Last weekend I was at a most excellent unconference, Sweden Social Web Camp, #sswc. A lot was said and a lot of really interesting stuff happened there, (all of it in Swedish, except for maybe the “allsång“).
One of the sessions which I attended was called Working remotely, with a subtitle of, How do you live in Thailand and invoice in Sweden?
Now, I don’t actually have a picture of the grid with the real title, so I may well be off a bit there. And I didn’t take notes during the session, so this is all from memory, which is pretty flaky at the moment. So rather than trying to account for what happened, other than in a short summary, I will discuss how me and my team work, as not many have the privilege to work in a distributed organization the way I do.
Summary of the discussion
What the session was wanting to investigate were aspects around working remotely, away from your normal office. The discussions wandered through practical things like: How do you make your employer understand that you are effective, even if you are not at your desk? What are tools and practices you use? Where are you wanting / going to work? Through to discussions around specifics around taxation.
The key things I think we all agreed on were:
- It is hard to convince a traditional employer that it is a good idea for you to give up your office and work from… anywhere.
- The tools are there to get the job done.
- People didn’t have a strong reason to work in any specific remote location. It was more a feeling that the traditional office is stifling creativity and restrictive.
- Nobody seemed to care much about specific tax avoidance issues, even though the discussion dwelt on the specifics quite a lot.
How we at Akvo.org do it
Akvo is a small foundation, 12 people, running internet and mobile services for development aid organizations. We develop open-source software and use this software to run our services.
Even though we are only 12 people we are spread over nine physical locations. We have a shared office in the Hague, Netherlands, where four people work. One shared office for one person in London. The other seven all work from home. Two in Stockholm, one in Gothenburg, two more in London and two in San Francisco.
The four people who work in the Netherlands are actually employed by another organization, and then seconded to work for Akvo. Akvo started out as a project of this organization, but we are in the process of separating the organizations to make Akvo independent, now when the foundation is able to stand on its own.
The other eight people are all sole traders and independent entrepreneurs, contracted to work for Akvo. Even I, who is an executive director of the foundation isn’t employed by it, but contracted in. We essentially are independent organizations a tax and invoicing point of view, what is called in Sweden “F-skattesedel”. This is the easiest from a tax and central administration point of view, but places some burden on the individual.
The EU may have an open market and freedom of movement of a worker, but the regulatory framework is hopelessly behind in a context where a person works for an organization in one country and lives in another. So the easiest way to solve it is as described above. This also takes care of issues like pension plans and health care. Each individual is responsible for their own cost and selection of services. If you, like me, live in Sweden, the choice is easy. You take 50% of what you have invoiced and send to the taxman, and they sort you out. (Well, mostly.)
We use a lot of tools to make our work possible. I presume you probably use most of them in your own work, the following is an incomplete list:
- iChat for four-way video chat (yes, we are all Mac-heads). We use this a lot.
- Skype for voice conferences, when we are five or more, and one on one video when iChat doesn’t want to work.
- Google Docs, for shared documents
- Google Wave, for shared simultaneous editing (maybe Etherpad as a replacement)
- Dropbox for a shared document repository
- Twitter, for a public backchannel and sometimes front-channel, to our work.
- Mediawiki for shared public documentation
Benefits and drawbacks
The mission critical benefit we derive from this setup is that we wouldn’t have set Akvo up if we couldn’t get the right team. The right team had people in Sweden, UK, Netherlands and the US. This automatically also gives us an inherently international outlook.
We are a distributed organization, so there is no way for me, or anyone else, to have a particular strong check on who is working when. This is an advantage, as it means we get self driven individuals who take responsibility for their work. We have several who have children, who can take care of them, take them to daycare or school when they would normally be sitting at an office desk. They compensate by working other times. The primary thing in our team is that you get the work done. But, everyone is so dedicated and passionate about the work I don’t think a single one works the minimum hours we expect, except during shorter periods. (Here I am, soon midnight, and I am blogging about work. See what I mean?)
Being used to remote working also means that we are able to let people travel for shorter periods (up to a couple of months) and work remotely.
The major drawback is that we are not sitting in the same office. No quick answers to questions (well, people often have iChat/Skype up, so not all is lost), but it is also easy to work without interruption. No easy brainstorming sessions when you drag in everyone or anyone you need.
It can also be hard to communicate well, which make misunderstandings are harder to avoid. It is also easier to get angry at someone who isn’t in front of you. Email and chat, even voice conferences hide many cues which we use to avoid conflict. So heated discussions happen more often than if we sat in an office together.
The timezones are hard to deal with as well. The US crew has to be up at 07.00 for a 15.00/16.00 Euro-time team meeting, or the EU crowd is up at 07.00 for a 22.00 Pacific-time team meeting.
Does it work?
Do I wish we sat in the same office? Yes, sometimes this would be very nice.
Don’t hesitate to ask any questions. I’ll answer when I manage to get away from this late night conference call with the US…