Why our company’s remote work system failed

Ben Cheng
Ben Cheng
Feb 11, 2017 · 5 min read
Image by Robert G Allen Photography via Unsplash

My company’s cornerstone principles is manage yourself. As long as you get stuff done, no-one will mind when you’re in the office. Remote work seemed like a logical next step for self management. We wanted to accommodate each of our 40+ team members’ working styles.

Since my company grew organically, without outside investment, and has less than 10% annual turnover for people who pass probation, I’m pretty sure we got something right.

Remote work wasn’t one of them.

Below are my reflections as a CEO on what we did, why we did it, and what actually happened. As a small development agency, we were able to implemented remote work after a quick discussion — basically an experiment after an implied hypothesis of how we thought people wanted to work. What we underestimated was the effort that the entire company would have to make remote work work.

Remote Work 0.1

Image by NASA via Unsplash

The reason we (Roy, Rick, and myself) set up our first office was for us to come back to the office occasionally and hang out. In the end, everyone came everyday so… it became an actual office.

As fresh graduates at the time, we used going to the office as a motivation to get out of bed. Also, many people in Hong Kong live with family, so there’s lots of distraction at home. Maybe it’s a timing thing, as I’ve read people with families value the time they spend with their kids.

Remote Work 0.2

Image by Francois Hoang via Unsplash

A more recent case came when we brought a Taipei developer, Johnny, on board. At first, Johnny wanted to work remotely as a change from his previous job in a large company. But after three days at coffee shops, your neck starts to hurt. Three days at home and you feel like a loner.

After going between home, cafes and co-working spaces, he really wanted to have a proper office. Having stable internet, adjusted monitors, your own keyboard, and a place to leave work behind became more important.

Because Taiwan is culturally close to Hong Kong and has engineering talents, we took the opportunity to setup our first satellite office in Taipei. Johnny is much happier now with colleagues to go for lunch with like we do in Hong Kong.

So it didn’t quite work out after all — but why?

  • Work boundaries sometimes break down when you stay at home. While I am proud of my team’s work ethic, it leads to burn out (and I am probably the worst example, still).

Even though my company had the mindset that made everyone open to remote work (i.e. flexible hours, finish things however it works for you) our company hasn’t set up the infrastructure and habits that support remote work.

Can these problems be fixed? Yes.

People who really want to make it work can check out Buffer’s tools for remote work.

The problems with remote work highlighted other things we took for granted about our office.

Why people kept coming to the office anyway…

Coffee, one of the four office cats aka programming cheerleaders.
  • The office is a fun place to be (people, cats, games room).

The above has made me realize that we have no ambitions to become a distributed team. And that’s okay, too.

Today, we embrace remote working as an option just as much as we did 9+ years ago.

A view of Mt. Fuji from Tokyo, Japan. Taken by one of our remote team members, Athena.

We still value giving our team members flexibility to work efficiently. Currently, two team members are remote working while traveling / living in different countries. Within the framework of self-management and flexibility, these “exceptional” situations aren’t seen as unfair by colleagues, but a different lifestyle choice.

However, we don’t need to over-engineer a system for remote work, or say “yes” to every new hire who wants to work remotely before proving themselves.


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Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around…

Ben Cheng

Written by

Ben Cheng

Co-founder of @Oursky and Skygear.io

Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around the world. Welcoming submissions re: startup education, tech trends, product, design, hiring, growth, investing, and more. Interested in submitting? Visit our submission form here: https://airtable.com/shrShpeN89HrzCzOB

Ben Cheng

Written by

Ben Cheng

Co-founder of @Oursky and Skygear.io

Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around the world. Welcoming submissions re: startup education, tech trends, product, design, hiring, growth, investing, and more. Interested in submitting? Visit our submission form here: https://airtable.com/shrShpeN89HrzCzOB

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