Ah, remote - a word that drums up visions of working in one’s pyjamas, regular trips to the local coffee shop, the ability to work your own hours and for some, including me, the joy of not needing to participate in forced associations with people not of my picking... nor office politics. Is remote working all it’s purported to be? Well… in short… at least for me and my current team, yes.
Building a remote workforce like ours is perhaps not for everyone. Personally I’ve found it to be an incredible, rewarding experience with us now having a multi talented, multicultural and close knit team of 15 people distributed all around the world. With myself, a dual British / South African citizen living in Cape Town, David, a Brit living in Vienna, Alfredo in Chicago and the rest of the team -present and future- being completely non-dependant on their physical location, I believe we’re operating a truly globally distributed yet highly efficient setup.
Why we're intentionally and proudly remote
To sum up some of the reasons that there is currently no intention of us changing our remote ethos on the most part, here are a few beneficial factors that come to mind:
We’re happier and healthier
There is an argument to be made that us not being forced to congregate with potentially sick -or undesirable- colleagues in the same space allows us to have a better state of mind and health. We can choose who we share physical space with which may sometimes be our families, sometimes just our pets, or maybe just the waitress at the local coffee shop.
It saves us time
By not needing to commute nor needing to do things like book and wait for meeting rooms or boardrooms, we're more agile and able to get things done quickly, without the red tape nor time spent on the road or in packed trains.
It saves us money
From a cost to company perspective, by not needing to invest in largely superfluous, showy and likely redundant commercial real estate we're able to not even factor these costs into our pricing to merchants. Without the need to commute this also helps each team member financially and this money can be invested into other areas of their lives, further improving the quality thereof and their general wellbeing.
It improves productivity
Through our ability to manage our own time and block out distractions we're able to avoid what is probably one of the biggest headache of traditional agency life, distractions. The time cost of context switching can be immense, so if one is good at blocking out time to focus, being in a position to do so without distraction allows the individual to get more done. Productivity is largely up to the individual… but suffice to say, you don’t have a middle manager tapping you on the shoulder every 5 minutes. If you don't believe me, I'm not the only one claiming this to be the case.
It widens our selection pool of talent
This should actually be point #1 for the business aspect. With no barriers in terms of physical location of the team members and a propensity for highly talented and specialised individuals desiring remote positions, we have a far larger pool of available talent to bring onboard. As long as communication skills, an exceptional work ethic and an above average ability to do the work is present, they’re eligible to be considered to work with us.
Our carbon footprint is smaller
Since we’re commuting less, not only to and from work, but also through applying the same principles of remote contact with our clients, our impact on the environment is considerably less than those that do commute regularly. Yes we’ll meet clients face to face when necessary or convenient, but as it stands, of our entire current clientbase (including some engagements spanning over 4+ years), we’ve rarely -if ever- met them them face to face other than Zoom / Skype video calls.
There are some pretty big name tech companies that operate with or were even founded with a remote mindset and workforce. Some of the bigger names I found in our industry of web technology and ecommerce include Github, Harvest, Zapier, Invision and Shopify’s star player Recharge. I'd need to confirm it to be the case but even Shopify's team is largely a remote workforce. Interestingly, even the company (Automattic) behind the platform that powers over 30% of the internet (Wordpress) makes use of an almost entirely distributed workforce. There is an amusingly titled book on it too which I will not confirm nor deny whether it forms an integral part in my thoughts on the topic.
Quintin -our creative director- recently gave a talk at our local Shopify Meetup and a couple of the slides in his presentation were actually the inspiration for this article. In them, he neatly pinned out the locations of our core client base on a map of the world:
as well as doing the same for our team:
How we manage to do this
Giving a "paint-by-numbers" guide to getting an operation to a point where it's running like ours is not really possible but I'll attempt to articulate how we have managed to get it as right as we have. Essentially for us it has been a case of very intentionally aiming to make it work in spite of the challenges that the approach poses, and it does pose challenges.
There are some downsides to having a remote workforce, so to be open about them, acknowledging them and either addressing them or accepting them for what they are was really important.
Some people do crave the watercooler discussions, the office romances, the sense of community you may find in a workspace where you're physically present. In my research for this article I found that while some agency owners fully embrace remote as a legitimate approach to building their businesses, others are either not convinced, or only allow it in a limited fashion. The main reason for their aversion seems to revolve around team building and a sense of community and while I don't disregard their views on this, I feel that while it will be different, this can still be achieved with a remote team.
Ultimately, what I'd attribute our ability to operate effectively can be narrowed down to the below factors.
- Clear and regular communication
- Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
- Strong project management
Of course there are many factors that will result in an operation moving forward strongly like good selection of team members, paying the team well, focusing on delivering quality and meeting milestones / deadlines, but those are factors that should apply to any business, remote or not.
The three factors above I believe have been the key elements that have allowed us to not only operate smoothly, but gradually and iteratively grow the business without even needing to add more people. It's truly inspiring to see how efficient a business can be when the focus has been on making things run smoothly while concurrently focusing 100% on the success of our merchant clients.
Of course there are tools that we're using that are absolutely indispensable, and without them this business would not have even been possible. The list of software solutions we use is reasonably long and mileage will vary depending on each organisation and their specific needs, and people have preferences, but to name some of the key players here goes:
Google GSuite is without a doubt one of the most useful solutions to the whole email / collaborative documents & spreadsheets and forms debacle. It's a solution we recommend to all of our clients and find little reason to look elsewhere.
Slack has become one of those ubiquitous solutions in most tech companies around the world and it really does bring a significant amount of value to our operation. Communication is fluent, prompt and it allows us to keep all the right people in the loop on all relevant fronts.
Asana is another key component in our day to day running. We took a fair bit of time deciding on what project management software to use -Basecamp, Jira and Teamwork were the runner ups- and while it takes a bit of time to tame, we don't regret the decision one bit. Interesting to note that we "graduated" from Trello to Asana since ultimately while the former is great software, it was too generic for our needs and Asana brought a lot more to the table for our business.
There are of course plenty of other solutions we've implemented including business / workflow / productivity solutions like Zapier, Harvest, Calendly, aText, Zoom, Jotform and design & development tools / platforms like Github, Deploybot, Sketch, Invision and Loom.
As mentioned above, the list can be reasonably long and ever changing and while they're not all free, having kept a keen eye on the costs over time and remaining vigilant with culling the redundant wares as we progress, they're still -cumulatively- extremely affordable on the grand scheme of things.
Yeah, this is a bit of an opinion piece, but I've tried to apply some reasoning and maybe it will be of benefit to others in a similar situation.
My overriding feeling currently, after creating and growing this business over the past 4.5yrs is that embracing a remote approach to building a business in modern times is perfectly viable and possibly the better option for many entrepreneurs. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for us, to date it has been a great model.
I hope this article was useful to you and if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me via our contact page and I'll do my best to help.