The Magic of the Remote Organization

Mike Hansen

SVP, Products and Engineering at Sonatype



As the head of the product development engine at my company, I've spent the last 7+ years scaling and hacking on the design and evolution of our fully remote organization. Over this period, we've learned a lot about what works, why it works, how to keep things running smoothly and what you need to avoid. The co-located model is slowly dying or at least being materially disrupted as there are simply too many benefits that the remote model offers to be ignored indefinitely. Below are a few significant benefits to having a fully remote organizational model.

Actions taken

Effective Communications

  • The most significant benefits I've seen in the remote model stem from the level communications playing field that emerges. Everyone is equally "disadvantaged" in not having ready access to high-bandwidth face to face interaction. The people we have hired have been quite adept at compensating for this, and we have not had to specifically select for this ability in our hiring.
  • Another subtle but material advantage is that all communications endpoints are equidistant. It is just as easy to communicate with someone on your team as it is someone on another team or someone in a different department or even the CEO. Everyone is a phone call, email, chat message or video chat away. Everyone.
  • It is also largely unappreciated (until you've experienced it) how many advantages offset the "limitation" of infrequent face to face interaction. First, the communications pathways that form are very often driven by business necessity versus things like seating location, political motivations or after work interest etc. Second, at least in a product development context with a bunch of technical people that just want to get stuff done, there is more focus on the work and the corresponding results than the political or social aspects of the workplace. Finally, as noted earlier, you can still get together and should. These engagements are targeted, focused and effective rather than the more ad hoc engagements in the co-located setting. We hold these get togethers when kicking off significant initiatives and we also get the entire organization together for our annual (open spaces format) meetup.
  • We also (judiciously) allow people to shift between teams as resource needs ebb and flow, which strengthens the overall fabric of relationships organizationally. It is hard to quantify the benefits here – and they likely span all organizational models – but this reinforces optimal communications and has been very beneficial as we have scaled. We have a far more ambulatory group of people with an extensive network of personal and professional relationships and diversity of expertise across our technology portfolio.

Life is Good

  • Not having to contend with a soul-sucking, energy consuming commute on a daily basis is a major quality of life benefit for people. This also comes paired with plenty of options for a more reasonable cost of living for members of the team.
  • There is something that you do need to watch out for though. There can be a tendency for people to burn the midnight oil. While this might sound like a big benefit to members of the C-suite, product development is ultimately an ultra-marathon. You have to watch for signs of burnout and ensure people that are falling victim sufficiently dial things back to their maximum sustainable pace. The cost to replace a talented member of the team is far greater than the short-lived benefits from the incremental productivity of someone working too much.

Near Infinite Expertise

  • Hiring the right people is a perennial challenge in any discerning organization, especially when you are just starting out. In a co-located model, you are competing in specific geographies, often with better capitalized companies that have a lot of brand recognition. In the remote model, the number of amazing people you can connect with is effectively infinitely larger. We are able to open a really big door. When you are also able to eliminate the commute and offer challenging work that matters, a lot of exceptional people can be convinced to walk through it.

Lessons learned

  • There are a number of key benefits a fully remote model offers that collectively lead to significant gains in organizational effectiveness. The communications are better balanced and self-optimizing, distractions are reduced, quality of life is higher and the number of amazing people you can recruit is enormous.
  • Time zone overlap is a key consideration. There must be adequate overlap and we have this around the US Eastern time zone. We span 10 time zones overall, from Central European Time to US Alaska Time, and that is a stretch in some respects. Team members at the edge compensate by shifting earlier or later into the work day when needed, and this has worked well. Regardless, sufficient overlap is critically important. Spreading out any further than we are today is likely untenable as time shifting would lead to unsustainable quality of life challenges for people that are geographically distant.
  • Avoid a mixed model at all costs. You can't effectively mix co-located and remote models across an organization. This is because it is impossible to create a level communication playing field, or maybe you could but the effort required to level the field would drive effectiveness to zero. This is simply human nature at work. Co-located members end up forging stronger communications channels and the channels with remote members weaken. Remote members become more isolated as seemingly innocuous interactions amongst the co-located people occur without them. The worst part of this is that the problems are pernicious, hard to detect early on and ultimately require remedial solutions. This isn't to say that people can't work from home occasionally in the co-located model. This certainly works. However, you cannot achieve optimal organizational communications at scale with a primarily remote group of team members mixed with a co-located group. Source: LinkedIn

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Mike Hansen

SVP, Products and Engineering at Sonatype

CommunicationOrganizational Strategy

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