As the founder and CEO of a 100% virtual company, whose staff have been working home-based out of different countries since 2012, I was recently invited to participate in a panel conversation about working remotely in distributed teams.
In preparation for the session, our team compiled a collection of advantages and disadvantages they experience working from home for GAIA Insights. Inspired by their input, I couldn’t help but think there was also an entrepreneurial component to it. So based on almost 10 years’ experience as a business owner of a virtual company, I asked myself:
What are the advantages of remote work settings for an organization?
Sorry to start with financials but money matters when you are a business owner. Not having to invest in real estate, electricity, heating/cooling, equipment, office supplies etc. is a HUGE upside and lowers your fixed costs considerably. When I started my company, I literally bought a laptop and a smartphone. That was it. Over time, of course, more financial obligations have come into play but there hasn’t been a single year in this past decade when my tax advisor presented me with our annual balance sheet and said: “Well, there isn’t really any superfluous cost to bring down. You really only pay for people.” And you know what? As an entrepreneur who believes in the power of human genius, there is nothing in the world I’d rather pay for than talent.
Limitless Talent Pool
Which brings us to the second point: Not being limited to a certain geography means I can hire and work with the people I believe are the right ones for the job. Whether I employ them, contract them as freelancers or loosely collaborate as a network of business partners, running a virtual business means I can choose talent without restrictions of location, time zone or mobility. At GAIA Insights, we have been lucky (and agile) enough so far, that we have always found a way to engage someone if we wanted to work together. As a European-centered business we even had a core team member based in Australia for a few years. Yes, we had to make concessions when it came to finding time slots for calls but with mutual ambition, flexibility and goodwill we made it happen.
Linked to the limitless talent pool, another advantage is the inclusion of diverse team members: Whether it is parents or caretakers, who would not be able to be active members of the workforce if they had to be absent from home during the day but can work in a flexible arrangement that allows them to look after their loved ones. Whether it is people with special needs, who either require specific equipment to be able to work or struggle with mobility to commute to an office or simply need more breaks during the day and can rest more easily at home. Whether it is the integration of more neurodiversity in the workplace, a more flexible career path for (single) parents – a more diverse team most likely reflects your customer base more accurately.
This point may depend on your staff and their individual preferences but if you manage to engage people who bring the right skillset for remote working, I dare say that you will probably achieve productivity and efficiency gains. Staff members who work better without distractions, who are disciplined and self-motivated, who do not need a lot of social interactions in their work environment, are more inclined to focus and get more done in less time if they can work from home with autonomy and freedom. If you manage to set clear expectations, and if people demonstrate a high degree of accountability and self-organization, it can actually be quite surprising to see the range of responsibilities and tasks that can be performed remotely leading to higher quality output.
Then again, every upside has a downside and I’m not turning a blind eye to that. While this would be unique for every organization depending on its size, set-up and company culture, here is my personal view about the disadvantages of remote working.
From an entrepreneurial perspective, what is not so great about remote work setting?
Let’s not kid ourselves – working in a virtual workplace as a distributed team definitely increases the complexity of communication. Significantly more time is spent on virtual meetings and instant messaging than if you could just turn around at the office and ask a couple of questions to your colleagues. Misunderstandings can happen more easily, leading to interpersonal tensions if not addressed in a timely manner, and sometimes joint decision-making is slower if you cannot reach all the stakeholders involved or bring them together quickly. The good news is you can learn to deal with complex communication. It takes patience and practice, but it can be done. Assuming positive intent and exercising forgiveness are two helpful habits in this context.
Investment in Human Connections
Deliberate focus on building and maintaining trustful relationships in a virtual workplace costs time, effort and potentially money. Learning how to communicate effectively, how to address and resolve tensions, how to implement processes and workflows that foster both autonomy and alignment is critical to succeed. This may initially require people to unlearn their corporate conditioning if they have not worked in a remote set-up before. Specific training and continuous guidance can be hugely beneficial. For example, we took our entire team through a 14-month virtual learning journey dedicated to increase team trust and collaboration. However, before any training can bear fruit, it starts with mindset: Virtual coffee chats and having fun in Skype chats is not a nice-to-have when there is time – it is business-critical and must be prioritized consistently.
While there are certainly disadvantages in remote working, personally I would not want it any other way anymore. Yes, it takes deliberate choices and continuous practice, and I did not even mention the classic trip wires of IT infrastructure, taxes, labor law etc., especially if your team is spread across different geographies. But the bottom line is: My company could not even exist without the opportunities and possibilities offered by the virtual world of work. And the fact I can work in my PJs any time I want cannot be outweighed by the benefits of a traditional workplace.
Authored by Martina Mangelsdorf, Founder of GAIA Insights