The Benefits and Challenges of Remote Work

The debate around remote work has been long and fierce. But a lot has happened in terms of technical development and example setting in the three years since the Marissa Mayer remote working controversy.

Today, almost 3% of the global workforce work at least half their hours from home. So every day, millions of people around the world roll out of bed, walk down the corridor and set up desk at their kitchen table. Or their sofa. Or the cafe down the road. (Or a tiny stool in their kid’s playroom.)

Photo credit: Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

Today, it is becoming more commonplace for companies to offer their employees flexibility around when and where they work. So commonplace that it is now something of an expectation:

“A new social contract is developing between companies and workers, driving major changes in the employer-employee relationship… This leads to expectations for rapid career growth, a compelling and flexible workplace, and a sense of mission and purpose at work.” — Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2016

This is not to say that every company is or should be going radically remote. But the opportunity for remote working is there. Browse the list of the top companies for remote jobs, and you might be surprised. We’re not just talking the usual startup suspects here.

At Jobvibe we’re only a team of 10 people but between us we work across six cities in five different time zones. Five of us do work in the same office in Sydney most days, but we are all free to work from home when we want.

As we’ve grown we’ve got a lot better at working remotely. OK, so we are small and we are a startup, but much of what we’ve learned and adopted is universal.

The benefits of remote work

Remote workers get more done

One of the biggest hesitations among employers is that remote workers are less productive than their permanently office-bound peers. A recent experiment by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, found that home workers produced 13 percent more, while working 9.5 percent more hours.

It comes down to a few factors. Firstly, your employees can choose an environment and schedule that fits their personal working style and energy levels. As our London-based front-end designer Jayphen puts it:

“You have flexibility to complete your tasks when you feel at your most productive. When you’re not expected to be sitting at a desk in an office, you have the freedom to take a break, to explore and come back to your work when you’re ready.”

Then there’s the factor of focus. Home can be a pretty distracting place; the temptation of TV, the nag of the washing-up. But these are internal distractions that a disciplined remote worker can control. And they are far less disruptive than distractions of the workplace; interruptions from colleagues, office noise and unnecessary meetings.

Remote workers have space for life

Not only did Professor Bloom’s study find that remote workers are more productive, it also found that they are happier.

This can be for all kinds of reasons but at the heart of it is that remote workers have more freedom around how they live their day-to-day lives and more space to prioritize what’s important to them. Whether that’s taking time to travel in Europe: “I’m gonna swan over to France for a month in July and will still be earning money while I’m there not many jobs allow that kind of freedom.” in the case of Jayphen.

Or spend more time with family: “I have a young daughter; getting to see her during lunch, before and after work is priceless.” in the case of our lead software engineer, Jay.

Remote working builds trust

In their book Remote: Office Not Required, 37 Signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson take a poke at traditional management theory and call on managers to ‘stop managing the chairs’:

If I can’t see workers come in and leave their desks; how on earth can I make sure they’re actually working?

The idea that if you can see your workers then they must be working is ridiculous. But this is the assumption that often underpins resistance to remote working among employers.

When you let your employees work from home you are saying, “I trust you”. You are signifying that you have confidence in them to motivate themselves, to work hard, to get the job done. And you’ll find most people respond well to this.

Our Co-founder and CEO has said from the off, “If you treat people like kids and they will behave like kids. Treat them like adults and they will behave like adults. People tend to live up to the expectations you set them.”

In many cases you will find that they actually exceed them.

The challenges of remote work

It’s harder to build connection

Talking to members in the team who are full-time remote, there was one challenge raised by everyone: Feeling connected to the rest of the team:

“The reality is there’s a lot you miss out on by not being around your colleagues every day.”
“It’s easy to feel disconnected on decisions unless you reach out to people directly to find out what is going on.”
“It can be hard to follow a discussion when you’re peering through a computer screen at a room of people. You don’t pick up and can’t convey body language, which is a big part of communication.”
“You often miss conversations which are in-person among team members sitting closely under one roof.”

… were some of the comments.

Over time we’ve worked on tackling this. It is difficult to overcome the screen barrier but if you can get everyone on the team, whether they are remote or office-based, using the same online communication and collaboration tools it helps break down the divide. Here’s what we use at Jobvibe:

  • Slack for team communication
  • Google Hangouts or Skype for internal meetings
  • Trello for project management and planning
  • Google Docs and CloudApp for getting comments and edits on work
  • Jobvibe for feedback and managing team culture

It’s also important to have real human face-to-face contact when you can get it.

Our Christmas party in Sydney

As I’m sure other companies leading the remote work revolution would agree.

Finding balance and structure

This works both ways. For the employer, making sure that remote workers are doing enough to get the work done. And for the employee, making sure that working hours don’t go on and on.

“The worst part for most people is the bleed of work into the family home. It can be hard to stop working when work hours end because there’s no external trigger, like everyone leaving the office. I’ve had to build up a pretty strict start time and end time to stop myself from doing this. Even though I do go over fairly often, I try to balance it out.” — Jay

Managing this comes down to setting expectations around remote work both a company level and a personal level. Fried and Heinemeier Hansson’s commandments for successful remote collaboration — which include “Thou shall overlap” and “Easy on the M&Ms” — are a great place to start.

If you’re building a remote team from scratch it’s also good to recruit people who’ve had experience doing it before; they can give guidance on what works and set a standard for the rest of the team.

Over time you’ll build up a set of guiding principles and a rhythm that works for your business and your team.

Have you launched a flexible working policy? Or are you building a remote team? We’d love to hear about your experience.


Originally published at jobvibe.me on March 24, 2016.