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Hiring And Managing Distributed Teams – Lessons By Canonical

“Life in Canonical is anything but corporate,” states Canonical’s career page boldly. The makers behind much loved OS Ubuntu translate this not only into keeping company culture relaxed, but also into letting employees choose their working environment. With as much as 70% of their workforce being distributed, Canonical is one of the best known names in home based and remote work.

It made sense to ask such a large distributed company’s recruiter for his views so we sat down with Chris Simpson, Recruitment Partner at Canonical, to chat all things remote with an added HR perspective.

After 10 years in recruitment agencies and briefly in startups, Chris found himself in Canonical to work with roles across the world. And even though Chris actually works from Canonical’s London headquarters, rather then being remote himself, 90% of the roles tend to be people working remotely: “We employ in pretty much every country in Europe and every state in the US, we get to meet people from all over the world. It kind of adds to the culture which is a good thing.”

For Chris, the biggest plus of a distributed workforce is the access to the talent pool, regardless of their physical location. “We can get the best person for the role, not the best person in the right place.”

And although dealing with remote colleagues is his daily bread, there are still small things that can surprise him. “I’m always amused how different people look on webcams and in real life,” Chris says. “I could have three or four Hangouts a week with someone and then I’ll go to a sprint and it takes me 5-10 minutes to realize that it’s the guy from the webcam. It’s nice to meet these people in real life and it shows how different it is to get over the barrier that remote work causes.”

On company culture

“I think culture is enjoying where you work. It’s strange because it comes in a circle. Startups who started these trends, like dressing down or giving free drinks in the office, are actually becoming more corporate as they become bigger. Whereas companies that are traditionally very corporate, like banks and consulting firms, are now realizing that to attract people they have to act less corporate. It’s about having that balance.

We’re a growing startup and try to keep that feeling. We don’t want to have endless layers, we want to make sure people are happy.

It’s hard to transfer this when you have people working from home. We do little things, like when people start out we send them free bits that aren’t granted and make sure they visit us in the office every now and then.”

On retreats

“Twice a year we have sprints where every team gets together. A couple of weeks ago there was a week long sales sprint in Vancouver where we had brainstorming sessions and got to know others a bit better. It’s just to get more done than in front of a webcam.”

On communication

“Our IRC is our main communication tool but we also use Google Hangouts and docs to share things across teams. From a company’s perspective, there is so much documentation around communication for remote work… It can be scary when someone starts. There’s no one around to explain how things work so you need to have documentation in place to say: This is going to be your first day, this is what you’re going to use and so on.”

On community

“Community plays a huge role in Ubuntu. There are hundreds thousand of people around the world who love to contribute. This is great for recruitment because they are people who are always interested in coming and seeing us.

In terms of community itself, we rely on feedback and at the same time it adds to our culture. People are aware of our brand and what they’re coming on board which is a recruiter’s dream.

A lot of our employees come from our communities. They were involved in the community in the first place and once they leave the company they’re still involved because they’re passionate about the product.”

On finding a remote role

“A lot of times you don’t actually meet the people you’re interviewing so you have to create impression over webcam. You have to make sure you’re treating it almost like an interview in person – you have to present yourself well and choose the right environment.

Also make sure you’re applying for a role that is relevant. If you’re a software engineer, there’s no point in applying as a graphic designer. You still need to play to your strengths.”