At the end of Season 5 of HBO’s Silicon Valley, Richard Hendrix, the CEO of Pied Piper whose company built the world’s first “decentralized Internet,” steps into his massive new headquarters and pukes. It’s a running theme in the season: Richard is deathly afraid of public speaking. When the CFO-type executive on his team tells him they need to plan to hire 500 engineers, his stomach turns and he vomits.
The irony here is this: Richard loves decentralization, the complete distribution of assets and information, and proselytizes the virtues of not putting everything of value under the same roof. And yet he allows this to happen with his own people. All Pied Piper employees must work, literally, under the same roof. Perhaps his stomach is so upset because he’s aware of this irony: his employees should be decentralized, too.
This version of Pied Piper wouldn’t make for such great television, of course. We wouldn’t get the awkward dynamic between Gilfoyle, the long-haired bearded chief engineer and the pretty young CFO. There wouldn’t be the hilarious exchanges between eager-to-please COO Jared and the aloof CEO Richard. It would all play out differently in real-life scenarios too. I’ll get to that.
The costs of remote working are real, but so are the benefits. I’m a firm believer that the benefits outweigh the costs and I’ll do my darnedest here to prove it out.
What is a remote or distributed workforce?
In short, a distributed team is one that doesn’t have an office. It’s decentralized. It means that the company can hire workers in any location in the world. By leveraging the Internet, managers can assign tasks, monitor performance, communicate in real-time, and submit paychecks to anyone, anywhere. There are literally hundreds of products available to move every esoteric piece of the office machinery puzzle into the cloud. Here are just a few of them:
The number one concern I hear from my executive friends who worry about the impact of ditching their office revolves around performance management. They worry that people will slack off, become less engaged, and that managers won’t see the telltale signs of an employee who’s about to quit. I’ll explain how each of the tools here can be used to mitigate that concern.
Google GSuite: email, calendar, documents, and file storage
GSuite includes a bunch of other office tools like shared documents, shared drives, and calendars which frankly are essential now whether or not your team is distributed. Every startup I know uses them, remote or otherwise.
Email is still the dominant communication medium in business, and it can be used as a proxy for engagement. Since usage of email will vary greatly across employees, what managers need to be aware of is a decrease in engagement, which means taking longer to respond and not sending as many emails. GSuite has ways of measuring this or your can build your own monitoring tool. There’s similar monitoring that can be done for GSuite’s calendar feature.
For the most part, though, GSuite is not a tool for monitoring productivity. It’s a suite of office communication tools that are awesome whether you’re in an office or remote. When you’re remote, you probably end up sending more emails, so you should have the best email tooling to support that communication. Google is it.
Slack: chat, group chat, video call, screenshare
Slack, in case you’re new to tech office culture in the late 2010’s, is an office chat tool that swiftly replaced Yammer as the de facto go-between for phone calls and emails. It’s essentially a virtual water cooler and productivity suite rolled up in one.
Slack activity cuts both ways. Employees who are constantly on Slack may actually be unproductive, socializing rather than working. A lot has been written about how being constantly tethered to a chat app can negatively impact office culture. There are options available to Slack admins to monitor engagement here too.
Zoom: video conference and screenshare
Regular team video chats are a very effective tool. A Zoom video call with the team goes a long way toward getting everyone on the same page and remaining connected to the company.
I do a daily 15 minute “stand up” video call where each of my remote teammates checks in and says what they did the previous day and what they plan to do today. As a manager, it’s very efficient, and it helps me feel connected to my team.
Trello, Asana: project management
These are tools that are equally effective for centralized and decentralized teams. Even if we had an office, we’d still want to stay organized by using Trello, which is essentially an online shared post-it board (with some very clever enhancements.)
These simple yet powerful tools provide the equivalent of a white board. Combined with a video conference that allows you to share your screen, it’s about as effective a brainstorming tool as it gets. They make for a fully functional virtual conference room.
Off-sites and retreats
Proponents of distributed workforces aren’t hermits who never like to meet in person. On the contrary, remote teams make a point of scheduling a company meeting at least once a year. They take the money they’ve saved by not paying office rent and deploy a fraction of it on a nice resort.
The fully-remote companies in the Xenon Partners private equity portfolio that I’m involved with have team meetups all over the world, most recently in Hawaii, Las Vegas, Tokyo, and Sydney. The distributed team behind Hunter.io chooses a new location in Europe every year. Zapier meets in Hawaii. Customer.io and Baremetrics fly employees out to exotic locales too.
When you don’t see your teammates face-to-face every day, these company retreats hold a deeper purpose. You feel more motivated to attend, engage, and make the most of that time together. I do this twice a year with my team. We’ve met in Las Vegas, where one of my employees lives, and in Walnut Creek, where I live. I think our next one will be in Arizona or New Mexico, just because.
Most of this operational technology is used by traditional companies as well. Remote or local, the days of printing out paychecks and handing them out on Fridays are long gone. Salaries for employees and contractors alike are paid electronically and it’s easier than ever to make those payments, administer benefits, and account for taxes.
Bill.com: invoicing and accounting
I’ve used Bill.com at every large startup I’ve been involved with. It’s simply the best way to handle vendors, customers, and the related (and seemingly endless) accounting tasks involved with doing it right. Bill.com is not perfect but it’s about as good as it reasonably gets.
Justworks, Gusto, Zenefits: payroll and insurance
HR tech is a fascinating segment of the startup market, and these three are the market leaders in payroll (primarily for W2 employees) and health benefits. If you’re going to have employees, you need one of these tools. Doesn’t matter if you’re remote or not.
Engineering is usually the first department to let go remote. Monitoring performance is the same no matter what your office situation is. How many issues did the engineer solve? Is he or she submitting or reviewing pull requests on time? Did the code have bugs?
The benefit of having engineers in office are largely social. Killer ideas can be conjured in hallway discussions, over lunches and happy hours, and yes, sometimes it will even happen in conference rooms. But do you need these employees to move themselves from one location to another twice a day, sometimes in hours of traffic, just for a daily opportunity to bump into each other? I say no, and I’ll explain why in the summary.
AWS, Digital Ocean: hosting, database management, etc, etc.
There’s no longer a need for in-house servers. Even if you wanted to manage your own hardware, it’s better to go through a colocation facility where you can install your own rack in an air-conditioned building with backup power. Or borrow Amazon’s hardware instead. My point is, you no longer need to keep servers in the office closet. Don’t kid yourself; it’s pointless.
GitHub, Bitbucket: code repository
A code repository is like the main file cabinet for all of your engineering output. GitHub is the most well-known of them but there are others.
This system allows teams of pretty much any size to collaborate on libraries of code without stepping on each other’s toes. It’s a brilliant system that allows anyone to create, merge, and revert copies of the code. The entire history is logically recorded. Git, as the versioning system is called, is actually pretty magical. GitHub and others add a pleasant web interface to git and a bunch of complimentary features for tracking, commenting, and approving code changes.
The tools are readily available to help those who manage people who are on computers all day do their jobs remotely. The only rationale for making people work on computers in an office when they could do the exact same work at home is this:
I dunno. It’s how we’ve always done it and I just think people should work in an office.– Too many executives
And that, I suppose, is a fair point. If there’s no desire to change then it won’t happen. Employees have to make noise, try to get management to move an inch, and build a case for what’s in it for the company. Those benefits in bulleted form are (each could be a separate blog post):
- Higher productivity. I’m convinced people who work from home get more done.
- Lower turnover. Contrary to management’s fears, people who work from home are happier with their employers and less likely to leave.
- Better candidates. When you can hire someone anywhere in the world, you get the best of the best.
- Lower wages, sometimes. The best people know what they’re worth, but there’s still a fair cost of living adjustment that can be bargained.
- Lower operational overhead, always. Think about this. No office, no snacks, no team lunches, no receptionist, no paper towel and toilet paper restocking. You can still offer perks like gym memberships, and maybe be more generous with bonuses because of these operational savings, but the cost cutting here is huge.
I think this tweet sums it up well.