In 2008, I started a digital marketing agency. In 2010, we moved into an office. It was just three of us at the time, but we were excited to all be working together. We added a foosball table and a dartboard. We had happy hours together, we went out to lunch regularly and just generally had a great time. We all became close friends and were very careful about who we hired: We wanted them to fit the culture we were building.
By 2013, remote work was all the rage. We had several outside contractors and provided a service that could work in a remote environment. At that point, we decided to go cold turkey and start working remotely entirely. I was more productive because I wasn’t interrupted and could focus on things that needed to get done. I figured this could be an advantage for everyone else as well.
But a year later, we lost a few employees and I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I don’t necessarily attribute this to working remotely, but I decided to resign as CEO to serve as an advisor so I could focus on my new startup. I was able to start and validate it from home, and began adding remote team members to the fold. We have team members all across North America and one offshore. Throughout this journey, I’ve noticed some drawbacks to operating a business using a remote environment:
A Lack of a “Team” Mentality
The nice thing about working remotely is the focus it provides. However, the sense of teamwork feels diminished, especially in earlier-stage startups where you don’t have five-plus people in every department.
After losing a couple of our key contributors, I decided to shift the organization into a local company that would work from a centralized office. This meant my business partner would need to uproot his family from Florida and move to Phoenix. He agreed with the direction, and this wasn’t much of a hurdle. Another employee moved back to Phoenix to help make it happen as well.
To try and mirror an in-office setup, you can set up regular video hangouts to facilitate collaboration. Just keep in mind it’s impossible to fully replace an office atmosphere.
The Potential for Isolation
When you’re in an office, employees won’t have to work by themselves. When things get stressful, they can talk through the issue easily with co-workers or management. There’s a deeper sense of belonging when you’re in a shared space, all working together towards a common goal.
The challenge in an office setting can be the distractions. We’re taking a page out of Stackoverflow’s office environment to provide developers and marketing folks the privacy they need, with glass walls to help to maintain a sense of openness. Productivity can be a challenge as well: I usually have an open-door policy if people need to talk, but if that door is closed, it means no interruptions. Designating certain hours for those “got a minute?”-type meetings can also be helpful.
The biggest downside to being in an office, in my opinion, is the talent pool, as pulling in local talent in small cities can be tough. Scour LinkedIn for key personnel — don’t just wait for candidates to come to you through job postings.
That said, all your employees don’t necessarily have to be under one roof: Engineering talent, in particular, can be tough to find in the competitive market. We do what we can to get our team, local or abroad, here through relocation options or even H-1B Visas.
Which Is Right for You?
If you are unsure of whether or not to go the office route, try to secure a smaller space with a smaller lease initially, so you aren’t locked into a long-term agreement. Negotiate a full-service lease, where the landlord takes care of HVAC, plumbing, utilities, maintenance, etc. Otherwise, these expenses can add up. If you are willing to sign a three-year lease, you’ll be able to get some customizations to make the office feel like your own space. Take advantage of this tenant improvement allowance.
Having been both fully in-office and fully remote for several years each, I see the pros and cons of both. Ultimately, I feel the in-office solution outweighs remote: The happy hours, backyard barbecues and team events are tough for remote teams to compete with.
That said, we still may experiment with some optional remote days as well, as I do see the advantage of having that freedom (plus, it’s a strong selling point when hiring). You’ll just never be able to convince me that you can build a stronger culture and more enjoyable work environment than one developed under one roof.