While remote work has been around for a long time, and many people have been working in distributed and remote teams for decades, it has been growing in popularity over the last couple of years, specifically with high growth startups in San Francisco.
The Remote Work Report is a comprehensive look on the subject of remote work, created by Usefyi, one of Hiten's companies. They surveyed 486 people at various startups and summarized challenges and benefits of working remotely. If your company is considering remote work, this is a great resource to see how others are doing it.
Hiten says that work from home had already been popular in 1980s and 90s, when cost cutting pushed companies to hire contract employees working from home. It then continued gaining in popularity when outsourcing, hiring employees in other countries, became a trend. Now, as the tools for accountability and communication have matured, remote work is going through another growth sprout.
Distributed workforce means a company has employees located around the world, but those are all offices belonging of the company. Meanwhile, remote work means that employees are actually working from anywhere around the world, whether in the comfort of their own home, a coffee shop, or whatever location is the best fit for each person's time and place.
Communication and accountability tools have improved dramatically over the last few decades. 30 years ago physical messages had to be delivered to your desk. Now we have email, Slack, and an arsenal of other tools that enable seamless and instant communication with employees around the world.
Hiten says it was probably Blackberry that started this trend, enabling people to type emails on their phones. iPhone then came out with amazing hardware and made it 100x easier. Personally, Hiten Shah says he's typed up entire blog posts on his phone. It's so easy and fast, he feels no need to be tethered to a desk, or even to sit somewhere while working.
Many organization are struggling with remote work because we still generally don't know how to manage a remote workforce. Although some companies are trying to be more flexible, implementing perks like "cloud kitchens," essentially delivering cooked lunches to their employees, only 10% of the companies or so are actually doing remote, according to Hiten's Remote Work report. Until we get to the point where mostly everything could be contracted out, companies are going to struggle.
60% said of the Remote Work Report aid they work remote 100% of the time, of which 70% have been doing it for 3 or more years.
Out of the 60% of participants in the Remote Work Report who said that they work remotely 100% of the time, 91 % said they prefer it.
Despite the fact that 91% of the participants said that remote work is a good fit, and 95% of them would recommend remote work to a friend, top challenges with working remotely are: communication, socializing, loneliness and boundaries.
Remote work provides people with freedom, and freedom is happiness. As long as employees are able to achieve the level of discipline and self-motivation required by a completely unforced environemnt, remote work is an excellent choice.
While employees gain flexibility and freedom to work from anywhere, organizations lose the perceived control of employee's time. In order to understand his organization better, Hiten introducing a #daily-updates Slack channel, where all the employees list their accomplishments for yesterday, and the plan for the coming day. Although no one actively monitors this channel, the simple motion of creating an update helps both employees and the company to stay accountable. Remote work is still early for the most part, and every company is still figuring out how to do it right.
Hiten Shah has a theory that if visibility into everyone's progress is improved, productivity will improve with it.
Documenting company's processes and decision making can help to giving everyone an insight into their progress, and could enable any employee to make progress without relying on their peers.
Hiten's new company FYI is now working on a tool, a master document for teams, that would become a central repository of all company's information.
Even with a small group with five or 10 people, their process isn’t solid. As the group adds new people, there will be challenges that require more time than what is necessary for the group to get back to a normal flow. The company and work takes longer to ramp up, and more time is needed for the new person to catch on to how the company works.
Hiten says that some companies will record every meeting — ones with more than two people — to share with the team. In his companies, they will write and document as much as possible. Not only will you be able to retain the information, but it also helps reduce emotional stress and anxiety.
The companies document their work because they are a team and they value efficient work productivity. Realistically, Hiten states how people’s happiness is valued the most. When people are able to find the information they are looking for and do not have to ask someone for information, they are happier.
If you are building a product the right way, you are learning from customers. Having a master document that provides presentations of past strategies is what customers have asked Hiten and his company. If a company is willing to maintain and update a master document, it can provide a massive amount of value because shows that the company cares enough to put time and effort into the documents.
As operations are performed in a business, they are more understood and feasible for new employees when a master document is created. Even if a new person has just started in the company, the document would be accessible and the person could figure out what was going on within the company.
To decide based on the number of people a company has, can they continue to do what they're doing and want to do with less people? For remote teams, this conversation is difficult to have because you don’t know how much a person is contributing as easily when someone is working in an office.
From a productivity standpoint, you have to trust people. In your remote work environment, your behavior as a leader, such as a CEO, people don’t know what you do because you aren’t in an office, but outside in the world.
As a flaw, Hiten feels like people get tool centric. He states how he would rather get purpose centric, which includes stating the purpose, figuring out what needs to be accomplished, and then figuring out the tools to get there. People can get excited over every tool that comes out, but it will not be as effective to use if the purposes aren’t established.
As Hiten puts it, the tools his companies use are simple and the processes they use are thorough. The tools that Hiten’s companies use are ones that are the easiest and most ubiquitous because they are usually ones they are sharing to others who are outside of the company.
Information oriented tools and communication oriented tools are what his companies use, and some of them are all of G Suite and Slack. They have many other tools, but they utilize them when it’s necessary.
James states that whenever individuals are working in an office with other people, they tend to feel like there’s a weight of having to work constantly, which does not make sense for deep, creative work. He feels like it’s impossible to take an hour to focus on the middle distance because it’s costly and not able to be done in close office settings.
Both James and Hiten agree that company retreats should not be used for strategy meetings. Rather, it’s a company crutch that’s used to get people together. Hiten points out that if you’re a remote company, it’s questionable to why a retreat, which requires having to be in the same place, should be used to get something that’s critical for the organization done.
Communication, socializing, loneliness, and boundaries are costs when it comes to working remotely. Isolation is heavily mentioned for remote workers. Hiten relieves that this feeling is impactful for newly remote workers since they are used to going into work and being around coworkers.
It is due to the heavy emphasis of collaborative work to get something done. If one person tries to do something creative, the need of collaboration is emphasized, so more people are added to a project that could have been completed by one person, which then creates a compromised version due to everyone's ideas and differences.
When it comes to getting out of the house, getting a co-working space, work with other remote workers, Hiten says that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution. The biggest tip is to figure out what matters and works for you. We have freedom, but we don’t know how to utilize it when working remotely.
As human beings, we aren’t forced to figure out what’s best for us because there’s a set structure when working on-site. Remote work is completely different because individuals are not forced to have structure, but they have to be figured it out on their own. This means to measure their productivity on their own to create a personal structure.
According to Hiten, it would be difficult for companies to train millennials to work remotely if they don’t have their process written down. He says that the younger you are, in some ways, the more likely remote work will be really traumatic to what you are used to. Younger people, also considered to be “digital natives,” are used to this digital lifestyle, which is what remote work is based on.
Hiten believes there is. Three or six months in, people will love it less because they are still figuring it out. After those points, they have it figured out and enjoy it more. Either you figure it out or you quit and work in an office. Less people are going back to an office because most companies have an understanding that it’s a great way to work.
Hiten believes that all organizations have to adapt to the way that their employees want to work. It’s more of adaptability for a company to meet the needs of the employees to help grow the business. Another aspect that has to change in five years is investors’ comfort when it comes to funding in remote teams because there will not be a physical location to see what the team is doing.