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One side came out swinging, proclaiming “Finally, the death of the outdated office.”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. After all, 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.
But before we carry on, it’s important that I state my position. I believe that in the office vs. remote work battle, there is a clear winner… The office.
In my experience, the office is the best environment for a startup’s success. Period.
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.
And I have to say, I feel my partners and employees are happiest, most inspired and most productive when we’re together in Altar’s offices.
Throughout the rest of this article, I will go over why I feel remote work is less than ideal, starting with the dreaded commute.
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.
Why The Office is the Right Choice
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.
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.
When you cut the commute, you risk being expected to start work earlier and leave work later. After all, you don’t have to take that 30mins to get to and from the office.
But working from home comes with an even bigger 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
You’re working? You stare at the screen. You’re taking a virtual coffee break? You stare at the screen again. Do you have an important meeting that used to be in person? Again you stare at the screen.
Again, not 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.
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?
Maybe; but it’s much more challenging. The human contact element is just completely missing.
It’s much more difficult to foster an environment where our employees can build meaningful relationships with one another. Which is not just important from a social standpoint, but also from a performance standpoint.
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.
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 culture.
And while some work, they all feel like gimmicks when compared with what we had pre-covid.
Of course, 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 years. 21 years to be exact.
It worked for him so it may also work for you.
But for me, the remote work vs. office debate isn’t just about culture and ensuring that everyone feels like part of the team.
It’s 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.
This is not only far more rewarding for each team member, but, in my experience, it also makes them more productive and effective.
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.
Yet, I’m still unsure on whether this is a good thing or not, mostly due to some of the arguments above.
Most people I know are working extra hours. And I don’t know exactly how being forced to work remotely has impacted people’s work habits.
All in all, I believe the reasons above tip the scale in favour of the office.
In my experience, putting great minds in intense proximity results in better quality work, swifter output and faster learning.
Which will win in the remote work vs. office battle remains to be seen as we begin to get back to “normal” in a post-COVID world.
But I personally hope to see a return to the office.
From the simplification of management to the endless opportunities for effective communication, a tight-knit office environment is a potent path to startup success.
Nomads come and go — such as the meaning of their name — but don’t neglect a cohesive in-person crew for a little less expenditure. Instead, invest in vibrancy and see how significant the pay-off is.
And trust me when I say, no amount of emails or Zoom calls can surpass the camaraderie brought about by a team-wide sequence of IRL smiles.
That’s the wonderful thing about organic success. It’s unlimited, a loop fuelled by creativity, happiness, productivity and learning to garner success.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. While we can’t all go back to the office, 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.