3 Myths of Working Remotely & How to Scale

My company, Articulate, is remote. Fully remote. We have no real estate footprint. Zero. Everyone works from home or coffee shop or wherever he or she chooses. While remote is nothing new, few companies have scaled to our size.

Yet, conventional wisdom decrees that remote doesn’t scale — especially fully remote. In fact, the first question I usually get when I tell people my company is remote is, “But does it really scale?” That question is usually accompanied by a look of melancholy, like maybe it works now, but we’re headed for a brick wall.

Hey, I get it. I worked at Yahoo! for six years and when people said they were WFH, it was commonly understood that they were using the time to get errands done. After all, we all have parent-teacher conferences to attend and doctor’s appointments to keep. WFH days are where most of corporate America catches up on life. It’s only logical to conclude that in a fully remote world, all you do is catch up on life.

WFH days are where most of corporate America catches up on life. It’s only logical to conclude that in a fully remote world, all you do is catch up on life.

Well, as COO of a remote company that’s tripled in size over 24 months, I’m here to tell you that remote can scale and scale well. First, the stats:

  • We’re a 154 person tech company in online education
  • We have 55,000+ accounts and sell tens of thousands of licenses a year
  • We have the largest online community of e-learning professionals with more than 250,000 members
  • Our revenues and profits are well into the eight figures and we enjoy double-digit annual growth
  • Our Glassdoor reviews are 4.7/5.0 — employees love working here

Many of our metrics speak for themselves, but let me give a bit more color that debunks the myth that remote can’t scale — and what’s turned me from a skeptic into an evangelist.

My remote office for 3 months in the San Juan Islands

Myth 1: People aren’t productive working from home

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me transitioning to remote was how much more productive a remote team is. I’ll caveat this by stating, up front, that you have to hire people who thrive working from home. Luckily, they’re not hard to find. Central to the anti-remote bias is a belief that, left to their own devices, people goof off. What we’ve found is the opposite — left to their own devices, people crush it.

Why? When you’re remote, all you have to show for yourself is the work you produce. Being the glib guy or gal, being great at ‘having coffee’ or facetime with CEO doesn’t count for squat. The irony of being physically separated from each other is that with remote there is nowhere to hide. This creates a culture of getting stuff done.

Two books will transform your understanding of remote productivity and help you understand why remote could improve global productivity by double digits: Daniel Pink’s “Drive” and “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It.” Suffice it to say that, deep down, people (or at least the people you want in your company) thrive in contexts of autonomy, which is woven into the fabric of a fully remote team.

Central to the anti-remote bias is a belief that, left to their own devices, people goof off. What we’ve found is the opposite — left to their own devices, people crush it.

Myth 2: Coordination and communication can’t scale in a fully remote company

While Articulate is not a 1,500-employee company, I am confident that most companies with more than 100 employees can manage the logistics of a remote workforce. There are three key ingredients to get this right — and get it to scale:

  1. Organize in small teams; be clear on roles and goals. By organizing your company into small teams focused on specific goals, you eradicate the need for complex management structures and processes. While small teams aren’t the exclusive purview of remote companies, small teams in a remote company are essential to scale.
  2. Select the right set of collaboration and communication tools. Fortunately there many really amazing tools now to facilitate remote working arrangements: GitHub has transformed coding, Trello has reimagined project management, Slack has redefined corporate communication, TinyPulse gives me better employee insight than I ever had in an office-based environment. Collectively the right tools can make you a well-oiled operating machine and, I’d argue, leapfrog you past office-based companies.
  3. Embrace processes. Quite possibly, this has been the most challenging thing to get right. Why? Because when you’re small, you tend to be loose about your process and when you’re remote, you can end up really loose with process. With remote, you have to be super explicit in defining your interaction points. Take employee onboarding. In an office culture, new hires pick up on the company vibe much more quickly with all of the visual and experiential queues. In remote, you really have to work on it.
The irony of being physically separated from each other is that with remote there is nowhere to hide. This creates a culture of getting stuff done.

Myth 3: You can’t innovate in a remote environment

Yahoo! CEO, Marissa Mayer famously reneged on remote work partly because she felt that innovation was stifled without face-to-face interaction. While I’ll resist judging her decision (ok maybe I just judged it), I don’t buy the logic that you can’t innovate in a remote environment, and it certainly hasn’t been my experience.

Though I pre-dated Ms. Mayer at Yahoo!, I never felt the myriad coffee breaks and meetings spawned any special innovation sauce. However, my experience with at Articulate has been exactly the opposite: Remote work fosters a spirit of independent thinking that promotes questioning the status quo, a centerpiece of innovation. Remote employees are quicker to ask “is there a better way to do this?” because they’re in charge. When I think of innovation, I again go back to process. What processes is your company putting in place to encourage innovation? Maybe they take the form of formal hackathons or 20% pet project time. Whatever they are, I don’t think physical proximity plays into their success at all.

Remote work fosters a spirit of independent thinking that promotes questioning the status quo, a centerpiece of innovation.

In closing this post, I’ll state my long-held belief that there is no perfect organizational structure or approach— it’s a question of what trade-offs you make and what you’re solving for. In choosing remote, you commit to a culture of autonomy and independence. You commit to a culture of problem solving and problem solvers. If you’re a high-growth company that needs to scale, my experience has been that this culture of problem solving can be quite an advantage.

*Automattic, the company behind WordPress, is one fully remote company that is larger than Articulate. There are other services companies I know that are bigger as well, but I don’t really count service companies the same as product companies.