I just read John Doherty’s post on don’t hire remote workers. From the title alone I was rubbing my hands saying YES! THIS! Then I read it and was a little disappointed (but pumped that it inspired me to write this post). John I LOVE ya buddy but I was hoping the piece could have more smack us in the virtual face PUNCH!!! But I also appreicate you taking a more balanced approach than I did and I learned a lot from it.
But my friends is I am not here to play it safe, I’m going to piss some of you off because I try HARD to not hire remote workers (as full time staff) and have fought it for 8 years … as SEER moves into our next phases, we will have remote offices and it will be great for me to revisit this post then and maybe see how wrong I was, but even as we expand I need new offices to start with people who have been at SEER for ages and I have seen how they make decisions / treat their co-workers when no one is looking, it tells you about character in ways that interviews do not.
But my friends I also need your consulting / advice - which is how do you humanize those who are remote and assimilate them into a culture? How did it for you?
For all of you who are going to get pissed off by this, I am only speaking from what little I know, I’m no company guru, just a guy with strong opinions and a track record of extremely strong employee retention. I have only run one company in my life, and its been a marketing agency. So for me this is more about agency life, but might spill over into other things too.
I am a culture junkie, culture is about a company wide belief system and that belief system influences what you will become and who will be attracted to your company. Here are the reasons why I think companies with remote workers may have a harder time building culture and why that is a threat to their businesses:
#1 - I can not high five you over GCHAT
Seriously, I can say great job on IM or email, I can even call you up and say great job, but for me I like to give high fives, I like to give VERY vocal kudos. I want people around the company to say WTF did “Mark/Ethan/Rachael” do that got Wil up out of his chair to go high five him, or go over with a huge smile on his face. People will hear me scream out YESSSSSS, then I launch out of my seat and go over to someone and say “thats what I am talking about, great stuff”. How can I help take this to the next level? What resources do you need?
Lets talk about what this communicates: People are reminded that they work at a company that praises great work, if we are all remote, it has less impact if shared company wide via an email. People are competitive, they should be thinking, hey I haven’t done anything that got Wil that excited, I need to step up my game, them stepping up their game makes life better for us and for our clients.
Remote workers, ask yourselves when is the last time you got a high five from the boss that everyone else in the company knew? Was it done via email (which is fine). Answer in the comments below, your answers will help me as we have remote offices learn how to do the virtual high fives.
#2 - People can more easily be seen as human capital, or human assets not PEOPLE
If you and I only really know each other via skype chats and emails, you are a conduit to me. Most of our interactions are about what you need from me or what I need from you.
You are someone who helps get something I need done. You are a cost for which I am trying to maximize my return. You are less humanized, I am not saying its impossible, but its harder to humanize someone you’ve never met. We have all had that client or vendor who we just had hard times connecting with, but once we met face to face it all got worked out right? The minute you are not part of the team dynamic, the hi-fives, the bigger than me mentality, the small things you see people do for one another, the easier it is to just be a “worker” to your co-workers.
On my vacation (its raining here and I figured I’d write a blog post) I have finalized something that I have thought of for years and it requires SEER people to take three of the open boxes on their cubes and put 1 item in each box that tells everyone who visits their cube what they are working towards. One is a short term goal (maybe its take my daughter to kiddie yoga 3x a week), another will be a long term goal (teach a college class) and the last will be a company goal (retain 100% of my clients, blog 2x a month). What that does for us is HUMANIZE people. No one at SEER will be “human capital” to anyone else on my watch. People will be mothers, fathers, girlfriends, sons and daughters, AND co-workers, they will be PEOPLE who have dreams (short term and long term), I want to know what those dreams are, remind them that I know about those dreams, and that I am working my ass off to help them achieve them, if they are doing great work. It means that every time I go to anyone’s desk at SEER I (and everyone else who visits) will always be reminded that they are humans with hopes and dreams, not a person who just gets me reports or works on projects.
#3 - No one sees “little things” and the “little things” are what gives companies character
When you have a group of people together in one room, working toward similar goals there is a mutual concern those people should have for one another’s well being. That mutual concern comes from being close to people. It comes from walking a female co-worker to her car at night, attending a co-workers family funeral, going to a concert with 6 of your team members, ATTENDING a co-workers fundraiser for a friends sick child, meeting a co-workers husband or wife or new boy toy or asking a co-worker about their sibling in Iraq. In other words, I walk the FREAKING walk, or at least I try to. I hope to GOD that people seeing me do those things makes it that much easier when a recruiter calls in to say you know what I am going to stay put, I work at a company that cares about me, my professional growth, my family and my dreams. I hope that everyone on this team knows I try my hardest to make time for them to find out about who they are, what their goals are and what makes them tick. I recently met with Crystal (who runs one of our divisions) about the amazing job one of her team members had been doing, we brainstormed what could we get for her that would tell her “we listen”. We got her an autographed mini-helmet of her favorite Penn State football player, how did I know who that was? Probably some “free drinks on the company” night - that doesn’t happen remote. Lets all grab drinks over skype sounds unappealing.
Its challenging to continue to know people at this depth as we grow, but I am up for the challenge and am adjusting my schedule and making changes in how we do things to make sure I do. What does this also mean? It means this company is building a legacy…my team leaders know what I’ve tried to do to know about them as people, and now when I am long gone and those leaders are running the show, they will know that to live the “SEER way” means taking time to learn about who is on your team and what makes them tick.
Ryan (Fontana) how are we gonna get you to see RHCP on tour this year?
But seriously its the little things, its buying Katy Perry tickets for people (yes we did that too). I think that people appreciate the fact that in spite of my busy schedule I find time (when I can) to ask these things.
#4 - Being close means getting to see your boss’s beliefs battle tested day in day out.
So, people have heard on few occasions me having very tough conversations, ones sometimes I wish people didn’t have to hear. Be they with clients, co-workers, advisers, vendors, where I am backed in a corner and have to react/make a tough decision that I’d prefer not to. They heard that because they where THERE - they were there to hear how I’ve dealt with the WORST advice I was ever given by an adviser, or how I deal with a client who is not being fair, or how I deal with tough financial decisions or a scheduling conflict between a volunteer effort and a business meeting. That empowers them to know what it means to be a “SEER” person, its about integrity. Again, I hope that when people have seen me in a position where a tough decision must be made they get to see what I am made of.
If we were all remote they would never be privy to hearing how I handle those situations. This also works on the flip side, like the co-worker who thought texting was more important than listening to a training session w/ me. It showed me something a LOT sooner than I would have found out otherwise.
When people wonder…how will Wil act in a situation where he has to make a tough decisions about me, they already should have a good feeling on how I will act.
Remote workers, how do you see your boss work in sticky situations, that gives you that sense of “yeah she’s a good egg”?
#5 - Bigger than ME!
If you can’t create an environment where people are part of something bigger than themselves, then you MAY have a retention problem. Why? Well lets think about why…If i am part of a company where I work remote all the time, I’m a lone wolf I don’t get the spill over value of impromptu xbox challenges, random bowling nights, open tabs at the bar or volunteer nights at the Ronald McDonald house - where so much of the walls of “work” are broken down and you find out about people, as just that people. If you have remote workers and are not a 37 signals (in other words a company who has tons of acclaim) - what is the bind that keeps people working with YOU instead of the next company that comes along and lets them work remote? Very few companies are working on something SO unique that team members couldn’t find work elsewhere doing the same thing elsewhere.
Remote workers, what keeps you with your company? Again I want to learn from you so I can do those things too, because in new markets we enter people will be a lone wolf for a little while and will miss out on some of this stuff as we have already learned.
#6 - You can’t eavesdrop
At SEER we encourage eavesdropping, we encourage curiosity, exploration, and ongoing learning. Very little is off limits. Its why we have no walls between workers, even our “cubes” have holes in them. Sound travels, and that is a good thing.
I love when someone hears me working with a co-worker on something and they roll on over and say, hey that sounded cool, I just want to listen in - then 1 or 2 more do, next thing you know 4 people are around learning about something that only one person would have heard, or its even better when someone overhears one of my bad ideas, and starts to give me food for thought, either killing the idea or refining it to make it better.
Remote workers, how do you eavesdrop on conversations that you might be able to learn from or improve on, when you don’t even know they are going on? Yammer?
#7 - The talent pool just became an ocean…
The smaller the talent pool is the harder a company has to work on retention and building a culture that is a talent magnet.. If I truly belive I can pick up 5 more amazing account managers tomorrow because I can hire anyone from anywhere in the world, how does that impact how I think about YOU as a co-worker? Do you look a little more like a widget or “human capital to me?” Its also a hell of a lot easier to fire someone who I don’t know anything about beyond their work, but that is another topic. All companies, ask yourself, how do you work on retention? For many of us outside of salaries and working on projects where people feel they can learn, part of it is likely creating something that people want to be a part of and bring their skills and talents to.
My talent pool shrinks significantly when I decide to not hire remote full time workers. It hurts my ability to grow and take on projects, but that is OK with me. It also forces me to work even harder to retain our team and become a company with a culture that makes people want to relocate to be a part of.
Remote workers, if your company is mostly remote that means you are competing for a job with EVERYONE in the world, as a company if that is my model, it makes it that much easier for me to bounce you out and find someone new, as a remote worker - you better be on top of your game because you my friend are competing with the world (which isn’t a bad thing from a company perspective, and in many ways is a PRO to the company).
#8 - Brainstorms are harder remote, period.
Not impossible, just harder. So I guess the more your job relies on just getting it done, the easier it is to work remote. I know that even for our developer Chris Le, he has said countless times that just being around our team and overhearing things has helped him build better and more useful tools for us.
Remote workers, I’d love to hear how you brainstorm remote, what tools you use, as SEER will need to tackle this with remote offices at some point, and I’d love your advice.
I have always thought that the always on skype camera that foursquare uses is quite nice. I think deep down most companies fear remote workers because they don’t TRUST them. I fire people I don’t trust. So for me its less about trust (will you take a 2 hour lunch - will you leave early), but more about building something TOGETHER.
So my question to companies is what are you all about if you are mostly remote?
Does your company exist to make money? Great we all do, but what else does your company exist for?
If so what happens at the first sight of you not raising that next round of funding or things get tight and require some belt tightening? What investments have you made so that at the first sign of trouble people don’t choose to start looking for new opportunities? I guess that happens on both sides, but given our culture and what investments we have made in it, I sure hope if some day that becomes our reality that people stick by me and are open and honest with me in the ways that I have hopefully stuck by them and been open and honest with them.
I have no way to back this up, but I feel that if you take 2 companies who are going through industry downturns in tough times, the ones who have CULTURE - give people something to hold onto to get them through the tough times (whether you are remote or not) - all of our companies should be thinking about that.
Caveats, Caveats, Caveats
Now I know that there are tons of companies who have remote workers and it works for them, I am not hating on you. I think there are several advantages like the ability to just focus and not be interrupted and access to talent is easier. I run a marketing agency, so that is the framework by which I have written this piece, I bet if I ran a development shop I would have had a different perspective (possibly the same conclusion, but a different perspective).
I know there are other types of jobs where remote works great, this is just my experience.
I am not comparing SEER to companies that are global web brands, Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Facebook are just a few examples of companies that do build culture, but also working remote for them might be a chance of a lifetime to work on something great.
Bootstrapped startups - sometimes you have no choice in the beginning, I get that and feel your pain.
Companies HQ’ed in low population density places, I get it too, you might have to move the whole company or hire talent remote.
Again, culture doesn’t matter to every company, it matters to me, so if it matters to you and you hire a lot of remote workers, I hope this give you some food for thought and I hope you comments give ME food for thought. If culture is not a driving force for you, and you read this far, then thank you for your interest in my piece!