After reading Remote: Office Not Required by the owners of Basecamp, or any number of blog articles on the subject like this one by Groove CEO, Alex Turnbull, you’d think it’s a open and shut case: remote working is the way the world is going because offices are stuffy, confining, and full of distractions.
I do admit that many of these articles make very solid points on why you should choose to go remote and how to make it work.
To sum it up, the reasons to go remote generally are:
- Access to talent - Not being limited to just your city means you have a bigger talent pool to hire from.
- Productivity increase - People waste time commuting, and people don’t get much work done due to constant distractions.
- Cost Savings - Office space, furniture, electricity, and internet are expensive.
- Happiness - People working from home spend more time with their family and can work when they’re most efficient.
My experience to-date
I’ve now had the experience of running two companies: one service, and one product, both of which have been remote at various points in time.
My first company, Headspace, started with four people remotely. After a couple of months we rented a cheap office. When our lease ran out we all started working from home before finally moving into a posh, trendy office a year later.
Once my co-founder and I exited Headspace to work on Proposify, we went back to remote, with three of us working from our homes and meeting once or twice a week at a coffee shop or pub. We eventually brought the team together again by renting office space from Volta, a co-working space for startups. Now, after a little over a year, we’re finally ready to move to our own office in about a week from this writing.
Throughout the last seven years while all of this back-and-forth between remote and office working was happening, I learned that when it comes to culture, collaboration, and communication, nothing beats having an office.
Regardless of whether you’re an agency or a product startup, those three things are absolutely crucial to the long term health of your company, not just optional nice-to-haves. Here’s why:
There’s no question that it’s easier to build a culture when people work together in a physical space.
Remote teams generally rely on communication tools like Slack to communicate. Some meet in person once a year. But in an office it’s different. Every single day you’re building one-on-one relationships with other people.
Random jokes are cracked in the office, and you can actually hear people laughing, which is so much better than just reading “lol” over chat.
Sometimes people end up grabbing lunch, dinner, or drinks together. At Headspace we also formed a basketball team and played in a rec league a couple of times a week, which was a total blast.
In the summer of 2015, some of us on the team went to Montreal for a few days for Startup Fest.
And during summer months, patios are a weekly occurrence:
Jennifer on our team has an actual bell in the office she rings when good things happen, like when a big customer signs up, we hit a financial milestone, or a hilarious joke is made.
Oh and Slack? Yeah we do that too, even when most of us are in the office:
The point: If you’re looking to build a strong culture where people work hard and play hard, and where friendships are forged, it’s going to be very difficult to do that with people who are in different time zones only communicating through a computer screen.
Communication & Collaboration
Sure, there are lots of great chat and video conferencing tools like hangouts, Skype, UberConference, etc., that make communication and collaboration easier.
But how many times have you been trying to have a video chat with someone when something goes wrong — internet connection cuts out for a second or there’s a delay or echo, or some other technical wonkiness — that makes it hard to keep a rhythm to your conversation and kills the energy of your meeting?
When meeting in person you can sketch on a whiteboard without anything hampering your ability to see and hear what the other person is communicating.
And when teams work together in a space, special things happen.
Just a month ago, my CTO and I were casually chatting when we started coming up with big ideas for how to improve our product. So we jumped into a meeting room and had one of our most creative brainstorming sessions ever and solved some big conceptual problems.
The meeting was never planned and it wouldn’t have happened if we were in hammering on our keyboards in different time zones.
I believe that in a digital agency environment this kind of in-person communication is absolutely essential to creating the best work for your clients. You just can’t brainstorm concepts effectively over Skype.
Plus, when working remotely, it’s too easy for people to plow ahead in the wrong direction, and they tend to work in silos.
In a product company you may not need as many meetings, but especially when you’re using an agile methodology like we do, two week sprints require a lot of short, focused meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page and knows what they’re doing.
How to overcome challenges of the office environment
This isn’t to say office culture doesn’t have its downsides. Here are common reasons people give for why office culture doesn’t work, and how we get around them here at Proposify:
You might wonder how, with all of this zaniness going on at Proposify, we get any actual work done.
Admittedly, we have to keep a close eye on distractions to make sure we aren’t pulling people away from important work they’re doing.
Right now we’re all working in one big room together, which isn’t ideal. That’s why we’re moving to a space that’s broken up into multiple rooms, to avoid the problems that come with open concept offices.
Currently if there’s a lot of talking and laughing going on and someone is head down in something, they are welcome to grab their laptop and move into a quiet meeting room to finish up (or ask everyone politely to be quiet).
If people are collaborating on a project together or talking to a customer on the phone, they’ll respectfully leave the main room to talk so they won’t distract others.
Coding, designing, or writing content requires hours of focused concentration, so on occasion our people can work from home for half a day, or leave and go to a quiet room to work where they won’t be bothered.
In our new office we’re planning to designate one room as the quiet room, where talking is illegal and people can go there to code or write without any distractions. We’ll have to work out some kind of a medieval punishment for infractions.
And of course when there is unforeseen downtime, or during regular weekend releases, people work from home and communicate via Slack.
Access to talent
Honestly, I’ve never really understood this one.
The Proposify team lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada. We’re pretty far east and tucked out of the way, and Halifax is a very small city (just over 400K people).
Yet we’ve been able to find incredible talent; designers, developers, marketers, customer support, you name it.
I have a hard time believing that people in bigger markets like Toronto, Montreal, and New York would have a smaller talent pool locally to choose from.
We work hard to build a great culture and attract talent, so it hasn’t been too hard to find talented people right here.
Working from home is often considered “the dream”, but is it really?
After the initial novelty wears off, it can become its own magnet for distraction. There’s laundry and cleaning to do. Kids need rides somewhere. Dogs need walking. Spouses or partners pop into your office to talk about last night's Walking Dead.
You need a good setup to work from home effectively. For people with pets, partners, and kids, it can be nice to see them during the day, but they can be more distracting than a teammate. At least teammates have their own deadlines to meet.
Also, you can get serious cabin fever by never leaving your home, and it’s easy to forget about showering or getting dressed. After a while there becomes no separation between work and home, and people can find themselves working even longer hours than if they were in an office.
Some people counter this problem by working at coffee shops, but that makes it hard to have private video chats, and there’s still a lot of distracting conversations going on around you, it’s just coming from strangers and not your teammates.
The fact is, you can build a lot of flexibility into an office culture by letting people work their own hours. We have one developer who comes in around 7:30 AM and leaves at 4 PM. Or let them work remotely sometimes, like days when they have personal appointments.
Office space is expensive, especially if you want to be located downtown where it’s central and relatively easy for people to commute.
You don’t need to rent office space right away, but as you begin growing your team beyond three or four people, you’ll need to start looking at a cheap alternative, like a shared co-working space that can hold you over until you can afford your own space.
Let’s face it, salaries are a lot more expensive than rent, so if you can afford to hire a team of people, rent isn’t that much of an expense by comparison.
Proponents of remote teams who complain about rent costs often fly their team to a central location every year and pay for their food and hotel rooms. That one event alone is likely the cost of a year’s rent.
Just because you have an office doesn’t mean it needs to be a grey, fluorescent- lit, cubicle-filled dystopia where dreams are crushed.
It also doesn’t need to be a pretentious, open-concept beehive where people are inundated with distractions and purposeless meetings.
Done right, creating an office base can offer everyone on your team a fun culture, better work-life balance, and effective collaboration that makes the work more rewarding.
I respect other founders who can make remote teams work. But after living both sides we made the decision early on that building a world-class company right here in Halifax, Nova Scotia is the way to go. So far it’s working for us.
I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.