Why we went back to remote work

Our remote team tried working at an office for a year, here are the pro’s and cons of office vs remote work.
Why we went back to remote work
By
Gary Willmott

Before I jump in, let me start with why we tried an office for a year…

In our first year, we were completely remote and very bootstrapped. In year 2 we raised a round of investment and saw the need to scale the team from a sales and customer success perspective. With this in mind we decided to rent office space that had ample space for calls 📞, meetings, whiteboard sessions, brain storming ideas 💡 and celebrating birthdays of course. 🥳

This made sense for us at the time and we got told by many smart people and influencers that startups generally fail when they are remote.

Even Sam Altman says it in his Playbook, “I think remote work can work well for larger companies, but it has not been a recipe for massive success for startups.”

The main drawcards 🃏 for working in an office space:

Exhibit A: Whiteboard for Key Metrics 📈

An office provides a central place for us to update Key Metrics for the business.

Exhibit B: Wins and birthday celebrations 🥳

It was handy to have a place to regularly share and celebrate birthdays together. Togetherness is very important for us and is a big part of our culture.

Exhibit C: Eat together and stay social

Having a place to run regular 1-on-1's and have casual conversations.

Exhibit D: Boardroom facilities

A place for us to share and present ideas, as well as plan as a team. This was really helpful to align the whole team and stay on the same page, and also removed the stress of finding a boardroom facility with a projector on an adhoc basis.

Exhibit E: Whiteboard to scamp ideas

Before going straight into design, it was great to mockup ideas on the whiteboard. The office space was kitted out with Think Paint so we could actually draw on the walls, and erase whenever we needed to.

Exhibit F: Make (lots of) phone calls

We were growing our outbound team, who needed to make a lot of calls on a daily basis. We were able to dedicate a quiet conference room to this activity.

One thing we kept intact was having a remote-first work style, which is highlighted in our playbook. Some of the basics being:

  1. If you’re stuck, try work it out yourself first before asking a co-worker. This ensures no-one’s flow gets disrupted unnecessarily.
  2. Flexible working arrangements. We didn’t want anyone to sit in traffic, so you were more than welcome to come in early and leave early.
  3. We’re more focused on output and results than hours and processes, so if you needed to head to the barber 💈 and the shops at midday it was cool, as long as you finished your 3 frogs for that day.
  4. We are completely digital, so no important information was stored on paper (it actually made the office move a breeze!).

Then, after about a year, the office started to wear us all out. So, why didn’t it work?

Cons of office work:

  • Travel: It was taking us each 1–2 hours daily to commute to and from the office. We were 10 staff at the time, so that’s 10 people x 2 hours x roughly 21 days = 420 waisted hours a month. ⚠️
    This is besides the fuel and car maintenance costs involved.🤑
  • Lifestyle: I often heard comments like, “I haven’t had a chance to walk my dog this week” or “I haven’t spent any time with the kids.” This for me was a big knock — if work starts to take over your life, you quickly question why are you doing it in the first place. One of our values is working to live, not living to work.
  • Productivity: Some of us had the privilege of working at home 2 days a week during this period, and we could easily measure that our productivity was way higher when working from home compared to working at the office.
  • Interruptions: As a result of our open plan office space, it was too easy to interrupt each other with “quick questions” or useless information. Eventually it became really hard to get work done whilst at the office. Even though we were all fairly disciplined, we’re also social creatures who are easily distracted. 😅 Everyone tended to arrive at different times during the morning — if you are greeting 10 people every morning, that’s 10 interruptions before your afternoon tea!
  • Safety: Despite the fact that our office was in a prime location in the CBD with free street parking at our doorstep and dedicated security personnel, we had a few security scares and some of our team members fell victim to smash-and-grabs 💥🚗

We arrived at the conclusion that our current team would do better working remotely again, and it would enable us to cut wasteful costs (time & funds).

It was important at this point to put some safety catches in place to remain a tight-knit team who work together like hummus and avo — luckily we already had a winning recipe which we tweaked slightly:

How we make Remote work

  • Daily stand-ups: We have daily stand-up meetings at 4pm everyday. We all share 3 things we’re working on and declare any blockers. We also use this time to shoot the breeze and ask each other how our day was — our US-based team wake up at this time, so they chat about the day ahead.
  • 3 frogs: We declare our 3 Frogs in Slack at the start of each day. This helps us stay in sync, so we know what each person is working on. This also helps us to readjust our priorities if need be.
  • Measure output, not input: We have an outputs focus vs input focus. We don’t measure hours and attendance, however we set goals at the beginning of each sprint (we work in monthly sprints).
  • Monthly get-togethers: At the end of each sprint we get together at a restaurant or hotel with boardroom facilities. We usually take a whole day to discuss wins, losses and plan out the next sprint together. Then we share a meal and maybe play some pool or go for a walk ⛰️
  • Always-on Hangouts session: We have a dedicated Google Hangoutsmeeting, where anyone can pop into every day.
  • Regular retreats: We aim to have 2 retreats every year to strategise, surf and have fun together.
  • Staying asynchronous: Realtime work is often where the distractions happen, hence we are always conscious of each other’s schedules and do not having meetings for the sake of meeting. Watch jason’s Ted talk for the low down.
  • Regular 1-on-1's: We still have 1-on-1's with each other via video calls if a face-to-face meeting is not possible. We try to chat with video ON, instead of just voice, as it helps to get a clear idea of how the person is actually doing.
  • Great internet: We all have to have great internet, it used to be a challenge a few years ago, but it feels like Fibre is standard all over now!
  • Always taking notes: We live in Google Sheets and Slides. It’s actually a lot faster than updating a whiteboard.
  • #whereabouts. We have a dedicated Slack channel to keep each other updated when we are out for a board meeting 🏄‍♀️ or having lunch. 🥪

Challenges of Remote work

Juniors and Interns

The only staff we’ve struggled to retain are juniors and interns in the sales and software engineering departments. It seems that they struggle to stay motivated and often can’t reach their monthly goals without co-workers next to them, leading them step-by-step. The office space was handy for this.

Remote work is a calling for those who are self-motivated and driven by an innate hunger for knowledge, skills and growth. There is also mostly a need to be T-shaped, as situations often arise where you need to problem-solve for yourself.

Quiet spaces

Most of us work at home and it does get difficult to concentrate when the kids get home or the dogs are barking. But over time, you set systems in place to get around these challenges and it gets easier…

Keep a lookout for a guide on how to prepare your household for remote work 😜

Do we miss the office?

For us, the cons of office work far outweighed the pro’s, although we really do miss the little things like sharing food, having casual chats and celebrating birthdays together. It was also great to have an office administrator who would take care of admin nightmares like the internet going down, roof leaks and theft. Do we miss the whiteboards, kitchen, sticky notes, boardroom and great office facilities? Sure, but we’ve got some great online workarounds.

Sometimes there is a bit of nostalgia about our great office space, but we have zero regrets thus far. In fact, most of us will struggle to go back to an office environment again.

The pets are happy

We get to have regular slipper contests


Further reading on Remote work

State of Remote Work 2018 Report: What It's Like to be a Remote Worker in 2018

The Remote Work Report

How to build social connection in a remote team

If you’ve been able to get this right in a remote environment, I’m keen to hear your thoughts 💭