JournalNov 2014

Remote working is cheating… for now.

The funny thing about working remotely is that when you manage to figure out how to make it work (which I think is entirely possible), it can leave you with the distinct impression that you’ve gained a massively unfair advantage over the competition.

From where we are, the benefits are pretty blatant.

Many of our friends and clients are based in cities like London and San Francisco and complain about not being able to find the right talent to bring onto their teams. They struggle to match the ever-increasing market salaries and find themselves in a constant arms-race to compete with bigger local companies like Google.

But we hire remotely, and have built our company to do this well, so we’re not constrained by the limitations of any local market.

On other teams, team members often find it very hard to get work-life balance–they have to find a way to fit a few precious days of holiday each year around their work commitments and are stuck in a single location the rest of the time.

But for our team, work places no restrictions on their ability to relocate elsewhere if they feel the need to. Whether that’s for emergency reasons or just because someone feels like they need a change of scenery. I’ve seen this personally too: I took a trip to Bali for a few days to work with Arnas, and despite getting a ton of work done, I returned feeling like I’d just taken a beach holiday. It’s hard to overstate how positive an impact that this ‘freedom to move’ can have.

Our competition are often dependent on physical proximity to their local market for finding new business, so when that market is affected, they’re extremely vulnerable.

But since our team works remotely, we also find it entirely possible to work remotely with our clients too. By being remote at our core of our culture, it’s harder for us to fall into making the same mistakes that non-remote companies make when working remotely with their clients.

Other businesses can find it far harder to keep their teams motivated and focused.

But as a founder, a big part of this work is already done for me due to the circumstances of our company. By allowing the team to dictate their own schedules and routines, it’s far easier for them to stay focused, happy and motivated.

So how long will it be until others catch on?

From where I’m standing right now, I don’t think it will be too long before we see more and more teams bringing in remote working in some format. I think that’ll be necessary, to allow them to compete with others who are doing so already and to make up for lost ground.

At the risk of being yet another false prophet of the “telecommuting revolution” that has been lumbering on in some form since the term telecommuting was first coined in 1973, I think this time things are a little different, at least for younger teams of knowledge workers, and especially for those working in tech and in the creative industries.

There are some great agencies and teams out there who don’t do remote working at all, and they make it work very well for them. But there are also some very poor ones who treat their teams badly simply because their local market allows them to. If those companies feel pressured into introducing remote work because of the way the industry is beginning to shift, then I’d say that’s a good thing.

Anecdotally, you only need to take a look at the number of co-working spaces popping up globally at the moment to be able to see that there’s a bit of a movement going on. In Southeast Asia, where I’ve been based for most of the past year, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand have all seen a large number of new coworking spaces starting to pop up recently to help meet the demand by remote workers. Companies like GitHub, Automattic (there’s a great book about this), Buffer and 37Signals are all starting to gain more and more recognition within the tech industry, and I think this is going to have an inevitable impact on the way other companies are run.

I’m not saying that we’re going to see every company switch to this model right away. Companies come in different shapes and sizes and no single change will work for all of them. Yahoo is the perfect example of this–while the results of their decision to ban remote working within the company are not yet certain, there’s a good chance that that the move will have a net positive effect on the company as a whole. If your culture has evolved to be inherently inefficient, disconnected, and failing, then it might well be that remote working makes it harder to fix all the other problems you’re facing. Being willing to accept this doesn’t mean you’re also accepting that remote working itself is a failure.

But I believe that Yahoo’s shift is going to be counter to the direction most other companies are moving towards. If you’re in a position to build your culture to factor in some of the difficulties of remote working, you enable yourself to build a strong remote company, and that gives you a massive advantage.

As for how long it’ll take to catch on, well… that’s harder to predict accurately, of course. But it feels inconceivable to me that we will be able to maintain quite this much of an advantage over our ‘competition’ for much longer than 5 years. I think by that time, a lot of teams in our position will have adopted the model and we’ll lose that first-mover advantage. Until then, we’ll definitely make the most of it, and enjoy all the benefits that we get from being a remote team!

For more advice on how to do remote work well, take a look at our culture toolbox and best practice guidelines.

Posted by
Jon Lay

Jon is a Partner at Hanno. He wears many hats, but his primary focus is on leading our engineering and technical operations.