Distributed by Design

Ashleigh Axios
Published in
7 min readMay 29, 2020


As COVID-19 forced many businesses to quickly convert to partially or totally remote operation, they’ve turned to companies already working in a distributed fashion for guidance. Employers are looking for the best practices to smoothly transition business activities and employee connectivity online.

A group of team members in chat bubbles using computers, tablets and phones to review work while being remote.

We’ve done our part to help recommend tools, workflows, and tips for making remote teaming a successful experience for workers and clients. We’ve been doing this since we started the company in 2017, outside of a few DC-based employees who choose to work out of our company headquarters.

New post-pandemic realities for individuals and businesses come more clearly into focus with each passing day. Some businesses are embracing a partial retention of their emergency remote plans, and others — such as Shopify, who announced last week that they’re now a “digital by default” company — are dissolving their physical office anchors and setting their sails on the winds of a new, distributed-only workforce.

We believe some teams can work entirely remotely with continued success, productivity, connection, and impact.

Why Remote from the Start?

Working remotely feels different when it’s a necessity rather than a choice, but it’s no passing fad — the number of remote US employees rose 115% between 2005 and 2015. Several companies employing over 1,000 people, including Mozilla, Automattic, Elastic, and Gitlab, have been distributed for a while and are growing steadily. And they’re not alone. Other large companies have recently joined the movement; for instance, Twitter, Facebook, and Square are giving employees the choice to work from home permanently, and more conversions are on their heels.

These companies are realizing some of the same things we did in structuring our business: remote companies pass myriad benefits along to employers, employees, clients, and the environment. With pros ranging from lower overhead costs to a lower carbon footprint helping curb the environmental effects physical offices have on the planet, it makes sense to seriously consider a distributed workforce as a way to help build a better future.

Below are the benefits we see from building and sustaining a distributed company.

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Lean Budgets

We see less business overhead, and that means our clients see lower prices. Office space is usually among the highest fixed costs for a business eliminated by remote workspaces, and it’s just one of the operational costs that can be prohibitively expensive for a small business trying to grow in a high cost of living area.

Global Workplace Analytics estimates that employers can save about $11,000 per employee working remotely even just half of the time. This includes the savings from increased productivity and better disaster preparedness, which are discussed later in this article.

Employees see savings as well. They’re spared the costs associated with daily commutes, curating and maintaining an office wardrobe that experiences regular wear, and the pressures of buying food, beverages, and other supplies on or near-location. Saving money and time are quality of life improvements, too, and it’s partly why remote workers stay in their jobs longer on average than their onsite counterparts.

An illustration of a person outside while holding a tree seedling.

Carbon Footprint Control

Distributed and remote work will always be the greener option. The Environmental Protection Agency identified transportation as the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, a sizable chunk of which is associated with people commuting to and from work. In fact, a past study by Sun Microsystems (later acquired by Oracle) found that commuting was about 98% of an employee’s work-related carbon footprint.

Moreover, eliminated commutes pay their benefits forward. According to Global Workplace Analytics, traffic jams alone emit about 26 million tons of greenhouse gases per year. More distributed workforces reduce the number of cars on the road, mitigate the work-related timing and travel expectations that feed peak commuting hours, and decrease the number of idling vehicles, resulting in a reduction of pollution.

Offices also tend to use more energy, paper, and plastic than people do at home. A 2017 study by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs found that the carbon savings from remote workers in the US was equal to planting 91.9 million trees. Turns out, it’s easier to be mindful about what you use when you have more control over it.

An illustration of a person and their cat sitting on a cell phone with wireframes to review on the screen.

Better Work-Life Balance

Pandemic-forced remote work situations aside, empowering people to set their own schedules and configure their own environments makes them more productive. That’s why remote workers tend to be available for more hours and achieve more in less time. This has been the conclusion of many studies over the years, including those published by Stanford, Gallup, and the Journal of Business and Psychology.

It makes sense — people can optimize the way they work for themselves. They can create quiet environments or play their focus music, set the room as cold or warm as they’d like, and use their favorite left-handed mouse or balance ball chair in ways that may not be possible in the office.

Remote work also frees up more time in a day. We cut the monotony of a daily commute, avoid the lunch rush, and end the dilemma of choosing between supporting one’s company or supporting one’s household or local community.

A completely remote workforce gives employees the freedom to live in the countries, towns, and communities they want with the flexibility to adapt and change without commiting to an otherwise unnecessary job change.

Likewise, remote workplaces eliminate stress if employees need to travel, take care of an emergency engagement, or even just make an appointment. Instead of having to take off from work, they can manage their priorities and still clock in. They don’t have to disclose personal details to their employer or fear judgment if dealing with a fraught situation, either. That means individuals retain more privacy, comfort, and dignity.

An illustration of a person looking at a global map and adding pins where their team works or is native to.

Increased Accessibility

COVID-19 illuminated something important about the world we live in: most essential operations can go remote when people face barriers to participating in traditional life. But a pandemic isn’t the only barrier anyone faces; people with disabilities (both visible and invisible), limited transportation access, a lack of child- or elder-care support, and other multifaceted challenges deserve more than basic workplace accommodations. Distributed, or even partially remote, workplaces are one way to move beyond basic fixes to physical spaces and systems originally designed for the able-bodied, wealthy, and high-mobility individuals in society. Distributed workplaces meet a variety of accessibility needs because individuals are crafting or choosing spaces for themselves. Rather than someone having to request accommodations for their needs in their workplace, as many have done for years, the power instead is in each individual’s hands.

Once the workplace goes remote, so can its content and activities. The potential for other people, businesses, and institutions to engage with a company grows when talks become webinars, physical documents become cloud-based presentations, and local files become shared networks, each as extensible as needed or wanted.

Being remote allows us to hire people outside of a single-region’s commuting radius, giving employees access to more resources and job opportunities and employers, like us, access to a bigger talent pool. It can also add jobs in rural or hard-to-reach areas that may otherwise experience shortages of well-paying positions or succumb to job loss as local economies and industries shift.

People enthusiastically value this flexibility; 99% of workers surveyed in Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work said they wanted to work remotely in some capacity for the rest of their career, and younger workers especially prioritize these options when looking for jobs.

An illustration of first responders helping fight against a pandemic.

Disaster Preparedness

We didn’t think this one would actually happen. However, having the infrastructure to work remotely is saving some businesses day by day right now.

But it’s not just about covering world-stopping pandemics. Remote workplaces are more resilient, period. They’re more resistant to disruptions from traffic jams, absences from work and potentially pay due to snow storms and major weather events, bad air quality, and a normal flu or allergy season. People have more control over their responses to risks, and that means they’re going to be safer and be able to maintain a more stable income.

If people are already accustomed to distributed work and have the tools to be successful before disaster strikes, then that makes work one less thing to worry about in uncertain times. It also means employees’ personal emergencies can be covered with the same flexibility. COVID-19 has only reinforced for us that the most secure workplace is the remote one.

Ultimately, a remote workplace is more than financial savings. It’s a picture of a more empathetic and robust business culture that trusts and empowers its employees to make the decisions that are right for them, that does its part to protect the environment and its personnel, and that supports the people supporting it.

We believe in a human-centered culture, so that’s where we started. The future of work is evolving and distributed work has already proven to be one key to success.



Ashleigh Axios

Positive social change by design. CXO & Partner at Coforma. AIGA Board Chair. // Prev: Automattic, Obama White House, DotGov Design, AIGA DC… (she/her)