The year 2014 saw a sharp rise in companies offering remote-working benefits to employees. The trend has grown so quickly that hardly a month passes without another business joining the ranks of “remote-friendly employers.”
The motivations for doing so are well known. Hiring remote workers can lead to:
- A bigger talent pool to hire from
- Lower overhead due to not paying for a central office
- Happy, productive employees
- Flexible hours as an employee perk
- More hours of customer support coverage if you have teammates based in different time zones
And there's no denying that these companies and their remote-based teams are reaping these rewards.
But what you don't hear about so often are the stories of companies who tried remote working only to find that, well, it didn’t work.
When I set out to investigate the factors that might lead a business to reject a remote-working setup, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to track down companies brave enough to go against the trend. It seems that if remote-working doesn’t work, businesses aren’t inclined to talk about it publicly. Although I’m sure there are more examples, ultimately I managed to find only two.
In theory, these companies are perfectly suited to a remote working setup. They’re tech companies full of employees who ostensibly only need a laptop and a good WiFi signal to get their work done. And yet, they’re companies where a remote-based setup failed.
If you own a business, and you’re considering a remote work program for your employees, it’s worth noting the downsides these companies encountered before you go all-in.
Collaboration Took a Hit
StatusPage.io, a tech company that offers status pages for business and product websites, started as a small two-member remote team—one in Colorado and one in North Carolina. When a third teammate—this one based in New Jersey—joined, it made sense to continue the company's remote working style. But as the company expanded, the downsides of remote work slowly began to outweigh the benefits.
According to co-founder Steve Klein, working remotely meant the team struggled with collaborative work. "It sounds corny," he says, "but we work very collaboratively. We talk out and mock up new features together. We pair (up to) program a decent amount. We rarely have just one person making decisions about what a feature should do, how it should look, or the code that makes it real."
Working remotely made this process a lot harder for the StatusPage.io team, says Klein. "We [had] to deal with time zone differences, shitty video conferencing software, scheduling conflicts… the list goes on."
Timehop is an app that shows you images and social media posts from your past. It's like a personal, daily time capsule. Co-founders Jonathan Wegener and Benny Wong experimented with remote working at Timehop for two weeks, but ultimately decided it didn't suit their team. Or rather, their team didn't suit remote working.
It only took a couple of days for the team to notice their focus and concentration had improved. However, they struggled with collaboration. Wegener says, "Meetings were less productive. The team missed being around each other, and lack of facial and body language sometimes led to misunderstandings."
The differences that come with the whole team working remotely were a struggle for everyone, Wegener says. "Simple things like talking over a design sketch are much harder to do without a whiteboard. We also found that chat and text messaging leaves more room for misinterpretation which sometimes caused tension — especially between employees who didn’t know each other very well."
The Lack of Social Interaction was a Problem
There were also social problems with remote work for the StatusPage.io team. Klein admits that while his co-founders are focused on building a strong company culture, it’s harder to do when you don't work side-by-side. "This is because culture is spread through team members interacting with the founders and watching the founders interact with others. Remote workers are going to have fewer opportunities to do either of these, almost by definition."
Klein even found that his own happiness was suffering from the lack of social interaction. Even with the plethora of tools that make online communication easier, he never felt the team had the same level of interaction as a team working together in an office.
"We have daily standup," he says, "(we) pair together over GoToMeeting, and I work out of coffee shops or co-working spaces, but these are poor replacements for normal human interaction."
For Klein, it's a deeply personal struggle. "For people who are used to and need to be around people to be happy," he says, "this can be an enormous problem."
StatusPage.io cut back to just two locations once the team decided remote work wasn't for them. They knew they were limiting their hiring options, but an improvement in the team's happiness and effectiveness spurred the decision.
Work/Life Balance Diminished
Many Timehop team members who'd taken the remote-work opportunity to travel somewhere warm struggled to get used to their new surroundings. Co-founder Wegener says they "found it distracting to rebuild their lives elsewhere—finding a new place to buy groceries and toiletries, eat lunch, mail a package. Even finding reliable high-speed internet was difficult, especially for people who traveled internationally."
And many of those who opted to stay in New York and work from home had trouble striking a healthy work/life balance.
Overall, Wegener says, his team wasn't prepared for remote working, and two weeks wasn't long enough for them to adjust. "Remote work is a skill that takes practice and requires a certain level of patience," he says.
For now, the team is back to work in their familiar New York City office. Wegener says Timehop is focusing on hiring locally in the future, but remote workers will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Wegener is also quick to point out that they’ve become more flexible in their approach to work, based on what they learned from their two-week remote work experiment.
“We’ve embraced occasional working from home, which is great. It’s interruption-free, productive, commute-less, and a welcome change once in a while,” he says. “We’ve decided to create a silent library in our next office space for interruption-free work. We’ll also be buying some new equipment to improve audio and video for existing remote employees.”
With technology improving and companies looking for ways to keep overheads down, remote working is here to stay. But despite the many examples of remote teams working well, it's worth keeping in mind that—like anything—it won't suit every business’s needs.
Whether your team just isn't ready for the different demands that come from working remotely, as Timehop found, or you rely more heavily on social interaction and collaborative work as StatusPage.io does, there's nothing wrong with saying "this isn't for me."