ is working well for them. She meets all employees face to face every six months.
“The only purpose [of those meetings] is to understand how people are and how they are feeling about their job. It enables us to react on an individual basis to make people happy,” explains Mair. “It could be different things for different people. There is no formula for this. We just react to issues when we hear about them. It could be forcing someone to take a weeks’ holiday, to giving someone a gym membership.”
Another key aspect of the happiness role is in helping to maintain a company culture. In an office there are things that maintain company culture on an ongoing basis: people seeing each other daily, and a visual representation of the company through the building. “In the absence of an office you need to ensure you create a company culture and a business people want to be part of,” says Mair.
At DADI+ that means regular social events, with inspiration days a monthly occurrence. Often these are linked to a client they are working with – such as whisky tasting when working with a whisky business but the importance is simply to get people together. Every year the company also takes all staff and their families away for a weekend, hiring a country house or mansion to accommodate everyone, including those based outside the UK.
Mair says the company has not experienced any downsides from working in this way. However, he admits that individuals can find it hard. “On an individual basis of course there are people in the company who have said to us I’m finding it hard to switch between home and work. It’s nice to have that distinction. When that happens the way we approach that is to look for work hubs or co-working spaces – we have set a couple of people up with this.”
There have been clear and measurable cost benefits. “We were spending over £10,000 a month on our office before. That just comes straight off the bottom line. For us that’s a huge amount of money,” says Mair.
A remote approach also drastically widens the talent pool when fishing for new hires. “The talent pool increases and the quality of developers increases.” The company most recently hired in the US and uses specific job boards for remote working. This international make up means the team can offer 24-7 coverage for clients.
International recruitment does come with challenges and the company has had to familiarise itself with international commercial tax laws, something others seeking to emulate the remote model need to consider.
Mair has been heavily influenced by pioneers in remote work in the technology field, such as 37 Signals, whose founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson wrote bestsellers ‘Rework’ and ‘Remote’. Like them, he believes meetings are often toxic and time wasting. “Our approach to internal meetings is that we don’t really have them unless they are essential,” he says. The founders meet once a week but consciously limit meetings for the rest of the team to allow them to get on with their work.
For some, this kind of trust-based remote work sound idyllic. Others will be unconvinced it would work in their own organisation. Certainly, the bulk of the DADI+ team is made up of developers, who are ideally suited to working remotely. “Remote working may not be for everybody but there are a lot of functions that can be remote. Our industry – technology – is ahead of the curve,” says Mair.
He adds that there is a lot of interest in the DADI+ model – particularly from others setting up new businesses. “To many people it is intriguing. There are a lot of industries which could work remotely because technology is giving people the tools.”
As DADI+ grows from 30 people to 60 or 100 it will also need to adapt. “There may be some interesting challenges ahead. Some of the processes we have in place may need to change,” he says.
Yet the demand for flexibility is undeniable. Mair believes established businesses will take baby steps to more flexible ways of working. Space constraints in offices may force teams to work remotely some of the time. “I think that’s the way it’s going to be. Larger companies will start adopting remote working for parts of the company and specific functions.”
Chris Mair will be talking to Flexible Boss live at 11am on Wednesday 11th May – to listen to the webinar register for free.