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Summary:

Remote work may be increasingly mainstream, but there are holdouts like Zaarly exec Shane Mac, who recently opined that startups and distributed teams make a lousy combination. That’s news to the founder of successful startup ProoffHQ, which has been remote from day one.

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Remote work may be going increasingly mainstream with more and more companies letting staff work flexibly, but as with any major shift in how we work, there are bound to be holdouts. And the start-up scene is home to its fair share. Early-stage companies, particularly in the tech sector, have a long-standing mythology of (usually young and personally unencumbered) teams sleeping under their desks to get products to launch, with many wearing the hothouse atmosphere and extreme hours as a badge of honor. Remote working still raises eyebrows among some.

Zaarly exec Shane Mac, for example, recently published a piece in VentureBeat, which we highlighted here on GigaOM, arguing that a remote set-up stinks for startups who need their staff in close proximity to form a company culture and generate the maximum number of ideas by sparking their thinking off each other. Mac makes a compelling case for the usefulness of physically close teams, but not everyone in startups is buying it.

ProofHQ, a British company that sells tools to help review design work, for example, has been remote from day one. “The company has literally never had an office with employees in it,” founder and CEO Mat Atkinson told GigaOM, explaining that having had an earlier experience starting a company with VC backing, he opted to bootstrap ProofHQ and avoid venture money, necessitating he skip the office as a budget-saving measure. Plus, he found a development team in distant Poland and wanted to be able to serve customers globally right from the outset. The result is a team spread from the west coast of America to the Middle Eastern country of Qatar.

So did he experience the squeeze on ideas and the less binding company culture that Mac predicts? “From our experience it just simply wasn’t the case,” says Atkinson, who uses constant Skype chats, regular video calls and daily scrums for each area of the business to keep his team collaborating and innovating. He also insists on regular face-to-face meet-ups for the team.

“I do understand when people say face to face matters and I agree with that. We make an effort to do things face to face both virtually by video conferencing, as well getting together in person, but I disagree when people say it’s the only way to make it happen,” he says, though he concedes that working at a distance is tougher on managers. “Remote working works really well for the team, but if you’re managing people, you have to put more effort into it. I would say it takes probably 20 percent more effort.”

Besides admitting that a distributed setup is tougher on managers, Atkinson also acknowledges that those looking for venture money might have a reason to shy away from a remote set-up. “If you’re looking to go down the venture capital route then your VCs will probably want you to be co-located and co-located close to them,” he says. “I know that’s breaking down more and more but I think VCs are still skeptical of companies that work remotely.”

But it’s not just VCs who Atkinson sees changing their minds about remote work. According to him, skeptics like Shane Mac are slowly going to the way of the dinosaurs. “There has been a real transition in the perception that people have of working remotely. In the early days it was seen as kind of odd — it’s never going to work. Now customers that we talk to about it are very interested. I have quite a lot of other early-stage technology companies wanting to talk about how we’ve managed the business, and it’s just not seen as weird. When we recruit now, people see it as a positive rather than a negative or a neutral, so I think there’s a massive change in people’s perceptions at all levels.”

Within five years, Atkinson feels, remote work will be as unremarkable as cubicles and laptops seem now – even for startups — and its posts like this, discussing the issue as contentious, rather than the practice itself, that will seem odd.

Do you agree?

Image courtesy of Flickr user dierken.

  1. I don’t think you can refer to Shane Mac as a dinosaur. I am on team shane.. there are always exceptions but in a start up scenario.. face to face and toe to to is the way to go. (sorry for the rhyme)

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  2. I think both Mac and Atkinson are right… within and for their own environmental / business needs. ‘Horses for courses’ they say! I supporting point for Mac though: whilst 1st degree connections in a supply chain can work in a remote set-up, when you start extending the supply chain to second, then third, then fourth degree connections in a supply chain, then a element of face-to-face HAS to happen somewhere!

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  3. I agree with Mat Atkinson. What was a hard sell to employers 5 years ago, is going to be a deal breaker in 2-3 years. If your company doesn’t have infrastructure (online conferencing, collaborative, project management tools, etc) to attract and support top talents at any place in the world – good luck staying competitive.

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  4. Team Mac. Try as we might, there is no replacing face to face. You can do it online, skype, remotely, but it will never be as efficient and it will never be as good.

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  5. yuryprokashev Wednesday, May 16, 2012

    “Remote or not remote”?
    There is no general receipt that fits all cases (as usual).
    When founder choose between these two – it is the matter of concrete pros and contras in founder’s context.

    I have chosen to outsource resources for my product (iPad app) for 100%.
    My pros were quality, budget and speed of search.
    Elance.com and Freelancer.com allows you:
    - elaborate a big variety of contractors (10-20 bids per project)
    - choose contractor based on his quality.
    - find the lowest possible price for desired quality (bids range can vary 10 times for nearly the same quality)
    - do it quickly (1-2 weeks cycle)
    There is simply much more choice there, than seeking and hiring professional locally (Moscow is quite expensive city).

    Contras were: the quality of contractor output and the speed of development.
    While I have managed to maintain needed quality, development speed really suffers (in comparison with local resources).
    But as long as you can live with that – it is ok.

    Finally what matters is the great product.
    Not the way you’ve chosen to get there. :)

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    1. jonnylennon Friday, May 18, 2012

      I don’t think Atkinson or the movement toward remote work are suggesting that F2F be abandoned outright…. Organisations that fail to adopt a more agnostic approach to working will inevitably struggle to compete….

      Simply look at what it costs today for both an employer and an employee to engage in the face to face, do the math and its becoming more and more prohibitive when bottom lines are being squeezed so hard.

      Office Space Rent
      Utilities & Insurances
      Transport costs
      Child care
      The list goes on…

      F2F will become a case of “if the situation requires it”… Additionally lets not get caught up in the limitations of todays technology tools….. The age of augmented reality is upon us and within 5 years it will appear as though you are in the same room…

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      1. yuryprokashev Friday, May 18, 2012

        Fully supported. :)
        Costs of F2F are huge part of startup costs.
        And if there is any way to get rid of them – I prefer this way… Well, till the moment, when I will have revenues and will think about how to scale. :)

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  6. Ramon B. Nuez Jr. Thursday, May 17, 2012

    I agree with Atkinson — having a remote employee works.

    With that said I do not believe that telecommuting is for everyone or every business. The difficulty in supporting the remote employee comes in managing the work. This is a work process that must be supported by the employer and the employee.

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  7. I agree – “oh please!” Remote or virtual teleworkers are precisely what can HELP new start-ups. Since you can employ American staff living as expats abroad for 50% less than Americans actually living in the U.S (Due to the lower cost of living in places like Mexio.) Half-priced, yet highly-skilled American employees are a pretty attractive option for fresh start-ups. That kind of saving makes a huge difference at any stage of the process, but when starting? It can be THE difference. The technology is here; we need to get over our old-fashioned concepts of what a working space means.

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  8. Steve Heart Monday, July 16, 2012

    There is very cool product for users of Adobe Creative Suite, it integrates ProofHQ in very nice way. http://www.ctrlpublishing.com/products/products/ctrlreviewhq

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