Remote or not: The benefits and conundrums of working and hiring remotely

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Remote Work

Remote or not: The benefits and conundrums of working and hiring remotely

What are some of the biggest downfalls of remote work and how to overcome them for a positive outcome for all, employers and employees alike.

All the buzz around work these days is about “working remotely” or “hiring remote teams”.

Today, there are startups running their entire operation without a traditional headquarter. Remote workers, from various parts of the world, are churning code for some the biggest tech companies of today without ever having to set foot in any of these companies’ locations.

Buffer, a social media management software, has no physical presence. Their employees are distributed across the globe in different time zones. Groove is another company similar to Buffer, with employees spread out in 9 different time zones.

Other companies, though not yet giving up entirely their “physical HQ” mentality, are starting to think about setting up new teams remotely, as Stripe announced recently.

The benefits of running a remote team

By working with a remote workforce, companies have a bigger talent pool to choose from. These companies no longer have to rely on people who live nearby their headquarters.

They can hire from anywhere in the world, as long as the candidate matches their job description.

At times, candidates available in the nearby vicinity may not be the perfect fit for the job, thus limiting the company to hire the best possible candidate.

In addition, for a company located in San Francisco, it costs less to hire an engineer in Southeast Asia with a similar skillset to an engineer in San Francisco. Not to mention, not having to pay employee benefits required by the country where the company is registered in.

Also, to some extent, these companies do not have to directly worry about “work conditions” per se, as in: —the company having to design special spaces for employees to rest and play (kitchens, gyms, libraries) or offer any perks that help employees do their work while on location.

On the other hand, running a ‘remote team’ is a cultural choice. The founders themselves do not like being tied to a location, hence they build a similar culture for their staff. They want their staff to live the same work/life balance that the founders enjoy.

David Darmanin, CEO of Hotjar had this to say about their deliberate choice to work with remote teams: —Having worked remotely for two years, I had fallen in love with the freedom and flexibility of working from home, planning my own days and weeks, and the ability to travel while I worked. I also realized how much more powerful it was to hire the best people in the world as opposed to being limited by location. With Hotjar, I wanted to share the remote lifestyle with everyone in the company.
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New opportunities for professionals

Similar to companies having the ability to hire the best candidates from anywhere in the world, employees now have the choice to do their dream job without having to move away from home.

“Remote work” has given professionals, who are not located in the hottest hubs of Europe and US, the possibility to work for some of the leading tech companies of today from Berlin to London, to Omaha, and all the way to San Francisco and LA.

A developer from Kiev can now work remotely for a startup in San Francisco, without having to leave behind his friends and the comforts of their hometown.

Abetare Gashi (Behance Portfolio) who works at LocaFox in Berlin and currently lives in Prishtina, says that working remotely does give her the best of both worlds: being close to her family and working for a tech startup. Even though working remotely does have the downside of feeling detached from the core team (who work on location), it does give her the benefit of being close to her family and friends, not having to be at work within set hours, and gives her the chance to continue working as a graphic design professor at the University of Prishtina, which she loves. Something she wouldn’t have been able to do if she had to move to Berlin.

Furthermore, for employees who live closer to their company’s actual location, having the ability to work remotely is a life changer if their needs are aligned with working from the comforts of their own home.

Hamish McPherson, an engineer at Buffer had this to say about working remotely:

—I’ve been working remotely as an engineer for many years now and while I don’t think I’d ever go back, one of the cons is that it sometimes feels hard to move quickly as a remote team, especially when you’re globally distributed across multiple timezones. We’ve had a few small team-only get togethers and just being all in the same room for a week has been immensely helpful I think.

Me: It’s what I keep hearing — a friend of mine, who works remotely, was stuck for 3 days waiting for two other team members (in different time zones) to finish up before he could continue with his task.

—Yeah! I think we’ve been able to play to the strengths of that distribution too, but it’s not always ideal.

I’m curious though, what makes the benefits of it so valuable that you wouldn’t go back on location, even though it might be frustrating sometimes?

—For me it’s so much about family and my ideal work life. I love being at home close to my wife and kids.

Working on location feels trapped sort of right?

—Yeah, and I think I’ve realized that I like being able to disconnect sometimes even in the middle of the day and be with family. Not always, sometimes you just wanna be 100% heads down, but when you want to come up for air, it’s nice.

Yeah definitely those reasons are important. I can sort of relate. Even though I work for self, just being able to kick back when you feel like having a little mental break is priceless. For me, if I was working for a company, I think I would like it both ways — say the company was in SF — I would live somewhere super far from it and maybe commute 1-2x per week.

—Yeah, I like the idea of that balanced approach! At Buffer we’re 100% remote, no offices, so we have the big company retreat every year. Which feels like maybe not enough right now, so I think we may explore different frequencies.

So one thing that I am intrigued about, which got me writing this article: Do you wish, as an engineer, you were closer to other engineers on daily basis? Learn from them? Work faster? If you could put aside the need/want to be at home — Is that part attractive? Or it doesn’t really matter for a senior developer like you?

—Hmm, that’s a tough one! Like I want to say “Yes”, but I’m not sure. Right now I’m sort of of mid level in terms of career progression at Buffer. I think being closer to other engineers would indeed benefit them and me more, but on the flipside it might be harder to avoid distractions.

The downside of it all

While it’s great for companies to cut costs that come with big office spaces and be able to find talent from anywhere in the world — remote work does have its downsides for both parties involved, employees and employers.

For ‘fresh out of college’ junior professionals, who need the mentorship of those who’ve “been there” before them, working remotely may not be the best choice. Nothing can replace the setting of an office space where they get to witness first hand interactions between professionals who bring a product or service to life, given the company you are working at is a place where you can grow.

These real life situations, will help any junior professional grow by leaps and bounds. Something working remotely can’t replace, no matter how many times a week you schedule a talk with a mentor.

As for experienced professionals working remotely, the feeling of being detached from the rest of the team can have a negative effect in their productivity and wellbeing.

We are social beings, regardless of how introverted we may be.

With societies getting lonelier, working remotely could be just adding more oil to the fire.

Working remotely from home vs coworking space

If you find yourself in a remote working situation, then choosing where you work from is the next step.

Working directly from home does have its benefits. The serenity of home and being able to focus for longer intervals, does help with productivity. However if not balanced with some sort of social life and exercise it can sneak on you quietly and affect your health and mental well being. Here’s our article on how to maintain a healthy dose of discipline when working from home.

Not having others to talk to could lead to loneliness and it can turn “home” into a permanent space of being instead of something you come back to for comfort.

Helen Ryles, an IT Engineer in England, who used to work remotely and now works for an on-location company — says that lack of exercise if one of the biggest downsides of working remotely.

—Going to an office, I get my 10k steps in a day easy. Working from home, my commute was just a few steps. I had to really be strict about adding extra exercise in, as the default is very low and often spent my breaks walking.

Also, on how “home” stops becoming a place you come back to:
—When the day is over, you’re already in the same place you go to rest. Home feels more special when you’re not there all the time. I can see how heading out to a co-working space would help with this.

And how remote work puts you on an opposite schedule to your friends: —When the day is done, I found I wanted to go out for a change of scenery when all my friends/family wanted to do was relax at home.

And the benefits of working on location: —I missed being around people in an office. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss the social aspect of working in a team. Where people get to properly know you.

How to cope as a remote worker

One of the ways to curb loneliness, exercise more, and socialize with others — is to work out of a coworking space. Coworking spaces can mimic the social aspects of an office setting without the added pressure of an actual work ambiance.

And if other coworkers get in your nerves, you can spend a day or two at home, just to balance things out. Also, the perks of a coworking space, such as fast speed internet, cleaning, security, new friends usually come at a small monetary value, which make leaving the comfort of your home that much easier.

Although, the benefits of working remotely are many, such as not having to commute to your job, working during hours when you are your optimal best, and being close to your family, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Working out of a coworking space could give you the right balance as if working ‘on location’ but not having to deal with office politics
  • Exercise and mingle with other people
  • Find friends in your immediate vicinity doing the same job as you so you have someone to share with your daily grind
  • Stay in touch with other employees at your remote company
  • Go visit the company if you can (on your own) not just in company retreats
  • If you are a home type, make sure to leave home at least 1-2 days per week, so home doesn’t become a “permanent place”

At the end of the day, working remotely is how an individual person can manage their day to day. It could be gruesome for someone who is sociable and likes to be around people, for others, who prefer to be alone, it could work wonders.

For companies

Before jumping on the “remote” bandwagon, it’s best to consider the downsides of working with a remote workforce.

From the operational standpoint, some of the biggest drawbacks of working with a remote workforce are:

  • Communication issues: Employees not being able to fully express themselves via online communication tools
  • Isolation and burnout: Employees working at various times during a given day and not knowing when to stop
  • Distractions: Kids, pets, and family at home could pose the biggest distraction to an employee
  • Lack of belonging: ‘On location’ teams are closer together. Remote workers may feel left out and not participate as much
  • Productivity issues: Different time zones could delay deliveries
  • Loyalty issues: Remote workers do tend to switch jobs easier. They have no social ties to anyone to keep them around at their job.

Usually, the most challenging situations are for companies that add ‘remote workers’ at a later stage. Some of the challenges that these ‘later-stage-remote’ companies experience are alien to companies that are fully remote from day one —  they have to deal with virtually “two” parts of their company, which could pose various issues.

David Darmanin, CEO of Hotjar, continues from the quote above…
—I had seen organizations where remote culture had failed, mainly due to what I call the ‘us and them’ syndrome. In many companies, remote work is introduced at a later stage due to growth challenges, so you have a team based in one location and additional satellite team members working remotely.

And this “later stage” that David is talking about is one of those instances where “remote work” fails. The “them” mentality, where remote workers are treated as outsiders by the core team, or sometimes even by the lead management as well.

VitalSmart, a leadership development company in Provo, UT, conducted a research in 2017 polling some 1,153 global workers of which 52% said they work from home some of the time. These were some of their findings:

  • Many feel their colleagues (on location) don’t treat them equally
  • Remote employees are more likely to report feelings that colleagues mistreat them and leave them out
  • They worry that coworkers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them in advance, lobby against them, and don’t fight for their priorities.

On the flip side, the same research found out that employers who deliberately took the initiative to stay in touch with their remote workers, benefited the most in terms of employee retention, inclusiveness, and overall sense of belonging towards the company.

In other words, managers who made themselves available at virtually anytime (besides sleep of course) via different means of communication reaped the most benefits.

Gestures like, knowing your remote workers kids’ names and hobbies goes a long way when distances are in thousands of miles in between.

The full report of their research can be found on HBR (Paywall).

The elephant in the room

With all that said, the biggest problem seem to stem from situations where a company has a remote workforce in addition to the location specific one. In these cases, if employers are not deliberate in making their remote teams feel inclusive, they risk having a big turnover of remote workers and/or them not feeling part of the company and produce less as a result.

Setting expectations

When collaborating remotely it’s best to create some norms and expectations for everyone involved, managers and local/remote employees. Knowing what is acceptable when communicating online, can set the stage for a productive outcome. The way we speak in person with people we see everyday is now different with remote workers who we meet at most once per year. Even though some flexibility from both parties goes a long way, the employer, as the expected facilitator in the relationship, needs to lead the way in creating an open channel for all.

Learning from real remote workers

No article or consultant can show you best practices on how to hire or work remotely. These insights need to come from real people around the world who are working or hiring remotely, as some of the people below that I interviewed specifically for this article

Jamie Lawrence, an Engineer at Podia 
—Living in the country and working at home means I rarely walk anywhere because it’s not a by-product of the day. The blurred lines between work and not-work are real, too. It’s also an advantage though as I can help the kids with their homework or play with them during the work day. If anything, I quite like that I can shift some of my work into the hours after they’ve gone to bed.

Eelco from StartupCosts
Remote for me means “location & time independent”. Meaning I decide when I work and make it “a secondary citizen”: family, friends and non-work activities come first.
It means I go hiking on a Monday morning. It also means I can answer a support request while waiting for dinner, or friends, etc. I mix places I work from all the time. From “home”, from a co-working space (almost never), airport, or a coffee place. Possible downside is that “work” is never really out of my mind, but that’s never been an issue the last 8 years.

Shawn Mayzes, who is a founder at Next Decentrum and runs a few Slack communities (Larachat, TechnicalFounders, and DevOpsChat), had this to say:
—I’ve hired people in the past that worked remote for a period of time. There has always been an adjustment period I’ve found. Sometimes, social norms and respect for being around people gets lost if you aren’t interacting with humans in real life.

Juraj Kostolanský, a software engineer in Slovakia, likes the comfort of remote
I really like the time and location flexibility. Being able to create my own schedule that works best for me is nice. However, I’m an introvert and I think that working in an office would force me to step outside of my comfort zone more often. Hard to say, because I’ve been working remotely all my life — and I have no plans to change that. The benefits far outweigh any of the downsides for me.

John Barratt, CTO at Trendsmap considers similarities of both worlds
Pro & Con : Less structure is enforced in your day.

Tony Dehnke an Entrepreneur in British Columbia, Canada
Pro:  Being able to travel to where the weather is nice - Especially if you get affected by SAD or the like.  Plus being able to meet so many cool new people at Co-Working places (in high traffic/travel destinations) is awesome. I think too many people associate REMOTE as meaning From Home in your pyjamas.

Dominik Weber a software developer at Bitmovin
In a mixed office, where there are also people in the office, remote ones are usually the last to get information. They’re also the first ones to get laid off if something happens to the company, because the relationship isn’t that close to other employees. In general remote work is harder to manage and needs some adaptation from the company.

Conclusion

Love it or not, working and hiring remotely is here to stay and for good reasons. Navigating new aspects of it are where challenges lie. Champion these approaches from your perspective and reap all the benefits of working remotely and running a company with a remote team.

If I had to choose, there is no doubt in my mind that I would always go for remote (either working or hiring).

The sheer freedom of traveling the world and working while you do so, or if you are settling down and want to be near your family — companies offering remote positions are the “Crème de la crème” of today.

Kudos to these companies offering professionals from around the world an opportunity to excel without leaving behind the comforts of their whereabouts.

Written on May 9, 2019

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