The no-office movement is gathering momentum. More and more companies are abandoning their physical premises and going fully remote.
San Franciscan tech firms Automattic and GitLab have been prominent pioneers of the approach. They pride themselves on their globally distributed organisations, empowering employees to live and work anywhere they like.
‘Globally distributed’ has come to define what many believe is the workforce of the future: mainly remote and spread across several time zones, ensuring round-the-clock productivity and availability to customers and clients.
Distributed businesses do not coordinate team members around a specific time zone. Instead, they use asynchronous communication (async). It means replacing inefficient real-time meetings with collaboration tools and collaboration tools and transparent audio/video recording and documentation. This enables employees in different time zones to work together effectively without having to be ‘always on’.
Experts in this field expect the increasing adoption of async collaboration to have a big impact on employers and employees over the next few years. One of them is Betsy Bula, who works in Raleigh, North Carolina, as GitLab’s all-remote evangelist. She believes that, while many firms operating remote and hybrid teams are biased towards one time zone at present, they will start hiring the best people for the job, regardless of location, as their asynchronous practices mature.
This change will improve employees’ opportunities and work/life balance, according to Bula, who believes that employers will benefit in several respects. The fully distributed model enables them to find talent wherever it exists, thereby improving their diversity, for instance. It will also help them to become more agile, innovative and resilient in times of crisis.
Working from her base in Glasgow, Nicola Hamill Phillips is Automattic’s global HR leader. She believes that there is “a misconception that running a distributed team is challenging. Having people all over the world enriches our decision-making. We find that our team members, with the flexibility they have, can be more productive and lead more fulfilling lives. That’s one reason I love it so much – I’m drinking the Kool-Aid.”
But the globally distributed model is not without its disadvantages, even for organisations that have been using it from the start.
Bula points out that the warning signs of excess stress can be harder for managers to detect among a distributed team, for instance. Business leaders therefore need to cultivate an open, non-judgemental culture when it comes to protecting employees’ mental health. They must encourage people who are struggling not to soldier on without telling anyone.
“Managers should not celebrate working long hours or allow that to become the norm,” she says. “They should be trained in how to prevent burnout.”
But the biggest difficulties concern communication.
Bula explains: “When working async and relying on written communication, workers may feel disconnected because they’re not getting enough social face time with their colleagues. A written message can be misconstrued or fail to give the recipient all the information they require to act on them.”
GitLab and other distributed firms counteract these problems with a range of methods designed to ensure that their people always feel connected and included.
Two crucial aspects of supporting distributed workforces are intentionality and transparency. In a conventional central office, face-to-face interactions happen naturally. In a distributed team, you must actively promote informal communications that build camaraderie.
At GitLab, for instance, new recruits are encouraged from day one to make time for social interactions to get to know colleagues outside their immediate team.
Hamill Phillips says that intentionality is also about ensuring that everyone is included in decisions. Everything should be documented transparently to promote inclusion.
“Another benefit of this is that people feel messages aren’t being filtered by management,” she says. “They can see the original information for themselves.”
The all-remote, globally distributed model doesn’t preclude employees from meeting each other in the flesh. Instead of convening in an office, they will travel to convention centres or other suitable venues to participate in summits and local co-working days.
HR services provider Growmotely has a team of 22 employees who are based in countries ranging from South Africa to the Philippines. Based in Austin, Texas, Sarah Hawley is the firm’s founder and CEO.
“We work completely async, except for one all-company meeting a month. This gives everyone the freedom to work and live in the most effective ways,” she says. “We don’t often get to see each other in person, but I’m currently sharing an Airbnb in Croatia with five of my Europe-based teammates, which is fun. My early challenges with async concerned unwinding my conditioned beliefs about work needing to be done in a fixed place from nine to five. Once I let those go, I could discover how and where I work best. My quality of life increased exponentially after that.”
For firms with a globally distributed workforce, establishing a strong culture and set of shared values becomes critical.
Bula says that there should be no unwritten rules in a remote culture. Leaders should demonstrate the values they want everyone to share, advocating transparency, flexibility and a work/life balance that’s good for people’s mental wellbeing, she adds.
Hugo Stride is co-founder and MD of marketing agency Opus Growth Partners, which has team members in the UK, the US and Ukraine. One of the biggest hurdles he’s faced in building a distributed model has been developing a cohesive organisational culture without the unifying experiences of in-person working.
“There is less scope for the safe correction of misunderstandings between peers, which is built into an office environment,” he notes. “This can be mitigated to an extent with clear guidance and regular informal communications. But we are increasingly devoting time and effort to replicating the intangible benefits our team would get from a centralised office.”
Katy Peters, global head of marketing at technology firm Valamis, works in the US while most of her team is in Europe. She describes that arrangement as a “boundary-setting superpower” that enables her to work half of each day without distraction. But differing cultural expectations about the time people spend both at work and off work can sometimes “fall unevenly on cultures that don’t set boundaries”. For instance, US clients have different expectations of summer holidays than, say, Finnish clients.
Another potential problem is that in-person teams tend to be “tighter” than remote work teams, Peters adds. “This factor can widen cultural gaps and create issues with your global sense of belonging.”
The transition to remote work tends to be more straightforward for a knowledge-based business in the service sector, but firms in traditionally co-located industries can adopt the model at least partially. For instance, a manufacturing company may always need some people working together at a certain production site, but staff in other departments, such as HR and marketing, can operate anywhere.
But even some tech companies that are adopting the distributed model aren’t convinced that they will ever go fully remote. For example, New York firm Stack Overflow has increased the proportion of remote employees in its workforce from 40% to 85% across 14 countries since the pandemic started.
But CEO Prashanth Chandrasekar, who’s based in San Antonio, Texas, observes that not all employees want to work at home.
“When we surveyed employees last year, we found that some were craving office space, while others loved their work-from-home set-up,” he reports. “Also, what works well for a sales team may be different for an engineering team.”
Variations in employment law and tax regulation are other common challenges for firms to consider when building globally distributed teams.
Pieter Manden, head of trust and employer compliance at WorkMotion, says: “Hiring and employing people in a country where you have no physical presence is difficult. For example, how do you determine a competitive offer in that country? You will probably also have to find a lawyer, payroll company, accountant and banker. It is possible, but it’s probably not worthwhile if you’re hiring only one person.”
But proponents of the model believe that overcoming such challenges is worth the effort, given the benefits of globally distributed all-remote working. Uptake looks set to grow as companies have to cast their nets more widely to find the skills they need. If they get their way, it could even become the norm.