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Is Remote Work Really the Future?

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Let me start by saying that I am a huge advocate for remote work and have been working fully remote for the past 7 years.

I’ve also bootstrapped two successful companies (consulting, SaaS) with over 50 employees in a fully remote setting. Being remote was the single biggest factor in enabling me to be able to start these companies with zero capital on day one.

When I started the companies, remote was the only option.

I learned some hard lessons working exclusively from home. Like anything, there are two sides to every story and after reading about Facebook, Twitter, Shopify, and Google venturing into fully remote workforces, I felt like I needed to share my story and experience after almost a decade in remote work.

So, if you’re thinking about going fully remote or want to incorporate more remote work into your business, this article is for you. I’ve got the real scoop (not just rainbows and unicorns), and my hope is that it will show you what having a fully remote workforce is really like.

I don’t want this to be a debate on the positives of remote work (of which there are many), so let’s put some of the top ones on the table right up front:

  1. No time spent commuting = increased productivity
  2. Best way to build a team with amazing talent
  3. Cost savings — no office expenditures
  4. Best work-life balance for everyone involved
  5. Amazing way to build diversity into your workforce

But those are all pretty obvious, and there are already 25 million blog posts about them. Here is the stuff I’ve learned over the years that really takes some time to sink in — as well as some things you can do to help.

1. Not Everyone Is Built to Work From Home

Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s true. I find this is especially true for people who have worked in an office for their entire career. Can people change and adapt? Yes. But some do it better than others, and some simply cannot or do not want to adapt.

One of the first employees who ever quit our consulting company did so in large part because he felt isolated working remotely. He had just moved to a new city and did not have many social connections. In the past, he relied on work to help build out his social network and that simply was not possible in a remote setting.

If you’re in the position to be hiring for your remote company, the ideal candidates are those who have worked remotely before and actually enjoy or prefer it. In my experience, you’re rolling the dice when you hire someone who’s never worked from home before — you just never know.

Remote Hack: Provide flexible workspace memberships for those who crave social connection or don’t have a conducive workspace at home. Encourage people to work from a Starbucks (when they open again) to get that feeling of being around others.

2. You Need to Work Extra Hard to Build an Amazing Culture

It is definitely still possible to build an amazing culture remotely, however in my experience it is much more difficult to do so than when your team is co-located.

Last year, I had a fully remote company that never saw each other and one where we worked very closely together. There are a million factors that build a culture, but I do feel the company that was together often had a much better culture than the one that didn’t. I also noticed that the culture at the fully remote company improved when we saw each other in person more often — I think that definitely helped matters.

It is also VERY easy for toxic cultures to develop behind Slack DMs and one-on-one Zoom meetings in a remote office setting. Unlike in a physical office where you can witness and put a stop to these things quickly, they can happen undetected in a remote setting.

Remote Hack: If you’re fully remote, consider hosting regular, physical on-sites with your team, and put team-building and fun at the core of what you’re doing. We do this twice a year now. Everyone looks forward to it, and we come out a better and stronger team because of it.

3. It’s Easy for Everything to Be All About Work

One of the nice things about an office is that in a social setting, social practices are baked in. No normal person walks into the office in the morning and asks for a status update right off the bat. Small talk proceeds it, and it’s the kind of thing that allows people to express themselves and share personal stories.

When you’re fully remote, it’s easy to move from one Zoom meeting to the next and get right down to business. It’s also easy to work through lunches and miss the social connection that happens naturally in an office.

Remote Hack: Implement a virtual happy hour once a week to ensure it’s not all work 24/7. Be very intentional, and make sure they don’t become just another meeting.

4. Zoom Is Not a Great Forum to Get Personal

Zoom is a one-conversation-at-a-time system. Unlike going out to lunch or sitting in a boardroom, there are no side conversations (unless they’re happening on Slack), and you can’t go chat with the people in the office that you’re most comfortable with. This makes it harder for your team to express themselves and share anything personal, especially if they’re introverts, which makes it more difficult to make personal connections.

Remote Hack: Zoom has breakout rooms that help reduce the number of people you are speaking with at one time. This can facilitate greater connection within the company and help introverts come out of their shells.

5. There Is Less/No Separation Between Work & Life

It’s funny how the grass is always greener on the other side. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to step out of my office and be with my kids within 10 seconds of leaving my desk… but that can be challenging as well. One of the nice things about a commute is it allows you to leave work behind and mentally decompress before getting home .

It can be difficult to leave work at 5:00 PM, eat dinner at 5:01, and be present in the conversation instead of thinking about the deal you’re trying to win or the person you need to follow-up with.

Remote Hack: Honestly, I don’t really have a good one on this. Please let me know if you do.

So — things have changed in 2020. People are remote by necessity now, and there is a lot of uncertainty regarding what comes next. When can we go back to the office? Will people want to go back? Are we a better company now that we’re remote?

My feeling is that companies that worked together in an office before the pandemic were able to build strong cultures because they were together in one place. Doing that legwork in the past has helped them now that they’re temporarily remote. However, this effect will not last forever. You must continue to nurture that culture to keep it strong.

I believe the companies that will be strongest in the future are those that will continue to embrace and support remote work while still maintaining a physical, co-located component of some kind.

At Knak, we’re going to experiment with a hybrid model. For any of our employees in Ottawa, the office will be open on certain days, and we’ll encourage people to come in. We will also continue to hire remote candidates (outside of Ottawa) if they are the best person for the job, and we’ll make them feel welcome – like part of the team – with our on-sites.

No one knows what the future holds, but human beings crave human interaction, and I don’t think technology will ever be able to replace the real thing. The question is, how will you satisfy that craving for your team?

Pierce Ujjainwalla has years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, and marketing leader. He has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo, and he launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. Visit his personal blog, Modern Marketer, for more of the insight he’s gained as founder and CEO of Knak.

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