The Bureau of Labor Statistics just released its much-anticipated American Time Use Survey, which found that more Americans are working from home, with 23 percent completing all or some of their work from home, up from 19 percent in 2003. Most employees who work remotely have a hybrid situation where they work from home part of the time, and in their company’s office the other part of the time.
However, there is a growing number of companies that operate with a completely distributed workforce, with no headquarters or office space. These cutting edge companies rely heavily upon mobile and cloud technologies and a wide variety of online services and platforms. The management of remote companies can focus on productivity in ways that yield amazing results.
I say this from personal experience, having run companies in both a traditional on-site environment as well as a completely remote business model. A few years into running my first remote company, I was surprised to realize how truly engaged, efficient and communicative we were. We were adaptive and collaborative in ways that rivaled- -- if not beat -- the work cultures of other great companies I had worked in before.
I’ve learned that my story is not uncommon.
Fire Engine Red, which does marketing, technology and data solutions, was founded as a remote company in 2001. It now has 64 team members working from 24 remote locations. Communications Director Chuck Vadun attributes the accomplishments of the company to location-independence. “The fact that we can hire the most talented people, no matter where they’re located, has contributed dramatically to our success,” says Vadun.
My team and I conducted interviews with leading remote companies to find out how they thrive when their teams are working from different cities and time-zones and what are they doing that traditionally-structured companies with offices aren’t.
Remote companies hire differently.
The biggest benefit of a remote workforce, from the company’s perspective, is “bar none, a massive talent pool to explore for great culture and skill fit,” says Jake Goldman, the president and founder of 10up Inc. 10up is a website design and development company with 115 team members working remotely from 20 locations.
While most remote companies reported using phone and video conferencing to conduct job interviews, some used other means. Automattic, the web development company that operates WordPress.com and has more than 325 remote workers, conducts interviews mainly over text chat. Head of Human Resources, Lori McLeese, says, “It’s a good introduction for the person interviewing about how we communicate (very heavily text-based) and this also allows us to be able to interview people in different time zones no matter where the interviewer is located.”
Remote companies also look for specific attributes that make people not only excellent remote workers, but also exceptionally productive employees. Remote companies LoveToKnow, ScrapingHub, and Speak, all say they specifically look for great communication skills, regardless of job function.
“We stay productive by staying in touch, offering status reports, working through challenges, and these things are all easier when everyone is communicative,” says Ann MacDonald, director of content strategy at LoveToKnow.
Remote companies work harder to create company culture.
Traditional companies foster company culture mainly through in-person activities. Virtual companies come up with clever ways to build and develop remote company cultures.
Vadun, of FireEngineRed, says the company has virtual book and walking clubs. Origin Eight, a web and application development company with 25 remote workers, takes time to build culture. The “water cooler” conversations might have to happen in a chat room, and it uses Yammer for extracurricular discussions. “It takes consistent and thorough communication, documentation and persistence to communicate expectations, the way we do things, what we value, and the like. And it takes leadership to further the culture,” says CEO and founder Seth Viebrock.
In-person meetings are still valuable, even if only held a handful of times each year. The team at Tropical Travelers, a luxury vacation firm, attends travel-related functions together and travels together up to five times each year, says Jennifer Byrne, president and CEO.
Remote companies focus on different priorities.
One of the biggest concerns of in-office managers who allow employees to work from home is knowing whether those people will be productive at home. Face time -- seeing someone working -- plays a huge role in traditional management techniques, but in a remote environment, managers must adopt more accurate and focused measurements of productivity.
Acceleration Partners, a marketing agency with 45 team members, emphasizes individual goal-setting to track productivity. “We also use tools like Harvest for time tracking, and quarterly check-ins to make sure everyone is on track with their core job responsibilities and individual goals,” says Emily Tetto, director of talent and culture.
ScrapingHub, a data and information extraction company with 107 remote workers, focuses on motivation over productivity. Director Pablo Hoffman says, “Remote working companies need to build on trust. Productivity is fueled by motivation. So, rather than asking how to keep your workers productive, you should ask how to keep them motivated. You need to know the priorities of your employees and strive to align their work to them, within your company’s constraints of course.”
In looking at what remote companies do differently than office-bound companies, I believe that most -- if not all -- of these tips are “best practices” in either environment. It’s just that remote companies don’t have the physical presence to fall back on, so they tend to be more proactive in cultivating top notch management techniques early on. Specifically, communication skills are essential for the modern knowledge worker. Company culture is vital to hiring and retaining workers.
Switching management techniques to focus less on face time and more on goals and results would increase productivity at every company. As working from home continues to grow, all companies can learn from those that embrace remote work.