Why a Remote Work Policy Is Worth Considering

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They might be taking a conference call with no pants on or crunching numbers from the same spot they woke up in that morning.

What’s to stop them? More than 3.5 million employees work remotely at least half the time, a trend that increased 6.5 percent in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by globalworkplaceanalytics.com. Many employers claim that workers are more productive when they work remotely, but some technology companies are not considering remote workers or don’t allow telecommuting at all.

“Some people have things they need to handle with their kids, or new mothers, and we have to be flexible around things like that,” said Matt Booth, CEO of marketing technology company Connectivity. But for the most part, no one at the company works remotely (for more on Connectivity, read the Street Fight article on its burgeoning company culture).

“It was an intentional decision,” Booth said. “We found that [the company] is growing so fast, if you’re not around the people on your team every day it can be difficult to keep up to speed on things.”

“Having people in the same office is absolutely easier to organize,”, said Hugo Messer, a remote team expert and CEO of startup Ekipa, a platform for outsourcing IT and development employees. “If you have a question, you can just ask the person next door. But I think you’re way more productive if you work without anyone around you. There’s a lot of time wasted time with people sitting in an office chatting with each other.”

Messer said there are three main reasons why technology startups should consider hiring remote employees.

“First, it’s an especially good option when hiring for programmers,” he said. “It can be hard to find good programmers in the U.S. and in Europe. By hiring remotely you have a much larger labor pool. That’s true for any field.”

“Cost also is an important reason, but it shouldn’t be the first reason,” said Messer. He just hired a new personal assistant who’s based in the Philippines, halfway around the world from his home in the Netherlands. “Over here, I’m going to pay four or five times more [for an assistant],” he added.

“The third reason is that it’s more human. People can stay in their own environment. It’s pretty convenient to work from home. You have everything thing you want; if you have kids, you can see them more often.”

Messer noted that Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, employs a completely distributed workforce, with fewer than 500 employees based in locations all over the world.

“If you’re flexible and open to hire from any location, it’s easier to find great people,” Messer said. “You’ll have other challenges, other cultures you have to adapt to, and you need tools and communication strategies to make that work.”

Messer coaches management teams on how to create a blueprint for communicating with remote workers. He used the example of scrum software development. “Scrum says the best way to develop is for everyone to sit in one room,” he said. “So you’d need to change the scrum process when a product team is remote to make sure the process changes or adapts to the new situation.”

He said that the most productive schedule includes holding planning meetings every two to three weeks, and then a quick five-minute meeting every day to make sure everyone is aligned.

“The most important thing with remote work is to schedule this rhythm, especially the daily meeting,” he said. “Every day, you can ask them, ‘What did you do yesterday? What are you doing today? What issues do you have?’ If you ask every day, they have to share how they got stuck on their daily or weekly goals, and you can help them meet the goals moving forward.”

Five-year-old SweetIQ, a local search optimizing software company based in Montreal, does allow employees to work remotely on occasion. “Everyone has the opportunity to telecommute,” said CRO and co-founder Michael Mire. “I think it’s a great advantage overall. When you have that option, whether you have appointments or errands that have to be done Monday to Friday, during standard work hours, sometimes it just makes more sense for you to work from home that day. We all have responsibilities outside of work, and we want to be sensitive to that.”

SweetIQ is still small enough — fewer than 50 employees — that it doesn’t have a specific telecommuting policy. Mire said there’s no formula for approving telecommute days; supervisors are given the autonomy over their teams, and that’s what works best because each team is different.

“As an account manager, you need to be in the office and communicating between different departments and with clients,” he said. “It’s different than a development person who might be working on a project and needs 10 hours of silence to focus.”

Messer said that remote work options and companies employing distributed work teams will only continue to grow.

“It’s only been the last decade that we have been able to do this,” he said. “Before, we didn’t have the communication mechanisms or the tools to do this. With technology as an enabler, people will work from home or remotely much more.”

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.