In March 2016, Forbes published an article listing 125 companies at which all or most of their employees work remotely. That number — up from 26 reportedly remote companies in 2014 — continues to grow year-over-year. FlexJobs, the creators of the list, forecast that more than 50 percent of people will work remotely by the year 2020.
That’s thanks in part to advances in communication and project-management technologies that enable employees to work effectively from anywhere. And the benefits are not hard to see. Not only do fully-remote companies reduce their overhead by not paying rent on costly office spaces, but productivity usually increases when employees work from home. Plus, the talent pool of potential candidates grows substantially as employers are no longer restricted to hiring from their geographic area.
And it’s not just a trend amongst small startups trying to save cash, either. Among the 125 companies on the list were Buffer, inVision, Intercom, Help Scout, Zapier, Basecamp, Upworthy, and more — top companies in their respective fields.
Remote work, it seems, as an increasingly viable option for businesses of all sizes. In fact, I started writing this article in the San Francisco airport, and finished it in Seattle. I find the freedom to work anytime, anywhere empowering.
This kind of shift in the way companies operate is radical, certainly. And remote work is not for everyone. Sometimes we just need to be collaborative with our colleagues, surrounded by the creativity and energy of other human beings. But for those of you who give it a try, here are three things that you can expect when your employees work remotely:
1. Company culture is harder to foster when employees work remotely
“Company culture, to me, is a representation of the people who work for the company and the values they embody,” says Quietly co-founder Sean Tyson in our latest ebook, The Practical Guide to Scaling Company Culture.
In other words, people + values = culture. Still, much of what people think of when they talk about company culture relates specifically the “vibe” of the office or the amenities of the physical space — the ping pong tables and beer fridges and meditation pods. And it’s partially true: socialization is an important part of team bonding, and becomes more challenging with remote work. As far as technology has come, there’s still no substitute for actual human interaction.
Not to mention, building a remote culture may not seem too hard when you have five or ten employees, whether you work from an office or not. But what happens if you have hundreds or thousands of team members distributed around the globe? How do you enable new hires to feel engaged when there’s no physical space for them to go to?
“Many companies get better at being more efficient as they grow; however there are very few companies that maintain the same warm and fuzzy, ‘good vibes’ sort of feeling as they grow,” says Buffer co-founder Joel Gascoigne in this post. “Having the People Team is exponentially important because it’s exponentially rare as companies grow that they’re able to maintain that feeling when you interact with them.”
The way many companies foster a social workplace while working remotely is to host retreats or meetings where employees can come together, build relationships, and work collaboratively. For example, while Help Scout is a mostly remote company, they do maintain an office space in Boston that companies can work from if they choose.
“I sit fewer than 10 feet from most of the people in our office, yet most of our discussion happens in Slack or Trello,” writes Help Scout co-founder Nick Francis in this article. “We can work from home on a snow day and nothing changes. Want to discuss an idea or have a meeting? No problem! We’re all trained to loop in the team on Join.me or have a spontaneous video chat in Appear.in.”
Another big part of building culture on a remote team is in hiring the right people — people who are keen on working from home, and can contribute to the culture, even from afar.
Basecamp is a remote company, and hiring is paramount to their success. But when adding new team members, they’re looking for more than hard skills.
“It’s sort of an art. It’s similar to if you were to ask someone how to pick friends,” says CEO Jason Fried. “It’s not like they’d said, ‘Well, I go through these six steps.’ It’s more like you just get a feel for someone. You meet someone, you talk to them, you get a feel for them, and friendship sort of evolves from that point. “It’s similar when we hire. When we interview people, we’re not just looking for skills. Obviously they have to have skills, but when you’re talking to them, asking them about their life, you just start to get a feel for someone.”
2. Trust becomes even more important
Let’s start out by saying that if you don’t have trust with your team then you have bigger problems, whether you work remotely or not. It’s vital in so many ways.
But trust becomes even more important when you’re not working in the same space as your team. The very option to work from home is, in part, an employer’s way of saying “I trust you and I know you’ll get your work done.” Without that trust, employers are generally skeptical of switching to this kind of system, because they fear that employees will just sit at home and watch Netflix.
But if your employees are watching Netflix at home instead of working, then chances are they’d be finding ways of getting out of work if they were at the office, too.
Managers need to ask themselves: is this employee consistently getting their work done well? Are they going above and beyond? Are they growing in their role? If your answers are yes, then does it matter whether that employee is in the office at 8am or at home in their pyjamas with Netflix playing in the background while they work?
“Transparency is the most important cornerstone of remote culture,” writes Help Scout co-founder Nick Francis. “By giving everyone access to the same information and designing processes accordingly, you eliminate the most common cause of remote team failure.”
In other words, not only do you need to trust your employees in order to work remotely — your employees also need to trust you.
3. Communication sometimes happens in waves
People have rhythms, and working from home enables them to follow their own natural highs and lows of productivity throughout the day. Some of us get our best work done late at night, others in early morning. Not to mention, working in different time zones can be particularly challenging. A rigid 9-5 is not conducive to that, but remote work is.
One way to overcome these challenges is to set up specific working hours in which everyone is expected to be online and plugged in, even if the rest of their day is flexible. For example, maybe everyone can be online from 10am-1pm PST. You can schedule meetings, stand-ups, and one-on-ones during that time.
Outside of those time slots, asynchronous communication will become your friend. If you work on a big team, it can be helpful for everyone to give an update of their projects, challenges, and wins for the day, every day. Not everyone needs to chime in at the same time, but people can quickly get up-to-speed as soon as they log in.
These cyclical challenges in communication can be challenging, especially in the beginning. But making sure you prioritize communication — even above progress — can help. That is, for some employees, it can be tempting to “go dark” if they’re behind on a project. They think, “Well, I don’t have any progress to report, so I’ll just wait until I have something finished.”
Make sure that you create a safe space for them to be honest about being behind, or facing challenges. It’s better to know where they are than to be left guessing.
Time to get started!
If you’ve ever worked remotely, you know there are many pros and cons to being the master of your own day.
What many companies are doing is offering a remote option, while still maintaining office spaces. This seems like the best option to me, and others whom I’ve spoken with. That is, on days when employees feel compelled to work from home, let them. This may be particularly enticing to employees with families or pets at home. And on days when they want to come in and be social and collaborative, they have that option, too.
And make sure that, whatever policy you decide to go with, you’re regularly checking in with employees to ensure they’re feeling satisfied, engaged, and productive.