Teams · Virtual teams

Is a team of work-at-home employees realistic?

Olesya Mayorova QA Lead - Towards Mars!

December 6th, 2016

I was wondering what you think about the feasibility of building a team consisting of employees who work at home. I don't mean a completely remote team; I am talking about local people, and certainly with some measure of face-to-face meetings and physical interaction when that level of collaboration is required. I just mean people who work mostly at home on a day-to-day basis.

As far as I can tell, corporate America is mostly terrified of telecommuting. Admittedly, it can be legitimately said to pose some very real management challenges. But no matter how much I consider that, I just can't see a justification for paying for office space and forcing people to spend time there for 8+ hours a day. I agree that it's harder to manage remote people, and I've certainly taken stock of the allegedly widespread tendency for remote workers to take advantage of their independence and lack of direct oversight. And lack of consistent and direct communication can certainly be an obstacle. But I think there are technological solutions to these problems: better backoffice tools, better collaboration and messaging tools, VoIP, instant messaging, presence, good ticketing and workflow management systems, etc. I think the technology is there to make up for the shortfall.

Thanks a lot!

Dr. Kurian MD, *astTECS

December 7th, 2016

If you are looking at a highly innovative startup - remote working employees are a absolute no. There could be advisors, consultants, freelancers participating remotely - who can come up in discussions and also do some part of the work.

Regular paid employees with a monthly salary should be in the office. You can have 1 or 2 senior employees work from home. But not the complete team. Why?

- Most people work for money, not passion. They, who work for money, will find ways and means to do no work and earn their money.

- Identification of problems and finding new ways to resolve them is an everyday business in a highly innovative startup. This is absolutely not possible in the remote scenario.

- People coming together generates creative energy. Not tools. You need this energy to survive.

An innovative startup is hard way to do hard things. Do not look for escapades.

Steven T.A. Carter

December 6th, 2016

I have personally worked with remote companies for the last 3 years or so and at other companies before with significant portions of their workforce completely remote and from home. It works if you can codify the work to be done so it is measurable in small chunks. Weekly at a minimum. What is the work that should be done in a given week. With is a bit harder, some problems are harder than others...but you usually have a team that can self manage that with each other and frankly call out people who are slacking. For operational and sales is even easier. There is specific work that must get done to deliver a product...if it isn't getting done in a timely fashion, then you can tell that someone isn't getting what it required of them and take corrective steps. Sales is even more flexible in my mind. Either they are selling or they are not. I wouldn't care one bit if a salesperson never came into an office as long as they were hitting their sales goals. As you noted, offices are expensive. In my experience after the cost of your product and then people, real estate is the third largest expense in any company. There are lots of great technologies to help manage these kinds of problems. I am working on a couple of consulting gigs 100% remote and getting a bunch of great work done with the team that is also 100% remote. It can be done, but it isn't for everyone. Some people need the social structure of work. Some need daily supervision. I've not found a great correlation between those that need daily supervision and those that are A I personally try to find A players and use the freedom of remote working as a perk for them. 

Cherie Blehm Director of Marketing at Komiko - Sales Intelligence for Salesforce

December 6th, 2016

I agree with you. I have a very bright team of remote folks, albeit two live within an hour or so drive from me, but others live in Arizona and California. They are dedicated and we meet once a week via conference call to sync. Even if there is little to talk about, I think the call is important so we continue to connect and remind ourselves that we are a team. My CTO and I instant message during the day. The only issue is sometimes messaging can lead to issues if the reader is having a bad day, misunderstands, etc. My rule is that if it takes three messages (emails, texts, IMs, etc) to get a point across, then get on the phone and talk. It seems to work well with that understanding. We all have a lot on our plate so being concise and courteous is important. In that same vein, without face to face contact, there needs to be a bit more patience when everyone is remote. People are not necessarily available at all times, nor do we comprehend the same way as some folks are visual, some auditory, etc., so accommodating everyone's communication style helps. I wouldn't have the quality of folks if they weren't remote. I'm thrilled to have everyone on my team as each brings a unique talent to the table. I don't think we would've done as well if we were all within the same zip code.

Duane Roberts Executive Recruiter at KA Search Partners Inc

December 6th, 2016

Our organization is based in the Bay Area but we are all remote. As long as you utilize the various means to communicate this can be an extremely effective way to build a business. We use video conferencing for some of our meetings, text quick updates, speak on the phone when needed and meet in person for client meetings as required. This has been going on for the last 5 years and our business continues to thrive.

Dimitry Rotstein Founder at Miranor

December 6th, 2016

In my previous startup we did exactly that - we had a team of 3-4 people working from home and meeting about once a week. Although I left the startup, it's still going on in the same mode and so far doing not too bad.
But it did help that each of us had a separate field of operation (marketing, coding, web design, and technical consulting).
Based on my experience, I think such an arrangement can work, if the work is properly compartmentalized, so that each member can work largely independently, or in a way that doesn't cause clashes. In the latter case, there are various collaboration tools that can help with this. Google Docs and DropBox allow working in parallel on the same stuff. Version control platforms do the same for code development. And so on.

Chicke Fitzgerald 𝗘𝗻𝗴𝗮𝗴𝗲𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁 𝗲𝘅𝗽𝗲𝗿𝘁 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗮 𝗳𝗼𝗰𝘂𝘀 𝗼𝗻 𝗴𝗶𝘃𝗶𝗻𝗴. 💡 I zig where others zag #͏z͏i͏g͏w͏i͏t͏h͏c͏h͏i͏c͏k͏e

December 6th, 2016

I have worked with remote teams for the better part of the last 20 years.  They work well when there are independent, measurable tasks, where you can pay the person on deliverables, versus by the hour.  

The problem with paying by the hour when someone works at home is that you really don't have an accurate way to monitor how the time is being spent, so you may be paying for time spent on non-work items.

The thing I don't like about remote teams is the loss of momentum and the energy that you get from being together.  

If you can ensure that you have regular time together and you use tools that help keep everyone accountable, then it certainly can work and is generally less expensive than renting office space and having the capital equipment expense per person (desks, phones, computers).  

I use Basecamp for remote team management, document sharing and accountability.

Rob Mitchell Independent Software Contractor

December 8th, 2016

Definitely do-able, but you should have reasonable tech solutions for contacting and realize that some of it won't be "instant" responses. 

I work from my home in Mass for my employer in San Francisco and even with a 3 hour time difference, we both feel its working out great. 

Scott Kacmarski CEO of Reps Direct

December 6th, 2016

I think nearstaffing may be a solution to the fully remote worker teams you are asking about. It depends if you are most worried about cost associated with having an office or if you just want to give your employees more flexibility. With nearstaffing all of your staff would still work together it just wouldn't be out of your office. Nearstaffing companies are putting together full teams that cover all functions of a business. If you wanted to meet with your team you would just have to go meet them. You wouldn't have to worry about the office or oversight problems though.

David Austin Relentless problem solver and innovator.

December 7th, 2016

Depends on the employee and their responsibilities and the startup.  In general interactions are more effective the more senses that are engaged.  Sensitive issues, new assignments or new instruction or new feedback should always engage as many of those senses as possible, within reason.  Text and emails should only be used for verification, validation and non-critical details. As a remote team administrator it's up to you to leave nothing up to chance or interpretation which is hard when not meeting face to face ... so it makes your job, not theirs, harder.  Leverage video conferencing as much as possible, then the phone 1-to-1 voice calls.  Some managers meet person to person but don't really connect ... what a waste ... an email engaging only 1 sense (and then only barely) would have been more effective.  If you want to see an employee really excel have a 1 on 1 meeting, starting and ending by standing up to shake their hand while looking them right in the eye with a big smile thanking them for all they do.  It will completely blow their mind (unless you normally do this) ... point is that the opposite is true as well.  Make sure your engagements with them whatever they are, have real impact ... this has a much greater effect on them than the distance between their desk to your desk.  It's just that it's hard to make that impact when your interactions with them are sparse, terse, and unattached.

Dan Meier Reimagining manufacturing management software

December 6th, 2016

In 15 years of managing remote teams, my biggest issue has been with the suitability of individuals to work at home. Clearly, some thrive on working at home, find great freedom and autonomy in it, and are enormously productive. However, others don't fare as well. Some find that the isolation far outweighs the freedom. Some simply prefer working in a more structured, social environment. And some find that home offers more distractions and temptations than they are able to cope with, and their performance suffers.  It's important to find this out earlier rather than later, and to give individuals in your team the support they need, rather than trying to shoehorn them all into the same solution.

Even in the best cases, managing remote teams requires a good deal of time and overhead to keep the team effective, motivated and on track. Here are some questions I've found helpful to consider along the way:

1) If you can't "see" someone working, how can you tell if they're really doing what needs to be done?  (Weekly goals, frequent project milestones and well-defined deliverables are key, along with clear accountability.)

2) How do you keep the entire team aligned and working together to the same assumptions?  (Periodic team meetings are helpful, but individuals can quickly veer off-track if they understand the assumptions differently. Frequent one-on-one conversations with each team member can quickly uncover problems and restore the proper trajectory.)

3) How do you make individuals feel like they're part of a team when they're working at home?  (In addition to periodic team meetings, ensure that each person in the team is regularly updated on what's going on with the project as well as with each person in the team. Include plenty of "soft celebrations" like birthdays, etc.)

4) How do you build a sense of comradery among the team members if they rarely see each other?  (Team-building activities are great, and more "soft celebrations" like wearing school colors to team meetings or Friday Bug-a-Thons or Obfuscated Code contests. Celebrating successful delivery on key group milestones can strengthen team spirit and provide a big morale boost. And, of course, encourage team members to reach out to each other individually.)

5) How do you facilitate the spontaneous "water cooler" conversations between team members that are often the seeds of innovation?  (It's all about the free flow of communication! Slack or Microsoft Teams can be terrific as a common area for these conversations. Wikis work, too (though admittedly old-school!). Use your one-on-one conversations with team members to ensure everyone knows what's going on with everyone else, then encourage one-on-one conversations between team members.)

6) How do you ensure individuals on the team feel their work is valued?  (This is often a matter of folks understanding how their work is part of a greater whole. It's often difficult to see the big picture and where you fit into it when you're working in isolation at home. Frequent one-on-one conversations can go a long way to narrowing this gap in understanding.)

Remote teams can be the key to assembling the right team for the job...even if they're not located in the same place.  But some special needs arise when this happens.  Fortunately, with some proactive efforts, you can facilitate a distributed team's best efforts.  Good luck!