Envato’s founders started a company that empowered a work-from-anywhere ethos. How does that translate in 2021 with engineers now spread around the world?
Australia’s Sunshine Coast has long been an attractive destination for holidaymakers, with its picture-perfect beaches and great weather drawing in thousands every year. But 2020 saw an unprecedented number of people across the country pack up and move their lives north – permanently – as our national internal migration patterns evolved during the pandemic.
Engineering Director Leon Messerschmidt was one such person, joining the more than an estimated 30,000 Australians who migrated to Queensland in the last twelve months. A senior engineer at one of Australia’s largest scale-ups, Leon said the decision was an easy one given Envato’s support for flexible working practices.
“Many of my team are either remote or work from home a lot, so we’ve had plenty of experience as a team doing remote work before, just this time the setup – or state – was a little different.”
“It starts at the top; both our previous CEO (Collis) and current CEO Hichame work remotely, so it’s normal, it’s not just a special thing available for some employees. The culture is really accepting of that.”
“At the end of the day, I could easily pack up my job and move with the family to Queensland when my wife got a job there, and in the process I cut down my commute time to the office from when I was in Melbourne significantly, so it was an easy decision to make!”
Riana Ferreira, another of Envato’s Queensland-based engineers, says she deliberately sought out work with Envato just under three years ago because of how the company focussed on remote working. “I’d heard it had a proper process in place that was supportive and inclusive of such a way of working, especially for devs like myself.”
“I’d previously worked as a remote consultant and I’d had experiences where I was dropped in the deep end from day one, trying to learn brand new codebases with huge time pressures and no clear way of knowing who the other team members were or who I could touch base with.
“Compare that with the structured experiences I’ve had at Envato, where you have a very close-knit team you talk to daily, with regular social sessions. These check-ins help us all to understand clearly who’s doing what, who you can reach out to and more. There’s very clear communication across the board, the collaboration is very coordinated and structured and challenges are tackled collectively.”
Leon and Riana are not alone in this experience. They are among hundreds of remote technical workers Envato now employs across Australia and around the world; engineers, architects and more working in places as far apart as Guadalajara to Wellington. This remote experience for staff in tech is only going to become more prevalent, especially as Envato continues to scale up globally to meet its growth goals, with a recent survey by open DevOps platform GitLab finding that one in three remote workers would find a new job if they couldn’t work remotely.
This emphasis on communication has become a key focus of the remote work practices of the technical staff at Envato. As Leon explains, it’s one of the biggest differences between on-site versus remote work. “You need to be more deliberate about reaching out to people as you are no longer just bumping into people around the office. It’s got to be front of mind, especially for a people leader in a technical role.”
“Nothing about technical roles makes this kind of work easier or harder, however, as many open-source people have been working remotely for a long time it’s become second nature. It’s all about building a culture that’s aware of these issues, getting people used to talking a lot and interacting effectively online, where previously we might have done it around a whiteboard. Lots of little things take some getting used to.”
Dominic Garibaldi recently joined Envato as an Engineering Manager, shifting to regional Victoria after more than fifteen years in Queensland and the UK working across startups, large organisations and consulting work. He agrees that the frequency and style of communication is an important point of focus when bringing a technical team together remotely. “It’s important to establish rules of etiquette, such as not being left out of a meeting, and having the necessary resources to allow them to participate. For example, having a mic that works and not passing a laptop around the room, not using a whiteboard half the room can’t see, and being aware of different contexts, be it geography or otherwise.”
“Tech has many advantages,” continues Dominic. “Everything we do is online so that gives us a leg up over other functions. The complexity with any type of programming or design – be it software or visual – is bouncing ideas around. Creative work like that can happen really fluidly if collaborative environments are in place, so if you can recreate that virtually that’s a great start.”
Envato’s Chief of Staff Megan Simpson echoes these sentiments, underscoring how there is no one size fits all approach for remote work. “I think the more rules you put around remote work, the harder it is for people to find what works for them, because at the heart of remote working is trust. If the trust is there for people to ‘choose their own adventure’, then anything is possible.”
“Importantly it’s about respecting individual preferences for ways of working and combining this understanding with creating positive team dynamics. While at a company level there will be many different methods of communications – be it town hall meetings, Slack channels, emails, events and more – each team will have something unique in how they best communicate and connect.”
Envato is not alone in considering how to manage the future of work, with many local tech companies exploring new ways of working in the aftermath of the global pandemic. “The future of work is already happening,” comments Megan. “We’re planning for today and tomorrow every time we talk about remote work, and while the shift that happened in 2020 was really challenging, having full-flex in our DNA since the early days of the business has created a strong foundation, with a greater appreciation across the business of how remote work in a technically-lead business can be undertaken effectively.”
“Our task as leaders is to provide people with the tools and permission to ensure their remote working experience is as supportive and engaging as possible. The remote work allowance we plan to implement this year is a big part of that, as remote by design becomes an increasingly important part of our BAU, even if the human interaction piece remains critically important,” concluded Megan.