Subtle (cost and cultural) benefits of supporting remote workers

One typically hears about how great remote work is from the individual perspective – it allows me to be happier, more empowered, live-my-life-in-harmony-smelling-flowers-blah-blah.  How it helps employers is then left as a given side-effect of this happiness: happy employees mean more gets done.

I believe that there are more direct benefits to having employees that work where they wish.  What follows is for all the Pointy-Haired-Bosses and bean counters; disregarding employee happiness – can you make more money?

Self-Healing Network

Have you ever attended a fire drill? Ever seen the flu take out an entire team? How about somebody plugging in a new machine in your server room and suddenly it’s a bit more romantic with all the lights out?

Now imagine that your workforce is spread out across the country. The following productivity drains are now eliminated, reduced, or are spread out over time to keep people working:

  • Fire drills
  • Bad traffic
  • Network and power outages
  • Severe weather events
  • The ice cream truck driving by your office
  • Flu season, stomach bug, lice, cooties, etc.
  • Forced happy birthday sing-along and the odd awkward sadness they flower

In addition having employees spread out allows you expanded time coverage more easily; an east coast employee can get a three hour jump on customer support for a west coast-based company.  In addition supporting remote workers shifts your IT infrastructure’s costs and outage risk a bit from you to them – they need to make sure that they have a fast internet connection, they should respond and move to a coffeeshop if it is down, etc.

Less time-wasting small talk and gossip

In a typical office people chat about the weather, celebrity news, their personal medical conditions, what type of soup they like, etc. for a surprising amount of time.  These same types of conversations just don’t translate into electronic equivalents.  Ever seen somebody video-chat about the Superbowl for 45 minutes over Skype? Simply not going to happen.  Those tools are great for professional communication, but for informal back and forth they just don’t translate with the same speed and nuance.

You might thinking that it isn’t a big deal that people save a few minutes a day by not chatting socially – who cares?  But remember that this slight barrier to communication reduces another problem: gossip. Negative but not-acted-upon thinking about work (“Man this place stinks”, “That guys is an idiot”, “The company logo looks like a dog drew it”) is poison to a team and ultimately a huge distraction once your company gets large enough to hire a few gossip super-spreaders.

Reduce Human Resources silliness

You don’t care if remote workers leave the kitchen or bathroom a mess.  They do not use your paper towels, electricity, water, sodas, or trip on your wet floor and break their leg.  They do not need to attend workplace violence seminars, be told to not bring life-size cutouts of Gene Simmons into their cubicle, or told to take off their sombrero during the morning meeting.  They do not have to be told how to ‘be a good cubicle citizen’ by avoiding heating up their fish-and-feta-with-pepper-jack-with-curry sandwich. They do not serve sentences on the Party Planning Committee or as Floor Safety Officer, or decorate their office doors for super-wicked fabulous prizes that someone took time to buy instead of doing actual work.

Increased loyalty

Remote work is still not the default choice; many companies are trying it out but it isn’t as common with established companies. For this reason remote employees tend to be more loyal for the simple (perhaps silly) reason that it’s a pain to find and get integrated with a new company. People will stick around more; you get this benefit for free.

Trial hiring

Hiring is super hard everybody.  A new effective trend is to replace the 87 interviews with made-up questions and instead hire them for a small, real project and then determine if their work ethic, communication, and personality fit within the team.  This is quite hard if you try to make them come into an office for a few weeks, but quite easy if you are already setup to support remote work.

Work life balance

Two interesting little tidbits about remote workers: they tend to work slightly more hours and they tend to object less to off-hours work. A common anti-pattern for remote workers is to use their old commute time to just work instead; you get these hours for free. In addition when emergencies happen being able to easily handle them without needing to drive into the office reduces the friction. A remote worker, unlike his cubicle-dwelling cousins, is always a few steps away from logging in to work; plus when he works a bit at night you don’t have to buy him pizza.

Free work while sick

At a traditional office if you are sick and contagious you don’t work. When you work remotely there is a large class of illnesses that are not too sick to work, but too sick to come in; remote workers typically push through this wall and work while sick. You get these hours for free.

Improve your processes

I’ve made this point in a separate blog post, so I’ll just refer you there instead. TL;DR – remote workers need clear processes, clear documentation, and a way to measure how much is getting done to be effective. These things just simply make you better and they organically improve when you support your employees not being present physically.

Employee selection

By hiring people that have worked remotely in the past you are selecting a certain type of person that might be different than a person with a resume just looking for someone to love them.

  • Have an opinion about where they want to work (re: gives MVD [Minimum Viable Damn] about their work)
  • Are a bit above average at written communication
  • Are a bit above average at speaking up over the phone

Be bought or buy more easily

A company that operates with remote employees is more attractive for Mergers and Acquisitions.  It is easier to buy a company without an office and integrate their workers, and it is easier to sell a company that isn’t locked into long-term contracts or physical constraints.  During integration a results-focused fully documented process eases this transition (and nobody has to move or quit because they won’t move).

Hire who you want to

There are certain market segments that you can attract or retain when you seek out remote workers:

  • Sharp young person that worked at an entry-level position but then wants to move away. (as young people tend to do)
  • Experienced person that wants to move away; you can now retain them instead.
  • Workers while they go through a situation that might otherwise require FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), a leave of absence, or resignation. Think mono, a family illness, serious injury, complicated pregnancy, or chronic cooties.
  • That super sharp person that you only know from twitter or your favorite conference.
  • Attract and retain those with hearing impairment*, vision issues, physical disabilities, speech impairments, etc.
  • People that would work out great at your company but would hate to live near your office.

Scale your company more effectively

Traditional office space is very mind-shiftingly expensive which is why small companies tend to start out in coffeeshops, garages, and Dunkin Donuts. If you aren’t entertaining clients you can eliminate the massive outlay for mildly brownish walls, gray furniture, and is-that-green carpet. For small companies office space comes with additional insurance needs and rental commitments that might not make sense. Even at the bottom of the food chain office space its amazingly expensive – a three person company with nice hardware can easily spend their entire hardware budget for a year in a few months of office space.

Office space is simply one example in which remote workers allow you to scale more precisely. If you are a 10 person company how much office space do you need? How many secondary (admin, HR, IT support) people do you need? You have to choose a number and increase it in large blocks – hire an additional person, rent another large room that you won’t use yet, build a robot to make coffee and the clean the floor, etc.

Remote workers allow you to avoid or lazy load all of these items. Not having a physical office also moves you outside the traditional scaling path: maybe you don’t need to just ‘hire a guy to do that’.  Maybe a cloud service, 3rd party payroll and accounting service, or an internal company blog can replace those things.

Conclusion

Whether or not remote work helps your employees manage their lives and do good work you can save money as you grow, be more flexible in times of crisis, and retain more talented people by structuring your company, processes, and culture such that remote work is support or encouraged.

 

* For software development a good way to test how well you support your remote workers is to imagine that one of your workers cannot hear.  How could they continue to do their job from another state?

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.