The history of the internet is a tale of technology advances, embraced by forward-thinking people as competitive advantages for fun and profit. Some of those advantages have reached their tipping point, meaning they’re widely accepted best practices. Following these puts you on a level playing field, today.
Others, like Remote Work, offer a larger opportunity for those who dare buck the old guard’s mentality. It’s my view that over the next few years startups will increasingly use Remote Work as a competitive advantage until the idea reaches mainstream acceptance. There are too many benefits to ignore — lower cost, larger hiring pool, increased productivity, and more.
Before we get to that, how about some historic precedence? Let’s look at how the Internet has reduced the barriers to entry that once existed to creating a viable company…
Let’s start a bookstore chain!
1980: Before the internet, the barrier of entry to start a bookstore chain was huge. Up to $1 Million per year on a single retail location plus renovation, furniture, retail & management staff, point of sale systems, security, insurance, thousands of books in stock, warehouses and shipping infrastructure, advertising, regional management, and more.
1995: Flash forward to a world in which the Internet existed and suddenly there’s a whole new way to open a bookstore, and it costs far less.
Over the next 15 years the idea, which sounded crazy to many in 1995, became obvious — it “tipped.” By leveraging their competitive advantage, and passing the savings on to customers in a way no one with a chain of huge retail locations could, Amazon destroyed Borders.
Open Source Software
As the Internet churned forward Open Source Software, code that is worked on by a community of volunteers and is freely available to the public, matured such that some of it was on par with (if not better than) the expensive server and database implementations du jour.
Companies like Google came along and leveraged the open source software and affordable/commodity hardware of their day. This enabled them to scale beyond that which their competitors could, more cheaply. Next thing you know Yahoo, HotBot, Lycos, etc were faded runners-up fighting over the scraps.
Today, almost everyone uses Open Source server technology and projects like Ruby on Rails, Bootstrap, Node.js, etc. to produce their web and mobile applications.
Even in very recent memory companies that wanted to scale to large numbers of users without crashing and burning had to spend a lot of money building one or more data centers with servers, load balancers, etc.
Yet another barrier of entry slain by the Internet. Cloud-based Servers and CDNs remove the need to purchase and maintain hardware. With this model scaling is almost instant and no longer cost-prohibitive. Another idea that has already reached the tipping point, with a staggering number of applications relying on AWS alone.
What’s Next? Remote Work, that’s what.
Just as the Internet made brick and mortar retail obsolete, Remote Work allows companies to grow and expand without large office overhead. The promise of remote work is a cottage industry-like future without offices, commutes, relocation, or borders.
It’s still a distinct competitive advantage, in that the idea has not yet “tipped,” but it is gaining traction. 39% of American companies currently allow some employees to work remotely (source link.)
Several studies have shown the benefits of Remote Work for creatives and more “robotic” tasks alike. One such study, reported on by the Harvard Business Review showed that “compared with office counterparts, those working from home made 13.5 percent more calls, quit 50 percent less, and said they were much happier on the job” at the test company (a call center.)
“One-third of the productivity increase, we think, was due to having a quieter environment, which makes it easier to process calls,” Bloom says. “At home, people don’t experience what we call the ‘cake in the break room’ effect. Offices are actually incredibly distracting places.” (source link)
- Remove the cost of rent, utilities, facilities based employees, etc and it’s much cheaper to run a company. The company in the above study saved $1,900/remote employee (and they’re not even dealing with San Francisco or New York rent!) Aetna reported that its work from home policies have saved them $78 million in real estate alone.
- You have more hiring options, which can be a huge advantage. For instance, with the SF tech hiring crunch, being able to cast a wider net for engineering talent is enormously advantageous. A larger group of qualified candidates, who have fewer work opportunities, and many of whom have lower costs of living? Cha-ching!
- By allowing workers to get and stay “in the zone” easier you can also net a noticeable productivity increase. Cisco Systems claims they’ve realized $195 million in productivity gains from remote work in a single year (source link.)
- Employees who work remotely (according to one report) are also a bit more engaged than in-office staff (32% vs. 28%.)
Making Remote Work, Work
This isn’t to say that Remote Work is a catch all solution for every company or employee, it isn’t. There are several things you need to make this work. Here’s how we’ve made it work for us.
1. Make Employees Autonomous Yet Accountable
You have to make it clear to employees what their responsibilities are, what their goals and deadlines are, and how missing those deadlines effect the team and company.
2. Use Technology to Replace the Almighty “Face Time”
“Face Time” is ultimately about trust for some managers. To some bosses, if they can’t see you, you aren’t working. But, there’s technology to solve that, even for the control freaks among corporate leadership.
Slack — our productivity tool of choice. It’s essentially a private chat interface for your team that works on mobile devices and computers. Mobile alerts of mentions keep you connected and in the loop on the go. And, for the control freak, you can always see who is online and who isn’t… snoop away!
We have several rooms (channels) within Slack that we use for various purposes:
- General conversation, links, and off topic (but rad) channels provide us with a virtual water cooler where people can discuss technology, stuff they read that was cool, or just talk about goofy fun stuff. By replacing the water cooler with an asynchronous one that everyone can participate in we judo a perceived Remote Work weakness into a strength.
- Project channels allow us to see github activity and converse about project issues in an organized fashion. Those who are on a project will track the channel and receive alerts, those who don’t never get bothered.
- Our team also posts a daily “Stand Up” message to our Daily Stand Up channel with what they expect to get done and where they might be blocked when they begin their day. This gives them a chance to ping anyone whose help they need and allows us to redirect them if there’s something more important they should be doing.
- Direct Messages replace walking across the office to (hopefully) find your co worker and chat.
Google+ Hangouts — need some actual face time? Apps like Google+ hangouts or Skype are where it’s at. In Slack we just enter “/hangout” in a channel to open up a video chat for the room. Here we can chat face to face, share our screens, collaborate in real time, etc.
We hold our twice monthly All Company meetings, weekly partner meetings, one on one check ins, etc via hangouts. We also try to get together for a virtual happy hour every week. It’s a fun way to grab a drink, share some bad music, and commiserate about what we’re working on without actually being at a bar!
Scoreboard — At the end of the day our team bills hours to projects (external and internal) on Scoreboard with a journal entry. Scoreboard uses the github API to assign commits (chunks of code added to the project) to these blocks of work, showing us as much detail as to what got done as we could ever need.
While the hour tracking piece of this is a result of our being a consultancy, ultimately we’ve noticed the impact it has on productivity. It helps make us accountable without wasting as much time with check-up meetings. Paired with the morning stand-up message we have complete check-in/check-out coverage.
3. Learn to Collaborate Asynchronously
Everyone at a remote company will have a slightly different schedule. We’ve set our core hours as 9am-7pm Pacific and require our team members, wherever they are, to overlap with them by at least 4 hours a day. This allows us to have enough overlap to communicate synchronously when needed, yet asynchronous collaboration is a vital trait of our team.
It turns out that most of the time you don’t need tons of “face time” to collaborate. Embracing the flexibility and asynchronous nature of the Internet really enables your team to master their time, think through problems before committing to a solution, and maintain a record of their discussions. By learning to identify what is important this second and requires synchronous discussion (Google hangout) vs. what can wait (instant message or email) your team can work with fewer interruptions and get more done.
4. Hire Employees Who Are a Fit for Remote Life
We’ve talked a lot about the kind of person that’s a fit for our company. It’s the same for any remote company, really. You need to have great communication skills, an independent spirit, tenacity, and be self-motivated.
We’ve also found that some people who are hyper-extroverted just can’t handle the remote lifestyle while others who are more introverted tend to excel. Exceptions exist, usually where the extrovert has a high activity level outside of work — resulting in their receiving enough human interaction and stimulation.
5. Get Weird Together
Bonding at any company is important, so I imagine my advice on this front would remain unchanged regardless. However, it’s even more important to make the most of your time together as a remote company. Every chance you get together has to be a celebration! Have fun, get inebriated, get weird, and bond.
Next week we’re going on our second, twice yearly, company trip. We’re flying 10 people to Costa Rica for our summer Hack Week festivities. Every night there’s a different themed costume party, fun activities throughout the week, and the chance to hack on stuff for LOLs and glory. The “Grand Champion” wins this silver cup for six months and gets their name engraved on it for posterity.
So, there you have it. The case for remote work and five tips on how to make it work. Now the question becomes, “Will you take advantage of the opportunity before your competition does?”
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Wil is a product-savant who loves conceptualizing features, designing user experiences, directing creatives, and engineering user interfaces. He has a cat named June, loves the St. Louis Cardinals, and was the First Blogger Transmitted into Space.