January 7, 2019 | Jason Van Gaal
This blog likely won’t win any popular opinion awards among the majority of millennial readers. It’s 100% opinion and observation based from nearly a decade of startup experience. Yes, that means I’m probably old and therefore experienced, the reality of which makes me cringe on so many levels. More on that later.
The reality is that the distributed workforce is the death of a successful, “non-lifestyle” startup. When you are a startup, the odds are already stacked against you on so many levels. You need every advantage that you can get to overcome nearly insurmountable odds.
Arguments can certainly be made for a distributed workforce, namely that it provides work-life balance which, in turns, supposedly drives creativity. This widespread belief means I now need to provide flexible working-from-home conditions to attract top talent. The popular idea driving this belief: “I can get more done without at-work social distraction.”
In practice though, a startup’s success is a direct result of a team’s closely coupled collaborative efforts. These efforts involve rapid iteration. In my X-years of working experience, I’ve seen a pattern emerge where the best ideas come when I and others are on the exhausted fringe of our mental capacity, where that last fragmented thought comes together in a unique way. Or, only after being pushed hard through friendly team-based peer pressure, do I or other team members really deliver on a tight deadline or double that delivery ceiling.
These defining moments are what help expand and unblock our cognitive capacity long term, and drive the minimum bar for corporate and personal success rapidly upward. This is how we break down insurmountable boundaries to overcome a deck that is stacked against us.
This policy is a critical tool and a key counter move against the Amazon’s and Googles of the world with nearly unlimited budgets. It’s no wonder that the world’s top incubators like Y-Combinator and Tech Stars not only require that your team work together, but that your team relocates to the incubator hub for a period of time (they hope indefinitely) to work more closely in unison with the extended incubator team.
Early on, Soul Labs, against our better judgment, dabbled in a distributed workforce to help unblock the delivery of our first product in a tight job market. We delivered a solid MVP product, but on an extended timeline at a higher cost, with additional management overhead.
We were pretty sure this would be the outcome, however, the alternative at the time was binary: deliver or delay. We, of course, chose to deliver. We made sure that while delivering our MVP, we also built our permanent in-house, in office, team, and solution (details on that also to come).
This exercise proved extremely valuable in helping to reinforce our individual beliefs and to align us on our long term goals. Making mistakes at the beginning, on a smaller scale, typically has a lower net impact if you make sure to identify and correct the mistake quickly.
So is there a happy medium?
We are in the process of experimenting with a monthly 4-day work remotely policy where those four days are spread out throughout the month. These days are booked 5 days in advance with managers. Deliverables for the day(s) are agreed upon with the manager, and the employee signs up to a no-excuses agreement whereby they commit to the deliverable or lose the privilege to work remotely going forward.
The policy is designed to minimize the out of office impact, be accommodating to team members who have relocated from out of town, while simultaneously ensuring these days are well planned out to avoid the risk of losing momentum (this isn’t a hangover day policy).
When is the right time to allow a work remote policy?
For companies with a mandate of innovation and disruption, for many roles within the organization, the answer is likely never. If absolutely required, roles that could potentially accommodate a Work Remotely Policy should meet all of the following criteria:
- Individual contributors – The cultural impact of remote work is limited to a single individual. Managers should never be allowed to work remotely as the cultural impact will adversely impact an entire team. The adverse impact is thereby amplified as it is compounded across multiple individuals.
- Firmly in place, established and tested KPIs – These criteria would typically limit framework to roles where work is recurrent, and the time required to perform the task is well known. It’s important that the KPIs be established over time in the office before remote work is considered. This framework limits management overhead and sets the employee up for remote working success.
- Cultural Messaging – Individuals whose roles require that they work from the office may struggle with the perceived inequality that will be created through exemptions provided in points 1 and 2. Messaging and team alignment should be established before any individuals are allowed to work from home more regularly under points 1 and 2. If there is a risk of team alignment not being achieved, keep it simple and do not allow work from home roles. Once a perk is given, the adverse impact on corporate culture, make it challenging to remove.
Then how do I attract top talent?
In working with individuals across all genders, ages groups, and ethnicities, I have noticed that top talent prefers above all else:
- challenging problems that improve their long term capabilities;
- tasks that make a profound impact;
- a framework that allows them to define objectives which will create an impact.
Empowering a team starts from the top down. Senior management must define clear vision and mission statements. The Netflix culture deck provides a great example of how to achieve this through their closely coupled strategy. Tangible, actionable tactics that support this include establishing a strong corporate vision, deploying agile Project Management (PM) tactics and ensure people understand the importance of work assigned in the company.
It is important to realize that people requesting to work from home are symptoms of an illness and not the cause of a disintegrating corporate culture. These requests are a leading indicator of a downward corporate trajectory. If your team is asking to work more from home, determine what changes need to be made to your corporate culture so that your office work environment is more exciting than working from home.
This is simply one entrepreneur’s opinion. I’d love to hear about your company’s work from home policy if there is one in place, and about what works and what doesn’t. Or if you have an opinion on the one I outlined above, drop it in an email.
About The Author
Jason van Gaal, CEO of Soul Labs, is a four-time serial entrepreneur with an insatiable desire to tackle complex problems, and an objective of building a business of adequate scale to create a meaningful and positive impact in Canada’s technology landscape.