The Tricks and Secrets to Mastering a Remote Workforce
Robert Glazer didn’t set out to build a 100 percent remote workforce. But in 2007, while forming his company, Acceleration Partners, he realized two things: One, fierce competition in hubs like New York and San Francisco had driven the salaries of even less-desirable candidates through the roof; and two, there was untapped talent in Acceleration’s niche field of affiliate marketing across the country.
So Glazer began figuring out how to run a company flexible enough to hire workers who could work remotely. Back then, this was a rarity. Telecommuting was a concession you might make to individual workers, not a corporate strategy. There were few established protocols for making it work as well as, if not better than, a centralized workplace. So Glazer had to figure them out as he went along.
Ten years in, Acceleration has grown an average of 30 percent a year, while piling up accolades for its workplace culture from the likes of Glassdoor, AdAge, Forbes and The Boston Globe. Glazer sees his company’s flexible work policy not as a handicap that it has overcome but a key driver of its success.
These days remote work has entered the business mainstream, with about 43 percent of the U.S. workforce occasionally doing their jobs from outside the confines of a corporate office. While some large employers like IBM, Bank of America, Aetna and Yahoo made headlines in recent years for ending or scaling back their telecommuting programs, the number of remote-first startups has surged. Acceleration Partners is one of more than 170 fully remote companies with 20 or more employees in the U.S. today, up from 26 in 2014, according to FlexJobs, an online platform specializing in remote and flexible employment. So, what can entrepreneurs learn from the companies that have made remote work work?
In Glazer’s case, it starts with hiring. “I think there’s a misperception that anyone can work remotely,” he says, “but we’ve figured out how to screen from the 200 to the one who can.” Acceleration looks for specific attributes in a new hire: Has the person worked remotely before? Is she a voracious learner? Is she an independent decision-maker?
Typically, Acceleration likes to see candidates who gravitate to telecommuting to enable their life’s other passions, like travel, triathlons or parenting -- rather than those looking for a more relaxed pace of life. This makes for a more fulfilling life for his employee, and a more energized member of his company.
Still, structure is a necessity. While geography and business hours at Acceleration are flexible, the company ensures results by keeping performance goals rigid. Managers track output and customer satisfaction rather than hours. An “accountability chart” lists each employee’s top five responsibilities, and each quarter, every employee sets personal performance goals based on the company’s quarterly targets. Progress is reviewed when the three months are up. The company’s financials are also open-book, so anyone can see how anyone else measures up in terms of the bottom line.
The strategy has also allowed Acceleration to close the gender gap by tapping into a pool of talented, driven women looking to balance careers with family. Women make up 80 percent of Acceleration’s workforce, with about an equal proportion holding management roles.
Acceleration Partners isn’t the only startup to have achieved enviable productivity and growth through a distributed workforce. Toptal, which runs a network of elite freelance software developers and designers, has grown to a few hundred global full-time employees since its founding in 2010. It chose the structure to reach the best talent available.
“In the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, between trying to get top-quality engineers and renting office space, you’d burn through your seed money in a couple of months,” says Rajeev Jeyakumar, Toptal’s former vice president of business talent. Rather than relax its standards, Toptal decided to mine less-competitive markets.
Jeyakumar says that getting the right digital tools in place to enable remote collaboration has been critical to Toptal’s success. It’s nothing exotic: The company uses Slack for informal communications, Google Drive for collaborative projects, Zoom for videoconference calls and an online platform called Wrike for project management. Onboarding new employees always involves making sure they have their tools set up properly and know how to use them.
There are also behavioral and cultural norms around remote work that everyone has to adhere to, Jeyakumar says. For instance, Toptal has a naming convention for Slack groups to keep things organized, and video is encouraged to be turned on during conference calls so that team members can see each others’ faces. “I’ve worked remotely in previous jobs and felt like a second-class employee,” Jeyakumar says. “There’s a lot of stuff you miss out on, because not everyone is thinking about remote colleagues.” He says that the organization recognizes that some in-person contact is critical for relationship building, which is why the money Toptal saves on office space is funneled into team retreats -- including a recent one to Mexico.
With the right systems in place, remote companies have proven themselves capable of maturing successfully into large, complex organizations.
Automattic, the parent company of the website platform WordPress.com, is a kind of senior citizen in the remote workspace, having operated a distributed workforce since 2005. The company has grown to more than 774 employees in 67 countries. As at Toptal, Automattic leans on digital collaboration tools -- teams use a series of internal blogs to communicate, as well as Slack, Trello and Mural -- and the whole company gathers annually for a weeklong meetup. Automattic has also learned that it can be hard to predict who will work well in a remote culture. So every new hire starts on a trial system, during which candidates work on contract for a few weeks.
All that being said, does a company need to have remote work in its DNA to be truly successful with telecommuting? Bradford Bell, associate professor of HR studies and director of industrial and labor relations executive education at Cornell University, doesn’t think so. While recent research shows that having a higher percentage of employees in a team working remotely does lead to better overall outcomes with telecommuting, there are two things that any company can do to improve the chances of getting the most out of distributed workers.
“Companies that are really successful with remote work are very thoughtful about who should be remote working -- how good a fit are they personally, what jobs are a good fit and lots of analysis,” Bell says. That means putting a formal process in place to evaluate requests to work out of the office, and setting up parameters when it comes to things like where the work will happen and how collaboration takes place.
Another huge determinant of success or failure: leadership buy-in. Bell says that having leaders and managers who believe it’s possible to be productive outside an office -- and who do some of their work outside themselves -- can make a big difference in the organization’s ability to incorporate remote work. Many, Bell says, agree to the setup to try to retain a valuable employee but believe deep down that “working at home” means not working at all. That’s not a recipe for success. “A belief that the employee can’t contribute in the same way will be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Bell.