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.