Thanks to modern technology and shifting workplace norms, something strange is happening at startups: Employees are ditching their desks, teams are fanning out, and offices are becoming ghost towns.
But before you abandon the office, I suggest you take a moment to plan your journey into the remote unknown. Our startup stumbled into some surprising pitfalls that you can hopefully avoid.
The Remote Revolution
Remote working is unquestionably here to stay. Remote job postings rose 26 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to Fortune. What’s more, 83 percent of hiring managers believe telecommuting will only grow in popularity.
Two factors are largely responsible for the surge in remote work. First, young workers place great value on work-life balance. In fact, a lack of flexible work options is a top reason why Millennials quit their jobs.
At SendHub, our youngest employees expected balance, while older employees wanted more time with their families. The truth is that work has to fit around workers’ lives — not the other way around.
Technology is the second factor that’s enabling this movement. There are more jobs than ever that require nothing but a speedy Internet connection and the appropriate knowledge. Meanwhile, modern mobile communications allow you stay close with your team even when they’re far away.
Greater employee demand for home time, coupled with advancing technology, has made remote work a more attractive — and viable — business policy.
What to Know Before You Go
While allowing your team to work remotely can serve as a great recruiting tool, boost employee satisfaction, improve productivity, and decrease turnover, it can also create managerial headaches.
Here’s how to give your employees the freedom they crave while maintaining order and communication:
Recognize remote-friendly roles.
For your more autonomous, headphones-on employees, working remotely can improve satisfaction while boosting productivity. These roles might include developers, writers, or other doers.
But for those whose primary responsibilities include meeting with others, remote work might not be a good fit. Although we know company leaders who’ve made it work, we’ve found that it’s important for business development professionals to make the office their home base.
Get the necessary tools.
If everybody on your team doesn’t have a fast, reliable computer and a modern smartphone with them during work hours, remote doesn’t actually work. Short-notice conferences calls or one-on-one phone conversations are often necessary when your team is not located in the same office.
Video conferencing tools such as Google Hangouts can cut down on confusion and wasted time if multiple remote team members need to collaborate on a project.
Keep your team in touch.
We tried email for remote communication, but it was far too inefficient and slow. Internal messaging software is a must-have for distributed teams. Opt for a system such as Slack, HipChat, or Google Hangouts — and ensure employees at the office are also using the software.
If in-office employees have an important conversation about a project in which remote employees are involved, the remote team members will miss pertinent information. Our team has tried several options, and we’ve found that HipChat works best for us.
Experiment with systems.
When implementing a remote work policy, we experimented a lot. For instance, after we chose HipChat a few years ago, we wanted to add more visual elements and tried an app called Sqwiggle.
Sqwiggle takes a photograph of your remote team every 60 seconds, and, well, that got weird fast. It turns out we didn’t want to be constantly peeking into team members’ lives from their computer screens. Realize that it will take some time to discover what works best for your team.
Focus on results, not time.
People assess how hard you work based on how many hours you spend in the office. If your team is remote, that won’t work. You’ll need to transition to a results-based culture. If you want to measure results rather than seat time, you’ll need new metrics for assessment.
Set clear expectations for productivity and deadlines with regular check-ins. Remember: A lot less of your communication will be situational with remote teams. Now, you’ll have to seek people out and ask them the important questions.
I strongly believe in the power of working remotely — it gets employees away from the office and helps them balance their busy lives. This improves focus, productivity, and retention. It’s nice to not have to get fully dressed up every single day, to drink your own artisanal tea, and, of course, to not have a commute.
But remote work comes with its own challenges. It requires leaders to be much more active managers, and it requires that employees understand the expectations that come with flexible schedules. Take cues from our team’s remote experience to ensure no amount of distance can come between your business and its goals.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Ash Rust is the CEO and co-founder of SendHub, a business communication company that specializes in phone and SMS solutions. He’s a coach at the Alchemist Accelerator, is the former director of ranking at Klout, and founded a web consulting firm in the U.K. Ash served as an officer in the British Army before studying computer science at Exeter College in Oxford, England. Connect with @SendHub on Twitter.