Remote work, or distributed teams, are nothing new. They have been around for decades. In 1979, IBM ran a small experiment at their Santa Teresa Laboratory, in Silicon Valley that launched laid the groundwork for remote working as we know it today. They had one mainframe computer in the office, and they wanted to reduce the logjam that inevitably happened when an office full of engineers was trying to access it. So they installed small-ish terminals in the homes of five employees, allowing them to work from home.
It worked. By 1983, IBM had 2,000 employees working remotely. By 2009, 40% of its 386,000 employees in 173 countries were working remotely (173 countries! I had to look up how many countries are currently recognized in the world today. It’s 195. IBM is in 88% of the countries in the world. Wow). That policy allowed IBM to sell off its office buildings at a gain of almost $2 billion. But eight years later, in 2017, IBM, brought their workers back under the fluorescent lights.
One Year In
IMA is not currently in 173 countries. While IBM was bringing its employees back into the office and firing those that didn’t want to return, IMA left our office in San Francisco (you can read more about that here ). We are almost one year into our move to remote work. We have two smaller offices. One of them is a private office at a WeWork location in SOMA. The other is a small office in a charming old building with a view of the ocean in the town where I live. Currently, most of our team lives in or around San Francisco and use the WeWork space. Our Project Manager and I work from the coastside office. Everyone else is spread out between Sacramento, Denver, Atlanta and beyond and work from home.
One of the reasons remote work has flourished in the recent past is that technology has solved for nearly all of the communications hurdles. At IMA, we use the following software stack for communication:
– Slack for chat
– Zoom for video conferencing (IMO, Zoom if head and shoulders above their competitors)
– Teamwork for production work
– Prosperworks for our CRM
– RingCentral for client phone calls
One critique of remote working is that the more space you put between people, the less they communicate. The claim is that you can have all of the tools in the world, but employees are not inclined to adopt them. The historical thinking is that human nature throws a wrench in things. One study cited as proof of this idea was done back in 1977 by an MIT professor named Thomas J. Allen. Allen separated scientists and engineers by various distances and then tracked their communication patterns. He found that when people were 100 feet away from one another communication dropped to near zero.
Of course, Stewart Butterfield hadn’t attempted to build a video game company which failed which led his team to focus on the chat app they built to create the video game in one of the best reincarnations in recent memory, right up there with Odeo turning into Twitter (also a very similar story of internal communication tech replacing the product that it was built to build) in 1977.
In our experience, people use tools that make them more productive. It’s true that IMA didn’t regularly video conference until Zoom came along. We also didn’t use chat regularly until Slack came along (we tried with Campfire. It just didn’t take). The tech that actually works flawlessly allows for adoption. It’s not human beings that are the monkey wrench. It’s mediocre software. The good software opens the floodgates. In fact, it’s a problem we’re trying to now fix. Our team communicates to the point of distraction in Slack, and I don’t think we’re alone.
It’s Important to Physically Interact
Remote work certainly has its challenges. Physical interaction breeds a level of trust and familiarity that isn’t possible via Zoom. But that doesn’t mean you have to see each other every day. Or even every month. I would argue four times a year would be the minimum. At IMA, it’s closer to 16 times a year. We think that works best for us at the moment.
Every month, our strategic team meets in a conference room at WeWork. We’re currently able to do this because this team is all located in the Bay Area. It’s always great to see everyone in person. We drink coffee, catch up on with each other (there’s lots of baby talk currently) and then get to work on company news, priorities, client work, etc. We go to lunch together and bond a little more. Then we go home.
It’s always an enjoyable day, but I don’t think it’s needed all the time. When we first moved we would meet at We Work every Monday. We quickly discovered it was overkill.
Remote Work and Trust
I’m a firm believer in trusting employees and treating them like adults. Taking this approach has never let me down. Trust is a large part of remote working. If you are anxious and thinking your remote team is just loafing around watching Netflix all day, I encourage you to practice being more trusting. One famous founder who goes all in on trust is Richard Branson. I could summarize what he recently said on the Freakonomics podcast, but he is so committed and clear on this topic that I’ll just post the transcript.
BRANSON: …if people want to work from home, let them work from home. If people want to work from home on Fridays and Mondays, let them work from home Fridays and Mondays. If people want to take a month off and go around the world, let them take a month off and go around the world. I mean, people will give everything back if you give them the flexibility and treat them like adults.
DUBNER: I hear you, and I so want to believe that that’s the way to be. But the skeptic in me just thinks well, if every company let everybody work from home Fridays and Mondays and let them take a week off and go take balloon trips or climb a mountain that, you know, productivity would plummet and the economy would fall apart. Why do people not exploit that, at your firm, at least?
BRANSON: Because they feel trusted. And also, look — let’s just look at this business of forcing people to come to an office. First of all, you’ve got maybe an hour or an hour and a half of travel time in the morning, another hour and a half of travel time in the evening. And, you know, when you’re at the office, it’s important that you say hello to everybody and that you’re friendly with everybody, so you use up another hour or two, you know, socializing with people. Then, because you’re not at home, you need to communicate with your family. So you spend another bit of time communicating with your family. And so the day carries on, and you might get a couple hours of work done. If you’re at home, you know, you wake up. You can spend a bit of time with your family. And be a proper father, which is perhaps the most important — or mother — most important things that we can do in our life. But you can also find the time to get whatever your job is done because you’ve got another four or five hours free to do it. And you know, we’ve never been let down by people that we’ve given that trust to. I think treating people as adults, giving people trust, is so important.
Well said, Sir Richard.
P.S. If you are a company that is considering a move to remote work but would like some more insight into how to do it, contact me on LinkedIn, and we can set up a call. I’m happy to help.