Building a remote business: Should you go all-in or should you keep an office?

Image credit: https://www.blossom.co/

We’ve built Agorapulse as a “semi-remote” team. We have an office in Paris (9 people) and in Buenos Aires (3 people), along with 15 team members working remotely from the United States, Ireland, Mexico, Slovakia, and Brazil. That’s a total of 27 team members.

Why did we choose to build a remote team in the first place?

We started with our Paris office and a French-only team in 2011. But from Day One, we had the goal to be a truly global company. To that end, we knew we’d have to have native speakers of languages other than French on the team.

Hiring native English, Spanish or Portuguese speakers in Paris would have been a very hard thing to do. It made much more sense to hire these team members in English, Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries. This got us thinking more about a remote mindset.

If your clients are all over the world, having a remote team is the fastest and easiest way to serve your clients in their native language (and time zone)!

Later on, as we began looking for talent with specific skills and expertise, having the option to hire them remotely opened many more opportunities for us.

When you’re looking for talent, limiting your search to people living in one city in the world can be very challenging. Being open to remote workers REALLY opens your possibilities.

Why do we keep offices despite having over 50% of our team members working remotely?

This is not a trivial question. Alex Turnbull, the founder of Groove wrote an entire blog post explaining why he decided to close his office and go fully remote:

In his post, Alex explains why they decided to close the only office they had to make every employee remote and not have two “classes” of employees, the remote ones and the ones at the office.

I understand his position, but I disagree with his statement that it HAS to be “all or nothing.”

The “semi-remote” model has worked well for many companies. As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) explain in their book REMOTE, their company Basecamp has been a very successful company while having a remote team and an office in Chicago. It’s also worked great for Trello who has an intriguing process to make sure every team member has an opportunity to connect with others on a weekly basis. It has also worked well for Buffer for a while, even if Leo Widrich and Joel Gascoigne finally decided to go all-in as well.

An “only remote” model would work well if your company ONLY dealt with customer support, content production or marketing. But there’s one job that’s much more challenging to do remotely: product development. People working on your product team (UI/UX, engineering, product manager) will have a much harder time getting things done right if they’re scattered across the globe.

Have you ever tried to have a discussion on a new design of your app via Slack? Nightmare. Or Skype? Ouch.

Working on your product is much easier (and more efficient) if all the stakeholders sit in the same room to make hard decisions with all the materials (and options) laid out before them.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to do it remotely — we do have a satellite product team in Buenos Aires. I’m just saying it’s much more challenging.

Product is a touchy area for any startup. It’s at the heart of your future success or failure. If you nail it, you win. If you can’t make it right for the customer, you lose. The hard fact is that it’s not 1999 any more. In 2017, you can no longer get away with a great sales & marketing team making up for a lousy product.

The same thing can’t be said about failing at your content strategy, paid marketing efforts, or customer support / customer success experience. Failure in one of these areas can hurt your business for sure, but failure won’t kill it if you have a great product your customers love using.

Failing at content marketing, paid marketing or even support will hurt your business but probably not kill it. However, failing to deliver a great product to your users will eventually kill your business.

Every roadblock you can remove to empower your team to build a great product faster is a good roadblock to remove.

That’s why we like having one office in Paris where most of the product stakeholders are located.

Does keeping an office and having a “semi-remote” team causes issues?

Is there a downside to our “semi-remote” model? Have we created two classes of employees like Alex Turnbull mentioned in his blog post?

We don’t think so.

First, most of our remote employees actually prefer to be remote. For them, it’s more of a perk (freedom and flexibility) than an obligation.

Second, we’ve equipped ourselves with a set of tools to make sure being remote doesn’t mean being isolated. Slack, Basecamp, appear.in, Facebook Workplace and even a video conferencing system help us collaborate all day (and sometimes all night) long. You can see the entire list of the 31 tools we use in this blog post:

These tools are the primary mean of communication — even for employees working in the same office.

If you have an office AND a remote team, make sure everyone is using the same tools to communicate with each other. Use Slack even if you want to have a discussion with your colleague next door. That way, no one is left out of discussions they need to be aware of.

We use Slack first even if some of us are sitting next to each other — this tool allows for fewer interruptions and greater participation regardless of where people work.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s a piece of cake.

There’s definitely internal communication that “just happens” in an office that’s very convenient to be around. Say you’re in support and you hear the tech guys talking about a bug. Or you’re in product and you hear a support rep talking about a client frustrated about a feature. These “overheard” conversations don’t easily happen on remote collaboration tools.

Nor do casual chats at lunch or coffee with coworkers.

Here’s what we do to make sure that we don’t create two classes of team members:

  • All important discussions happen in a place where everyone can participate (Slack, Basecamp, Facebook Workplace, to name a few).
  • When there is big news (like a big product release), we spend the time documenting everything that each team member needs to know and then share that document in a place — Basecamp — that everyone has access to.
  • We hold at least one weekly meeting with all team members to share the big highlights of the week (or the month) and to give everyone a chance to ask and answer questions. We use Highfive for this.
  • Each functional team runs a short daily or weekly meeting to share more details about a specific job inside the company. We have one weekly meeting for the support team, one weekly meeting for the customer success / customer discovery team, one weekly meeting for the tech team, and one daily scrum meeting for the marketing team.
  • Our founders and managers make time for one-on-ones with every team member. These talks are not necessarily to chat about a specific task of job, but more to uncover how team members feel, how they might be blocked or limited, and what management can do to help them.

If we didn’t do all this, nothing would “just happen” as if we were all having coffee together.

As a founder, being proactive about team communication in your business is a key to success. It is essential from Day One regardless if your team is remote or not — and it’s especially important if your team is poised for growth.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if employees are remote, semi remote or all in one office. What matters is that as a founder or manager, you invest the time and energy to make every team member feel 100% part of your team.

That’s the only cure. Not going all-in or all-out.

What’s your take? Are you operating as a remote or semi-remote team? Do you have experience you’d like to share with me? I’d love to hear about how you’ve done it!