Can You Grow with a Remote Workforce? These Startups Are Doing It

the remote workforce

No headquarters, no office water coolers, just a growing cohesive base of happy employees around the world. This is the efficacy of the remote workforce.

We’ve all heard the employer objections to remote workers – how do I know anyone is actually working? Meetings are impossible when people aren’t all in the same room. How can we have a company culture and a cohesive workforce if there’s no office?

The back and forth between the “yes” crowd and the “no” crowd continues. But more technology becomes available to connect workers across state and country borders, and the cost of living increases in business centers, more startups are embracing a remote workforce. No headquarters, no office water coolers, just a growing cohesive base of happy employees all around the world.

“We have 76 people on the team – five people in Australia, three people in South America, just over a dozen in Europe, six or seven in Canada, a few digital nomads and in the U.S., everyone is set up coast-to-coast,” said Becca Van Nederynen, head of people operations for HelpScout, a support products company founded in 2012 to help businesses support customers.

HelpScout was started as a remote-first company when its co-founders met up in Boston to take place in Techstars, a seed accelerator. One of the co-founders had to return to Nashville and the company’s first few employee prospects were impressive but could not relocate to the Boston area, where they would be needed for a company headquarters. They were hired anyway, the company was set up as a remote startup and they started to recruit employees globally.

“This has become one of our biggest competitive advantages – we’re able to hire the very best person for every position, no matter where they happen to live.”

remote-worker

“It came down to talent. Our CEO, Nick Francis, said it seems silly to build the best team you can build with only people within a 10 to 20-mile radius of you,” said Van Nederynen. “There are so many other challenges when hiring [that way], there is tons of competition, you have to work so hard to attract people, steal people from other companies. And you have the opposite problem in a more rural area. They figured, why not keep our options wide open?”

Similar thinking motivated the founder of Fire Engine RED, a startup providing technology, marketing, and data services to the education market.

“The company started [in 2001] with our founder, Shelly Spiegel, her business partner and one employee, all of whom worked from their homes. As the company grew, Spiegel realized the people she wanted to hire didn’t necessarily live in the Philadelphia area where she’s based. But she hired them anyway,” said Chuck Vadun, communications director with Fire Engine RED.

“This has become one of our biggest competitive advantages – we’re able to hire the very best person for every position, no matter where they happen to live.”

Phyllis Moen is the McKnight Presidential Chair and professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, one of her focus areas is remote work in the United States. She said it’s not just employees who realize the great benefits of a remote workforce, companies reap the rewards as well.

“When employees are in control of where and when they work, we find there is less turnover, less burnout and more job satisfaction, all things that affect performance and business costs,” said Moen.

On the flip side, remote employees are, “less stressed and feel they are doing a better job,” she said. “They are less likely to feel they have to look for a better job.”

For all the benefits of an entirely remote workforce, it is not without its challenges for employers.

“You have to be more conscientious about communication; fortunately, online collaborative tools make it easier for our team members to stay connected with each other, on a professional AND personal level,” said Fire Engine RED’s Vadun. “It’s also challenging to build a strong company culture, but it’s absolutely necessary to do so to help team members stay engaged, productive, and happy.”

HelpScout’s Van Nederynen said she used to have a stock answer for the question about the challenges of a remote workforce – remote team connectivity. But she has recently expanded her thinking.

“Just because you have butts in seats doesn’t mean you are productive. People can look at Facebook from anywhere.”

“I’m starting to see as the team gets bigger and matures a little bit, actually managing people remotely is one of the biggest challenges,” she said. “When you’re remote, you don’t have the facial expressions or side conversations with your manager and for the manager, you can’t just grab a coffee or beer to talk through something. You need to schedule a one-on-one video call and have a more serious conversation than you intended because it feels more formal.”

She said making opportunities for more spontaneous conversations to happen like virtual coffees, group talks and team retreats could be the key to more rewarding and effective management.

As for productivity, Van Nederynen said it’s not an issue for HelpScout. “The number one thing new CEOs ask me is, ‘How do you measure productivity?’ How do you measure it in a co-located company? Just because you have butts in seats doesn’t mean you are productive. People can look at Facebook from anywhere.”

Both companies say they are fully invested in being 100 percent remote and do not see that changing any time in the future. In fact, Vadun said Fire Engine RED has plans to grow their team from 80 to 120 employees. They have no plans to add an office.

“Change is hard,” Moen said. “Many executives and managers feel they need to see employees working to make sure it is happening. But they need to decide what needs to be done and when, then trust their team members to work in ways that best meet those objectives.”

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