01Why go remote - the pros and cons of becoming part of a distributed team.

Working remotely is becoming increasingly common. People of all ages and professions are becoming more and more nomadic and aware of the benefits of choosing a place to live that fits their personal needs and preferences best.

Organizations are changing, too. After many well-known companies that have adopted the remote working ways—such as Zapier, Buffer, DuckDuckGo, Doist, InVision and many others—started to openly communicate the benefits of remote work, including a much larger talent pool and increased employee engagement and productivity among others, many other companies have decided to follow their lead.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of companies in the world that are either fully or partially remote, because there seems to be a lack of extensive studies on the subject.

However, what is sure is that it’s a global trend that has been on the rise for a while. Already in 2014, The New York Times reported that telecommuting is fast on the rise — and it has been accelerating since.

Based on a survey conducted by Global Workplace Analytics (updated in 2016):

  • 50% of the US workforce holds a job that is compatible with at least partial telework and approximately 20-25% of the workforce teleworks at some frequency
  • 80% to 90% of the US workforce says they would like to telework at least part time. Two to three days a week seems to be the sweet spot that allows for a balance of concentrative work (at home) and collaborative work (at the office).
  • Fortune 1000 companies around the globe are entirely revamping their space around the fact that employees are already mobile. Studies repeatedly show they are not at their desk 50-60% of the time.

Fortune also states that remote work continues to trend upward, with 2014 showing a 26 percent increase in open remote job postings over 2013 and 83 percent of hiring managers say telecommuting will be “more prevalent in the next five years.” In addition, according to a 2015 study by AfterCollege, 68% of millennials seeking jobs state that the option to work remotely would significantly increase their interest in an employer.

What makes it even more difficult to comprehend how many companies globally actually support remote work, is that it all also heavily depends on the definition of “remote”. As Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs, has said:

In most white-collar jobs, I’d say 99% of people are already working remotely in that they take work home. It creeps into our work style already. I think it’s just not formalized by either the employer or employee.” If remote work means that you check email on Sunday night then congrats! You already have a work-from-home job.

These obviously aren’t the kind of work-from-home gigs we’ll be talking about in this guide—having to take work home with you and yet still lacking the flexibility to work outside of the office during actual work hours is possibly the worst option out there. However, it does illustrate the different levels of “remoteness” that exist out there—and therefore, how it can be hard to talk about concrete figures.

Regardless of the total number of distributed companies around the globe, remote teams are reported to have a fair few benefits over the “traditional” workplace. Studies have shown that among other benefits, remote employees:

  • report themselves to be more productive;
  • the extra specific attention to effective communication benefits both the employees and employer in the long run;
  • getting to choose where and when they live and work means employees are generally happier and find it easier to have a good work-life balance.

Like with any other work-in-progress trend, remote work doesn’t come without its challenges alongside the good stuff.

Before you start The good

The benefits that come with remote work can be roughly roughly divided into two sides—the stuff that is mostly great for the employer, and the things that significantly improve the employees’ life quality. However, most of these things actually benefit both parties in the long run, as employee and employer happiness are tied together pretty closely.

Employee benefits A better work-life balance

Working from home generally means more flexibility to create your own schedule, and therefore more opportunity to spend time with family and friends. It allows employees to build a schedule that adheres best with an individual’s preferences, as opposed to obeying the rigid work schedule demanded by the workplace, which doesn’t take into account any personal needs.

Not having to spend time on commuting and/or being at the office for a designated amount or span of time means that employees can spend more quality time with their loved ones, and take care of their personal needs when they need to be taken care of. This creates a better work-life balance, and again, makes us happier.

Health benefits

It can be hard to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle when working from an office. How many office workers make sure we always have a healthy, balanced meal to take to the office with us instead of just grabbing whatever from the nearest restaurant, or take time between office hours to stay physically active?

Working from home makes it much easier to maintain a healthy diet (with a properly equipped kitchen always on hand), and also leaves more time and flexibility to create a workout schedule in between work hours.

Also, in additional to physical health, having the healthy work-life balance mentioned before means that employees are less likely to be stressed and experience burnout.

Obviously, not being in an office at all times requires some effort to maintain a reasonable work schedule and stay motivated (we’ll touch on that more later), but the option of taking a break whenever you need it outweighs that.

No commute

How many people have you met that enjoy their work commute in any way at all? It’s fine if the “commute” is a 15 minute walk to the office, but for many people, it means hours lost every day on getting to work and back.

What makes it even worse is that many companies don’t include commute hours in hours worked, which means it’s coming straight out of our personal time—time that could be much better spent on family, friends, hobbies, etc.

Working from home (or a coffee shop/coworking space nearby, whichever) is better for the environment, better for the person, and better for the company.

Employer benefits Massively increased talent pool

Imagine how limited your options for hiring are if you’re looking from only your location (or have to relocate people there, which many people don’t want to have to deal with).

With remote work, your talent pool is literally the world. Is the perfect person for your team half way across the world? No problem. Like the saying goes at Toggl: great people do awesome things anywhere. And you really shouldn’t have to lose out on all these great people.

Loyalty and engagement

Assuming the people you hire are a good fit and everything works out (we’ll cover the hiring process in depth later on), working remotely creates a lot of trust. Trust means confidence in your team and what you’re doing. Confidence and personal investment in what you’re doing means increased loyalty.

Increase in employee productivity

Working remotely means employees have more flexibility to work on their most productive times. The “traditional” work hours are nine to five. There are a few theories as to why, from the British Industrial Revolution which required maximising output on production lines, to making the most out of daylight time back when electricity wasn’t really a thing yet.

Regardless of the origins of this practice, the bottom line is that people and their individual needs are everything but traditional.

We’ve got morning people, afternoon people, night people—and everything in between. Making their own hours means that employees can figure out when they’re most productive, and work during those times. Being able to work when they’re most productive benefits both the employees (feeling productive makes us feel accomplished) as well as the employer—who wouldn’t want their team to be doing their best work, regardless of when they do it?

One of the best parts of working with a remote team is the power it gives people to lean into their strengths. Remote culture accommodates all kinds of proclivities and productivity hacks. Lauren Proctor, Jobbatical
Cutting costs

Offices are expensive. Office equipment is expensive. Having a fully remote team brings all of that down to zero. Obviously it’s a good thing to provide your employees with the necessary equipment they need for working from home, but even that is still not comparable with paying for a huge office space (or even many office spaces around the world), plus commute costs.

If you do want headquarters somewhere, you can have that, but it’ll still be much smaller (and thus, less expensive) than what you’d need if all your team members were to work from there.

Joel Gascoigne from Buffer has written a great post highlighting all the different options remote teams have for their distribution pattern, including:

  • Office-based with a work from home option
  • A remote team, based in a single time zone
  • A world-wide remote team spread across numerous time zones
  • A fully distributed team with nomadic team members

Also, being a remote team means that you can freely choose where to put your headquarters if you require it, which means that instead of being in San Francisco, London or Berlin, you can pick a place that makes the most financial sense for your organization and budget.

We asked a few people in remote teams about the benefits of remote work. Carol Cochran from FlexJobs pulls it all together quite nicely:

“The biggest benefit we see is the happiness factor. Trusting in and empowering your employees to work in a responsible and professional way, while allowing them the freedom and flexibility to handle all the big and little things that life throws at us, creates a high level of morale, pride, and loyalty.”

The bad

So, now that we’ve established that working remotely has a lot of benefits for both the employee as well as the employer, let’s talk about the dark side of the moon. As amazing as remote work sounds, all these rainbows and unicorns don’t come without additional challenges, especially when it comes to building a strong team culture—one of the biggest roadblocks that remote teams seem to face.

However, challenges don’t have to be a bad thing.

There’s a need for a lot of extra effort in a distributed workplace when it comes to certain things, especially communication and transparency, to make sure that the geographical distances—however massive they may be—don’t translate into communication chasms between team members.

When it comes to challenges that we don’t cover extensively in the rest of the guide, we’ll offer some tips for combating them right here and now—since this guide isn’t about personal productivity when it comes to remote work, we’ll keep it brief, and just link you to some sources on the topic in case you want to read more.

Let’s go through some of the most common issues that may arise with remote work.

Communication
As much as being in an office might seem like the worse option of the two, there are some benefits (or shall we say mild redeeming factors) to it—direct and readily available personal communication being one of them. All your coworkers are in the same room and in reach—so when you have a topic to discuss, it’s a matter of just walking over to them.

Face-to-face communication is also a lot easier to decipher. A lot of articles and other resources that focus on teaching you how to build rapport with people and get to know them, focus heavily on things that can only be observed and done only when in the same room with them. People’s facial expressions, body language and general “feel” are things that we pick up on subconsciously in person, and adjust our communication accordingly.

Remote work lacks the in-person aspect, which means that communication gets a lot harder. It’s not something that is impossible to conquer, but definitely something to keep in mind and constantly work on. This means that communication in a remote team needs to be dealt with as a separate issue, and discussed regularly within the team.

Communication is the key to solving this issue in most remote teams, including Toggl:

The best way to overcome problems is to discuss them openly. Try to work towards a solution and avoid blaming others. In remote teams it’s really important to even overshare information. Many misunderstandings are caused by mistaken assumptions, lack of information and insufficient communication Alari Aho, CEO of Toggl

There is also the topic of just a lack of communication in general, which can become an issue if there is no effort made towards leaving the house and socializing:

The biggest challenge is making sure I seek out human connections throughout the day and avoid the "work from home" stereotype of being in pajamas in front of my laptop. Ali Greene, DuckDuckGo

As the communication issue is a classic one for remote teams, we covered it in more detail in the Culture chapter.

A lack of discipline

Being in an office can be motivating in itself—not to say force you to at least pretend to be motivated. People work, or at least make a conscious effort to do work because:

  1. 1. Other people around them are working, and they can see that;
  2. 2. These other people around them would be able see they were to slack off.

When you work remotely, none of that social office environment pressure is present. There is nobody to remind or nudge you to get your work done on time (and efficiently at that), and if you work from home most of the time, there are no people around you to act as a motivating factor in itself—you have to be that factor for yourself

Staying extremely organized

There are tons of apps and tools out there that help you stay on top of your to-do lists. Todoist, Asana, Habitica… you name it. Task apps like that mean that you constantly have everything you need to do in front of you, and you can easily keep an eye on your progress.

Tracking your (productive) time

it’s important to know how much work you actually got done on any given day—especially when you don’t have to work strict 9-5 hours—to make sure you get the required amount of work done.

It’s also extremely useful to track your time by task to find out which things you spend most time on during any given day or week (and maybe see the things you should be spending even more or less time on). Toggl is obviously a great choice for time tracking.

Work-life balance (the bad side of it)

When you start working from home as opposed to being in an office, the strict lines you used to have between your work life and your personal life become a lot less clear—you're in a comfortable and familiar environment that you also do all your day-to-day personal home stuff at and that, again, can potentially take away from the concentration that you're supposed to put into your job.

Some ways to combat this:

Act like you’re going to work: it doesn’t matter if you know you’ll be staying home all day. Get up, have a shower, and put on actual pants (OK, if you don’t want to wear actual, grown-up pants, at least put on a pair of nice pajama pants other than the ones you slept in). This “ritual” will put you in a working mindset and prepare you for action, even if you’re not actually going anywhere.

Have a separate area only for work: working from bed or your couch might seem tempting, but these are places that you usually chill out at, which means that your brain puts you in a less of a state for doing something mega productive. Get a desk, and make it a work-only area. And then use it.

Basically, you need to make your brain understand that whether you’re at home, at a hotel, a coffee shop, or on the road, work time is still work time in a designated workplace, involving work related thoughts and heaps of concentration.

Distractions

There are definitely some distractions in an office as well (especially if you’re dealing with an open office with literally no option to shelter away from everything happening around you), but it can be a lot worse when you’re on your own—especially if you’re not used to making your own routine and don’t have a great deal of self-discipline to start with.

Annoying and chatty co-workers in an office can be distracting, but at home you have some different things to worry about. Have kids? As much as it’s nice to be able to spend more time with them, they might not understand that certain times are for work only.

You’re also in a comfortable environment. Want to nap? Your bed is right there. Feel like watching the recent episode of your favorite TV show? Just open Netflix. It is generally just a matter of overcoming these distractions and temptations, but it does takes some work and a very conscious effort to learn to recognize the distractions that can come with working from home, and learn to nip them in the bud.

Some ways to combat this:

Blocking out external noise: first of all, you should figure out whether you work better in silence or with some specific background noise such as music or podcasts. From there, you can invest into either good headphones (completely noise cancelling are the best, although expensive) or a good pair of ear plugs.

Don’t be scared to look rude doing this—if someone really needs something, they’ll find a way to get your attention. Physically tackle you, for example.

Quitting being distracted by notifications: in most cases, nothing at all will happen if you don’t read a message or reply to an email within a split second. Immediately checking notification is a strange case of FOMO that a lot of people tend to struggle with, and it can be absolutely detrimental to productivity.

From using two separate browser windows to saving stuff for later to blocking social media/other time-wasting stuff completely, there are many things to do to make sure you stay focused on the task in hand.

Dependance on technology

Technology is amazing. It’s basically the critical cornerstone that even makes it possible for remote teams to communicate efficiently over massive geographical distances, and get their stuff done.

We’ve reached a point where online tools like chat apps, time tracking, task boards, online meeting rooms etc mean that communication and productive work can happen flawlessly even with every team member in a different end of the world.

However, at least where we are now, technology also tends to fail now and then. As a classic case of Murphy’s law, it also usually tends to happen at the worst possible moment. Everyone who has ever worked in a remote setting knows exactly what it’s like to take 15 minutes to set up your video call, then have it fail every 10 minutes, and then wait for people to get over their network connectivity issues.

In an office, a technology fail is everyone’s problem at the same time. On your own, if a piece of technology that is critical to your work suddenly fails, you’re the weak link, and might negatively affect everyone else’s work as well.

There are ways to be prepared for this and most remote teams have developed their own internal band-aids for dealing with technology failure, but it’s another thing to keep in mind and stay prepared for.

Some ways to combat this:

Invest in a good Internet connection, whether you’re at home or elsewhere: when working from home, a lot of the times you heavily depend on your Internet connection (and your co-workers heavily rely on you). This is a fact. So, it makes perfect sense to invest in the best possible connection you can get. Think of it as a sort of insurance to make sure you won’t be slowed down by crappy connection providers or load speeds.

This also applies for working from elsewhere, whether it’s a coffee shop or a coworking space—make sure you do your research about the best places for connectivity and speed. WorkFrom is a great resource for finding places with good conditions for working, including WiFi speeds.

If you want to read more about overcoming the main roadblocks that can come with working remotely, there are some great articles out there. We’ll, however, get down to business with talking about building, growing, and managing a remote team with an awesome culture. Ready?