It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of a remote company came across as far-fetched, or perhaps even impossible to achieve, but more and more companies seem to be picking up on this trend. What’s more is that it isn’t a total pipe dream; it actually can work! Here at PSPDFKit, we’re living proof of this fact. We’ve been a remote company for the entirety of our existence, and we have found it’s an effective way to operate, as it prioritizes a healthy work-life balance for everyone involved.
We are big believers in the idea that the work you do matters more than when and where you do it. But beyond that, the company itself benefits from allowing everyone to work remotely and to create their own ideal work schedules.
For other companies contemplating this model, it’s natural to be uncertain about how effective it really is. But at PSPDFKit, we’ve found it all comes down to promoting a culture of trust, flexibility, discipline, and camaraderie.
By shifting to a remote-based model, a business might (understandably) feel as though it has lost some control. First and foremost, without a physical workplace where everyone is located, it’s not always easy to check in with people and see if they’re staying on task. Additionally, the spontaneity of dropping by a desk to talk to someone or have an impromptu meeting no longer works when not everyone is in the same place or on the same schedule. That said, it’s one thing to let people work from home a few days per week or take the occasional home office day, but it requires a lot of trust to let them manage their own time and get their work done when they feel the most productive.
However, in the end what counts is not the hours spent in an office but rather the actual outcome. And the reason why you may need more trust in a remote environment is that when someone is sitting in the office all day long, it’s easy to think they’re working productively. And when you can’t see how they spend their time, it’s more difficult to know just how much they’re really working. So in the end, that trust needs to be built in for remote work to succeed.
Working asynchronously might be scary in the beginning. Your employees might think they need to be available all the time, but they quickly will realize that this is nearly impossible with all the different time zones at play. It’s also important for them to come to terms with the fact that no one will be judging them about the time they’re working (unless they’re not really working at all).
We know that work isn’t always linear. Even in a normal office environment, things like meetings, side conversations, and context switching can easily disrupt the day. With remote work, other workers aren’t necessarily the number one cause of distraction (unless you’re in a coworking space or shared office), but there are often other important factors in an employee’s life that may take up space and make a conventional 9-to-5 job unrealistic.
We’ve found that because we embrace flexibility, there is no need for people to be scared of scheduling their days around hitting up the gym, going out to lunch, dropping off or picking up their kids, or taking care of important errands, so long as they’re putting in the work at another time.
For many people, working at home and having the chance to plan their day sounds nice, but it also comes with its own challenges, namely that there are distractions everywhere. It might be the comfortable couch in their living room, the TV with unwatched episodes of their favorite new show, or friends who want to meet with them during the day. Even though strict schedules aren’t enforced, every person working at PSPDFKit knows it’s important to figure out just how disciplined they need to be to ensure they take care of what needs to be done. We all have off days, of course, but it’s perfectly fine to say “Today I was distracted and not as productive as I would have hoped, but tomorrow I’ll set aside more uninterrupted time to make up for it.”
On the flipside, the barrier to connect to work via Slack and email is so low, it’s sometimes easy for people to forget to draw up clear boundaries between their working hours and their free time. “Just checking Slack” in the evening after clocking out for the work day is an easy trap to fall into, and it’s not healthy in the long run. I personally found that removing Slack and the company email address from my phone and personal laptop was the best way to address this issue.
One of the biggest downsides of remote work is that people often feel lonely and disconnected without the social interaction of a shared office space. At PSPDFKit, we have our headquarters in Vienna, and a handful of people work out of this office year-round (with the option to work from home when they want, of course). But the majority of the company is spread out across a handful of continents, and they would probably tell you that sometimes they miss having colleagues they can regularly chat with or bounce ideas off of.
To combat this tendency toward isolation, we started using Donut, which matches two random teammates every other week to have a chat (or share a donut with each other 🍩).
Beyond that, nothing can replace the importance of meeting with one another in person and spending some quality time together. For this, we have our biannual company retreats, where the focus is just as much on bonding as it is on business.
As a remote company, we’ve found it’s essential to establish processes that enable our people to succeed. For example, when someone living in Mexico isn’t able to get in touch with someone living in India about an urgent issue that comes up, they need to be able to work independently or find another way to tackle the problem. But doing this requires a lot more planning, processes, and structure.
If you take a look at the Stack Overflow Survey of 2018, you can see that about half of the respondents have started a new job within the past two years. But here at PSPDFKit, the freedom of working remotely and setting our own hours seems to result in happier employees and longer retention. In fact, in the time I’ve been working here (nearly four years when the blog post was written), I’ve only seen a few people leave the company, while the majority of us have happily been here for three to four years, or even longer.
We think remote work can be great for a company, so long as you reframe some preconceptions about traditional work. Your people can improve their lives by setting up their own schedules, which results in more productivity and an overall better work-life balance. But promoting a culture of trust, flexibility, discipline, and camaraderie is also essential to seeing remote work succeed.
Overall, for us here at PSPDFKit, the advantages of remote work outweigh the disadvantages, which leads me to believe we’ll see more remote companies in the future.