According to a recent Gallup poll, half of surveyed employees would switch jobs for flexible hours or full-time positions off-site. And another study by Leadership IQ found that people working from home are 87 percent more likely to “love” their jobs than those who don’t.
For early adopters of remote offices, this is welcomed validation. For many traditional employers, however, this signals a likely uptick in qualified candidates eschewing in-house positions in favor of working in their pajamas.
In 2005, to build a business without high overhead and investment capital, I skipped having a brick-and-mortar presence and touted FTP as the superior delivery system over FedEx-ing tapes. By 2010, cutting-edge platforms such as Dropbox, Elance and Adobe’s Creative Cloud confirmed that a cloud-based company wasn’t just my pipe dream – it was a collective culture shift. But even in 2017, I still hear objections like, “What if someone is on the wrong track?” or “How are you sure that people are actually working?”
While misconceptions like this are common, the advantages to working remotely are numerous. For example, nixing the commute saves our core team 20 hours a week, even though we’re all Brooklyn-based! Not every company can be 100 percent remote, but even a partial, occasional shift will make a difference. Here’s what I’ve learned in 12 years of not having a dedicated office.
NOT ALL TALENT IS THE RIGHT TALENT
Personality traits, life situations and the ability to self-manage are as, if not more, important, than talent and prior experience.
My philosophy is simple. Even with direct supervision, people can go off track – but if they require me standing over their shoulders to do a good job, I hired the wrong people regardless of where they’re working. But not everyone who thinks they can work independently is actually able to, and some will quickly grow miserable without constant “IRL” interaction.
We’ve learned to spot those who crave precisely what we offer and it turns out, they’re people who clearly understand how their personal circumstances would benefit from this setup. Our sweet spot for freelancers, for example, is the creative who is tired of being in-house but not interested in their own business. Full-time positions, unsurprisingly, attract parents who value flexibility with a side of steady paychecks, or people outside of major metro areas.
We’ve also learned to spot those who aren’t ready for this environment, such as younger extroverts who express affinity for work friendships and happy hours. They’re not the right fit because socializing isn’t that important to our company culture – we range from mid-30s to late 40s and have other priorities.
TRUST IS BUILT ON TRUSTING
There’s a fine line between managing and hand-holding. Constant supervision isn’t actually mandatory for good results, particularly when people enjoy what they do for a living. Most professionals respond well to being treated as responsible, competent grownups and, in turn, act as such.
So how are we sure that people are actually working? We build trust with honest, open dialogue about personal schedules, removing need for white lies as cover. What we do require is communication before stepping out, not an explanation afterwards.
As for getting results, responsibility is clearly divided, so no one is confused about their role. We provide necessary tools, clear direction and trust, and have faith in our ability to hire the right people. We engage full-time candidates and new freelancers on a trial-run basis, because both their self-assessment with respect to this setup as well as our judgement can be wrong. However, in a remote situation, it doesn’t take long to spot a natural fit.
COMMUNICATION WITHOUT DISTRACTION
Remote environments aren’t in need of grander oversight. How often would you drop by someone’s office?
Our goal is keeping everyone in the loop, while discouraging over-communication. Email is a last resort, used only for forwarding information or emergencies. We pick up the phone for a morning status check, then as needed, but mostly the core team chats through Slack, finding this less intrusive. Because incessant “pinging” does little for productivity, we keep separate channels for each job, and encourage everyone to fine-tune notification preferences. For example, someone peripherally involved can mute a project channel unless directly referenced. To eliminate interruptions entirely, we have our own low-tech 911 feature. Anyone can invoke it by taking care of all urgent needs and then messaging “I’m on 911 until such time” which translates as “unless my house is on fire, leave me alone to work.”
“COMPANY CULTURE” DOESN’T RELY ON SPACE ALONE
Yes, we do meet up, but our face-time schedule adapts to our production schedule. We gather when things are slower to discuss marketing, strategy, goals and, of course, our lives. Our “headquarters” is my live-work space, making interaction far less formal. Sure, we small-talk throughout the day, throw a holiday dinner party and client happy hours, but we accept that, for better and for worse, we can’t replicate the office experience. Instead, our company culture centers around everyone’s desire to work to live, and it manifests through our lead designer making every doctor’s appointment with his baby daughter.
YOU DON’T NEED MORE “TOOLS” THAN YOU CAN HANDLE
New platforms pop up all the time, but success of any kind depends on total buy-in. Everyone has their preferences, and some despise change. I pick my battles on what must be used company-wide, and stay flexible with individual choices on all the rest.
My EP and I both find bells-and-whistles distracting, so we manage projects, marketing, sales and operations with Google spreadsheets – low-tech, but customizable, free and unlikely to go of business overnight. Time-keeping and to-do apps are personal choices, as long as people submit their hours and get things done.
We test new technology and continuously evolve our process, but we’re careful in what we adopt, because tools can quickly morph into a management challenge. Our biggest change in seven years was Slack, after six months of testing on an “early adopter” client’s account.
The real shift required for successfully building remote teams is in how we think about work. For decades, we’ve thought of it as a “place we go.” After being office-free since 2005, I view work as simply “something I do.” The difference is more than semantics. It’s an attitude, a philosophy and, for many, a healthier way to live. Once you recognize and embrace this, the rest is just about building systems, implementing processes and managing personalities. Much like any other office.
Maria Rapetskaya is founder and creative director of Undefined Creative, a creative agency blending uncommon ideas with sophisticated design and polished execution to establish and cultivate brand awareness, through motion graphics and animation. The agency’s clients include national consumer and media brands across platforms.