This post/article came out of frustration of working at various engagements over the course of my career. From full time gigs to on site consulting to my current position(s) – a) Building my startups (Qonqr, AgileMedicine, Barcodes.io, etc) and b) Remote consulting with very infrequent in person face to face meetings.
I decided years ago that I would guinea pig myself as a test subject to see if what everyone “says” will work, would actually work. This being the statement that a remote workforce would or would not work. I’ve always believed that it would. Whilst not for everyone I do think that a vast majority of people can accomplish this when they work in a digital industry or a position that is considered a knowledge worker (programmer, designer, graphics, 3D, accounting, engineering, etc). As of a couple of years ago I started declining client engagements that were on site (even in the same town as my own – MPLS or PHX) if they did not allow for remote work opportunities and started requesting remote work at my existing clients. Some were open to it, others were completely closed to the idea. This helped me formulate some of my initial thoughts on working remotely and what it does for the general workforce of not only the US but the entire world.
This post outlines some of my findings. I hope that someone finds it useful, forwards it to their boss or perhaps gives them the drive they need to step up and try working or hiring remotely. I’m going to approach this topic from the focus point of a hiring manager as they always have various things to consider and one of which is the overall cost of an employee. Most people who are closed off to the idea of a remote workforce have a common misconception that a remote worker will be a slacker and not get things done and at the end of the day they will have burned through the companies budget. While these types of workers do exist, they also exist right under your nose. Go look at 1/2 of your team’s computers. I bet they’re not working on what you think they should be working on. If you don’t catch them red handed, I bet you see their screen flicker real quick while they Alt+Tab to a new window before you round the corner. So, a lazy workforce doesnt exist only in a remote capacity, it happens at work too. Heck, you were probably reading a site that linked this article, does that make you lazy? I’ll let you be the judge.
The first topic is one that not many hiring managers or startup founders fully consider – the cost of the acquisition. (I’m going to take this from the perspective of a startup founder or small company.) Managers/etc assume that they’ll have their existing team – Bob, Joe and Cheryl – interview the candidates. It wont cost them anything. WRONG. Lets examine this further …
The Cost of Acquisition
The cost of a new employee acquisition ranges in the “man this stinks” to “holy hell, we just spent 4 months trying to hire the right person, I think I want to go drink myself into oblivion now” type of scenario. In the end, the whole experience is one that I personally (and most tech startup’s) don’t necessarily look forward to, but its a necessary evil if you want to grow your company. Don’t take that as a ding that recruiting sucks, it’s just not for everyone. Usually founders are the ones doing the hiring and if they don’t have a knack for it, well, new hires can turn out to be disastrous. But thats another topic for another day (maybe I’ll write a post on how I’m working with and vetting offshore talent).
Long story short, hiring someone to join your staff (contractor or not) can and usually is an expensive (financially and emotionally) experience. Once you found Mr/Mrs Right, then you’re going to want to keep them. But how? Allow them to work remotely.
What if you live in a small town and have an internet start up but need hi-end technical talent? I’m sorry, but Manton, CA isn’t known for producing top tier internet rock stars, I don’t care who you talk to. It’s just not going to happen, and if you do, they’re an outlier and they’ve probably already been picked up by a bigger firm. What do you do then? Find talent remotely and allow them to work remotely.
Retaining Top Talent
Now that you’ve got your talent, how do you keep them? Perhaps you hired a full time employee and he’s worked at your company for a couple of years or you have an employee that you have just hired. There’s many ways to retain talent, and I’ve talked about increasing employee morale before and I still completely believe in the small stuff really does count. There certainly are other offers (more money, more time off, etc), but what do you do when external forces intervene?
- Gas and Oil Prices Skyrocket (right now gas at my local pump is $4.30 a gallon)
- Energy Prices skyrocket (gas and oil and goes up, energy goes up)
How can you expect someone to come to work when the only road between you and your employee is Tuscaloosa, AL after a tornado? If your employees live all over your metro area and gas hits 5 dollars a gallon in under a month, how can they afford to drive 50 miles one way in their pick-up truck?Most likely they can, but they’ll feel it at the pump. How do you make those employees happy? The ones that drive to work early, stay late and then get penalized for living far away? Its actually pretty simple. Allow them to work remotely. Yes, like, from their house, or a coffee shop, or a co-working facility or in Barbados.
Misconceptions of Remote Workforce
My answer has, and will be, go remote. Why? Because I believe this works. Let me give you an example. I do my best work at 10a-12p and from 2p to 6p. Then again from 2am-7am. Why? These are the hours that work with my family, my life and my set of lifestyle choices I’ve either been given (newborn) or have chosen (sleep). So a lot of the time I’ll get client work done from 2-7am while everyone else is asleep. Once they get up I handle things for a few hours then get another couple of hours work done. Then lunch, then work again from 2-6. Notice how they are large chunks of time. This follows the Makers vs. Managers schedule that Paul Graham outlined.
Most corporations will state that they don’t feel that the employees will work or get things done. While this may be true for some employee’s its not for most. The experiment that Cali and Jody from GoRowe.com did at Best Buy’s headquarters in MN worked great. They basically allowed teams of people to work from home utilizing a R.O.W.E. (Results oriented work environment) to define success. Productivity went up and employee morale skyrocketed (1). This works most of the time.
When you do encounter a employee that is not doing work, you will know. Its obvious – things just are not getting done. At that point the employer has a couple of options.
1 – Warn the employee that if performance does not improve they will be forced to return to work on site.
2 – Have them return to work on site.
3 – Terminate the employee.
These steps are no different than if the employees were working on site. Lack of performance equals corrective action. Its plain and simple.
Lack of Interaction
Another misconception is that that the employees work will decline because of lack of interaction. While this may have been true in previous years, we now have tools that help mitigate this. Currently, I’m consulting for Groupon and I’m in Arizona. Some of the teams are in Chicago, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Boston and around the globe elsewhere. We constantly communicate via Instant Message, Skype or Facetime or Video IM for Video and conference calls for daily stand ups. The face to face interaction is great and its nice to be able to see your co-workers when possible. Picking up a skype premium account has cost me 9 bucks a month. I chose to do this because I’m a consultant and I work with clients (Such as Groupon and others) as well as with my start up teams around the country (Qonqr, AgileMedicine and others). This allows me to be flexible and create and host multiple person video conferences so that we can all see each other.
Out of Site Out of Mind
A lot of employers are also concerned about the out of site out of mind mentality. If the employee is out of site, they will not do their job (this relates very closely to the topic above). The employee will be able to do whatever they want, when they want. While this is true, its also not for the employer to worry about. What the employer should be worrying about is whether the work is being done on time. Who cares what your employee does at home.
Will the employee check their personal email at home? Yes. Will they shop on Amazon or another site? Yes. Will they have IM open? You bet they will and when they’re talking to you they might also be making their plans for that night in another IM window with HotAndDotty77. Will they be listening to NOFX or Slayer or, god forbid, Kenny-G on level 10 in their home office? Damn right they will be. WHO CARES.
Just because you have a daily meeting at 11:30am doesnt mean that they cannot attend (remotely). Set up live meeting, video conferences through Skype or another service. Sure, it will cost you some money, but trust me, you’ll get far more work out of them while they’re at home. Having a flexible schedule at home makes life easier. I like to say …
Flexibility is the catalyst to productivity.
Let’m go Home
I’m sure this might sound all “rah-rah-rah-yeah, that sound great in theory” and you may be thinking I’m full of bull. I’m not one to just say things work without trying them. I’m a huge fan of Tim Ferris and his experiments in lifestyle design. Upon reading his seminal book, The Four Hour Work Week, I began to experiment with my own life. I’ve since outsourced much of my annoying life tidbits:
- Yard Service (lawn mowing, brush/bush trimming, etc)
- Pool Service
- Accounting to a professional accountant
- Basic accounting and reconciliation to a virtual assistant in India
- Some basic Android development to a developer in Armenia
- Source Control Hosting to a dedicated provider (instead of doing it myself)
- Servers – moved to a managed cloud server configuration from RackSpace
- SEO to an SEO professional
- Design to 99Designs or LogoTournament
All of these outsourcings have been experiments to see how they would work. That along with the implementation and rigorous dedication following the Pareto principle (aka: 80/20 rule) have helped me determine what works and what doesn’t. The next step was working remotely. I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now (as well as going into some clients that request it at times) and its works great. I’m very productive, my contractors and employees are very happy they can work wherever and whenever (as long as they make the meetings, etc). I couldn’t recommend it more.
But I have Kids, I Can’t Work From Home
So do I. Doing this take some training on your part in relation to your family. They have to know that “when the door is shut, daddy/mommy is at work” and they cannot bother you unless its an emergency. My wife stays at home with the kids (bless her, because I could never do that job) and the kids know that “Daddy is at work” when the door is closed. Sure, they might barge in excitement sometimes to show me what they just drew or whatever but I don’t get mad at that, I enjoy it. 🙂
But what if you CANNOT have interruptions and still want to work remotely? You have other options, such as libraries, coffee shops, and free wifi places around the country. But, the best place to work has got to be a co-working facility in your area. I currently reside in Phoenix, AZ and I work out of the great Gangplank HQ in Chandler, AZ 3-4 days a week because I enjoy working around other entrepreneurs and like minded folks. Plus having a group to go to lunch with makes it more interesting and fun. While these places (coworking locations) can cost money, the cost is usually negligible if you spend a couple of days there. It will be good for you to interact with other individuals. You’ll have stimulating conversations, learn new things and develop lasting relationships that will benefit you in the future.
So thats it. If I write anymore I’d be a broken record. Let go of the chains and let your employees work from home. The tools are available, the time is available. Now it’s just time for you to trust your employees and move forward into the modern era of the remote workforce.
(1) – www.gorowe.com