Telecommuting has become, if not exactly old hat, an accepted practice at many workplaces. And an increasing number of employers are taking it one step further: Everyone telecommutes.
In this setting, workers are not so much "remote" — which implies distance from some central location — as "distributed." How does a company become fully distributed? What are the pros and cons? And are there lessons to take back for more traditional employers?
Three fully distributed companies
Nectar Sleep, a premium mattress retailer, has always had a fully distributed workforce, according to Scott McLeod, its VP of Marketing. The company now has close to 200 employees worldwide, with hubs in San Francisco, New York City, Tel Aviv and London.
PowerInbox, which helps publishers provide ads that are relevant to users, has about 40 employees; in its current iteration, it has always been fully distributed, CEO Jeff Kupietzky said. Most PowerInbox employees are scattered around the U.S.
Buffer, a social media management platform, was fully distributed early on. The company initially considered a base in San Francisco because "everyone was either there or wanted to be there," said Hailley Griffis, Buffer's public relations manager. But the company didn't want to limit itself by hiring only in San Francisco, and there was a concern that in-office perks wouldn't be available to those working elsewhere.
"They were advised to go all in, one way or the other, and decided to distribute," said Griffis. Now, Buffer has around 80 employees, with 30 to 35 in the U.S. The others, according to Griffis, are
"all over"— including Europe, Sri Lanka and Australia.
Flexibility benefits workers and customers alike
Flexible work arrangements and perks are top of mind for employees, Alexis Bruemmer, engineering manager at cloud platform DigitalOcean, told HR Dive via email. In a recent survey the company conducted of nearly 5,000 developers around the world, the ability to work remotely was listed as one of the top three factors job seekers consider when looking for new positions. "Close to 60% of our 400+ employees at DigitalOcean work remotely full time," said Bruemmer.
McLeod said the distributed setup has enabled Nectar to "find really good people. This is a perk for employees. People are sick of commuting an hour and a half to get to work." When employees are allowed to design their lifestyle in the way they want, he said, they are more productive and do better work. Additionally, Nectar's distributed workforce enables almost a 24-hour working schedule — there is someone in "peak work mode" nearly all the time, he said.
"Lots of freedom plus lots of flexibility attracts a certain type of employee," said Kupietzky. "If the person is mature and savvy enough, it turns out to be a good relationship."
Additionally, from a customer perspective, "there is always someone online if something breaks or goes wrong," said Griffis. "We have customer service coverage all over the world. Our customer base is global, so we are able to understand them a little more" and also offer customer support in multiple languages.
Pro tip: Work the time zones
"In addition to attracting more candidates, you can also use time zones to your advantage to move projects forward around the clock and offer better work/life balance to your employees," said Bruemmer.
McLeod said he likes to have at least four to five hours of overlap in the work day, when possible, and recommends scaling that way with time zones. For example, he said, you can't go right from the East Coast to hiring someone in Australia, but maybe you hire someone in Tel Aviv and that person hires someone in Australia. McLeod, who is based in New York, likes to have what he calls his "high EQ" conversations in the morning, with afternoons free for other work.
But time zones are a double-edged sword. Griffis said she is part of a nine-person team spread across seven different time zones. While it's "good advice to hire in time zones based on teams, we haven't done that!" It can be challenging, she said, to get everyone all together in one meeting. However, it appears that employees make heroic efforts: Buffer has an all-hands meeting every other month, and at the most recent one had 65 attendees.
Don't underestimate the importance of in-person — and informal — interactions
While Buffer uses various communication channels — including video chat and asynchronous communications — it's still "not quite the same" as having everyone in the same place, said Griffis. For this reason, employees attend two in-person retreats every year, one for the whole company and one for each individual department.
PowerInbox similarly values face-to-face interaction. "We do in-person company-wide 'onsites' once per year, and department-level onsites two to three times per year," said Kupietzky. "These meetings are very important —employees can form personal bonds, help with onboarding, and form the connections that make working remotely possible."
When people are in different locations, you "can't take for granted the informal conversations" that take place in a traditional office setting, said Kupietzky. For this reason, PowerInbox is careful to deliberately create space for these sorts of interactions: "We've seen people successfully [say], 'Hey, let's just spend half an hour to play an online game together, or talk about a movie we all saw.'" Sharing online, Kupietzky said, helps create the culture of a single office, "replicated in a remote situation."
Measuring performance and aptitude
With a fully distributed workforce, said McLeod, "people aren't butts in seats — you can't see what they're working on. The fear is that they are leaching off you." He said that metrics are important because they are "clear ways to measure performance … core metrics clarify focus."
At PowerInbox, Kupietzky said, new hires receive formal written feedback after 90 days, and managers are asked to do informal check-ins with their employees every 30 days. Once a year, all employees engage in a formal 360-degree review that includes documentation.
"[Remote work] is not for everyone," said Kupietzky. "We no longer look at folks with limited work experience or someone who is brand-new to the industry. Those people benefit from a lot of management oversight and day to day interaction…we dearly love people who have already been successful in a remote work situation."
McLeod, similarly, prefers to hire people who have worked from home before, or who have experience in an independent work environment, such as consulting. New hires must "be able to manage time well on their own, and focus." They also, he added, need some kind of dedicated work space at home.
A slow rollout is best
Employers considering moving to a distributed workforce are advised to roll it out gradually. "Maybe, if you're big, create a distributed team to start — keep it self-contained within your company," McLeod recommended. The most important thing, and the constant challenge of a distributed workforce, is keeping everyone on the same page, he said.
"There are a lot of benefits to hiring remote workers," Bruemmer said. "But to see success, you have to be deliberate in designing the role and your work process."