What The Industry Is Learning About Remote Teams

"Commuting to office work is obsolete. It is now infinitely easier, cheaper, and faster to...move information...to where the people are," said Peter Drucker. In 1989.

I'm not an expert on remote work, so I'll leave that to others. But I do have a few thoughts about how it applies to this industry. This article is for those of you who are just now experimenting with remote work and have some policy decisions in front of you. I'll bullet-point this to make it easier to skim.

What's Been Happening

  • Remote work isn't the same thing as working in your house temporarily. The challenge of recent times is that people couldn't leave and go to cafes or shared workspaces, and so they were trapped in their homes, unable to enjoy some variety. I've spoken regularly with people who were in closets and bedrooms.
  • More important, they were working alone instead of with other humans. That's a recipe for soulless isolation, though of course some folks enjoy isolation more than others.
  • The increased productivity gains might not be a permanent feature of this. Some of it comes from worker paranoia that the less productive of them might face dismissal, but most of it is probably time spent working that would previously have been spent commuting. Fewer interruptions work interruptions certainly help, but family interruptions might very well level the playing field. I don't think counting on higher productivity is a good plan, though. Any time saved should be spent living, not working more.
  • Your control freak tendencies have been unfounded, as it turns out. That's good! It all hinges on the sort of people you have, of course: self-motivated, diligent, and fully engaged. It's okay to trust more.

Your Facility Investment

All of the above should have an impact on what you decide about your facility. There are so many factors that only you will be aware of, but there are some general principles that'll help you decide what's next:

  • Don't sign any long leases. The era of a 10-15 year lease should never return. I don't care if you're in NYC or Effingham, IL.
  • Whatever facility you do invest in should be easily adaptable to many other adjacent industries: insurance, legal, accounting, architecture, consulting, counseling, coaching. The idea is that it shouldn't be so specific to you and your firm that nobody else would want to work there. Some of you have invested way too much in leasehold improvements that no one will reimburse you for down the road. The only exception I would make is for those expenses that are covered by a TIA (tenant improvement allowance).
  • Where possible, think about multiple entrances or a shared entrance so that you can more easily subdivide it. Retain whatever flexibility you can.
  • Bargain like crazy. There are many landlords willing to deal, and many lessees who would be glad for you to take over even a portion of their monthly obligation.
  • Deciding on whether to embrace your facility again or remain remote shouldn't be a financial decision. Any money you save on facility (typically 6% of your AGI) should be redirected to getting people together regularly, facilitating the experience for the team, etc.
  • Finally, uncouple your decision about using a building from your ownership of a building. Just because you own it (always in a separate corporation) doesn't mean you have to use it. Way more principals get rich from selling their building down the road than from selling their firm.

Different Staffing Approach

If permanent remote workers are newer to your firm, you'll need a new approach to people. That may be job no. 1, even, until the new reality sinks in.

  • You'll have a different approach to recruiting, screening, training, and managing. It can be pretty exciting to shake things up and explore a new approach.
  • Your recruiting area is no longer determined by commuting time but by adjacent time zone. If you need to expand your software engineering firm, why not Colombia or South Africa? More and more of my clients have prominent locations in different countries. The more successful have an equity principal in each place, too, which has implications for the partnership. Regardless, there is now a worldwide competition for talent and there are fewer geographic moats to protect your interests. Remote work is leveling the employment field like Google leveled the commerce world.
  • This is actually going to shine a light on how you solve problems. Is it throwing smart people into empty pools and hope they invent water on the way down? Or is it more along a prescribed path with a roadmap? The latter will be a lot easier to implement in a distributed team.

Long-Term Unknowns

Some firms have been working remotely for a decade, but the rest of you are still thinking through the long term implications. There are three things to watch, especially, as you develop your own policy around people and place:

  • How will you incorporate new people and help them absorb the fabric of your culture if everyone is remote? This is going to get easier as more and more team members come to you with successful experience working remotely, of course, but it will take 3-4 years before we've fully adapted.
  • How will innovation replace those conversations in the hallways and impromptu exchanges in the lunchroom? Or going out for a drink after work waiting for the commute traffic to thin? Here I think an important substitute might be rubbing shoulders with other remote workers in shared workspace environments. Your team members might not be rubbing shoulders with each other, but maybe rubbing shoulders with employees from other companies might even enhance your problem solving! We get dumb when we're alone, according to a report out last month.
  • Career paths might begin to favor present employees rather than remote employees, and that'll be something to account for. If you'll favor career advancement for a local employee, that should be acknowledged publicly. I'm not sure there's a right and a wrong on this topic, but the team deserves to know how you think. This extends to a layoff: will it be easier to dismiss someone if you don't look in their eyes every day, and might not run into them around town?

We're about to learn more about ourselves and each other. It's an exciting time to see what we'll learn from these new constraints. At the moment I would not want to be a landlord in a major city, but I would be excited about how to make my team stronger without countering the things that I think are important.

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