The phrases “remote work,” “distributed teams,” and “digital nomad” have become trendy on the Internet lately. A lot of companies and virtual employees (us included) are writing about why it’s so great to be able to work from across the world and on your own schedule.
Personally, I’m all for it. I’m writing this article from a beach in Palawan, the Philippines with a healthy layer of sunscreen. Remote work is interesting, and it’s exciting, which means people are more likely to read about it and publicly endorse it.
But there’s another side of the coin.
There are companies for whom distributed teams didn’t work out. StatusPage.io wrote a blog post on their failed attempt to build a remote team and there’s a topic on Quora all about Problems Working Remotely. There’s this heated argument against full-time remote workers that stemmed from an article called Don’t Hire Remote Workers.
Since remote work is such a new trend, there are plenty arguments for it and not as many arguments against it from companies who have tried and failed. This article is my attempt to dig out the most common concerns that agency owners, project managers, startup CEOs and business founders have about hiring remote workers, as well as the biggest disadvantages of working from home.The 7 most prevalent concerns managers have about hiring remote workers and how to counter them Click To Tweet
Discovering the most prevalent remote work concerns from real-life managers
I started my research by scouring the Internet for existing articles. There are some excellent opinions out there on the disadvantages of working from home, but most of the responses I got were from online communities.
I also posed the question in a closed Facebook group on Remote Business Growth (request to join if you’re interested), asked the communities on Quora, Inbound.org, GrowthHackers, The Workplace, and found an existing thread on HackerNews.
Here’s what I found.
The top 7 arguments against remote teams
1. A lack of community and differences in culture
“When you only see teammates in chat or a weekly video call, it’s hard to develop the tight-knit camaraderie that makes for truly great teams.” (source)
“Face-to-face interaction is generally lost, and there’s no substitute for this during some activities, especially those more collaborative in nature. Video conferencing can sometimes offset this, but it’s not a perfect replacement. Feeling like a cohesive team is more difficult, and some people can never get past that. (Manifesting both with those in the office feeling like remote workers aren’t being part of the team, and remote workers feeling like they aren’t treated like they are real teammates.)” (source)
“My biggest concern about hiring remote employees is how hard it might be to ensure that the culture of the agency remains strong and intact. There is a large part of our culture that is centered around collaboration, and my concern would be how not being face to face might impact that.” (source)
“One of the issues that we have encountered working remotely is just differences that arise due to different cultural expectations and work ethics.” (source)
Working independently with just a computer screen to keep you company is vastly different from the hustle and bustle of an office. When you hire remote workers, you can’t just pull them into a quick meeting (which some would argue is a good thing, since meetings waste time), or stop by their desks to see how work is going. There’s going to be some loss in camaraderie since you won’t see your team face-to-face every day.
Not only is the lack of work culture a concern, there may be cultural barriers if you’re hiring a remote worker from another country. In some cultures, employees are expected to agree with everything their employer says. In other countries, different perspectives are encouraged.
I can use my own experience as an example for this. When I worked with a marketing agency in America, I was encouraged to voice my opinions, even if they went against our founder. When I consulted with businesses in the Philippines, a common complaint was about employees always saying “yes” to whatever their managers want (even if they couldn’t deliver).
Unique expectations arise with workers from different countries, ranging from standards for employee behavior to communication preferences.
What to do
- Try to get together in person at least once a year. Jay Baer of Convince and Convert brings his team together annually for a strategic planning meeting. They spend two days working and two days hanging out and getting to know each other. Zapier brings their distributed team together for regular team retreats where cooking, games, and lots of other team-building activities are involved.
- Equip your team with knowledge of the basic aims and foundations of your company. Make sure everyone is familiar with the company values enough so that if they need to make an urgent, educated guess, they’re likely to make the right one for the business. For example, do you lean towards transparency or discretion? Do you prioritize action or caution?
- Provide and nurture an online meeting place. Automattic, the team behind WordPress, developed an internal blog called P2 where everyone can publish posts based on their achievements and how their week went. At Hubstaff, we have a Slack channel for random discussions where we discuss 30-day running challenges (which I supported with good thoughts) and share interesting articles we find around the web.
2. Difficult or lacking communication
“If the employer and the client are not comfortable conversing in the same spoken language, it is almost guaranteed that the project will cost more money and be delayed. When dealing with a client or employer that does not have the competence of a native speaker in your language you must specify exactly what you need, as if you were talking to a child or machine. Most of the horror stories you see on sites like TDWTF are results of poor communication, not incompetence or malice.” (source)
“There is extra coordination cost and overhead when it comes to dealing with remote workers. And there are times you just want everybody in a big room together to hash things out. This is obviously harder with a distributed team.” (source)
“When it comes to communication with a remote worker, there are lots of options out there beyond the phone and email. Video calls, texts, IM, etc. But those don’t make a difference if the damn person isn’t on the other end.” (source)
“Situational awareness is harder to develop when a team member is remote, and given the various communication options, you want to strike the right balance between roping in folks unnecessarily and involving them proactively.” (source)
Communication on a distributed team is a whole other ballgame. I never realized how much I took co-located colleagues for granted until there was no one beside me I could ask a quick question. Every question, every answer, every approval will be documented on a remote team. This makes for great records, but bulky loads of information to sort through.
Remote workers must balance various, almost overwhelming communication streams. There are instant messaging apps, video call software, project management tools, and of course the ever-present email. With so many channels to check, it makes sense that managers are worried about information slipping through the cracks.
What to do
- Have virtual meetings, even with co-located staff members. There are multiple benefits to this, one of which being you can record the entire meeting for later reference.
- Eliminate email (almost). Hubstaff takes a stronger view on this, with our team avoiding most email like the plague. However, I’ve found that the occasional email is sometimes necessary. Lean towards project management tools like Basecamp and Redbooth, which allow you to keep track of what everyone says in one place. Most PM software also allows you to organize projects and store files, create checklists, and assign due dates for clear expectations.
- Invest in communication structures. Despite added expenses of PM fees, software, virtual insurance, VPNs, etc., companies can stand to save a lot on the overhead costs of running an office. No rentals, no electricity bills, and no more perpetually purchasing office supplies. Use those savings to invest in online communication ecosystems. Teleport has a few great blog posts for communication in remote teams.
3. Low reliability and retention
“I can’t hire remote people to do in-depth SEO or content strategy work and expect good results. I’ve tried it and it has just simply never worked.” (source)
“Remote workers (myself included) tend to look at jobs as a stepping stone or waypoint on the way to something bigger. And since the team spirit is harder to develop (see above), remote workers feel no guilt about moving on to new opportunities.” (source)
“Contractors generally don’t look at remote work as permanent employment and there can also be issues where you may feel that they are not putting in the work they should, it helps when they have a bit more skin in the game.” (source)
“Trust can be an issue. Unless it’s an employee who relocated.” (source)
Reliability is a problem for some co-located teams, but when you remove the manager’s presence things can turn catastrophic. What happens when you pay a remote worker a retainer and they never send you the work? How do you know your remote worker actually wrote that blog post instead of plagiarizing it off the Internet?
And even after you’ve taken the time to train remote workers so they are awesome, integral members of your team, what happens if they just stop answering your emails and disappear without a trace?
What to do
- Get your hiring right. Remote work is a skill you should be looking for in resumes by checking out past experience. Look for people who have done it before, or have run their own businesses. These are great indicators of initiative and independence. Check out this infographic for tips on interviewing remote workers.
- Document processes. Keep detailed records of how something is done, so that even if your only marketing person leaves, you’ll be able to train another hire with the process documents and videos. Aim to make these the same level of quality as online tutorials, and keep everything easily accessible and navigable online.
- Use content checking software to ensure the work you’re paying for isn’t stolen from somewhere else. It’s quick and easy, and will alert you to any red flags on your team.
- Consider non-monetary benefits for getting your remote workers to stay. For example, some companies will provide a monthly budget for the gym or exercise, and others sponsor vacations and trips.
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4. Difficult to manage and maintain accountability
They’re more work to manage and have a time overhead compared to someone at the office is a big part. It’s also easy to forget and ignore remote workers and it can be harder to evaluate their productivity. A culture that has a mix of remote and non-remote has the remotes pretty isolated as the normal way of communicating things has them left out. (source)
“It becomes hard to monitor how they work, or their deliverables. The degree of procrastination is something that can spiral of out control. Depending on the type of role you hire for; it is important to know how you are going to monitor their status.” (source)
“Accountability: It’s very hard to hold a remote team accountable. Remote teams require more micromanagement to ensure they are on the right track.” (source)
“The biggest problem I have found with remote works is, accountability.” (source)
The most obvious reasons distributed teams differ from co-located teams is because you cannot watch a distributed team in one physical space. That means all of the standard measures of management and performance, such as time in and out, go out the window.
Many strategies that worked for managers in the past will be impossible with a remote team. No more getting the team together after lunch for a project post-mortem, no more doing walkarounds to make sure everyone is working, and no more being able to visit someone’s desk and demand their attention. Remote work could make much of traditional management practices useless.
In addition to being difficult to manage, it can be hard to keep remote workers accountable. With a completely virtual presence, it’s harder to establish ties, such as friendship and camaraderie, that encourage accountability.
What to do
- Provide a time tracking tool for remote workers to monitor their billable hours. This is also good to make sure your remote team members don’t get burnt out working overtime. Managers should be able to view this time data and see which projects their team members are working on in real time. At Hubstaff, we use our own software, which supports randomized screenshots, app tracking, URL monitoring, productivity gauges, and detailed time reports. It also provides a breakdown of where someone has spent their time on an organization, project, and task level.
- Read up on remote working ebooks to learn about best practices for remote management, and study how successful virtual companies achieved their well-performing teams.
- Have a culture of transparency. This allows everyone to get a good grasp of each other’s tasks and responsibilities, which encourages good expectations accountability. It could be as simple as sending a weekly report to a shared channel, or keeping all of the projects in your PM tool viewable for all employees, so they can see what’s going on within the company. If you want to take it a step further, consider revenue transparency or public salaries.
- Give each of your remote workers a domain of authority and set clear responsibilities. Being accountable for self-contained tasks means they will be able to work with fewer interactions and more independently, and there is no room for uncertainty about what is expected.
5. Issues with payment and logistics
“I understand that international payments are seen as comparatively cumbersome, and (for employees, at least) the tax situation may well be more complicated.” (source)
“Different legal issues surrounding labor laws, taxes, contracts, payment requirements or limitations, etc. sometimes apply.” (source)
“For me right now it’s time zone. I work with an amazing remote team, but it means I have an 8:30am or 9am meeting every day. Words can not describe how much I hate this.” (source)
“Legal if employees than the location of the employee have consequence to the employer in terms of labor laws and business presence (taxes, permits and etc.)” (source)
Money, money, money. The root of a lot of headaches, from international transfers to confusing tax laws. Paying an international team is much more difficult than giving out checks or setting up direct deposit with a co-located team. You have to worry about how to get it over, added fees, the conversion rate of the day, and much more. What tax forms are you responsible for? How do you file benefits for international employees? A business may almost want to hire a whole other person just to take care of the payments and processing for remote workers.
Then, there’re the time zones. It’s hard enough to keep track of the time in one location, so what will happen when you suddenly have to keep track of multiple time zones? What does it mean for scheduling? Don’t even get me started on deadline misinterpretation.
What to do
- Get a tax filing service or software to ensure you’re following all the tax laws across borders and states. TurboTax and Quickbooks are some of the leaders in this space.
- Hubstaff has an independent contractor payment system that saves us quite a bit of time and money. We use an integration between PayPal and our software to send out automatic payroll every two weeks to all of our team members around the world.
- Use time zones to your advantage. Timezones are a great and terrible thing. On one hand, I know what it’s like to wake up at 6 a.m. for a meeting and sleep at 3 a.m. waiting for an update from the team. On the other hand, I’ve seen the benefits of having at least one person from the team online at all times for our customers. This is especially powerful in customer support. It allows for 24/7 support with just a few strategically placed (literally) people. Time.is is a great way to compare what time it is (and will be) in other places, and can help you keep track of the time where your other team members are. And don’t fret, because you’ll get the hang of it. I often forget what time it is where I am, but after working on a remote team for 3 years, I’ve learned how to do timezone calculations almost subconsciously. Just be sure to set an alarm for Daylight Savings.
6. Loss of productivity
“Working from home or a hotel: little to no oversight as to what an employee is doing during the day or how distracted they are. Fine for self-starters and responsible folks; not so great for junior and/or unproven teammates.
“Working from coffee shops: Background noise, massive distractions, unreliable internet access (due to a poorly maintained connection and/or capacity and overuse issues), annoying shop neighbors. (Both you annoying them and vice versa.)” (source)
“Some of the other concerns are building an in-house culture, managing productivity, how to handle a hands on training/onboarding process, coaching/mentoring remotely, and making sure that our system is being implemented so that we have consistent service delivery by a remote team.” (source)
“Remote doesn’t work for generalists.” (source)
With all the allure of a couch, mid-day naps, Netflix, virtual reality games, drum lessons, airline flight sale alerts, and whatever small distractions there are in a day, it’s no surprise that managers worry about work productivity for their employees out of the office. They are at the mercy of beckoning chores, a full pantry of things to snack on, “quick” walks to the park, and so much more that can distract them from work. I can see how easy it would be for a one-hour task in an office to turn into a five-hour task with frequent breaks in between.
What to do
- This is such a big concern that there is a slew of articles on improving productivity for remote teams. Check out how the members of our team structure their work day and their tips for working from home on our blog.
- Use tools to keep your team productive, like Google Drive to sync everything (I’m writing this section of the blog post on my phone using Google Docs while I wait for a delayed flight), ColdTurkey to block out distracting websites, and Coffitivity to provide some ambient noise.
- Hire go-getters and let them loose. Often, they will surprise you. If you need more proof, just check the Activity Levels on Hubstaff and you’ll be able to see which of your employees is most active while tracking billable hours. Reward your top performers and re-evaluate the others.
7. Security concerns
“I have one main concern, and that’s security. With a VPN and full disk encryption, AirBNB’s should be secure enough, but I could see management being concerned about theft of IP, especially in places like China.” (source)
“I recently got fleeced out of a 50% downpayment I sent to a remote team.” (source)
For remote workers and businesses who may employ them, the loss of a laptop is catastrophic. A few years ago, if I had a nightmare that someone stole my laptop I would have woken up in a cold sweat, screaming loud enough to wake up my roommates. Now, with the ability to host so much online and protect your data, I would probably just wake up and triple-check my laptop was still there.
However, this is a very real concern, especially if your business deals with sensitive data. Since the information travels further with a remote team, there are more chances for it to be lost. When you put something online, especially when it goes public, it’s almost impossible to take it all back. (Just ask Beyonce’s publicist, who requested this unflattering image be removed. It’s now a meme.)
In addition to having to worry about data leaks, sometimes agencies must also worry about data purposefully being stolen by employees. Data theft by employees, both remote and co-located, may be more common than you think.
With so many malicious people online, the potential vulnerabilities of data encryption, and so much money being moved around virtually, worrying about your data security is a good reason to want to stick to co-located offices, payment methods, and workers.
What to do
- Use a password manager like LastPass or Dashlane. Password managers make it so that your team members only need one password to access all the accounts they need to, even if those accounts all have different passwords for security. This way, even if a team member leaves, you only have to change a single password to be fully protected again.
- To protect your data, even against remote employees who may leave the company, install encryption software and remote-wipe apps so you can delete your data if the device is lost or your remote worker goes MIA. Please note that you should only do this if you provided or paid for the device that your remote workers are using.
- Invest in VPNs. Virtual private networks encrypt your data and provide secure access to a remote computer over the Internet. It basically extends a private network over a public one, such as the Internet. These are excellent for keeping your files and data secure, yet accessible to remote workers. I use Browsec right now, but there are plenty of others.
- Keep your antivirus updated, and only install one. Although installing multiple antivirus software may seem safer than just having one, they may interfere with each other. Stick to one good provider, keep the software updated, and run daily scans. It also helps to turn browsing protection on. I’ve been using AVG since 2008 and it’s worked like a charm.
- Lock your phone and laptop. Make sure no one is able to access your devices without a password or fingerprint scan and set your laptop to automatically lock if not in use for 5 minutes or more. This way, even if you lose a device (or it gets stolen), your data is safe. Google also provides a great phone tracking service. Just type “Where’s my phone?” In the Google search bar, or check out the Android Device Manager. There are also apps that take photos of whoever tries to unlock your phone or laptop with an incorrect password, such as GotYa! and Lockwatch.
- If you want to take things a step further, you can also invest in digital insurance.
Other concerns and disadvantages of working from home
“Recently talked with a company that didn’t want a remote/part-time remote worker because they felt the amount of working from home would create jealousy in full-time employees.” (source)
“My biggest concern is that they won’t care. I run an agency — how could they possibly care about the success of the company beyond their work if not in the office? Seems really, really hard to do.” (source)
I received many other concerns that deserve a spot here, but I’d like to touch on two that didn’t quite fit into the 7 big problems.
One is the jealousy aspect. I’ve been in semi-remote teams wherein only a few people (or even just me) were allowed to work from home. What has worked for me in the past is to clarify responsibilities between my manager and colleagues, and then delivery unfailingly. Once a team learns to appreciate your work, it shouldn’t matter whether you do it beside them or from somewhere else.
Another concern is the care that goes into a business. I’ve seen remote workers who were just as dedicated to their companies as local employees, and I’ve seen in-office employees waste as much time as possible because they simply didn’t care about the business. The relationship between a manager and employee can affect how the employee sees the company as a whole, so in order to increase loyalty, remote team managers should be advocates and someone remote workers can trust.
Making it a competition isn’t going to make it work better
A lot of businesses, employees, contractors, and freelancers seem to be either all for remote teams or completely against it. While remote work is an excellent way to work, it isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of understandable disadvantages of working from home, but they don’t necessarily overshadow the disadvantages of co-located teams, either.
One option is to look at remote work as a benefit, not a policy. In today’s (and tomorrow’s) economy, there are going to be vast opportunities both online and locally. Opening or closing the door on remote work and distributed teams can be a great decision if it aligns with your strategy, goals, and what you’re trying to accomplish. Also, that decision doesn’t have to be final. Co-located teams can successfully go remote, and teams that started out remotely can decide to get an office space.
Remote work is going to continue to evolve, but it isn’t going to go away. Whether or not it’s for you and your agency is a question with a fluid answer.
Wrapping it up
To sum it up, there are a lot of valid reasons managers and agencies shy away from remote workers, and it’s hard to blame them. However, for those who want to give a distributed team a shot, there are avenues and tools for you to try that only recently began appearing. I encourage anyone on the fence about remote work to try it out by starting small. Hire a freelancer or independent contractor, or give your team one or two days a week to work remotely. See how it goes (and share in the comments).
I’d like to thank everyone who contributed their concerns about hiring remote, and disadvantages of working from home. Shout out to the communities on Growth Hackers, Inbound.org, Quora, and Reddit for answering my questions. Also, a special thank you to the members of the Remote Business Growth Facebook group for sharing their insights.