One topic consistently comes up when people ask me how we do things at 37signals: working remotely. Talking with a friend about how his team manages a widely distributed team it occurred to me that the key to really making working outside the office effective for your team is equality.
What I mean is that at 37signals there isn’t any distinction between our remote team members and those who work in the office. Of our team, 9 live in Chicago near our physical office and 11 live outside Chicago — a few even outside the US. All of us have the same freedom to work where we feel most comfortable. Even those of us that live in Chicago work outside the office much of the time.
What that does is create parity and a culture of work where location doesn’t matter. There are no advantages for people who come into the office, no disadvantages to staying home to get your work done. I’ve worked with companies where remote team members were an afterthought. They had to sit through meetings on the other end of a speaker phone while the rest of the team met in-person. The team members who weren’t permitted to work remotely resented those who were, despite the remote team’s obvious second-class status. These days, I live over 500 miles from my nearest coworker but I don’t feel like I’m missing a thing.
My friend’s team learned a similar lesson. They found that making even their team members in the main office work from home leveled the playing field. The local team benefitted from the productivity of working in isolation and learned to embrace the same constraints as the remote team. That taught everyone how to communicate in a location independent way, making the entire team more effective.
Lack of parity for remote employees is certainly a big factor when a company tries and fails to integrate remote team members. Most any team can benefit from some time to work outside the office. Let your local team reap the benefits and open your company to a vast pool of talent by hiring the best no matter where they live.
Georgeon 27 May 10
How do your extroverts deal? I have a couple of off site co-workers who often bring up how lonely it is.
Terry Storchon 27 May 10
Great post @jz…thanks for the insite and wisdom.
JZon 27 May 10
Working remotely doesn’t mean we aren’t communicating. Our entire team stays in Campfire chat throughout the working day, discussing projects, sharing code, seeing commits and deploys from our apps, and sometimes just goofing around. It’s like a virtual water cooler for our company. Campfire allows me to stay up to date with what’s going on in the company better than any physical office I’ve ever been in. And the best part? I can turn it off when it’s getting in the way. Try that with the guy in the cube next to you ;)
Jasonon 27 May 10
We couldn’t keep up with the payments of our large office so we were going to move into a smaller one. Instead we eliminated it all together and setup a process to work from home (Basecamp for communication, our photography database on a Mac mini at Macminicolo, everyone armed with laptops and iPads)
It turns out that we’re saving a ton of money by not leasing an office, but also producing more clients and better ideas because we’re out in the world living. It’s been great.
carlivaron 27 May 10
I can turn it off when it’s getting in the way. Try that with the guy in the cube next to you
Cube? There’s the problem. This is why offices are vastly preferable to cubes. IBM and Microsoft have always understood this. Best of both worlds. Obviously, this is moot in regards to remote workers.
Takaakion 27 May 10
I don’t think the statement makes sense unless people in the Chicago office speak no words in the office. Is every conversation on Campfire? If yes, that sounds inhuman.
MLon 27 May 10
How do your extroverts deal? I have a couple of off site co-workers who often bring up how lonely it is.
Get out of the house at night and socialize with people outside your company. You just saved an hour a day of commuting so now you’ve got more free time.
Colinon 27 May 10
You really can’t replace the richness and effectiveness of in person verbal communication.
Lukeon 27 May 10
Reminds my of this post by Nat Friedman, where he leveled the playing field by having everyone call into conference calls.
Andy Crollon 28 May 10
I can’t help but think the spangly new office is going to make people want to work from there. Not a criticism… more that I’d quite like to work in it!
Kyle Cordeson 28 May 10
We work the same way, remote employees are treated the same as local.
Except for one glaring hole:
Health insurance is a state-by-state, fragmented market. For the health insurance plans and vendors we’ve been able to find, we get very good coverage in our local area, and a much worse coverage availability elsewhere. If we had a concentration of employees in a single other city, we could add an extra insurance offering there; but then they wouldn’t help anyone else in any one area either. Thus, we have found that the plan we are able to offer, is very appealing to local employees and unappealing to remote, especially since there is no price break for the remote, lesser (“out of network”) coverage.
(It is possible that a firm like 37s, with very high margins, is able to buy their way out of this disparity, though.)
Jayna Wallaceon 28 May 10
I love the idea of leveling the playing field – at my last job there actually were a lot of folks in the office who would call into the meetings….from their desks. But it really did make it easier for the rest of us who were in other locations – everyone could hear because everyone was speaking directly into the phone. No more muffled conversations from the end of the conference table.
Andy’s comment is interesting in that there’s this assumption that a flashy office would make you want to work. I’ve been in the flashy offices where everything was shiny and brand new. Maybe for a few weeks you can revel in the newness of it all, but then it just goes back to the same problems you’d have anywhere - too many distractions, stifling “office air,” poor lighting, the - and that lack of control one gets from settings their own parameters for working at home. Plus the Panopticon effect of always being watched—whether by your boss or by your co-workers. It’s just a bad environment to get anything done. Co-located employees be damned, if you do the work and you do it well then location shouldn’t be an issue.
Matthew Robertsonon 28 May 10
It’s during the idea stage that doesn’t work remotely. There’s something about bouncing ideas off someone right next to you, gesturing, sketching, researching other sites on a shared computer, making messy flowcharts on a whiteboard collaboratively; IM/Campfire sucks the emotion out of it. Everyone’s text reads the same, everyone can only express only basic disdain :( or excitement!
And you try to substitute that with Skype and you get crackling audio, awkward pauses, “are you still there?”s and simultaneous talking.
How do you critique someone’s work without seeing their reaction? How do you know what they write in response is honest, or if you’ve crossed the line (some of my colleagues take it to heart when you tell them their idea won’t work).
And social coding! Coding with someone on a projector or at their desk! “You could do that instead”, “you forgot that line”, “that’s how this works”, “I’ll write that whilst you write that other thing”. You come out of it learning from each other, and appreciating that two minds have created something greater than one could have.
Friendship. When I was in a startup, the thing that kept me going was the thought that everyone else was at the office, passionately going for it; I should be there too. A sort of shared, common adversity.
Look what he’s wearing today. Girlfriend troubles again? I know this great Italian place! Strangers become friends. And that’s what drove us to do more than the minimum.
I love everything that you do, 37s; but I don’t get this.
Granton 28 May 10
What is your take on working with remote contract team? They are not employees?
bradon 28 May 10
Email and other forms of online communication have helped remote employees feel a lot more integrated than they used to be. I’ve been working remotely since the early 1990s, and back then mail sent to me at the home office would typically be forwarded to me once every three or four months. Talk about feeling like an afterthought!
Kevin Bombinoon 28 May 10
@Kyle—give everyone HSA dollars and then let them set up their own high-deductible plan from a local carrier. (Which you can subsidize via increased salary.) Kinda sucks from a cost standpoint, but not too badly.
This is what we currently do, though I’d like to change this if our company ever becomes big enough to gain some actual negotiating power.
Melissa Dutmerson 28 May 10
Bravo! No question, being a remote employee doesn’t work for everyone – especially those folks that need the “stand and chat at the coffee machine” interactions. Being remote, I have found, allows you the freedom to keep distant from office politics and keep a fresh, clear, creative view on the work. Being remote does not equate to never getting in a room with your colleagues either. REWORK addresses this well noting, “meet in person once in a while… These are great times to review progress, discuss what’s going right or wrong, plan for the future, and get reacquainted with one another on a personal level.”
It’s refreshing to see a company that is not limited by geography. Cheers! Melissa
Noamon 28 May 10
We’ve been working remotely for a while now and it’s definitely been really great. We’ve been using collaboration and communication tools over the internet and since the switch we’ve gained quality, freedom, and flexibility.
But there is one thing that I was unable to implement remotely – a good way to brainstorm. I mean sit down and brainstorm about an idea or a concept and come up with a creative outcome. Mixing live energies brings something new to the table that you can’t achieve remotely.
I guess that’s why it’s good to meet in person every once in a while. Go to a retreat or something.
John Braytonon 28 May 10
Ensuring that there are “no advantages for people who come into the office, no disadvantages to staying home to get your work done” is great, but you may want to ensure that the reverse is true as well. Getting saddled with the office fire drills of the day is often the thanks one gets for showing up to the office, whereas many that stay home get to avoid them.
I am not at all opposed to telecommuting, but the inequities happen in both directions.
Mark Warrenon 29 May 10
John B., that is something to keep an eye on. I started working with remote teams back in the late ‘90’s. One of my remote team members called me to let me know that it seemed like the fire drills were all be assigned and handled by the team in the local office. She actually felt that it was not giving her a chance to show what she could do! Guess who got the next fire drill!
Establishing an environment of parity takes focus.
Walter Hon 30 May 10
Good question raised earlier – how does 37signals deal with providing health insurance benefits to such a widely scattered workforce?
The other obvious question is, if working from home for even the Chicago staff is so important, why build the new uber office?
DW Hunteron 01 Jun 10
I’m a remote worker – most of the rest of my team works in a central location about 700 miles away. The guy I report to lives there too. I also am an extreme extrovert. What gets me through the “lonely” times is getting out of my home office & meeting with other remote workers are random coffee shops / donut shops, etc. I’ve made it a point to get “out” at least one day a week. When I do travel back to the central office (4-6 times a year) I typically work double shifts – the “day” shift is people time – rubbing elbows, meetings, leadership time. My “night” shift is when I get all the technical junk done that isn’t as important during the day.
I don’t feel like a second class citizen – more like a 1 1/2 class. Our culture definitely respects the remoties (there are a dozen or so of us) and our processes and such are starting to notice us more and provide some add’l services for us (like live streaming meetings, etc.). What’s interested is that all of us remoties are forming a tribe – we communicate regularly via social media and tools like skype and such. Even though we’re spread around, we communicate regularly – and as you said, we can always “turn off” those tools if we need alone/focus time which is impossible working in an office building with some loud people :)
This discussion is closed.