Are you muted?
A recent article evangelizes “remote-first” workplaces. (See Burke, William, North American Clean Energy, “Making Remote-First Work Sustainable, Profitable, and Fun” 104 (vol. 16, issue 2).)
I was certainly surprised to see that article in that particular publication. The article makes excellent points, but misses the readership of the magazine by a mile. Many of its readers are hardware-focused businesses. Generalizing those lessons, which apply most readily to to software-focused businesses, will create as many challenges as they purport to solve!
Uplift has traveled the learning-curve of remote-first work as a hardware company, and we feel we have rare insight into this topic. We are happy to add our hardware-team-specific advice.
My initial reaction is that the article doesn’t adequately differentiate between contracting remote engineers as part of the hiring funnel, and remote-first employees – which is a strategy for maintaining company culture. Startups that are small or underfunded have a hard time competing for the best engineers. Engineers are justifiably skeptical of emerging clean technologies, arriving with the attitude, “If this is so great, why hasn’t anyone done this before?” Discrete remote-work projects are a good way to educate an engineer, enticing them to a deeper, longer-term engagement and introducing them to other excellent engineers. It also introduces them to the remote work tools available for hardware development, which some engineers may be encountering for the first time. These discrete projects test the candidate’s flexibility and ability to engage on a remote basis.
But returning to the purposes of the article in question, the real challenge for hardware engineering remote work is the need to collaborate on physical tests beyond modeling and computer simulations. Collaborations between power-electronics designers and firmware engineers creates challenges. The daring company that invests in the tooling to overcome those challenges gives itself a competitive advantage.
Before I describe the Uplift journey to remote work, let me give you the takeaways. Here are a few things that should be prioritized for any hardware company trying to grow an effective remote-work culture:
Webcams in the lab! Hardware companies will have one or two physical labs somewhere for experimentation. An engineer, or junior engineer acting as a technician, will naturally try to use laptop and mobile-phone cameras to communicate. But this will be insufficient. If there is any blind spot in the camera that is certainly where the bug will be. Rigol makes an excellent web-based oscilloscope. At Uplift, we are dreaming of splashing out cash on a flying probe machine (a testing device that allows remote manipulation).
Teamwork software like Microsoft Teams and team buy-in on remote etiquette are also critical. The software enables the smoothest collaboration, and also allows the company to be flexible about its internal rules of engagement. Hardware requires collaborative testing and only some team members will have full prototype labs, so scheduling can be tricky. Team members should have a common consensus on when it is appropriate to turn off notifications, whether for focus or for stepping away. Spontaneous interactions for experimentation or other purposes, including socializing, are a must. We encourage our team to reach out to each other any time, even though answers may not be immediate. But everyone should have and advise the others of their “office hours” when they are sure to be on call.
Set longer lead-times. Remote work will slow things down because things need to be shipped back and forth. Unavoidable. It’s definitely a downside of remote work, but not insurmountable.
Don’t omit inventory control! While testing power electronics, sometimes prototypes will be defective or will be intentionally tested to failure. With remote work, it is easy to lose track of which pieces were used and how. Make sure you have a thoughtful system to label them immediately and avoid reusing them.
Must love dogs. Although for diversity and perspective, we accept that cat-lovers are good people, too.
One benefit of remote work that I think the original article missed is that hiring from different places brings a diversity of experience to the projects that could be directly relevant to the project mission. We have found and hired people who live in places that experience energy shortages. They are invested in how a better solar energy device could change their world. The mission of our work carries more meaning for them than for those who are insulated from energy insecurity.
There are, of course, more specific and practical pros and cons of a remote team on hardware development:
PRO: The essential step of self-documenting. Working remotely with other engineers generates better paper-trails, which makes issue tracking for the company a lot easier.
PRO: It is easier to involve supplier SMEs in tasks. Engineers from the companies that supply parts to us seem to love to get involved in improving our products – and we love to leverage them. They have expressed that it is more fun to work with our team because they can see what is going on in the tests because we are already working through webcams and oscilloscopes.
PRO: We will be working with customers and contract manufacturers around the country. Our immediate and seamless integration of workflows across parties, without travel, is a competitive advantage for striking deals.
CON: We have to hire more mature engineers. All teams should strive for persons who exhibit a high degree of professionalism and mutual respect. But that kind of maturity is not optional for remote-first hardware teams. You need to be able to have fun with people even when things are hard, and training by example is not as easy as it might be when everyone is together in an office space.
Uplift’s decision to be remote-first wasn’t really a decision at all. The company founders have been divided by 1,800 miles since inception. All of us worked remotely in the past for other companies, so we had some idea of the challenges and the opportunities. We established procedures for design from paper to table top from the beginning, allowing it to be refined through early engagement with some of our customers. We hired several contractors on individual pieces and then, once vetted, brought contractors in for the whole picture. Together, we collaboratively developed the physical tooling and communication conventions.
Did this take longer than we expected? YES. Do we feel more confident in our team and our ability to scale our work with geographically diverse solar module manufacturers? A resounding YES!