Beata Green is the Strategic Director of HeadChannel, a company with teams in London and Poland. We discuss hiring remote employees, being productive, women in IT, and focusing on building what the client wants.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Great, and we’re live. So welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely and I’m very excited. Today on the line I have Beata Green from near London, a town near London, and Beata, you and your husband run a company called HeadChannel together, all remotely. So I definitely want to dive into that and how you guys do that and the benefits and why and all of these things but let’s start with the first question which is what does your virtual office look like? What do you need to get your work done?
Beata: Okay. I was just going to say I should have my husband here with me but he’s still in his pyjamas which [unintelligible – 00:41] working remotely. No, I’m joking. I think he’s fully dressed in his office but we work from home part of the time and we have dedicated rooms in our house to serve as our offices. I work downstairs and it’s just a very basic room with two good internet connections with the laptop monitors, with all my filing, and with sofa, with my dog sleeping on the sofa, and my husband has a dedicated room upstairs which is clearly also just his office which means that we can both finish the work and close…shut our doors in the evening. It [doesn’t] work like this, by the way. The important thing is that you do need to have a separate space for working because that gives you that separation of work and your private life, specifically if you have children and, you know, other areas of the house which you really don’t want to mix work and your private life and it doesn’t have to be a separate room. Just make sure you’ve got a desk somewhere in a corner if you do work from home which is dedicated purely for your work. So, we do have two internet lines which is also important if one connection [falls] down, we will switch to another and we have our office phones in here as well and the interesting thing is that our phones really can work either in our home or our office in London because we have office in London as well or our office in Poland. So, or our office [unintelligible – 02:38] if we go on holidays as well. We can pick up the office line anywhere which is fantastic as well and the technology enables us to do it.
Lisette: So you’re one of the few people. I’m actually getting some background noise here. So, interesting. Maybe that’s going away…it’s going away now. You’re one of the few people that I have heard also say that you have two separate internet lines which I find very important. I also have the same so if one provider goes down, I have a backup provider and I think that that’s a really good tip for giving people and then also you and your husband work out of the same house but with separate rooms.
Beata: We do, we do in separate rooms. It’s just like where, I think, it’s probably better for us not to work in the same room. We speak a lot on the phone to people, not just to our team but to our clients. So we probably will disturb each other if we were in the same room but we do meet over coffee in the garden or for lunch so we can catch up then and we see each other in the evening. So it’s [unintelligible – 03:54] and obviously we can discuss [unintelligible – 03:53] during the day if needed as well. There are lots of good things about working from home and it’s…you are very much in charge of your time. The whole notion of working from home specifically if you have children, if you want to find a better work life is that you can do it because you can fit it in your working day, things that you probably wouldn’t be able to do if you have to go to the office, and maybe a little bit of my personal story is that when I worked professionally in the city, I used to leave home at 7 am and I came home at 8 pm, sometimes 9 pm. I had to travel a lot and there were moments where I just wasn’t at home and being at home allows me to…allowed me in the last few years to [unintelligible – 04:57] so much more time with my children. I just see them more often and be for if they have any school performance or anything that they needed me for and that made a huge difference as well.
Lisette: I can imagine the need to be with family and the want to shorten the commute is a big driver, of course, for lots of people going remote. Let’s talk about what your company does and how it got started. So tell us a little bit about HeadChannel. I have from the internet, I found that it’s bespoke software development company and I really loved your quote where you said we make the web work for you. I love anything that does work for me so I really love that quote.
Beata: [unintelligible – 05:43].
Lisette: So tell me about the company.
Beata: It’s, like you said, bespoke software development company. It started in 2004 and I have joined in 2008. We started with building small software applications website and we are now building very complex software systems. We integrate multiple systems as well. We build mobile applications. Our ambitions is to dive in into sectors of technology which are new and exciting. So we aim to, in two years’ time, be in big data, in virtual gaming. We can’t do it all but we progressively want to learn and we want to do bigger and better things and a challenge has come with working remotely with the team [we’re doing everything we’re saying] it does present us with certain issues and problems that we have to overcome in the way we’re working which I can [delve] on later.
Lisette: Yeah we definitely want to [unintelligible – 06:52]. Have you always been set up as a remote company?
Beata: Pretty much yes but being remote, I mean we do have three offices. So Andy and I work either from home or we work from our office in London but we use our office in London only to meet our clients. It’s a huge office on Farringdon Road where we have our conference room and the other people, not our people working in there. So sometimes we go [there] and then we [unintelligible – 07:27] go and see the clients as well in England but we also…our main office is in south of Poland [unintelligible – 07:36] where we have around, currently, around 50 people. It’s very important to say that even though we have the office space, it’s very important for us to promote the working from home culture as well. So while we expect our team to be in the office for some time of the week, we’re very much keen for them to work from home as well because it [unintelligible – 08:03] everyone. A lot of them have to commute. Some ladies have young children as well. So the balance is very important. Obviously conditionally that they can return meetings and they can be available when needed but we tend to very much be in favour of that.
Lisette: Okay. So let’s dive into what’s so hard? What are the challenges that you guys came up with when setting up? So it sounds like you have offices in different locations and then some people are also working remotely. That’s a really challenging situation to be in.
Lisette: I’ve heard.
Lisette: So what is it that you guys have struggled with?
Beata: The key thing and this really comes from not just our clients but from the industry as well. The key thing when you’re building complex systems is absolutely being sure that you build what the client wants and in order to do it, that sort of initial communication and the understanding of what it is has to be really, really good and obviously it’s much more difficult to achieve when your client sometimes not in the same room. So in order to overcome that, we used…we, obviously, we used typical software solutions which the industry uses like Enterprise Architect, [unintelligible – 09:27] but it’s also very important in the virtual office notion that you [unintelligible – 09:35] with face-to-face meetings and sometimes it’s not easy because you either have to fly people in here or you have to fly clients to Poland but there’s occasionally teams where they sit together and really helping to ensure that we capture everything that we need to capture in order to deliver the best product possible [at the end of it].
Lisette: Is there a certain amount of time that you have before meeting face to face? I mean, is it like do you do it every three months or do you try to do it every two weeks? Is there a regularity to it?
Beata: Yeah. It very much depends on the project. With larger projects, we do it once a month.
Beata: Once a month, with smaller projects it might just be that once is enough at the beginning of the project and then we don’t need to meet again but that face-to-face meeting and being also contactable on Skype, having regular catch-ups, not forgetting that communication is absolutely crucial in that process. [It’s really critical in this as well].
Lisette: Okay. So, there’s communication problems which you solve by going face to face. What are some of the other things that you struggle with?
Beata: The other thing is…and that’s in relation to the team management. I very much strongly believe, probably a little too bit strongly, that the cohesion of your team is very important and I don’t believe that you will get that by having ten freelancers working remotely from home because it’s not only about the cohesion of the team but it’s also about establishing within the team processes and the software architecture that works with everyone and by that, I mean having the people really work by [searching rules], not too restrictive. We obviously can’t be too restrictive but then we reuse the elements of the software that we build, that we follow certain programming standards, that in all of the processes that we have, we do it together and it is important that the team for parts of the week which they are working for us are together.
Lisette: Yeah. Everybody said that. I mean, ideally, you want to have people together in the same room. That’s the ideal and then all of these conversations are well, what happens when we can’t be together or when somebody wants to be with their family but yeah, the overlap is awesome.
Beata: Yes but you can balance that. You can balance that because, like I said, we do have members of the team that are in the office a couple of days a week and obviously they have to travel to get there and the rest of the time, you work from home. In order to overcome this, there are, again, we use software like JIRA to plan the work, [unintelligible – 12:32] the work. We use daily [unintelligible – 12:35] which people can join in remotely as well if they need to. I think those are the basic tools with the developers, JIRA and the [unintelligible – 12:48] and constant communication with the team. With Skype, you can pretty much be online and discussing things all the time but there needs to be someone [unintelligible – 13:00] all of this. That’s really my [point] that people can work in isolation with each other and it’s really handy if they can have some time together even if it is just a small time of amount together.
Lisette: Indeed. So you’ve spoken about this establishing a process for how to work together as a team. How do you do that as a team? As in, do people get together and say, okay, these are going to be our core hours? What’s the process for doing that?
Beata: Okay. I’m very lucky. We have a fantastic management team in Poland who take on majority of the operation issues. So until we discuss them together, I don’t tend to implement them…sorry about the phone…I don’t tend to implement them myself because you can’t really do it successfully [unintelligible – 13:54] remotely but what we have, what we’re working on which is very important, we work on the [unintelligible – 14:00] strategy so we establishing directions where we want to go, financial goals, and this then will translate into our management team objectives which then will translate into individual team members objectives and what is very [unintelligible – 14:20] in this as well is that this individual team members objectives will include the training and development part, will include the objectives from the company perspective but will also include their suggestion how to improve our company in the future. What do we need to do create a better working environment for them and with this structure in mind, wherever you have the people working whether it’s home or not, you at least have that underpinning structure that you can monitor going along and moving forward which, you know, possibly gradually will allow us to open the office in Ukraine in six months’ time because [we] will be set up [with dealing with this remote working] but everyone should be clear [unintelligible – 15:08] for us and for everyone in the company as well.
Lisette: Indeed. That alignment is so important and I think a lot of people struggle with really aligning the team in the same direction, especially remotely. When we’re in person, it’s easier of course.
Lisette: We can share the piece of paper and all that.
Beata: That’s an interesting [unintelligible – 15:28] being in person because sometimes when you manage the team remotely, you don’t read the signs and the signs are in seeing someone’s face, someone’s…just there are little things that give you the notion how that other person feels because people have the tendency not to tell you everything specifically if they don’t feel comfortable and when you’re face-to-face, you can read that really well. I mean, I can read that very well and I can react to it. Sometimes, on Skype, you can miss that or you can say something which can be not obviously pleasant in [unintelligible – 16:08] you can say something which can be taken slightly differently to what you [have] meant. Also, I have learned around the years is be watchful of the emails and so if there is any email…and I’ve made this mistake in the past so many times.
Lisette: Me too. Guilty.
Beata: [unintelligible – 16:29] want to get something out, don’t. Just don’t. Just wait, [unintelligible – 16:37] and speak to the person because that’s so much better. It just can have such a demotivating effect because overall, people, if you have the right people they will always want to do well and if you don’t have the right people, then don’t have them [unintelligible – 16:52]. So…
Lisette: I wanted to ask you about that, actually, in terms of your hiring. What do you look for when you’re hiring people in order to be able to work remotely?
Beata: Okay. We look for people who can…it’s a very good question…who can organise themselves, who can communicate well. Communication is very important because if you don’t ask the questions specifically when you work remotely, you will get stuck. Self-organisation is important. You have to trust them that when they work from home or wherever they are, they still get on with their tasks and they can clarify issues if there are issues. And also it’s something that comes with time that you can rely on them if there is a need to do a little bit more over 9 to 5. I mean the situations like this [unintelligible – 17:53] there will be sometimes situations where you have to call them at 7 pm [unintelligible – 17:58] to help you to resolve the problem. So, we’re not necessarily looking for the brightest sparks in the industry but we are looking always for the people who can learn very quickly, who are bright, and who can adapt to the ways [of teamwork] as well.
Lisette: Yeah. I’ve always found it so hard to tell in the beginning. I always like…everybody when I first meet them and it takes me a little while to get used to how they are and so when I’m hiring people, I tend to give them little tests using different forms of media, you know. On somebody, I’ll do instant message. In the next one, I’ll do a video call and then I’ll send an email and then I’ll just see how fast are they, how responsive are they? Can they talk in times zones, these kind of things. So, the time zone difference Poland and London, that’s only one hour, right? Or is it 2 hours?
Beata: [unintelligible – 18:50]. Yes.
Lisette: So that’s a great way…one hour time zone difference is not so much.
Lisette: In terms of working so that’s pretty lucky but then you also mentioned you have another office in…there’s London, there’s Poland, and I think you said you’re going to do one in the Ukraine.
Beata: We are thinking about this, yes. We are thinking about setting up a [place] in Ukraine at the beginning of 2017 so that would be very, very exciting.
Lisette: Why Ukraine?
Beata: It’s a coincidence. One of our employees is moving out there. He’s Ukrainian so we just [thought it’s a] fantastic opportunity for us to maybe try to work with him to do it and so it’s just the opportunity presented themselves and it’s becoming probably everywhere more difficult to recruit good developers, good [skills]. So it just would give us another another opportunity if we continue on the road to expansion next year to really expand the team and maybe across the border [unintelligible – 20:00].
Lisette: I hear a lot about the Ukraine actually and so that’s why I asked but it seems like they have a lot of developers there that have been looking for work and there’s not enough work in the local market. So they’re also looking [unintelligible – 20:13] so it seems like a really good fit. I want to ask a little bit about your team managers because managing a virtual team comes up a lot and I don’t know. Are there tips that you have for how to be a virtual team manager or things that you expect your managers to do?
Beata: Yes and the skills of virtual managers are even more important because they have to be attuned to…it’s direct communication that you sometimes need with the team and I think in that case this underpinning strategy and the objectives and clarity of the path is really crucial. Also, regular meetings and they can take place on Skype as well are very important as well and we are lucky in a way. We are able to meet face to face regularly so it really helps but we also have very much a strong structure that we have this regular catch-ups on Skype because sometimes you just miss something. If you don’t ask the questions, if you don’t repeatedly say do you need any support me, is there anything I can do for you to help [in your daily work], you might miss the [unintelligible – 21:42].
Lisette: Right. So having some sort of a meeting structure or a meeting cadence where people are checking in regularly with each other.
Beata: Correct and [unintelligible – 21:52] catch-ups where you see, okay, this was your development plan, this was our development plan. Have we achieved it? Okay, if we haven’t what we can do better in the next six months for you and for us. So, everyone knows that we’re progressing for their own sake, for their own development but also as a company as well.
Lisette: I want to talk a little bit about productivity and being productive as a remote worker. What are some of the things that you do yourself? Do you have a morning routine or…?
Beata: Yeah, I love that question. I could go on forever. [unintelligible – 22:32].
Lisette: I love it too.
Beata: It’s really…there are days where you just feel, oh God, [I don’t] want to get up and specifically if things are not going as you would hope and being on your own drains me. I am like you. I’m a people person. I love being with the team. I love speaking with the people. [I could] do it all day. When you’re on your own, okay, I know my husband is upstairs but he’s much better than I am with just getting on with things and when I’m on my own and things do not go so well, I find it very hard to move on with tasks on my list. So, the routine that I would recommend to everyone, and I’ve been working really hard over the last few years to have that and very much believe in using the day to its full potential, I tend to use the mornings to [refocus] and either go for a swim or I’ll take my dog for a walk or a run and I try to meditate a little bit, not very successfully but that morning time is the time to really just focus and then [I, obviously,] either here in this office or the office in London and in the evenings [is more difficult] because we tend to work long hours but I always try to ensure that we finish by 9 pm or 10 pm and [the last hour really is on] relaxing. But [unintelligible – 24:14] task list, it’s really at the beginning of each week, you really [stop] and think what it is that I want to achieve this week. Work on [your] priorities and try not to focus on small things. Get the big things out [first]. So if you have any client, potential client, make sure that you pin that client down that week. If you have cash-flow problems, make sure that you resolve them. Obviously fitting in smaller things along the way but never forgetting the bigger things picture and I work very much based on the task list for the week and daily tasks list and I just knock it off as I go along. That really helps me.
Lisette: Yeah, there’s nothing like focusing. [unintelligible – 25:00]. Yeah. I mean everybody says do the big things first. Focus on the big priorities and just keep the head down and continue. Yeah so that’s great advice.
Beata: [unintelligible – 25:12] so difficult to achieve sometimes. I wouldn’t undermine that but it’s not impossible if you get that routine in place.
Lisette: Exactly. It sounds a lot easier than it actually is so, you know, it just sounds so easy to just say well just focus and do the big things first but if it were so easy, everybody would be able to do it. Not everybody can do it. Yeah.
Beata: [unintelligible – 25:35] friends as well. Make sure that you always have things sometimes in the evening or over the weekend that you [unintelligible – 25:42] use the networking in London working a lot where I go and meet other people, individuals that also work for themselves and they’re very high-level professionals. They work for large corporations as managers and I tend to learn a lot from them as well. So it’s making sure that outside the work, you still have the network that can support you and that you have your friends as well that you can rely on.
Lisette: Indeed. Don’t forget to be social. Yeah.
Beata: [unintelligible – 26:14] when you work remotely because that life…life balance is not there anymore, specifically when you work from one house. The tendency is that you always drawn to the computer and even when you have house chores to do, you almost feel guilty about doing your own house chores because you know there are things or at least the work demands you to do. So that’s a difficult situation, I think.
Lisette: For sure. I always struggle with…I have a rule for myself and that is never skip physical exercise for work because there’re sometimes when I think I could really use that hour to finish up the newsletter instead of going running and then I say no, no, you are not allowed to skip exercise for work you have to go exercise. [unintelligible – 27:05].
Beata: [unintelligible – 27:05] absolutely agree.
Lisette: So, I want to dive into something specific related to you and I want to talk about women in IT…
Lisette: …and women in business because you’ve written this great article called How to Be A Successful Businesswoman that I really enjoyed and you had some fabulous tips for how to do that. So I don’t how to start with that but I want to…I mean, with the developers, it seems like a male dominated field. I don’t know how many female developers you have or if it’s difficult to find them but I want to talk about it a bit.
Beata: Yeah it is a very interesting subject. We have a team of around [unintelligible – 27:43] around 32-33 developers. Sorry, thirty, no, sorry, it’s 22 developers and only one of them is a woman and so…and we do have the team of business analysts and I’m pleased to say that all of them are women.
Lisette: Oh, interesting.
Beata: They do need a lot of technical skills as well but, overall, the perception, the intake of women into IT is very low and I did have this discussion with my son who is just doing his GCSE’s and he’s doing computing. He stated that in the class of 16, only one of them is a girl. So the problem starts likely earlier [than] trying to get the women into IT and I think from our perspective we don’t [positively] discriminate during the recruitment process. However, I think our obligation as a company that employs women in IT is to enable them to do things like work from home and have the flexible time when they come back from maternity leave to take their time. I mean, it’s great we encourage them to work part-time but we always will do everything to enable the life work balance for women but you’re absolutely right. I found it in myself as well is that the perception that women don’t have enough technical skills is there because I found [unintelligible – 29:23] that I had that perception myself and I was told about this and I absolutely agree that maybe we should break the taboo even within our own company to do it better and give this women who want to be technical ability to be more technical than they are.
Lisette: Interesting. Do you think it’s more important for women than men to the work life balance issue because women tend to be the caretakers, I mean, children, although men take, you know, a very active role in the modern day I think in these kind of things but I’m not sure if there’s a ….if women find the work life balance more important than men or I’m not sure.
Beata: Well, I do believe so. I do believe so that it is very important that women should have the opportunity to be with the children when…at least to do it better. I mean I also…personally also believe that the work is very important in one’s life but the balance is important and when I was younger, [I’d lost this] for a while and I think I wouldn’t like the same to happen to our women employees because your children are only young once and you should use that, maybe not to be [at home, a full-time mum] if this is what you choose but just really have the ability to spend more time with your kids.
Lisette: Indeed. It seems like a real shame for a lot of mothers to not be able to work only because they can’t do it full-time. I mean, there’s plenty of jobs and things that we can do part-time from home also taking care of…I mean, the family doesn’t need the mother full-time either, most of the time.
Beata: No and the irony is the IT offers a superb opportunity to do it. The demand for skilled IT software programmers, testers, project manager, analysts, will always be there and you feel good, whether you work from home, whether you work part-time, whether you work from Bahamas Islands, you always will find a well-paid employment and then this is the irony that the IT probably for women offers the perfect opportunity to balance this work and there is so few women in IT. This is the situation really.
Lisette: It’s true. I’m like, come on, girls. Go learn some programing because there’s some great opportunities out there in terms of work life balance. I tried myself and it just…I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t my stride. I knew from the beginning this is already way too hard. I mean I think…
Beata: [unintelligible – 32:06].
Lisette: And we can all learn anything I think so…but it just wasn’t my priority to learn but I remember in the beginning I thought this was harder than I expected but I have different skills so I went a different direction but yes, come on, girls, I want to encourage women to go with IT indeed.
Beata: [unintelligible – 32:22].
Lisette: I wanted to just highlight some of the tips that you gave in your article for how to be a successful businesswomen. I wrote down sort of four tips and one was be confident or show your confidence, we all have confidence and men have insecurities too and they also show their confidence. Have a solid business plan and be decisive and be tough. I don’t think you said actually tough but it was that feeling of don’t be afraid to be tough because men are also being tough.
Beata: That’s probably the most difficult thing I think…personally I struggled with. It’s the toughness because we are very emotional and caring, not comparing our self generally to men but we have the tendency to think longer about our decisions and the impact they will have on the others and I think sometimes this gives us the advantage that the people like working with women managers because we have this emotional…developed emotional intelligence but on the other hand in case of tougher decisions, we hesitate for too long and sometimes you have to take the decisions sooner for the sake of everyone else in the company and [my] a personal basis, I know that the sort of decisions take me far too long because you consider the impact onto the other person, on the other person as well and that’s the balance that you have to work with.
Lisette: Right. I find I have the same thing. I’m always caring for…is the team okay? Is everybody feeling okay? And sometimes you just have to be the manager and you have to make…you’re right…you have to make the decision. Like, okay guys, we’re going to go in this direction. We can always change our mid later if the data points to something else but, for now, we’re going to move this way.
Lisette: So I thought that was really great advice for people.
Lisette: So I have two more questions. We’re coming to the end of the time and I have two more questions and one is what advice would you give for people who are just starting out on their…either for somebody who wants to work remotely or companies who are hiring or thinking about it, what would you…what advice would you give them?
Beata: Okay. For the companies that are hiring remotely, I would say look for the team members who communicate well and who are really self-organised. They have to have the essential skills but sometimes if the person is very bright and doesn’t have this other qualities, it’s not going to work out working remotely. So it’s really crucial that you look at self-discipline, self-organisation, and the communication skills. And for people that are starting out, go for it. Definitely go for it specifically in the software market. It’s a great opportunity. You can structure your life the way you want it and if you are good in what you do, you will be choosing the [components] that you work for, really. Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to that [believe in] your skills and if the opportunities are there, take them.
Lisette: I love that. I think because when people, when they’re really good, if you’re a really good developer, then you get to pick and choose the work that you do and that probably I can imagine for anybody that’s the ideal as you get to work on the projects that you love the most and with the people that you love the most. And that’s when the magic happens when we’re…when people are all working on something that they like with the people that they like, anything’s possible…I believe.
Beata: That’s true. Yes.
Lisette: So, final question which is if people want to learn more about you, if they want to learn more about HeadChannel, what’s the best way to get in touch and to find out more?
Beata: You can either call us. It’s probably the best way or look…check our Facebook account. We…or just give us a call and we can structure the team meeting, Skype meeting, and we are probably very good at advising people who want to set up their own offshore or remote working as well. We can provide the advice what worked for us, what didn’t work for us, and my advice today was very generic but if they [were to] speak with the team in Poland, the advice would be far more specific and detailed. So we can help people really to evaluate different options as well.
Lisette: That’s great. I really hope people take you up on that offer and let me know if you get anybody calling. I would love to hear about that happening. So, we’re at the end of our time today but I want to thank you so much for talking with me and sharing your story. It was really interesting. Some great tips, especially for women on this one. So that was really fun to do. Thank you so much.
Beata: [unintelligible – 37:37] more women join IT.
Lisette: Me too. Me too.Alright, everybody. Until next time, be powerful.