My remote business: Expectation vs reality
04 October 2017 -
What’s the truth behind remote businesses? Are they more productive? And do they work?
Guest blogger Paul Hewett
With huge advances in cloud services, communication tools and other collaboration technology, a growing number of companies are using remote workforces to create location independent virtual companies.
In a recent survey at the Global Leadership Summit in London, 34% of business leaders said more than half of their company’s full-time workforce would be working remotely by 2020. It seems like a natural progression for the digital economy — but can remote ever work as well as bricks and mortar?
In early 2016 I had the opportunity to leave my successful customer experience agency in the UK to join a fast-growing online marketing optimisation agency in Australia. Initially, while this was very tempting, due diligence uncovered a curious problem. I couldn’t find an actual business.
When I looked under the hood I found no staff, no offices, no owned infrastructure or much else to speak of. I discovered this was a virtual business with a remote team. At first, to me this looked like a write off.
Although I have no formal business education, I entered the business world at the deep end aged 28 through the MBO of an established business. By 30 I had founded and established a successful marketing agency.
My head was telling me that this business, like all other remote business could and would not work. Despite this, my gut told me this was too good an opportunity to miss, so I took the plunge to see if we could make it work.
The reality of building a remote business
As a business leader, I had zero experience working with remote teams or building a virtual business. Despite this, I held firm views on both, most of which were adopted opinions based on discussions with other business leaders — people who, like myself, didn’t actually have any real experience with virtual companies.
When discussing our business model, typically the discussion follows a very predictable flow about communications, productivity, performance, culture, security and the general intangibility of the business.
These are the popular views that I also held, but the truth is quite different.
Expectation: Communication in a real office is just easy. When urgent “things” drop, at best you only have to raise your head, at worst you have to take a short walk. Moving to a location independent team working across different time zones, I expected communications to be slower, less clear and ineffective.
Reality: When you aren’t able to stand in front of a colleague and talk, you realise the process of communication is multi-faceted. Sometimes you just need fast and accurate information, while other times you’ll want depth and clarity. This means there isn’t one killer communications tool for remote teams.
We’ve built a communications stack that suits our business. It includes instant messaging, voice, live video and recorded video. And for when urgent “things” drop, we use the #oh-sh*t-oh-sh*t Slack channel – the protocol is simply that everyone is notified and everyone acknowledges as soon as humanly possible.
Expectation: Under the tutorage of my first managing director I was fortunate to benefit from many years of business at the coalface. One important lesson was that if you give people an inch they will take a mile. I applied this rule to employees for many years, believing they could not be trusted to work from home. After all, NASA didn’t get Apollo 11 to the moon sitting in pyjamas in the kitchen, right?
Reality: Many employees value freedom and flexibility more than security, especially when trying to juggle other commitments like raising a family. Also, although working remotely or in isolation is certainly not for everyone, those on our team prefer it and find they are more productive.
Remote work means there has been a power shift, giving talented people the option to demand a working environment that suits them. From the business side, as a digital savvy workforce can work from anywhere, we can pick the best talent from around the world without having to deal with complicated logistics.
Expectation: The statement I hear the most (and it is a statement not a question) is “but what about the watercooler moments?”. Business leaders are united in their shared belief of the mystical spontaneous and creative powers provided by the watercooler. Ironically, I had never worked in an office with a watercooler until I started co-working.
Reality: Spontaneity and creativity are innate human qualities and are not restricted by physical proximity. Like other remote businesses, our people gather in communal online spaces, where collaboration just happens.
The real issue for remote businesses, which is not often acknowledged, is the difficulty in creating and promoting knowledge sharing opportunities. At the agency we achieve this by a combination of Slack channels specifically for creative discussion, brainstorming sessions via video conference and clearly defined learning targets for staff, covering the whole digital marketing spectrum.
Expectation: Whether we’re talking access to company assets such as commercial data, or handing over the keys to your brand’s reputation on social media, as business leaders it feels like we’re always a baby step away from a potential disaster. Surely providing access to remote workers with a ‘bring your own device’ policy is opening an entire warehouse of significant security breaches?
Reality: Security is a priority for every business, full stop. Unfortunately, information is not the issue, it’s the people who can access it.
In reality, a significant amount of the mitigation work should be done in the hiring process. When you have the right people, beef up the security process through policy and tools. For example, we use device encryption and Lastpass as part of a detailed data security policy.
My Views Today
When I embarked on my journey, I believed virtual companies were less tangible, less valuable and less likely to deliver good returns to stakeholders. I saw them as an alternative business model for the less serious, commitment-phobic entrepreneur.
Today, my view has completely changed.
I realise this is not about avoiding commitment, reducing cost or reducing risk. It’s about giving people what they want. In return, you get all the benefits of the standard business model, plus more:
- Flexibility, freedom and responsibility enhances lives,
- You get more productive people who become more fulfilled,
- There’s greater retention and business stability,
- Savings on acquiring physical space go into improving the business as a whole.
In conclusion, although a virtual company is a bit trickier to run than a ‘traditional’ business, the benefits far outweigh the complexities.
Now I’ve experienced it up close, I have no doubt that virtual businesses and remote work will become a social norm, giving us the power to improve many aspects of not just business, but life and society in general.
Get on board early — open your business up to remote work and all the strategic advances that come with it.
Paul Hewett is client service director at Australian digital optimisation agency In Marketing We Trust. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter
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