Everyone has an opinion on how to make remote work happen, including me. But the why is something no one really talks about.

After seven years and $6 million in revenue since launching Hubstaff in 2013, I can honestly say that the decision to build a remote team has been the single biggest factor in our success.

I’ve talked a lot about how we’ve built a remote team already, but today I want to do something a little different. I want to show you why it works and why working remotely is far better than working in a traditional office.

Just check out Google search volume for “work remotely” over the last 10 years:

Google Trends chart

Remote work is on the rise, especially as companies try to protect their employees from exposure to the new coronavirus (COVID-19). Many businesses are shifting from in-office settings to distributed work, and are searching for tools and resources to make the transition easier.

After social distancing restrictions lighten up, you might find your team prefers remote work. Here’s why we do.

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Why remote work is the best option for startups

More companies are choosing remote work than ever before. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, 23 percent of workers reported doing at least some of their work remotely. And the New York Times reports that telecommuting increased 79 percent between 2005 and 2012.

There are three main reasons so many companies — especially software startups, digital agencies, and dev shops — choose to work remotely.

Cost savings and productivity

Remote companies save a ton of money on overhead because there’s no physical office. For Hubstaff, I estimate working remotely saves us over $100K per year in leasing fees, in-house IT, utilities, and other expenses.

There are bigger, better examples of cost-savings, though. According to Forbes, Aetna was able to shed 2.7 million square feet of office space and save $78 million with remote workers. American Express reported annual savings of $10-15 million thanks to its remote operations.

Overhead is what everyone talks about, which makes sense. But beyond overhead, here’s the real kicker when it comes to saving money running a remote team…

Remote workers get more shit done.

The idea that remote workers are more productive isn’t something I believe in blindly. It’s backed by the data, pure and simple. We’ve actually put together a complete guide to the research on remote worker productivity, but here are a few highlights:

  • A 9-month Stanford study of 16,000 call center employees found that working remotely increased productivity by 13 percent
  • A flexible work program increased productivity among Best Buy employees by 35 percent
  • 77 percent of workers reported greater productivity working off-site in a 2015 study

It’s no wonder why productivity is higher among remote employees. Traditional offices are freaking distracting! You’re way too accessible there. Someone is always coming up to your desk, you’re always getting invited to meetings, and  there’s constant chatter and background noise…

To support this, the results from a 2013 Harris Interactive study of 2,060 American workers showed that

  • 61 percent say noisy co-workers are the biggest distraction in offices
  • 86 percent prefer to work alone to hit maximum productivity
  • 40 percent consider impromptu meetings from co-workers stopping by their offices a major distraction

Jason Fried gave a pretty killer TED talk on this whole idea called Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work. If you have a few extra minutes, definitely check it out.

I’m hitting productivity hard because it matters most. If you don’t have productive employees, everyone loses. If your employees aren’t productive, they probably aren’t motivated, and when they aren’t motivated, you end up losing money.

One hour worked by a remote employee is not the same as one worked by an in-house employee. The former is statistically happier and more productive than the other, meaning more bang for your buck.

Access to awesome talent

Hubstaff has 25 employees in nine countries. Because our employees can work from anywhere, I can look for the best talent anywhere. Instead of settling for the best developer I can find where I am in Indianapolis, I can find an even better developer in Jakarta, Vancouver, Madrid, wherever.

Working remotely means I’m never starved for qualified candidates so I can make the best hiring decisions for the business.

Having a remote culture also helps me compete for the best candidates at a rate the business can afford. If a candidate is deciding between you and another company, and the other company is offering more money but not remote work, you can still compete with them.

For instance, the new Hubstaff Blog manager I just hired was more than willing to take a pay cut for the tradeoff of being able to work remotely. This isn’t a rare case either. In a 2015 survey, 68 percent of millennial job seekers said an option to work remotely would increase their interest in employers.

It works better and people are happier

Money talks, so when researchers at Harvard and Princeton report that workers are willing to accept 8 percent lower pay, on average, to work from home, I’d listen. I’d also listen to numbers like these:

  • 24 percent of people who work in traditional offices say they love their job
  • 45 percent of people who work remotely say they love their job

I’d say it’s plain to see that working remotely means happier workers. And it doesn’t take an HR specialist to tell you that happy employees are better employees.

In addition to improving quality of work (not to mention quality of life), increased job satisfaction means lower turnover. This translates to a hell of a lot saved on recruitment and retention.

Why remote work means a good “workplace”

A while back, I read a really cool book by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, two really smart dudes over at Gallup, about how to create an awesome workplace culture. One of the biggest lessons that it reinforced for me was this:

People don’t change.

Good managers know this and spend their time empowering employees to do the work they’re actually good at instead of teaching them to do something else.

In the book, Buckingham and Coffman draw upon interviews with more than 80,000 managers at all levels, across companies of all industries and sizes, to come up with 12 key questions for a strong workplace.

The idea here is that if an employee can answer yes to each of the questions, it’s a strong workplace where everyone is empowered to do their best work.

Here are the questions (questions 1-5 basically set the stage for everything else):

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the equipment and material I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission / purpose of my company make me feel my work is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, have I talked to someone about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

As I read these questions, I realized that remote employees can just as easily (and sometimes more easily) answer yes to each of these.

I’ll show you what I mean, question by question, based on how we’ve organized our remote team at Hubstaff.

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work? Yes. This is easy thanks to the technology we use to organize and prioritize our work.
  2. Do I have the equipment and material I need to do my work right? Yes. Our team is powered by knowledge workers, so their expertise is their most valuable asset. Everything else they need (laptops, software, headphones, etc.) they either have or Hubstaff provides (more on that in a minute).
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day? Yes. There’s no difference between a remote company and a physical office in this regard.
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work? Yes. It’s just as easy for a remote manager to recognize quality work as it is for someone managing on-site. And in a remote environment, there’s even more opportunity for recognition in front of one’s peers and colleagues (for example, a quick shout-out on a public channel on Slack)
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person? Yes. This is just as easy on a remote team as it is elsewhere. remote company culture
    An example of what I’m talking about.
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development? Yes. This one’s easy. We actually schedule weekly calls between supervisors and employees, during which we always tackle opportunities for growth.
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count? Yes. This one might actually be easier in remote teams because there’s not as much office politics.
  8. Does the mission / purpose of my company make me feel my work is important? Yes. Establishing a mission and purpose in remote companies is just as easy as it is for co-located ones.
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work? Yes. This one’s easy. Working remotely allows us to find and hire the most qualified, dedicated employees possible — no matter where they’re located.
  10. Do I have a best friend at work? This is definitely possible in a remote team, but it’s a little more difficult for obvious reasons. However, when you communicate constantly through text chat, video chat, and other communication channels, your colleagues quickly become your friends.
  11. In the last six months, have I talked to someone about my progress? Yes. This one’s easy as we have monthly review calls.
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow? Yes. We give people access to new skills and tools all the time.

See what I mean? All of these can be done just as well working remotely as they can working in a shared office.

Why remote teams mean stronger company culture

The deck is actually stacked against strong culture in a traditional workplace.

There are several reasons for this:

  • The Commute — The slog to work ruins morale. By the time people get to work, they’re already burned out. And by the time they leave, they’re already dreading the next morning. Working remotely, the closest thing to a commute can be the 5 seconds it takes to roll out of bed.
  • The Hours— The ol’ 9-5 just doesn’t work for some people. Some people are most productive in the morning, some people don’t get going until waking up from their 4pm power nap and revving up to crank it out until 4am. Traditional offices don’t give a shit about when you’re most productive. You don’t get a choice in the matter.
  • The Great Divide — Traditionally, folks leave work at the doorstep when they get home each night, and they’re just not accessible. In this kind of setup, with rare exception, there are “work” people and then there are the people in your personal life. It’s different working remotely. I don’t expect employees to Skype into my son’s baseball games, but it’s nice to know folks are accessible and we can be connected outside of regular “office” hours.

Working remotely means not having to deal with these “culture sucks,” and we can still create a fun, positive environment to work in. In fact, we can take time saved from meetings and commuting and use it to get to know our employees better.

We mostly use Slack for this, with which we:

…talk about their kids

remote team communication example

talk about their travels

remote team - conversation topics

talk about sports

remote team talks about sports

… and talk about their hobbies

remote team talks about hobbies

And here’s something really important about all of this: These conversations happen in a public and unbiased way. There isn’t any office politics or cliquey bullshit that happens when folks gossip behind closed doors.

A recipe for rocking remote team management

Remote work is better, but it doesn’t just happen the moment you say it’s fine to work from home. Getting the policy on paper is just the beginning. Success is about effective management, and you can definitely manage effectively without being in the same physical location.

Here’s how we do it in 3 easy steps.

Step 1: Establish priorities

I lay out our approach to this in a separate post, but the real secret is that every task must align with a goal. Then, once you have your priorities in order and your tasks laid out, you need to organize everything with project management software. We use Hubstaff Tasks, our own Agile PM solution.

Tasks workflow

Personally, I find it helpful to keep things focused by channel. That means for marketing, I organize tasks within separate channels like “Organic / Word of Mouth” and “Social Media.”

For each task, everything should be documented. That includes any links, files, or comments that an employee could use to get unstuck in the event you’re not available when they’re working. (Remember, we’re operating on multiple time zones and schedules.)

Step 2: Set employees up for success

If you want to empower your remote employees to do their best work, you have to do two things:

  1. Remove any obstacles
  2. Get out of the way

I do this a few different ways at Hubstaff. First, I organize sprint items into projects within Hubstaff Tasks, which integrates with our time tracking software. From the Hubstaff reporting dashboard, I can see work being done in real-time, broken down by person and specific task.

This saves a ton of time by eliminating the need for most daily email updates. Plus it means I can check in on the work without interrupting the employee. (This type of interruption is common in a shared office.)

At the end of each day, our team uses the Stand-ups feature in Hubstaff Tasks to report their progress, upcoming tasks, and roadblocks (if they have any). This makes it easy for us to understand where our projects are at and make adjustments as needed.

Hubstaff Tasks Stand-ups

Stand-ups aren’t all that Hubstaff Tasks is capable of. It has powerful project management features like Kanban boards to visualize our work, Agile Sprints to keep us focused, and custom workflows to automate the process. Hubstaff Tasks streamlines our work from start to finish, giving us a central hub for remote work.

Step 3: Find the right people

People don’t really change. They’re either going to do the job, or they’re not. It’s hard to train folks into doing a better job, and even harder to talk them into it. So you have to find the right people.

Fortunately, for remote team managers, you have a ton of options for finding the right people. Here are just a few of my favorite sources for making remote hires:

Slowly start growing your remote team

Making the shift to remote work doesn’t have to happen overnight, and it doesn’t have to be a big deal. You can make the change slowly as the technology allows it to happen however you decide to implement.

Start slow and just see how it works. And remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, even though that’s how we do it. There are many different ways you can approach experimentation with a remote team:

  • Keep the “core” team together and the rest remote
  • Have a few people remote and the majority together
  • Only hire remote when no good local candidates exist

Find the approach that works best for you, then scale it out. I’ll be interested to hear about your reasons for having/wanting a remote team or what’s holding you back from starting one.

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