The guest of this latest interview is Gleb Kudryavtsev, Product Manager of Skyeng, the largest online English school in Russia. We discussed how remote work creates good managers, why questions can’t be solved in a chat box, and what it means to have self-propelled employees.
Let’s go through the most important aspects of management in terms of remote work. Can you tell me about the onboarding process at Skyeng?
When it comes to the onboarding of remote employees you can’t say, “You’ll figure it out somehow.”. It won’t work. You have to spend an hour a day during the first week continuously providing information about the project, what and how things should be done. It’s important for the manager to find time for it.
Also, it depends a lot on the company’s size. We’ve concluded that it’s difficult to tell every new employee about large business processes again and again: there’s a sales department, there are other departments and their managers, and so on.
So, we’re developing an internal study system with an exam. When employees join the team, they must read the instructions with a basic set of knowledge. Also, employees are first advised by HR, and then, they move to the managers, who give more specific information.
That’s all regarding technical aspect, but what about meeting with the team and adaptation process of the new employee?
As soon as people join the team, they write a bit about themselves and publish it on the Slack channel. This way other team members get to know new employees. Then, they have meetings (there are daily standups on many teams). That’s it, there’s no more team building in terms of remote work and employees should be ready for it.
Team building takes place in the work process within six months or a year. The conversation moves to another level when employees have already met their colleagues in real life, even if they continue to chat online, they perceive each other in another way. Until then, a team building process doesn’t make any sense. Are you going to drink beer on video chat?
Of course, we are happy if an employee comes to the office. But, work is more important for us than team building.
So, you have an office. When did that happen? Is it difficult to have a mixed team?
We always had a small office and a remote team. The office grows more slowly than the remote team because it’s much harder to scale. Therefore, the ratio between office and remote employees is about 1 to 10, but the company is growing, and the office is already quite large.
I think that there’s no need for a large office team. The office adds difficulties and harms processes. It seems that it would be easy to interact with each other in the office, but, in fact, everyone has a tight schedule and it’s almost impossible to get into it.
I don’t care if an employee works in the office or in another country. I come to the office and can hardly catch up with someone, just the same as if I were a remote employee and used Slack.
I often hear: “It’s important to come and talk to the person.” When you are working remotely and your employees are in a chat, this is the same thing as you are meeting and talking when the team has a culture of responding to messages.
There’s another problem in offices, because of which I am just such an opponent of them. Offices are a cause of bad management: the employees go to work, sit in the office, do something, and it’s impossible to understand when they are working or not.
Managers usually think if an employee comes to the office — it’s alright. But there are rigorous requirements to remote employees because the manager can’t control remote specialists according to such a principle.
But some people use modern, sophisticated tools for controlling employees.
Screen recording and other tools are useless, they don’t work at all and employees don’t like them as a general rule.
The manager has two methods: either to simply believe (you can’t trust people completely, of course, you can trust someone, but it’s worth checking on sometimes) or to manage correctly — set goals, check achievements. Find out what employees do in their spare time if the goals have been met. What a difference. Whether they go for a walk with their dog during the day or take yoga classes, doesn’t matter if their goals are completed.
Goal setting is the main task of a manager, and it’s a difficult task, but regular management is possible only this way. The office forgives bad management, but remote work doesn’t. That’s why I think remote work is better. You can’t be a bad manager and work with remote employees: you’ll have to become good, or you’ll have bad results.
If you are a bad manager, and you have trusted your employees, but then you are deceived, getting no results, and try to move your employees to the office, what will change? Nothing. When it comes to the question: “What have you done?”, Such managers will answer: “Well, my employees are fools. What can I do?”
I am convinced that people in an office are concerned about the imitation of work instead of real work.
So, why did you open your office?
Not everyone shares my point of view. There’re some people who think that an office is important, it’s about comfort and preferences, but I have the right to a different opinion :)
The office is more about a whim rather than a necessity, is that it?
There are different points of view. If it’s suitable for employees and the company is growing — why not. Perhaps I am wrong. A simple example: investors come, they want to see the office, they like to see and touch everything. Maybe, in this case, an office is important.
Also, an office can be important for small teams that work on a specific product. In certain conditions, you can achieve high results, but an open space with 100 people isn’t suitable. This is an option for a small team of seven people in the same room, which are focused on exactly one thing. In that case, an office is justified and could lead to better results.
With the growth of an office comes many problems. For example, it’s virtually impossible to find a conversation room. I haven’t been to any office where this problem doesn’t exist. At Skyeng, everything is built around remote workers and we need a lot of conversation rooms, so we made a lot of small rooms for a couple of people in advance. And they’re still not enough, they are constantly busy.
How and how often do you have a brainstorm session with the distributed team?
Every six months, we meet with each other and brainstorm, or, rather have a strategic session. But, more importantly is what happens between brainstorming sessions, when you just message someone: “Let’s think about this idea” and you dive into it on Zoom.
In this case, you just share your screen and draw diagrams on Figma or on any other tool. It’s exactly the same as if you were both standing at a blackboard. Moreover, you can share documents in Figma and draw on them together.
We often work on a table or document together, edit paragraphs, and people add something new. Not just two, but also groups of even five or ten people can participate in this process.
There are no problems with brainstorming in terms of remote work. When you need to make a concrete decision, the decision will be made. The only disadvantage in comparison to a marker board is that you need to learn how to use these tools.
A marker board is pretty good: any person can take a marker and draw something. But, if you want to provide a high-quality brainstorming session remotely, you have to learn at least a couple of tools and your employees have to learn them too.
Any prototyping tool will help you, and, if you’re already familiar with them, there are no problems at all. It’s easy. The main thing is to look at the same screen or document, not just talk. It’s crucial. When you simply look at each other, the quality of your decisions will be much lower than if you look at a document or diagram.
Is there something unusual in sprint planning in terms of remote work?
There are no unique features. Sprints are usually a table with tasks. How they work in the office: the team does sprint planning in the negotiation room, the manager has either planned something and everybody takes part in the discussion making process, or the manager takes a laptop, and everyone tries to participate in the sprint planning.
In the second option, no one is immersed in the context of planning. The first option is the same as sitting in different rooms. Everyone has the same tracker (for example, Jira), everybody sees the same tasks, so what’s the problem? Just get in touch with each other remotely and you don’t have to sit shoulder to shoulder.
It’s believed that proper communication is the most painful aspect of remote work. It’s difficult to interpret the intonation and emotions of each person, so it’s easy to offend someone. Have you encountered this problem?
At Skyeng, we prefer verbal communication rather than written communication. Messaging is beautiful as long as there are no complex issues.
Messaging is too slow of a communication channel; it’s difficult to correct errors on the fly with it. If I didn’t say something properly in a conversation and it upsets you, it’ll immediately reflect at least in your facial expressions, you’ll ask again, and we’ll quickly figure out the mistake.
When we disagree with each other we can exchange 50 messages in a chat. So, we have an unspoken rule, we just call each other if a question in a chat takes more than 20 messages.
The primary communication tool in Skyeng is calls by default, not the messenger. Chat is good for short messages and short discussions. But, if it’s a difficult, emotional, or can hurt someone, so don’t write about it in a chat, just schedule a conversation and express all of your thoughts and concerns.
If you’re writing something too emotional in the chat, you can easily offend someone. Such communication is harmful and toxic; we don’t allow it. But this isn’t a difficulty, rather a culture of thoughtful remote communication with a prevalence of verbal communication.
I often hear from my colleagues that remote work is difficult because it’s impossible to solve problems in the chat, you have to use e-mail. But, it also means that you shouldn’t solve these problems in chat, it’s not suitable. Chat is only a band-aid; problems should be solved with calls.
Many CTO’s in our interviews have mentioned that writing skills take a crucial part in terms of the recruiting process for a remote team. You’ve mentioned that you don’t pay much attention to written communication channels in your work. Do you think writing skills are crucial for this role?
It’s necessary to be able to formulate thoughts clearly and it doesn’t matter whether you’re an employee or not. Moreover, there’s no difference whether you work remotely or in the office. Strong written skills aren’t as important to me. But the formulation of thoughts is a universal skill.
How are your communication, regular standups, and meetings organized? Tell us a little bit more.
We use the following communication levels: first, the company chat, which is used by the whole team; second, we have several options for calls (Slack, Hangout, Zoom, Skype and even Facebook), if there are any problems with one platform, we immediately move to another one. We solve most of the problems with verbal communication, face-to-face, or in a group.
Many teams have daily stand-ups — it’s either 15 minutes or half an hour each morning to talk about what you have done and what will you do. In other words, to get into the swing of things. A special bot sends everyone a list of questions, which must be answered. So, everyone is already prepared.
In fact, there are few differences between remote and office meetings, except for better preparation. Because in the office, employees often come just to attend.
In addition to team communications and meetings, you probably communicate with employees individually, right? How often should this be done? Is it necessary?
I promote face-to-face calls with my employees. I believe the manager should meet each employee once a week, to talk about plans, work happenings, and sometimes about personal things. If the manager doesn’t do it, they are hardly a good manager.
This is also the advantage of remote work: it appears as you communicate with everyone in the office, but in fact, managers sometimes don’t communicate with some of the employees for a month or even more. It’s all about the illusion of accessibility.
There are no illusions in terms of remote work because it’s necessary to conduct weekly meetings, and I think it’s a very effective management practice. Moreover, you have to set clear goals, control metrics and communicate with the staff every week to answer their questions, whether you like it or not.
I remember my work in offices before Skyeng, managers often didn’t communicate with me personally. And I didn’t know that it was important. They gathered ten people without any problems, but they didn’t ask me about my individual results and plans. I think this is wrong.
The goal of individual communication is results tracking in order to understand who is lazy, to be aware of the processes of each team member, or to maintain team cohesiveness, isn’t it?
Employees don’t need to be asked in detail about their families and dogs. Professionals like when you communicate with them about work regularly. But there’s a problem — no one even talks about it very often. They gave you a task, so come back in a month with the results. Who can work like this? No one, that’s for sure.
If you want to get results from remote employees, you can’t just give tasks and let them go — it doesn’t work like that. Millions of freelancers have proven it. Either you clarify the task, control it, communicate every week, or it won’t get done.
That’s also the answer to the frequent question: “What do I do if an employee disappears?” The employee can’t disappear in such systems. If you’re a fool: you gave a task and didn’t control it for a couple of months, and then it turns out that something is wrong there, so, you don’t know how to work it.
If an employee doesn’t come to the weekly meeting — this is a super big problem, you can’t just disappear. We’ll forgive it only once. There’s no such situation where you can’t be at the meeting, except if you were in Africa without the Internet and you were almost eaten by a zebra. But this is a rare situation, and the employee should mention the trip in advance.
There’s no such situation that justifies a disappearance, you can always call, write a message, find a minute, even if there’s a fire. My task is to get rid of such unreliable employees at an early stage.
But how can you identify such employees at an early stage? What are the triggers?
In terms of work, you can’t get in touch at the agreed time. Either you can work with the calendar and appear at appointments, or you don’t work on a remote team
If you have forgotten about it and you don’t answer in the chat or by phone, then it’s enough to fire a new employee. For an old one — a couple of times, and you’re fired.
Is it possible to predict this behavior in the interview?
Usually, full-time employees don’t act like that. But there’s the opposite situation with freelancers, they disappear quite often. The fact is that they’re usually non-professionals who work for a penny. It’s difficult to expect a responsible attitude to work for such a category of people.
A typical order for a freelancer is a website for 3 thousand rubles. But PHP-developers get 150 thousand rubles a month. Question: Is it interesting for the freelancer to make a website for 3 thousand rubles? The answer is obvious. People who are engaged in this just couldn’t find a good job.
Freelancers are either juniors, fraudsters or people who do standard, non-specificialized work. Remote work and freelance are completely different things.
If professionals can present themselves properly in the market, then there are no stories about “promised and disappeared”. Sometimes it happens that you’ve given someone a job, but then the person got a better offer. So, there are no such cases of disappearances in Skyeng. But when I was working with freelancers, it happened with every second one.
Yes, people’s concerns about remote work are often caused by freelancers’ reputation. We regularly come across this misconception.
When I wasn’t working remotely, I didn’t believe it because I have work experience with freelancers. So, it’s important to understand the difference between freelancers and full-time remote employees in another case you’ll get bogged down with stereotypes.
A full-time remote employee works eight hours for your company. For example, we have required work hours from 11 am to 3 pm and you have to be available regardless of your schedule. If you haven’t warned anyone and don’t get in touch — it’s weird and we’ll ask you some questions. But people usually don’t do that, because everything is already explained.
Do you use the rule of overlapping working hours, too?
Yes, this is an important aspect. The company must work in a certain time interval, it’s virtually impossible to organize remote work if an employee in the USA isn’t ready to adapt to Moscow time.
We have enough intersection for four working hours between all employees because there are employees from Siberia (there is a difference of four hours). Of course, you could arrange for six hours, but we’re not cruel.
It should be that the company works when 90% of the employees are online. If time zones are hard to synchronize, the work processes won’t be productive. Therefore, it’s important to discuss the requirement — to work these four hours in Moscow time, wherever you are.
What about staff turnover in Skyeng? Taking into account our previous interviews, in terms of organized remote work, this problem is almost null.
There’s a turnover in Moscow for both remote and office workers, because there are a lot of good offers and headhunters, too. But there’s almost no staff turnover in the regions.
Do you pay market salaries to the regions and don’t reduce costs on specialists?
We pay either Moscow salaries or close to it. It’s very profitable for employees because they certainly won’t find the same salary in their regions, except for outsourcing.
We attract employees with the complexities of both the interesting product and the high salary. Remote work in Skyeng began with a search for developers, and most of them are still working remotely. Due to the fact that Skyeng is a distributed company, we maintain competition for the best specialists.
The average developer’s work life in Moscow is about one year, and developers are very expensive. Hiring a developer costs two months’ salary, if their life in a company is 15 months, then it turns out that 10–15% of the budget is spent on searching for developers all the time, this money goes down the drain.
Why do employees leave Skyeng?
People don’t leave because of uninteresting projects. The turnover is very small because the Moscow development staff is small. I remember people leaving for a bigger salary or they want to try other technologies. In fact, we fire a lot more.
Do you fire employees if they don’t do well with tasks?
Definitely. We have control; we look at the tasks and plan implementation. If the tasks aren’t completed — you have to leave. If we kept people who didn’t work, the rest of the employees would be frustrated and demotivated. Paying salaries for failing tasks is an unacceptable situation for us.
It doesn’t even matter that a person doesn’t work, sometimes it happens that a person doesn’t achieve results. For example, in marketing, everyone has a KPI, if it isn’t achieved, we move an employee. They might be a cool person, but we need conversion and lead prices, but it wasn’t achieved, so we give chances to others.
In this case, we don’t always fire an employee, but we return to a previous position after the executive position. We’re trying to overcome Parkinson’s law: we give a chance for internal growth, but we move employees back if they can’t cope.
And now a pop quiz. Remote work is about quality or economy?
This is one aspect of value for money. Remote work is the optimization of value, quality, and access to a larger market.
What didn’t you expect, getting involved in remote work? What was new?
I’ve discovered that it’s very efficient work rather than working in an office. I was very skeptical at the beginning.
Complete the sentence: don’t even try to manage a remote team if …
No, try it out.
I would say: don’t try to manage an office team if you do not know how to manage a remote one.
80% of managers can’t lead a team and they can’t even figure out how to. They should try to manage a remote team; in this way, they’ll identify their weaknesses and then improve their results with the office team.
Trait, that is especially important for a remote employee — ….
The ability to organize your work independently and responsibly. If you’re working remotely, you have to plan your day, the process of work and no one will help you.
Employees in Skyeng are self-propelled. If something goes wrong, the problem has arisen or the employee doesn’t know what to do, they have to find out the answers. This is a crucial quality in any position, it’s even important for secretaries. It’s a very important quality for remote work because an employee doesn’t need to be prompted.
Why is remote work so unpopular?
People need to get used to it because it’s a new format of work. It can take 10–20 years, but then it’ll become mainstream because it has a lot of advantages and a few disadvantages that don’t diminish the benefits of remote work.
Of course, physical work can’t be done remotely. But if you’re a specialist of intellectual work, you should definitely try it.
It’s difficult to hire a remote employee when your whole company works in the office. In this case, a remote employee won’t be perceived as a colleague. Launching remote work only with one employee is a bad idea because they will be ignored, colleagues might forget to call them for a meeting, to tell them something new that was said in the office.
People in the office don’t understand their problems (only remote workers understand each other). In this case, everything will fall apart and managers will decide that remote work is a bad idea, not realizing that it can’t be implemented with only one employee.
If you hire three employees and assign them to one project — this is the opposite. It’s better to switch one team to remote work at the same time, even if the manager is in the office — this is not so important, the main thing is that the whole team is distributed.
At 6nomads, we help IT talent get remote jobs in the best companies and select interesting projects for their professional growth. We decided to launch a series of interviews with the CEO’s and CTO’s of international companies focused on hiring and managing distributed teams and to discuss their successful experiences and choice to use remote work, although it still remains unpopular.
The first interview with Andrew Rebrov, CTO of Scentbird — “Move from Moscow to New York to fill perfume samples and never regret it” is about a successful experience organizing a remote team.