Remote work is a huge topic in our industry right now, and like many small companies, we have had to wrestle with what this means for us and how we do business. We’re huge fans of the team at Basecamp (formerly 37signals); we’ve gobbled up every book they have written. Their book Remote, which outlines the challenges and benefits of the work-from-home model, is no exception; however, we wrestled with its ideas much more than we ever had previously. How does this model work for us? Can we really build a team with remote team members? Do we want to? Why are so many digital agencies switching to a remote model? Should we? Over the years we have realized that our flavor of team building differs drastically from the model presented in Remote.
Recently, we experienced a failed hiring process. We set out to hire a new team member, and when we got down to the final interview stage, we were forced to consider new realities of our constantly evolving team and how those realities line up with our principles and values. The breakdown happened because we did not fully understand our position on building a team with remote team members, or what that meant for us long-term. This experience has thrown this subject into sharp relief for us, so I want to capture our thoughts and feelings here so you can learn from our experience. Here is what we have learned:
1. Building a deep relationship is much harder when the team member is remote.
When we discuss this topic as a team we keep coming back to one point: It is always better to have a team member in the office, because we can interact in much more meaningful and personal ways. We get to know each other by being in close physical proximity—by watching Killer Chainsaw Drone Youtube clips while waiting for a meeting to start, discussing movies while waiting for our turn at the microwave, or taking advantage of a gorgeous afternoon by playing soccer together at Forsyth Park. It’s simply easier to create an environment based on meaningful relationships when we’re all in the same space.
This is by far the biggest and most important reason we’d prefer to have our team in one location. In fact, it’s one of the biggest factors in my personal sense of fulfillment as well. Over the years, we have realized that one of the main reasons Gauge exists is to build trusting relationships, so this point has shaped our position more than any other.
2. Remote team members are costly for a company our size.
Yep, that’s right. For us, having a small number of remote team members is more expensive than having an entirely in-house team. Because face time is so important to us, we bring our remote team members to Savannah at least once per quarter—and often, more than once. Those travel costs add up quickly. Since we haven’t reached critical mass with remote team members, we haven’t been able to offset travel costs by reducing office space expenses.
This is due to being in a smaller city, where our rent is much lower than it would be in a larger metro area. With higher rent, we’d have more financial incentive to consider remote team members; it would take fewer remote team members to effect a major cost savings by downsizing our office space. We’ve seen many other agencies wrestle with this fact; the critical mass point varies largely depending on location. In short, our office space is inexpensive, so we don’t feel much pressure to minimize that expense.
The more intangible cost is the loss we incur when remote team members leave Gauge sooner than their local counterparts. Remote work isn’t for everyone, and whether they’ve left because they’ve had difficulty self-managing, didn’t feel connected to the team, or didn’t enjoy remote work after all, or they just feel less committed because switching jobs doesn’t require as much change, remote team members tend to be harder to hold onto. When they leave, we lose the time, training, and effort we’ve invested in them, and we’re back to square one rehiring for their position. That can be a significant loss.
3. Collaboration & communication are critical.
The development and creative work we do is hard. Often it requires a lot of back and forth discussion, whiteboarding, and good old-fashioned teamwork. Communicating around complex ideas is a big part of what we do, and it works better if we can walk over and tap someone on the shoulder. Communicating through video chat or screen sharing just isn’t the same; it puts up a hurdle we’d rather avoid. I have heard it said that working remotely increases efficiency but reduces creativity. This is largely due to the change in interaction, and we have definitely found this to be true.
4. Remote positions can work well for proven team members.
The remote team members who have worked out well at Gauge are key people we have had a prior work history with. They either started in the office and built the core relationship foundation before working from home, or we worked with them in another capacity before they joined our team.
We want to be able to retain great team members, so allowing an existing team member to work remotely in the event of a move or major life change works really well for us. We plan on continuing this in the future, and we are really happy with the remote team members we have now. However, this doesn’t mean remote work is easy for those team members; in fact, it’s often quite difficult for all of the reasons we’ve already mentioned. Carefully preparing for an upcoming move and having frank discussions about the challenges that change presents are critical prerequisites to making the work-from-home model work for Gauge.
5. Entry Level positions should not be remote.
At Gauge, we strongly believe in professional growth, and we do all we can to foster and support that in every position. Our Entry Level team members work closely with our senior team members for one-on-one support, learning, and feedback. There are so many things to be learned when we hire an entry level team member—for both that new employee, and for the rest of the team. We are learning how this person works, what their habits are, and how the position works in the context of the company. It just doesn’t make sense for those positions to be remote. Even the smallest barrier to communication and collaboration can create a big deficiency over time. Being able to walk over and tap someone on the shoulder is easy, and you simply can’t replicate that experience digitally.
Overall, remote work is becoming a much larger part of our industry and professional work in general. We fully expect this to become a larger part of our business as we grow and as the industry shifts, but our focus on relationships will always be at the core of who we are. Remote might be a more “efficient” way to work, but we do not believe it is a more effective way to build a tightly-knit team over the long term.
What has your experience been? How have you addressed these issues with your team?