09 Aug On the Advantages of Remote-Friendly Companies
A Q&A with Andrew Goodman, Founder & President, Page Zero Media
Remote work has almost become the norm, but it wasn’t always so. What used to be frivolously dismissed as “working in your pyjamas” is now, quite often, seen as just another approach to today’s dynamic work context.
Page Zero has a long history of fielding pesky questions about this now-acceptable attribute of its work environment. PZ’s Andrew Goodman sat down with himself to compile answers to a few of the more au courant questions about remote work.
Q1: Has the concept of a remote workforce fully “arrived?”
AG: Almost. It doesn’t hurt that you can trot out examples of global companies with tens of thousands of employees that are baking remote into their work arrangements. But there is still too much needless chatter about working life issues that don’t have anything to do with the work: commutes, desks, days filled with calls and meetings, equipment, what format a meeting will be in, and so on. In essence, we often start our working lives trumpeting the trappings of our employment (since they’re easy to describe, and provide proof of “working”) to our Moms and Dads (and the like). What is life like when there is no Mom or Dad to reassure? We need to think for ourselves.
“Trappings of work” are just that: there to trap us.
“The rest of us” (those with skin in the game, smaller companies, hard workers) are generally swimming upstream against fantasy-world anecdotes about the absurd perks of working in certain large organizations, whether they be public or private. It’s pretty easy to create an inescapable-seeming (non-home, at-work) “cocoon” when you’re managing large sums of other people’s money. In Ottawa, where I grew up, there was something called the “Parliamentary cafeteria.” At the time, it was in a previous iteration of what is now an awesome Westin hotel.
For some reason, public servants from all walks of life (municipal, too) were getting subsidized meals, bringing their kids, you name it. Elsewhere in the federal apparatus, low-level members of the staff of the diplomatic corps had access to government “stores” in foreign countries (like the United States), and did what any rent-seeker would do: load up on the tax-free discounted beer, liquor, cigarettes, and snacks, reselling them to neighbours if necessary. It was like half-price version of a duty-free store. Why?
The largesse that gets extended to some employees in the private sector is even stranger, perhaps. But money is money. If the perks (not salary) are meant to keep people in a desk or in a closed mindset, then they aren’t appropriate to the majority of workplaces. They’re more of a symptom of concentrated wealth (which, sadly, the public sector can slide into as well).
It can be comical. We have a lot of good experiences at Google events and the like. Google Marketing Live, for example, has really upped its game.
A couple of years ago, we thought we were going to be presenting to a group of prospects at Google HQ in Toronto. We assumed some of the PR effort might come from Google, and the content, and potentially great services, would be our purview. Instead, we learned that Google expected us to invite a bunch of prospects to Google HQ, where mostly Google would present. We don’t have a large number of lukewarm prospects, so the game plan changed to mostly our own clients (and Google would present). I think we were also allowed to say a few words. To this day, I’m thankful to our clients for showing up!
Back in the day, numerous times, we were invited personally to eat lunch in a cordial way at Google HQ’s in California, New York, etc.
Not this time. At the conclusion of the festivities, we and our clients were shown the door, albeit with a modest gift bag. One of the presenters took a sharp right turn, filled his plate in the cafeteria, and was seen wolfing down his lunch, not even bothering to look up.
Remote work can be more logical than enforced desk time, but it still battles against the cult of presence. If you get a great lunch, etc., and don’t even have to share it with customers, then who needs manners?
Q2: Where can people go to learn more about remote workforces, pros, cons, etc.?
AG: Jason Fried and DHH of Basecamp fame have done the concept of remote work (and some other workplace culture resets) a world of good with several books: Re:Work, Remote, and It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. You don’t need to agree with all of that stuff, but in Remote, especially, they dismiss common myths and misconceptions. They also acknowledge that structures, resources, routines, etc. need to be built to address some of the drawbacks of a remote workforce.
Q3: What are the top three advantages to a remote workforce?
AG: It’s very hard to limit it to just three. How about seven?
- Commuting is unproductive. For many, that’s two or more hours daily of lost time that results in more stress, less exercise, less time with family, a worse diet, and yes… in the end, less work being completed!
- Office culture can lead to subtle policing of symbolic behavior (looking busy). And distraction is rampant. Remote work is flat-out more productive, most days.
- Just the right talent fits. The best contributors to your organization might not be all in the same city, and asking people to move may be impractical. For example, there may be spousal needs or family caregiving responsibilities.
- Many people have trouble affording housing in the city, but would like to tap its high energy on occasion. Remote to the rescue!
- Healthier and more affordable home-cooked meals, and no policing of when and how you eat.
- You’re not always picking outfits. Your shoe budget can be slashed in half.
- For those with terrible eyesight, no vanity issues. Wear all the crazy eyewear you want without being joshed for looking like Morty Seinfeld.
To focus back on point (3) for a second, it’s less counterintuitive to consider hiring remote help when you try to assemble a team for a special project rather than “hiring people to work at your company.” Think about times when you’ve hired a vendor in another city – and then they hire a subcontractor on the other side of the country. People think nothing of it.
Q4: What are some drawbacks of remote work?
AG: Unfortunately, there are quite a few (even The Oatmeal admits it), though not enough that they outweigh traditional workplaces in most cases.
- It can be isolating;
- The very act of commuting, and being around others, might entail walking and biking that you forget to do if you’re holed up in your home office. The data show longer (automobile) commutes lead to weight gain, but none of us are immune to the sloth factor. On that note, it’s 8:00 p.m. as I wrap up the editing of this piece, and the lawn needs mowing.
- Some people have trouble locking themselves away from their families or pets sufficiently to get a routine going. In such cases, coffee shop escapes or coworking spaces could be a work-around. Some people are just dyed-in-the-wool “can’t work without an office to go to” people.
- The company won’t nag you to update your ratty chair or your “fail point” technology, because out of sight, out of mind. Stay ahead of this. Many companies will provide some budget.
- If you have perfect eyesight and an awesome wardrobe… sorry, fewer opportunities to showcase these.
Q5: What are some tools and resources that can help to combat isolation?
AG: Companies are making heavy use of collaboration tools (I’ve used Basecamp for years, but I’m beginner level). There is a whole cascading “level of appropriateness to the communication goal” that one could assign to the main potential communication tools: collaboration apps (Slack, etc.); conference calls or video conference calls; person-to-person calls; email; in-person meetings; chat; etc. Internally we do a lot of ad hoc one-on-one text chats for quick responses. That doesn’t mean I’m watching to see if you work.
Ultimately, we employ a mix of “isolation fighters.” Having an office and a schedule of traveling to it is a big part of that (for us), as are team-building events, conferences, etc.
Q6: Isn’t the crux of many people’s scepticism around remote work that employees will be goofing off?
AG: Apparently, it is. In a small to mid-sized company, it’s really quite easy to assess productivity levels and whether someone has a habit of being unreachable. This requires no advanced surveillance. I’m not afraid of people slacking off, because I trust them. Management wants to hear about anything unusual with your schedule, but we don’t babysit and we don’t even want to hear about short absences. I acknowledge that this approach might be more difficult in a larger company. We’re selective in hiring. And certainly, we’ve had to part ways with a couple of people who couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain (or assumed remote work culture is the same as the digital nomad travel blogger lifestyle). It’s never too hard to tell the difference.
Q7: So I guess it’s a pretty good lifestyle… you can pretty much work from anywhere, can’t you?
AG: Easy does it! That’s one of my most feared questions, because it misinterprets why I do this and what our company is about. I think people run across these “digital nomads” on social media – the types who lead glamorous lifestyles focused more on destination travel (and squeezing their four hour days in whenever the wifi is good enough near the pool) than on their careers.
I do a decent job of squeezing in work when I’m in an airport, at a café, in our office (in Toronto), in a hotel room on business travel, etc. But my goal is not to “work from anywhere.” I work best in my home office setting, where there is peace, permanence, a big screen, and a very fast connection. There’s even a security fob to log into some back-end crap I don’t really like doing, and I’m terrified to take that anywhere. I’m superstitious about my home office lair.
If I’m “anywhere,” meaning probably on vacation, I certainly don’t want to be working! From my perspective, it’s not healthy to have no separation between work time and personal time.
Q8: You just blurted out something about an office. You have an office? Why?
AG: We have since 2005. Here’s the best part. After 13 years of renting, we now own our office space! An office condo unit at Daniels Waterfront in Toronto, across the road from Sugar Beach. The tech scene is exploding around there. The energy is fantastic.
There is quite a bit of structure to our Office Days. We collaborate, present, learn, lunch… it’s super-important to our work routine, and we also enjoy each other’s company. (If you aren’t a foodie when you start work at PZ, you will become one.) For most of the team, it’s a reasonable drive or train ride in. Our top execs are on a plane a lot. The cost is offset by the cost savings in other areas.
It’s often easiest to mentally position a business (or person) if they’re “from somewhere.” That’s right there in basic Ries and Trout. You can’t be top of mind if you’re from nowhere! (Wal-Mart is “everywhere,” but they’ll always be from Arkansas. Their Bentonville HQ has 14,000 employees?!?)
Our presence in Toronto helps us make sense (we certainly don’t want to be from “Planet Zero”), and with that said, over 50% of our revenues come from clients with HQ’s somewhere other than the Greater Toronto Area (notably, the U.S.).
Q9: So how many would be the most people who would be working in that space at any given time?
AG: LOL! It’s uncanny: I think probably a hundred or more people have made a point to ask that.
75% of the population, deep down, are like Newman from Seinfeld, waiting for the day it “all crashes and burns for you.” Apparently, office space sometimes lying fallow is considered wasteful – possibly sinful. (Newman: “… an evil wind will blow through your little playworld, and wipe that smug smile off your face. And I’ll be there, in all my glory, watching – watching as it all comes crumbling down.”)
(Oh, and I forgot to actually answer the question: it’s about 15. Quite often it would be zero, or three.)
As an aside, we’ve shared office space on several occasions, so I totally understand the economics. Don’t spend money you don’t have to. But there are shortcomings to penny-pinching, or it wouldn’t be called penny-pinching.
Anyway, I find it a fascinating line of questioning because it leads inevitably to the “so in that case, you should really…” (really get rid of the space, really let strangers use it… really have your head examined…). No, it’s just what it is.
Q10: But do you think other companies overemphasize office square footage in their budgeting?
AG: There’s no question about it.
Too many larger companies are building huge spaces that are underutilized, almost doubling down on a dying model.
Others, ahead of the curve, are closing down their offices in expensive markets so that their employees can afford to live and thrive elsewhere. Automattic, the creator of WordPress, is the big headline here. Still, one wonders, wouldn’t many remote-loving Automattic employees appreciate something like a home base to travel to occasionally? Perhaps just not such an absurdly lavish and underutilized one.
For traditionally-minded, exec-heavy companies who seem addicted to square footage, there seems to be enormous opportunity to bypass the expense and rigidity of costly space in favor of co-working spaces that could accommodate, say, 60% of one’s workforce. It definitely is worth debating whether today’s corporations are unnecessarily lining the pockets of commercial real estate landlords.
And as Fried and DHH point out in Remote, the sunk cost then becomes its own reason for demanding that employees make use of the space. The tail wags the dog. Productivity suffers; family life suffers; mental and physical health suffer. All because of “the office” that we “pay so much for.”
Certainly, in spite of the cost of living, from a “common ground” standpoint, company HQ’s springing up in Toronto’s downtown core seem to make more sense than making everyone drive out to (or live near) far-flung suburban campuses. (Example: Tim Horton’s moved from Oakville to Downtown Toronto). The exciting growth in downtown corporate HQ’s will put unsustainable pressure on a still-40-years-behind transit infrastructure. But that’s a tale for another day.
This may be what we at Page Zero have in common with larger companies: an appreciation for the ritual of space, despite the fact that it’s often impractical to get there, and may be underused much of the time. So, when “it all comes crashing down,” no doubt Newman will be there in all his glory. He’ll be waiting a long time, I think.
Page Zero doesn’t view remote work culture as “slack,” “lenient,” or “second best.” On the contrary, we view it as effective in serving our clients’ needs, respectful of employees’ needs, and consistent with high standards. It just requires a little care and feeding (like the plants in the office).