Why our company’s remote work system failed

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).
  • People who didn’t come to the office missed out on things like ad hoc team lunches and dinners, discussions on the latest tech when a delivery arrives, tastings (wine, whisky, coffee, snacks, and a lot more).
  • Face-to-face meetings are most efficient (examples include Reddit & Yahoo banning remote work). Our team members prefer just walking over to a colleague’s desk to address whatever is on their mind.
  • Ideas happen in person — over lunch or when someone is walking by a colleague’s desk and looks over their shoulder. The company hires T-shape people, so we encourage anyone to contribute to projects outside their official role.
  • Technology is always iffy. In meetings, it boils down to Wi-Fi speeds, audio quality, and lags.
  • Efficiency suffers. Trying to chase down files or coordinate working schedules for handing off is always a challenge. In addition, remote work doesn’t allow for quick adaptation or response to ad hoc issues. We trust our team members who some times work from home, but there can be lags in responses that wouldn’t happen in the office.
  • Differences in working styles become more acute. For example, our project managers have different management styles and expectations of their developers. Some PMs are understanding of time zone differences and ad hoc travel reschedules while others prefer fixing meeting times and office hours.
  • Assumptions and lack of documentation became obvious. Balls are dropped or people reinvent the wheel because they are unaware another team member has taken action already. We hate reinventing the wheel, but people are slow to adopt habits such as checking in.

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 internet is faster.
  • Various other perks, like the free beer, and free meals such as breakfasts and Friday evening take-out.
  • And… even with distractions, it’s easier to get stuff done.

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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