Remote hiring and working – the good and bad

37Signals will be releasing its new book Remote in the Fall and the marketing machine for it is starting up. I wanted to write this post to point out a few reasons why my company Ballistiq started out as a remote company and we are finally moving into an office.

Before you wave your pitchforks…

37Signals has been a guiding light for me and my company Ballistiq. I love using Ruby on Rails and we are heavy users of Basecamp. I went to Railsconf this year and am actively part of the Ruby community. At Ballistiq modeled ourselves after 37Signals, doing consulting first to get cashflow in and we are slowly working on products. We are ruthlessly pragmatic.

I’ve been remote working for 3 years now. First as a freelance developer and the last 2 years as a founder of a company that worked remotely. My first company CGSociety founded in 2001 was a home-based company launched from my bedroom that became a million dollar business. I know how to work from home and be successful!

Remote working – The good

If you are disciplined, you can be very productive

The single biggest plus side to working from home is that I can actually be more productive and creative. As a developer, I enjoy being able to close the door to my home office, turn my phone off and just hammer away at a project until it is done. I don’t need to talk to other people. I’m a one man army. Stuff gets done.

No commuting

Without commuting, I can get up a bit later. My body automatically wakes me up a 7:30am. When I have to commute, I have to get up at 6:00am just to be able to do everything and get on a bus to get into work downtown by 8:45am.

I get to see my son

I have an 8 month old boy and it’s so nice to be able to come out of my home office and give him a hug while getting a coffee, then going back to work.

I get the best ideas

Most of my best ideas are when I am in and around home. I live next to a beautiful wooded area where I would walk my dog at lunch time and these times gave me the best ideas ever. When you are in an office, your breaks are generally with colleagues so you don’t get those quiet moments to just think and be.

Remote working – The bad

Work and life become a blur

People will give you all kinds of strategies to stop this. They will tell you to have a home office where you can close your door, etc. I think it totally depends on your personality. If you can switch contexts very easily and keep work and home life separate, more power to you! However I’m not like that. I am a personality that is eager to please people (i.e. clients, employers) so I will work my butt off to get a project done.

This has become a really big problem for me recently. The problem is not with time management. I can stop work at 5pm sharp. The problem is with switching contexts from being Leo at work to being Dad at home.

Before my son was born, working from home was totally fine. But now, I actually don’t want to have anything to do with work at home.

Business is a dog eat dog world and I don’t need that at home

Let’s face it. Business is ruthless. In the last few months I’ve experienced some really demanding clients and projects that have made me lose sleep. There are also relationship issues with your colleagues and your clients. It’s all fine and rosy when things are going well. But I realized this last little while that I was carrying these things with me well into the evening working from home.

When I was working in an office, work just stayed at the office. I rarely opened my computer at home. My employer got me a cellphone and I only ever turned it on when I was traveling for the company.

Remote working from a business perspective – The good

It’s cheaper for startups

As a startup, it’s really had to get an office anyway, so why bother? If you’re a 3 person startup, chances are that you only need a few hundred square feet and most offices start > 2500sq ft. Furthermore, most offices want you to sign a 3 year lease which is ridiculous for a startup.

So we started as a remote company. We used a service called Regus which gave us a real office to use for a few days a month plus a permanent mailing address. So our Regus office is our headquarters and address that we use for everything. That way when a client uses Google Maps to locate us they see our fancy Regus office, not my basement.

It’s great for soloists

For people who are self-starters and able to manage themselves, remote working is awesome. These people are plug and play and you trust them to do their jobs well.

Your hiring pool is larger (kind of)

When you hire remotely, you have access to a much larger pool of talent as you’re not tied to geography. As Ballistiq is a remote company, we have hired people globally. However, this is a double edged sword and it’s not as rosy as 37Signals and other proponents of remote hiring make it out to be.

  1. There are laws that prevent this kind of thing. As we found out, there is a very fine line between hiring an employee and a contractor. If you are hiring overseas, you generally cannot hire employees. See, US companies enjoy a large population pool so they can hire people from all over the same country so “remote hiring” is somewhat easier. In Canada, we had a lot of trouble hiring full time designers and developers. So much so that we’ve had no choice but to hire overseas contractors.

  2. Hiring contractors means that you can’t give them benefits. To my point above, if you are hiring overseas you cannot hire employees, so you end up having to hire them as contractors which means that you can’t give them a benefits plan. This severely limits your pool of talent again because you’re basically left with only hiring freelance consultants who have day jobs and are moonlighting for you, or companies who have that kind of infrastructure to pay their staff salaries and benefits. That said, there are many newbies to the industry are eager to prove themselves at low contracting rates that don’t cover their own insurance (I was one of them and I got ripped off by many clients). We wise up very quickly and either get a real job or set our rates much higher.

  3. Even hiring interstate brings up all kinds of tax issues. As we found, even hiring between states/provinces is a royal pain. Tax rates are different. Provincial/state laws are different. So you have to get both an accountant and a lawyer to figure this stuff out for you. And not all employees are happy with these laws as some end up getting shafted. In Canada if you are in Ontario working for a Quebec company, you have to pay Quebec taxes (which are higher), then claim back the extra tax you pay at the end of the year. That’s bollocks legislation if you ask me.

Remote working from a business perspective – The bad

The bottom line is that it’s harder to work with people.

Less Real-time collaboration

It’s true that there are all kinds of real-time collaborative tools like Skype IM, Campfire, etc. We rely on these tools a lot.

The problem is that a) not everyone likes them and b) they are a nuisance and distraction when you want to be in the zone.

My own Skype status is almost always set to “Do not disturb”.

It’s harder to manage people

37Signals will tell you to trust your employees and treat them like adults. i.e. don’t manage them.

We tried that and it only goes so far. I’m not saying that we should micro-manage people. I’m saying that when you have complex client projects with tight deadlines, you need people to be on the ball and you need to be able to make quick decisions all the time.

Also, some people just need to be managed. They need clear priorities, deadlines and hand holding. Many startups now post job descriptions for people who are “self-starters”. But I ask you this, why should a self starter who knows what he/she’s doing work for you? Self starters are more likely to just start their own business than work for you.

So there are remote collaboration tools to help manage people. Again. Not so simple. There are some people who really appreciate having tools like Basecamp and Pivotal Tracker where tasks and due dates are clearly defined. Then we have others who even if you set these tools up will not use them. You can force them to, but they just won’t use them.

When people are working together in the same place, there’s not just management accountability, but group accountability as well. If there is a group of developers and there’s one developer who is not as efficient, there is an inherent peer pressure on that person to step up their game.

That doesn’t happen remotely. In a remote team, I can give the same task to 2 people. One will do it in 2 hours, the other in 20 minutes. I ask the first why it took so long and he says, “Oh it was complex.” If that happened on-site, he could have gotten help from another developer or by just yelling “Argh this is more complex than I thought!” someone would have just come around and helped him.

Lack of a “company culture”

I know some of you are already rolling your eyes at this. But this is important. When stuff happens in an office, the vibe of the situation rubs off through osmosis. If you are working on a startup, people can feel the enthusiasm and it drives each other on. When you’re working remotely, this doesn’t happen. In fact, the opposite can happen. I am generally an excitable person. The problem is that with a remote team, that excitement/enthusiasm is not carried through. So many good ideas have just been killed by getting onto a call and seeing my colleagues oblivious to why I’m excited by a particular feature.

It’s not as good for creative collaboration

If you are working on a really tough problem – like a new app or product that is reasonable in complexity so that it requires several different people, it really is much better to work together in the same room.

We’ve tackled a few larger projects now remotely and it is so much harder to do than to just put everyone in a room and figure it out together.

You don’t get osmosis

People talk about the office being distracting. It doesn’t have to be. I’ve worked at places where I had part of a desk and was seated in a pit with other developers. You know what? It was fine. Your brain figures out how to tune in and tune out to stuff happening around you.

The benefit about this is that when there’s something going on, I can tune into that momentarily and acknowledge in my mind that that’s happening. E.g. a project team launches a new site. Woohoo! I can share in that joy momentarily then go back to my work.

There’s less sharing of knowledge

I have learned so much from just sitting next to or watching over the shoulder of other developers working. Yes, we have remote tools like Screenhero to do this now and yes, I do use Screenhero for pair programming. But it’s not the same. When you’re in the office and you’re trying to figure out something, it’s just easier when there are others around to banter ideas with.

The thing about sharing knowledge is that it’s not about better training or getting a senior developer to show you how. Most developers are smart enough to be able to research stuff and figure it out themselves. Almost all the time, all I need is just an idea. E.g. “Why are you writing your own authentication man, just use Devise!” I Google Devise. Holy cow this saves me lot’s of time! This is the kind of useful banter that increases productivity and knowledge sharing.

It’s harder to read people

We use video conferencing at Ballistiq heavily. All our Skype is over video and we use GoToMeeting for our meetings with more than 2 people. That’s great for meetings. But an ongoing issue is when you have colleagues who may be struggling (or not) and you just can’t read them. When someone’s having a shitty day at the office, you can generally tell if you’re there with them. When someone’s having a shitty day in their remote location, you can’t tell. So when stuff happens like a deadline is missed, you can’t tell at all what’s been going on.

Remember, we’re working with humans here. Humans are emotional and it’s important to be able to read each other to be able to work more effectively with each other.

We’re moving into an office

So there’s some of my thoughts about remote working. After remote working for 3 years, I’ve decided for a bit of a change again and going to work. I’ll still be working from home when I need but I’m looking forward to being able to leave work at work and being Dad at home.


Remote image by Gitsh.

  • Dru

    Hi LeonardTeo, Thanks for such good advices.but as you are a expereinced ruby on rails developer.can you please give a session on learning ruby on rails? and good resources for learning it?

  • Nice post Leo! I would agree with about 90% of your reasons, but would consider to stay working remotely as for me good ones prevail over the bad ones.

  • Blue Commuter

    Leo,

    Thank you very much for talking about this subject! I give you high marks for being honest, and at least allowing your employees the option of working from home when it makes personal or business sense to do so.

    I’m frustrated when people reason away the things that make their employees more productive and more creative (ie. the freedom of working from home) by lumping everyone into the same boat, and making the mistaken assumption that “collaboration” and “knowledge sharing”, especially face-to-face, is a constant requirement in everyone’s daily work life. It isn’t! Can people not recognize that for some jobs, and for some people, it is actually detrimental?

    You state two reasons why working from home is bad personally: 1) Work and life become a blur, and 2) business is a dog eat dog world and I don’t need that at home. I submit to you that is because you are the OWNER of the business. Many of your own employees would not have either of those issues. I never did. You need to make that distinction.

    You state several reasons why working from home is bad business-wise. Many of the points you make are valid, but you have made them sound absolute, like blanket statements, and I fear they may be taken the wrong way.

    1) It’s harder to manage people — This is a Grade A myth. The company I work for outlawed telecommuting a year ago, largely for this reason. It makes them FEEL better that everyone is in the office every day. The irony of the situation is that they have no better idea what everyone does every day than they did before. Because someone is “in the office” does that mean they are being more productive and/or creative than they would be at home? Depending on the job and/or the person, I’d say there’s a very good chance the answer is no.There are even more distractions here than at home. No one notices the extra-long lunches or smoke breaks. When my colleague leaves her desk, I cannot tell if she’s going to the washroom or dodging downstairs to shop or call her kids on her cell phone in the hallway. No one knows, but no one cares because
    they’re “in the office”. When it comes to managing projects, it’s no different — someone who “needs to be managed” can be herded or goaded into completing their tasks on time whether they’re in the office or at home. It only makes you FEEL like you’re managing them when they’re right there in front of you. It reminds me of that great Dilbert strip:

    Boss: I can’t let you telecommute because then I wouldn’t be able to manage you.
    Dilbert: You’re managing me right now, and all it’s doing is preventing me from working.
    Boss: And your point would be…?
    Dilbert: Just beyond your grasp.

    2) It’s not as good for creative collaboration — Like I said above, to make that statement you first have to assume that collaboration is a large part of everyone’s daily job description. Sorry, it isn’t. I’m the first one to pump up the benefits of face-to-face meetings for critical stuff. I’m a big believer in the benefits of, like you say, being able to “read” people. But, be honest here, even for “collaborative” jobs, how much of it is so critical that a phone call or email can’t suffice? My company also used this as an excuse. But, in the Marketing department where I work, 80% of the staff are on the road all the time so how does forced proximity improve collaboration in our case? It doesn’t. It’s been detrimental. For the rest of us, especially us creative types, it has meant nothing but stifled creativity, lower productivity, exhaustion and plummeting morale. So, sure collaboration would not be as good if no one was ever in the office together — but does that mean the more time in the office the greater the collaboration? No!

    3) Lack of company “culture”, and, You don’t get osmosis — Sure, but you don’t get that just by everyone being “together”. To create a positive vibe that you would even WANT to pick up by osmosis requires very happy employees. If it doesn’t make PERSONAL sense for someone to be in the office, they will not be happy. Period. When will companies realize that if employees’ personal lives are respected and valued, their company will prosper, not the other way around? If you seriously believe that your employees cannot pick up your enthusiasm unless they are looking at you, well…that just sounds vain. Sorry. You can be as excited and enthusiastic about ideas and products as you can possibly be, but if you’re not first excited and enthusiastic about your employees, you will never have the “culture” you so much want to have.

    4) There’s less sharing of knowledge — Debatable. Depends on the type of job you’re talking about. During the time someone is working on a task/project where they are “in the zone” or in a creative flow, their needs do not include knowledge sharing or knowledge transfer. What they absolutely do need is peace and quiet or solitude, an environment that’s conducive to them being productive and/or creative, like working from home. When they’re done, and back in the office, then, by all means, up
    with knowledge sharing! Even then, I think you underestimate the amount of knowledge sharing that goes on by email or messaging, even using similar examples to yours.

    Full disclosure: I work for a Montreal software company who no longer allows telecommuting. My job is ideally suited for working from home, even if you don’t take into consideration the 4-5 hours a day it now takes me to get to work and back. It’s a sensitive topic. 🙂

    Thanks for listening, and never, ever force your employees to be in the office all the time. If it makes personal sense for them to work from home, it will make business sense for your company in the long run.

    • leonardteo

      These are really good points. Since writing this, I’ve definitely become a lot more relaxed about how I feel about working at the office but we do both at Ballistiq and it’s working really well. We have staff that are remote but we also have a “home base”. Having that home base has really helped for many reasons. Before we were a fully remote company.

      We have some staff who would much rather work from the office, but appreciate the flexibility to be able to work from anywhere. Our expectation is generally that you “show your face” once a week and that seems to be working.

      I appreciate the really well written and thought out response. 🙂 Wishing you all the best in finding a good working arrangement for yourself!

      Leo

  • leo

    Excellent post, I have a startup described line by line in this post. We’re facing exactly the same challenges you mention as a company (like the company culture) , as for our own remote work experience. How did you manage with getting all the people to work in an office? Do you still have remote working people? Regards and congratulations!