Handing out bathrobes part of remote-working culture for kiwi startup Timely

The biggest challenge with remote working is isolation. With special feature audio.

Kiwi startup Timely, which sells a cloud-based appointment scheduling software, has an unusual remote worker model that includes handing out bathrobes to staff.

Speaking at the annual Morgo conference for entrepreneurs in Queenstown, Timely chief executive and co-founder Ryan Baker said all 30 staff in the four-year-old company work from home dealing with 6,000 customers in 85 countries, mainly Australia.

Timely is a software-as-a-business selling to service-based businesses such as hair salons and personal trainers and has done 25 million bookings through the software to date.

Prior to Timely, in 2010 Baker and co-founder Andrew Schofield sold their startup Bookit, a booking engine for the New Zealand tourism industry, which is now part of Trade Me. The pair, along with William Berger, then started Timely two years later.

Baker and his partners had an ambition to go global from day one and their remote working model has turned out to be a competitive advantage.

Not a lot of planning went into it - staff were just spread out in the first place with Baker in Dunedin, Schofield in Wellington, and Berger wanting to work from Malta for a year.

Remote working proved viable because the software company didn't need a lot of capital or assets to get started, only a few laptops and an internet connection. It was also able to find the tools and processes it needed to deal with global customers remotely.

"Five years ago you probably couldn't say the same thing," Baker said.

Communication becomes really important without face to face interaction and the company uses cloud-based team collaboration tool Slack to communicate, "which is eating email", he said. Timely has sent just over one million messages between staff since it started using Slack 18 months ago.

The biggest challenge with remote working is isolation, particularly between the partners who wanted to work as a team. Baker said it has mitigated that by clustering people in the same cities - Dunedin, Wellington, Auckland and in the UK. "If we have a problem and decide to get together around a whiteboard one day to solve it, that shouldn't be hard and involve a plane trip. That's working well for us."

The entire team gets together at least once a year to connect with each other rather than work on company strategy. "It brushes away the plaque of working remotely," Baker said.

Timely also discovered over time it needed a "place to call home" and has set up two office spaces in Dunedin and Wellington with hot-desks, although no-one works out of them full-time.

Baker said it had proved important to confirm to staff and other stakeholders that the remote worker model wasn't just a passing phase.

It recently started celebrating "being all in" on the concept by handing new staff on their first-year anniversary, a Timely-branded bathrobe. The Mayor of Dunedin was roped in three months ago to hand out three to Timely staff in his civic chambers.

Baker said once the company started being vocal about working this way, it started attracting people to work for them, particularly in the tech area where it was finding it hard to compete with bigger companies for skilled workers. He said it also learnt you had to hire remote workers who "genuinely had a reason to work that way" and want flexible hours, otherwise it doesn't work.

Being vocal about the work model has also resonated with their small business customers who like dealing with people who have a culture "based around robes", he said.

Concerns about productivity and distractions at home proved unfounded, in fact, one of the problems it discovered was people working too much and not maintaining a good work-life balance.

Baker said he gets asked a lot how he knows his remote workers are really working, and his simple answer is trust.

"We know they're working because they're adults and they have a job to do. Most of them like the work they do and we trust them to get the job done," he said.


(Fiona Rotherham attended Morgo courtesy of the organisers)

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