Embracing the Remote-First Model: Insights from Phoenix’s Platform Development Team

Remember when the idea of constant remote work seemed far-fetched for most gaming companies, and businesses in general? Well, times have certainly changed. The Covid pandemic forcibly revolutionized work processes, pushing us all to reevaluate how we operate. At Phoenix Games, we were no exception. Just about a year before the pandemic’s onset, we founded Phoenix Games, and soon after, we grappled with the intricacies of leading and expanding a team in a remote setting. After years of learning, we can now confidently say that our team responsible for the Phoenix Platform is committed to the remote-first approach – there’s no going back to the old norms.

In February 2022, Phoenix’s platform development team underwent a significant transformation. We transitioned from a traditional in-office setup at our headquarters in Karlsruhe to a “Remote First” model. After a successful proof of concept, we doubled our team’s size to 32 members. This pivotal change was a deliberate move, prompted by the need to grow and access to talent in a remote setup. We hope that our journey, filled with lessons, trials, and triumphs, can offer guidance and inspiration to other teams navigating the dynamic landscape of remote work.

Introducing Phoenix’s Platform Team

At Phoenix Games, we established the platform team as a centralized unit with a mission to empower all our studios to become more data-driven. This team specializes in developing and operating data products, tackling this challenge from two perspectives. One aspect involves assisting others through data training and access. The other centers on designing and maintaining what we call “uplift products”. In essence, we apply data science to automate business decisions, such as automatic bid and budget management in user acquisition and near real-time in-game personalisation.

The team includes product managers who guide game studios in leveraging data for roadmap planning and implementing AB tests, among other tasks. Our data products are developed and maintained by data scientists, engineers and domain experts. To enhance personalization, our team includes personalization managers – essentially, economy designers and product specialists focused on tailored user experiences. All these roles are closely intertwined, given our team size of 32 members. While not small, it’s not overwhelmingly large, considering the range of projects we undertake. This dynamic results in a significant need for coordination.

The Shift to “Remote First”

The Covid pandemic highlighted the benefits of remote work. We found that remote work encourages an environment conducive to “deep work,” a concept coined by Cal Newport to describe focused, distraction-free work that bolsters productivity. Furthermore, remote work became indispensable; by early 2022, we identified the necessity for aggressive growth, a goal unattainable within Karlsruhe alone. Having already located and onboarded talented individuals remotely, we chose to adopt this model, actively recruiting team members globally.

Navigating Onboarding Challenges

Onboarding new team members remotely presented considerable challenges, both in terms of workflow and fostering personal connections. While it’s imperative for newcomers to find their place within the organization and optimize their roles, integrating them on a personal level is equally critical. Overlooking personal integration risks disengagement, jeopardizing team cohesion and company culture.

Our middle managers oversee the onboarding process, adhering to a structured framework. This encompasses a range of onboarding tasks, from explaining the data structure to acquainting newcomers with their specific roles. However, the social dimension of onboarding, such as befriending colleagues, sharing meals, and casual conversations, has become more intricate in a remote context. We previously had a buddy system, essentially a mentoring scheme where new hires were assisted by a colleague to facilitate their transition. This system thrived in a physical office but faces hurdles in a remote setting.

Ideally, there should be opportunities for spontaneous communication and personal interactions with newcomers. In a physical environment, I’d like to informally check on them to ensure their well-being. Remotely, this is challenging because you can’t be certain of everyone’s activities. You don’t want to continually disrupt people. That’s why routinely scheduled communication slots have become indispensable for effective onboarding and ongoing engagement.

Nurturing Connection from Afar

While remote work enhances “deep work,” it can impede tasks necessitating intensive collaboration, like design sprints. Prolonged video calls can lead to exhaustion and distraction, and the lack of non-verbal cues can cause communication misunderstandings. The solitude of remote work might also diminish employee engagement and morale. So, how do we mitigate these issues?

One-on-one meetings have become an essential communication and personal interaction tool. These sessions allow employees to discuss significant matters with their managers and gain a deeper understanding of company developments. In our remote framework, one-on-ones function as guaranteed face-to-face encounters. In lieu of office coffee breaks, alternative means to connect with peers on a personal level are vital. We’ve extended time slots for one-on-ones to include more social conversation. At a minimum, these meetings take place weekly, supplemented by topic-focused discussions.

Sustaining High Productivity Levels

Understandably, there were concerns about decreased productivity accompanying the transition to remote work. Yet, these concerns largely proved unfounded. Every team member has a distinct role within the company’s broader support structure. Additionally, outcomes are measurable, fostering a proactive company culture.

During onboarding, we emphasize each individual’s significance within the larger scope of the company’s achievements. For instance, new analysts learn how their efforts align with the company’s broader successes. We diligently monitor achievements, ensuring that impactful work receives recognition and gratitude. While we do oversee time allocation, we don’t require minute-by-minute reporting. We ask employees to generally log their daily activities, which we review for cost management. The reliability of our team members in adhering to timelines and tasks negates the need for intrusive monitoring. 

Undoubtedly, “remote first” requires comprehensive documentation and organization, not only within our platform team but across all game studios. For instance, similar requests often reach various team members. To optimize this, we centralize all such inquiries in a public dashboard, ensuring everyone stays informed and eliminating redundant tasks.

There’s Nothing Cheap about Going Remote

A common misconception is that transitioning to remote work results in cost savings. In actuality, if executed correctly, remote work necessitates significant investment. It’s imperative to ensure employees have the necessary tools for remote work, which includes ergonomic chairs, appropriate desks, high-quality video equipment, microphones, lighting setups, and more. We even provided an under-desk bicycle for one team member. Budgets should prioritize health, productivity, and connection.

It’s noteworthy that we retain our headquarters. Unlike companies that have completely relinquished their physical locations, we continue to operate our Karlsruhe offices as a central hub. Our headquarters is used for special meetings and team events, and regularly, we fly team members in for kick-offs or pivotal meetings. In-person interactions can be transformative, especially during project inaugurations or critical stages. Even though sustaining our headquarters has costs, it remains an integral part of our strategy.

If Phoenix employees do meet in the office, there is plenty of space for conversation and even board games.

Embracing the “remote-first” model entails detailed documentation, thorough organization, and strategic investments. Despite the challenges, we’ve realized considerable advantages and gleaned invaluable insights along the way. As we forge ahead, we’re committed to fostering a culture that thrives in a remote work setting, prioritizing effective communication, personal interaction, and sustainable productivity.

To all the game studios and businesses contemplating the remote work paradigm, we wish you success on your journey. It’s a road filled with hurdles, but the destination is worth the effort.