In the last few years, there’s been a trend among startup founders to set up geographically distributed teams.
Swarms of remote workers (dubbed Digital Nomads) started populating cafés and co-works across the world and ever since the remote work vs. office debate has been heating up.
Then COVID hit.
Offices closed, public transport stopped, the world seemed to grind to a halt.
Nearly every service company in the world had to switch to a remote work model overnight.
There was simply no choice – for the safety of ourselves and our teams we had to leave the office.
It didn’t take long for the press to give their two cents on this sudden switch.
One side came out swinging, proclaiming “Finally, the death of the outdated office.”
Then the other side responded with “If we spend too much time at home alone we’re going to all need therapists within a month.”
Media sensationalism aside, the remote work vs. office debate is an important one as it may shape the business landscape for startups in a post-covid world.
Therefore it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of the office sooner rather than later.
In my career, I’ve experienced all of the possible teamwork allocations.
From working remotely in cafes and coworking spaces to being one of many on a bank’s trading floor.
All options have their pros and cons.
Over the next few paragraphs, I’ll share my experiences and opinions. Then I’ll share how we handled the remote work vs. office debate here at Altar.
I’ve also included some tips for maintaining a positive team culture when remote working at the end of the article. They’ll help you ensure your people are happy and productive until you can safely return to the office – if you choose to do so.
Analysing the Options Aspect by Aspect
Is Cutting the Commute a Good Thing?
Cutting the commute is one of the resounding arguments for a permanent remote work model.
From cost savings to environmental impact there is a list of benefits to back it up (and they’re not small!).
That being said, cutting the commute isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
While commuting, most of us have the chance to read a book, hear a podcast, listen to music, etc. These activities all help us grow, or at the very least give us some time to focus on self-care.
Now that commute is gone, we’re far less incentivised to find the time to do this. After all, the journey from bed to desk has never been shorter (I can do it in 10 paces – yes I just went and checked; my girlfriend is still staring at me like I’m crazy).
The result is the temptation to set the alarm 10 minutes before that first morning call. Which leads to rushing to your desk (via the Nespresso) and opening Zoom just in time.
Which is far from healthy.
Cutting the commute brings with it another con: your work is right next to you all the time.
This is much more a social aspect rather than an individual choice.
If the company sets working hours, there’s not much difference between switching off a pc at work or closing a laptop at home. You’ve got time to work and time to relax.
Actually, cutting the commute means you don’t have to take that 30mins to get to and from the office, aka more work-life balance.
Problem is, you risk being expected to start work earlier and leave work later. The phone rings and… “Mate, can you just do me a favour, can you please just update a little thing?” In the end, it means opening your computer which is a couple of steps from the sofa. Not a big effort…
Working from home comes with a risk: You never truly switch off.
Gone are the days of “I’ll sort that out when I get to the office.” Now, when problems occur, it’s far too easy to fire up the computer and address them straight away. Especially if your home office is a corner in your living room.
Which, when you’re relaxing after an 8+ hour day, spending time with family, is far from ideal. Before you know it, it’s 11 pm and you’re still staring at the screen.
Screen, Screen, Screen
We all need some breaks from staring at screens. Even the law makes that mandatory. And it’s very easy: you grab a colleague, head to a café, or the coffee machine and you start gossiping around while you stretch your legs.
When remote… You’re working? You stare at the screen.
You’re taking a virtual coffee break with a colleague? You stare at the screen again.
Do you have an important meeting that used to be in person? Again you stare at the screen.
Not very healthy.
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The Importance of Being “Part of The Team”
This is possibly the most important aspect when it comes to talking about startup success.
It’s common knowledge that without the right team behind you to execute your business vision, growing a startup is nearly impossible.
And there are no two ways about it. To hire (and retain) a team of passionate people you need to have a strong company culture.
In fact, according to a Glassdoor survey, 56% of employees find a good workplace culture to be more important than salary.
Strong workplace culture leads to high levels of workforce engagement. An engaged workforce leads to better profitability (around 22% better).
You simply can’t afford to ignore culture. Not when 76% of U.S. employees believe that strong company culture enables them to be more productive and effective.
Moreover, culture can also stop your employees from leaving. 65% of employees say culture is a key factor when deciding whether or not to stay at their job.
Which raises the critical question: When working remotely, do we still feel part of a team?
As founders, can we still ensure that everyone is motivated, happy and part of something? Can we truly create and nurture a good workplace culture?
The answer is definitely yes. But we have to consider that the human contact element is just completely missing.
It’s mathematical that in an office environment employees can build meaningful relationships with one another. Which is not just important from a social standpoint, but also from a performance standpoint.
Creativity and open communication play a big role here: every day at Altar my partners and I strive to devise new ways to recreate the friendly, informal environment that we used to have at the office and nurture that all-important positive vibe.
As a founder/manager you can’t simply stand still, you have to put actions in place to make sure your team members are happy and productive.
Many success stories see entrepreneurs rise with their team dislocated and achieve incredible feats, take Basecamp’s CEO as an example – he’s been leading a fully remote team for over 20 years.
It worked for them beautifully and it can also work for you: it’s all about ensuring that the team is learning, growing and pushing each other to their next milestone.
Unified Learning & Team Growth
As entrepreneurs and startups, when we come together, we challenge each other, exponentially expanding our creative potential.
Bouncing ideas off each other. Killing bad concepts. Collaborating to refine a singular, golden vision.
By meeting together we steepen the learning curve. By working together we help each other reach the summit quicker.
And there’s nothing better than the view from the top of a unified peak.
Enthusiasm for building and growing the business increases. The extroverts draw out the ideas of the introverts. The pensive expand on the scattergun thoughts of the energetic.
This collaborative workflow provides a mutual morale boost, and this is rewarding for each team member
Pre-COVID, Harvard Business Review agreed with this.
They gathered and analysed two years’ worth of data from over 2,000 employees across the US and European tech industry and found that quality of work and productivity was higher when working from the office.
However, post-COVID, with many more people now working remotely (giving us a larger data sample), research would suggest the opposite.
Take this research from The Economist as an example. They’ve found that workers, on average, are 7% more productive when working from home.
It clearly suggests that remote working results in higher productivity gains.
In my experience, putting great minds in intense proximity results in better quality work, swifter output and faster learning. Until now we’ve had that for free since everybody has always been in the office.
Who says now is not working anymore due to the remote? Again, my take is that founders and managers should update their to-do list with actions to check if Unified Learning & Team Growth actually happen.
Here’s What We Did
While all these points have their pros and cons, there is one thing you absolutely can’t miss when it comes to making the choice between working in the office and working remotely.
Listening to those who it will affect the most – your people.
Open communication and transparency across your organization are key for a healthy working environment.
Something we feel very strongly about at Altar.
That’s why to decide which model we should use we simply asked our people.
We got some interesting results.
Some told us that the idea of going back to the office full time simply didn’t make sense anymore.
Others told us that they found the office was the best environment for them.
Whereas others suggested a hybrid model of three days in the office and two days working remotely.
So we decided to offer our people full flexibility. This means we’re neither fully remote, hybrid or completely based in the office.
We have our office premises open for all of our employees and they can work there whenever they choose to.
This, we feel, was the best option for Altar based on the feedback from our people.
One thing is clear. We all have to put a lot of common sense on the table.
Being in the office every day 9 to 5, five days a week is indeed a pain in the ass.
Working from home or summerhouse or hotel or wherever you want actually makes sense.
But being close to your colleagues actually makes you grow as a person and professional much more than if you were alone. And it’s also true that recent hires – in the remote setup – will have a harder time getting inside the “community”.
The purpose of the article is to highlight, though, that every setup comes with costs and benefits. And the extremists, on one side or the other, are (as with all extremists) profoundly wrong.
At Altar we did a very simple thing: there’s an office that is always open. But people are free to work from wherever they want.
People that feel the need can easily go to the office. People that want to stay home can do so. That’s called freedom (and common sense.).
Now, before I wrap this up, here are some ideas to maintain a strong team culture and keep your people happy and productive:
Maintaining Team Culture When Remote Working
Prioritise Face-to-Face Meetings
With all the tools we have to communicate as a team, it can be tempting to shoot off a quick Slack message instead of calling a colleague or employee.
Inviting them to a video call, however, can help ensure people feel part of the team.
Moreover, it might even turn into a brainstorming session that results in an idea that pushes your company to its next milestone.
Stimulating creativity over a video call is harder than in person. On an instant messaging app, it’s nearly impossible.
It’s Not All About Work
As I mentioned earlier, positive company culture is at the heart of startup success.
In an office environment, this would mean foosball tables, ping pong, finishing half an hour early on a Friday for a beer, etc.
So don’t just use your comms channels for work.
Organise a team lunch over Zoom. Organise a game night, a virtual cook along, whatever it is that gets your team excited.
Poll activities in an “all-hands” group to start the conversation.
Make Sure Everyone Knows Why They’re Rowing
Startups are more likely to succeed if everyone is rowing in the same direction. So make sure you share the “why” behind your company regularly.
Make sure everyone is up to date on the business vision and company goals.
More than this share the company’s achievements. Meanwhile ensuring all team members know how they impacted the achievement.
For example, if your business increased by 200% – make sure they know it. And importantly how that achievement will impact the business.
Paolo started working in banking in Milan and London. After the financial career, he created a startup and then joined Altar where he mainly deals with business development and fintech projects.