The science behind why remote working works
Most of my adult life I’ve been a remote worker. I’m twenty-nine years old now, and this December I’ll be celebrating the tenth year anniversary of the first company I co-founded — a company that was co-founded over AOL Instant Messenger, IRC and the occasional phone call. Not only were our business meetings virtual, but we established our friendship through playing the popular and all-time best-ever first person shooter, Counter-Strike. I was a sophomore at Yale and he was a sophomore at Case Western Reserve when we co-founded TypeFrag.
During the next few years all of our first three employees were remote workers: one was in England, one was in Kansas, and one was in Kentucky. Two of those three we never met in person. The other I’d met only briefly, but that was several years before he started working for us. We judged these first few hires according to the quality of their work, not whether they showed up in our office on time — if only because we didn’t have an office!
Four years later I sold TypeFrag, a very successful business despite the remoteness of it all, and started working with two people on Carbonmade. They were people I had never met in person but whose work and character I trusted after working remotely with them on a client project for six months. Just as with TypeFrag, our business meetings were over AOL Instant Messenger, Skype and the occasional phone call. It wasn’t until a year later that we finally met on a cold January day in windy Chicago. I still remember dragging my oversized suitcase through the snow in the worst wind I’d ever been in and seeing them in the distance running to help me.
Several years later we moved Carbonmade’s headquarters from their apartment in Chicago to a beautiful loft space in NYC, but we continued to hire remote workers. Our first customer service person was from Chicago and our first developer hire was from Canada. We never missed a beat, as we were now using 37signals’ Campfire to communicate, and that served as our virtual meeting room and water cooler. While in the beginning it was sometimes lonely to have a 2,400 sq. ft. office space with only the three of us there, we quickly filled the space with talented creative friends like Family Records, Ghostly, Crush+Lovely and others.
We continued to hire remote workers — a marketing person from Canada and a project manager from Las Vegas — before hiring several designers in New York City. Whenever we looked for people to hire, we judged the quality of their work before anything else. We never let their location be a constraint for us, but at the same time we realized that putting in face-time every now and again would help to build our culture. We flew our co-workers into NYC every so often to meet for a summit, but those times together were more for getting to know each other better than for getting work done. In fact, productivity slowed to a crawl during our get-togethers.
The benefits of remote working are heavily touted in the book REMOTE: Office Not Required by 37signals’ Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. 37signals’ employees, like those of TypeFrag and Carbonmade as I’ve described them, are mostly remote, yet 37signals has been able to build a multi-million dollar company, hiring the best people who make the most sense for their company regardless of location. Having worked for the most part remotely for the past ten years, I don’t really know any other way to do it. It just feels like how working ought to take place. It’s easy to get started and you’ll be late in the game if you don’t start soon.
Why remote working works
- Getting in the zone
I believe that the most overlooked benefit in remote working is the decrease in interruptions. As Jason Fried so eloquently puts it in his TED talk “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work”: “It’s like the front door of the office is like a Cuisinart, and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits ‘cause you have 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there and then something else happens and you’re pulled off your work and you gotta do something else.” Anyone who is a developer, designer or maker knows the feeling of “getting in the zone” and how much that can increase productivity. You stop to take a meeting or just for a friendly chat and you’re out of the zone.
The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihály described being in the zone or flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Often the distractions of a busy office environment can stop you from getting into that frame of mind. A co-worker who is not as busy or not feeling it will look to find someone else in the office to distract them rather than leaving work and coming back to it when they’re feeling more productive. Current office culture dictates that that person should stay at their desk even if they’re not feeling motivated.
Toward the end of my time at Carbonmade, I began going to the gym in the late afternoon when I wasn’t feeling it. I had long ago shed the idea that I needed to be there to make sure people were at their desks and working. I was killing my own productivity by counting down the minutes until it was an acceptable time to leave. I got the courage to leave work when I wasn’t in the zone and to come back to it after I’d worked out. Remote working is great for promoting this behavior.
2. Happiness increase
A Swedish study published in May 2011 looked at two million Swedes between 1995 and 2005 and found that people who commute longer than 45 minutes had a 40% higher likelihood of divorcing their spouse: “The findings indicate that long-distance commuters run a 40 percent higher risk of separating than other people do, and it’s the first years of long-distance commuting that are the most trying for a relationship.”
But let’s say for the sake of argument that most of us can survive a hazardous period of adjustment and get used to almost anything. Commuting is still a special case! Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, theorizes that “most good and bad things become less good and bad over time as we adapt to them. However, it is much easier to adapt to things that stay constant than to things that change. So we adapt quickly to the joy of a larger house, because the house is exactly the same size every time. But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every day is a slightly new form of misery.”
The average resident of New York, where I live, spends 48 minutes commuting to work every day. That’s 13 minutes above the national average, which is still an appalling 35 minutes. You’ll even save money in addition to time if you don’t commute. That’s a $2.50 subway ride each way, all for the fun of being squeezed against other disgruntled commuters in overstuffed subway cars. An average American works 260 days a year so working remotely would save an average New Yorker 12,480 minutes (or 8.6 days) of commute time and $1,300 in metro fees a year. As an employer, I’d greatly prefer to have that hour of commute time put to good use by a happy remote worker, working at home or in a coffee shop, or even not working at all for that stretch of time if it paves the way for a good stretch of work later.
3. Remote working is easier than ever
When I started remote working ten years ago, it was a much greater challenge to stay in touch and to be certain of workers’ productivity than it is now. Since then hundreds of small business tools have been built for keeping track of work progress. My favorite tools for this task include Hipchat for staying in touch, a mix of Google Drive and GitHub features for project management, and Skype and Google Hangouts to get in a little face-time now and again. Now I never feel that I don’t know what’s going on. If anything, these business tools give me a better indication of what progress is being made than walking up to a co-worker in the office and asking point-blank.
These tools really help you stay in touch, and new web applications like Peak are constantly popping up to help teams keep up with each other. Keeping in touch across these apps is far less distracting to everyone involved than office interaction. Instead of bugging someone about their progress, you can now monitor with a combination of these tools. Basecamp, Flow, and Asana are also very popular for teams as they begin to scale the size of their organization, but I find that these apps require too much micromanagement for teams under five.
Why you don’t want to be late in the game
Anyone who has hired in the past few years knows that there is a shortage of talented people out there. It’s harder than ever to find someone good and it’s even more difficult if you limit yourself to the city you’re based in. Sure, if you look elsewhere you can spice your offer with a $10,000 relocation fee, but what if they don’t work out after a few months, or for that matter what if they’re distracted by homesickness and decide to leave? In REMOTE, the authors urge employers to get with the times:
[P]ast generations have been bred on the idea that good work happens from 9am to 5pm, in offices and cubicles in tall buildings around the city. The future, quite literally, belongs to those who get it. Do you think today’s teenagers, raised on Facebook and texting, will be sentimental about the old days of all-hands-on-deck, Monday morning meetings? Ha!
Smart employers such as 37signals, Harvest and others that are only hiring the best people for their open positions already understand that that these people can live anywhere in the world. They not only produce great work, but have often been doing so remotely for their entire careers. And because of all the applications I’ve mentioned, it’s much easier to spot a talented person remotely than ever before.
If you’re not currently hiring remote workers, give it a shot. If all your current employees are working out of your office, give them the option of working from home one or two days a week and see what happens. My friend’s company Crush+Lovely started with Wednesdays as work-from-home days. Often the liveliness of a coffee shop or a change in location can jumpstart creativity.
What you may face without this flexibility is the possibility that your employees will look for a job that better accommodates their lifestyles.