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In Silicon Valley and beyond, there are still many advocates of the idea that teams have to work in the same physical place to reach their fullest potential. Remember the uproar when Yahoo banned working from home? Well, I work with a distributed workforce of more than 70 high-tech professionals spread across more than 20 countries, and I can say unequivocally that this is by far the most productive, fun, and tight-knit group I have ever worked with — and I have worked for some great companies.
Distributed workforces are becoming increasingly more common with many new companies going “all in” from the get-go, just as we did at Plex. Automattic, Github, and Basecamp are good examples, but it’s not just the up-and-comers. Some of the most well-known companies in the world have encouraged working from home for years. Cisco, Amazon, and Salesforce have large remote workforces. Dell has publicly stated that by 2020 it wants half of its employees working remotely, and leading this pack of tech giants is Intel, which had 82 percent of its employees regularly telecommuting four years ago. All of these companies are doing more than a few things right, and allowing their people to work from home is one of them.
There are many reasons to consider a remote workforce that go well beyond all of the obvious benefits, like reducing facilities expenses, cutting down on commute time, and promoting better work-life balance. Whether you have a distributed team or everyone under one roof, building a company with a great culture is challenging. As our remote organization continues to grow, we’ve learned a few things that have helped us build a talented, efficient, fun, and distributed team that we all love being part of.
Hire the best person for the job, no matter where they live
Not limiting your search radius to one geographic area makes it much easier to find the best person for the job, no matter where they live. Not just the best person for the job within 50 miles of the office. It’s no secret that hiring competition in the Bay Area is fierce. Being able to hire someone anywhere in the world reduces competition for local talent with the likes of Google, Apple, and Facebook, each of whom is prepared to pay their top people with bags of diamonds. Silicon Valley hasn’t cornered the market on talented engineers. So we don’t care if you live in an igloo, as long as you are talented, dedicated, passionate, kind and have a good Internet connection.
Hiring remote workers also makes it easier to get people who really love what they do. We often hire developers that are already a part of our own global user community; in fact, to date, our community has made up the majority of our talent pool. Employees often start off as power users, tinkering with the product or helping out in our forums in their spare time as a hobby. It’s a labor of love, and when they join us full time, it fuels much more passion and drive than we’ve seen at other companies. Bringing on people who not only already know and love our product but love their work is a win for everyone: the company, the employee, and the customer.
It promotes a more culturally sensitive product
If you’re making a product that’s used all over the world, having a geographically distributed team allows for greater cultural sensitivity. This goes beyond having local language support, and includes things like being sensitive to linguistic nuances, user interface preferences, and customer use case priorities for different people around the world. It’s challenging to create cultural empathy for international customers if the vast majority of employees all live and work in the same place. Plus, having designers around the world means more perspectives and artistic talent from unique backgrounds, ultimately leading to a more beautiful, thoughtful, and impactful product.
In an always-on, global operation, communication infrastructure is critical
Having a distributed team across time zones is an advantage in its own right, because the company is always “on” and working around the clock. The inherent challenge is ensuring effective communication. We realized fairly quickly that we had to have a set of tools that could stand on its own in the absence of daily in-person interactions and meetings. We developed a simple, yet powerful dashboard that provides real time visibility for everyone in the company. It includes information like who is currently working on what team, company priorities, team priorities, project due dates, weekly status updates etc. In addition, we use a number of great commercial productivity tools such as Slack for real-time communication, Github for code management, Hangouts and Zoom for video conferencing and Trello for project prioritization. Whether your team is distributed or local, it is so important to implement the right tools for clear communication, visibility and context setting. Having everyone sit in the same room won’t necessarily solve the communication challenge for you.
People work harder at communicating and being helpful
Even with the right tools in place, we’ve found that people actually work harder at communicating across the organization in a remote environment — they have to. Especially if you’re dealing with an international team that is communicating in a single language, you have to make extra effort to be clear and thoughtful in how you deliver messages and points. Just like it is often hard to convey the right tone in written communication, cultural nuances are easy to misunderstand and must be accounted for. So teams have to be more considerate as they work together — and that is a good thing!
An online real-time communication solution such as Slack, allows employees to get constant feedback and input from people in every corner of the organization, not just those closest to them. This encourages fresh perspectives and makes it easy for people to request and receive help from anyone whenever they need it, whether it’s a teammate, an intern or the CEO. Most importantly, chat tools like these that show the “presence” of all of your teammates at any given time reduces the sense of distance and geographic separation and really makes it feel like you are working together, side by side, with your team.
In order to encourage the team as a whole to make communication a priority, we’ve made kindness and helpfulness our two top hiring criteria. A friend in human resources once told me that she measures the health of an organization by how helpful its people are. I’ve still not found a better measure for either office or remote environments. If you really focus on hiring kind and helpful people, I guarantee that communication won’t be a problem — even if your tools and processes aren’t perfect — and you’ll have a very healthy organization.
People work more and waste less time
The benefits of a remote workforce go beyond the obvious, like reducing commute timeWhat I didn’t know until being a part of this type of culture is that people tend to work more when they work from home. For starters, the typical Bay Area commute can range from 24-40 minutes each way. On the high end, that’s nearly 1.5 hours of “wasted time” that employees who work from home can dedicate to their job. Or better yet, their family.
As we all know, it‘s also not uncommon for some employees in an office to “look busy” because they’re present and accounted for when they really aren’t getting much done. In a virtual environment, with the right transparency tools, it is hard for people to get lost in the shuffle because everyone’s work is right out in the open. Tools and dashboards that report priorities, check-ins, accomplishments, and milestones in real-time are invaluable and keep all of us accountable. We don’t have to punch a time card, and nobody has to look over our shoulder, but we still have near-perfect visibility into what everyone is doing. So people are free to balance their work and home life in the way that works best for them, and we trust them to get their job done without worrying that someone might fall through the cracks. Of course, teams that are co-located could, and probably should, employ the same tools!
It can still be a tight-knit environment
Perhaps unexpectedly, we’ve found that a remote culture can be just as friendly and intimate as an office setting, if not more so. Our chat rooms allow newcomers to build rapport with many more people in a shorter period than they could build in an office environment. For quiet and introverted team members, especially on engineering teams, we have found that many of them are even more comfortable, at least at first, interacting in a chat environment. So people just communicate more than they typically do in an office setting and thereby develop more, and better, relationships quickly.
Employees are constantly sharing experiences, thoughts, and photos, asking about each other’s days and weekends, or challenging each other to keep fit and healthy with an exercise lottery in Slack. All of these things happen while we multi-task, meaning much less wasted time. And when these teams do get together in person, it is like a reunion of old friends, not one of those cold and awkward office social events. The bottom line is that you don’t have to sacrifice a tight-knit culture in a remote environment.
Of course, it’s not without challenges
Working remotely isn’t for everyone. It is well documented that it can be lonely for people who rely on work for most of their in-person social interaction. We’ve also found that hiring recent grads can be challenging if they are looking for the “campus environment” that a Google or Facebook provides. It’s important for both the employee and the company to make sure that the employee’s social life is a good fit so they are happy on your distributed team.
We’ve found a good practice for distributed teams is to bring potential new hires on in a project capacity for 5-10 hours a week over a trial period to make sure it’s a good fit for the team and the employee. Without exception, employees who go through a trial period really appreciate the opportunity to get to know the company and their future teammates before going “all in.” The trial is more for the employee than the company. You will certainly miss out on great candidates who are just not willing to do that, but it mostly eliminates the possibility of a bad fit.
We also understand that nothing beats face-to-face contact for getting to know people and helping to build trust and strong relationships. There are many options for getting people together – team and company meet-ups, for example. The money saved from not having to lease expensive office space should more than offset the expense of getting your teams together, and will go much further toward creating amazing memories and building strong, long-lasting team camaraderie.
Despite the benefits of having a distributed team, you may find that you need at least a small office headquarters for meetings with partners, investors, and other third parties. Like it or not, when you are trying to establish credibility as a startup, you may be better off establishing a headquarters instead of spending your time trying to convince prospective partners of the merits of working remotely. That said, if your distributed team does establish a headquarters, it’s important that the day-to-day mentality at HQ remains 100 percent remote (e.g. people in the office keep most business communication online) to avoid a sense of “us vs. them” from developing.
The bottom line: Remote workforces really work
Like anything in business, managing a completely remote team takes planning and commitment with a healthy dose of trial and error. However, as more companies realize that the pros of a remote workforce dramatically outweigh the cons, for both the company and the employee, it is just a matter of time before technology office spaces and cube farms become the exception rather than the rule.
Have you ever worked remotely for your company, part or full time? Ever led a remote team? Share your thoughts on what worked and what didn’t.
Keith Valory is CEO of Plex.
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