I have a friend who owns a big software development agency specializing in eCommerce. His company does pretty complex projects in omnichannel commerce, connecting brick-and-mortar stores together with their online counterparts, designing and building unified warehousing, fulfillment and delivering systems, and many more. He has more than a hundred full-time employees sitting in multiple offices around the country.
Hiring new talent was always a struggle for the company because the physical location was a constant limiting factor. Some time ago, the friend told me that he admires how I managed to build a fully-remote company, which is so efficient. When I asked him if he’s considering hiring remote too and offered him some advice on how to do it properly, he said that hiring remote employees is not an option any time soon. Why? Because “We won’t know what people are doing at home. How do we know if they are working?”. This is one of the most common excuses I hear from business owners. This common concern is what I want to talk about today.
The remote process isn’t much different from on-site when you have the right metrics.
Almost ten years ago, I had an eCommerce startup. I also opened a brick and mortar store so that people could visit a physical location and try things out before buying or pick up the orders if delivery wasn’t working for them. One of the challenges was managing the employees in the store. Since there weren’t that many visitors, they were also helping out with the online store — making pictures, uploading new positons, writing descriptions, providing phone and chat support, etc. It was part of the contract, so they knew what they were getting into.
I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time in the store every day. I was visiting once a day and had a friend who worked nearby to supervise them by visiting a few more times in the morning and in the evening. There also were few cameras so that I can see what’s going on when I’m not around (the employees knew about them). But apart from that, everyone was pretty much on their own and independent.
As a manager, I wanted to track the performance of each employee and see how much work they were doing. So I asked the developer I was working with to add analytics to the custom CMS we built. I was able to see the exact amount of work each user was doing per day and per week, how much chat sessions they opened, how much orders processed, and the like.
After some time after the physical store opened, the number of orders slightly went up, and I had to hire one more person. There was no point in hiring another consultant to work in the store, so I hired remotely. The new store manager, Kate, was doing mostly the same thing employees at the store were doing, minus the need to talk to the customers who walk in during the day.
And guess what, with this analytics system in place, there was no difference in performance. Plus, I knew what Kate was doing from the comfort of her home and what employees at the store were doing. It wasn’t all going perfect, I had to fire a few people because of their attitude and poor performance, but the decisions were made without me being physically in the store — I just evaluated the metrics.
Do you really know what they’re doing in the office?
I have another exciting story for you. When I was in graphics design school, a friend of mine was working as a print designer in a newspaper. He hated this job because he was sitting with his back turned to the office of the CEO, which had transparent walls. In fact, all workplaces were placed in a way that allowed the CEO to see who’s doing what. He also had a terrible habit of coming to the desk of a person who caught his eye and commenting on the work. I can’t even imagine a work environment that is more stressful.
Does such a level of control ensure that everyone is working hard? Most of the offices aren’t like that. Typically your coworkers don’t peek over your shoulder, apart from few people who sit right near you. More importantly, should everyone work hard all the time? I know an excellent graphics designer who loves to watch a movie on an iPad while working. She’s working from home, and she’s really, really good. I bet working in the office would be a struggle for her, so I asked her about it.
And you know what, she told me that it wasn’t a problem. At her previous job, she found a way of watching movies while working in the office too, and nobody ever noticed. Same as a lot of people find ways to do online shopping, read the news, hang out on social media, and all other things ordinary people do. And it’s ok. If you’re the boss and you think that none of your employees are doing this, I have bad news for you.
Remote work is more efficient, but you need right metrics for efficiency
I’m not saying that seeking control and order as an employer is bad. But I also don’t think that it makes sense to have rules that are too strict. And if you loosen the rules, it doesn’t matter anymore if someone is working remotely or not that much.
I procrastinate, a lot. But who cares as long I get the job done. I’m not proud of my procrastination, but t’s my personal struggle, and it doesn’t really affect the work I do. With the right systems in place, remote work is precisely the same as the work in the office. In fact, it’s even more efficient because there are fewer distractions and less stress. Plus, happiness levels go through the roof when employees can save dozens of hours every week on commute.
In my opinion, the only thing that matters is the output, not the way that output is achieved. I would rather have someone work an hour a day and do full day worth of work and play online games than someone who pretends to be working all day. To measure the output you need to use one of the management tools out there that matches your company’s processes. Something as simple as Trello can go a long way adding more control and transparency to your company’s day to day work.