We Tried Building A Remote Team And It Sucked
StatusPage.io has been a remote company for the majority of its existence. We started with just Scott in Colorado and myself in North Carolina. About six months after we started, Danny came onboard while living in New Jersey.
We did have one brief stint in which we all lived in the same city. YCombinator started a month after Danny came onboard and we all moved to Mountain View for that Summer. But after YC ended, Scott and I went back to our respective states and Danny stayed in San Francisco.
In the beginning we were very positive about being a remote team. It was going to let us live where we wanted to live, hire the best talent around the world, and work from home when we wanted to. All that jazz.
But over the past two years, the downsides of being a remote team have really started to weigh on us. So much so that we're changing our stance on how we want to build the team. Remote just isn't for us.
The Pros/Cons of Remote
The pros/cons of having a remote team are roughly as follows:
- hire talent from around the world (bigger hiring pool)
- fewer distractions, higher productivity
- no office, less overhead
- no commute time
- harder to communicate
- weaker ties among employees
- employees struggle with work-life balance
I agree there are some serious benefits to being a remote team...the largest of which being that it's easier to hire talent around the world. It's perfectly reasonable for some (if not most) companies to conclude that they too can benefit from building a remote team.
Remote Teams Stifle Collaborative Work
It sounds corny to say but we work very collaboratively. We talk out and mock up new features together. We pair program a decent amount. We rarely have just one person making decisions about what a feature should do, how it should look, or the code that makes it real.
One of the biggest drawbacks to remote teams is the negative effect on an organization's ability to communicate and work together. This impacts us pretty significantly. We have to deal with time zone differences, shitty video conferencing software, scheduling conflicts...the list goes on.
Take this for example. I live on the East Coast and half of the team lives on the West Coast. By the time they get online, almost half of my "normal work day" is already over. At around 3PM my time, they take off for an hour to grab lunch. Sprinkle in the occasional meeting, doctor's appointment, errand to run, etc., and what could have been a full day of working on something together has turned into a few hours. It's hard to work on things with other people when you have so little time together.
Remote Doesn't Work For Generalists
If we all worked in silos, this wouldn't be nearly as big of a problem. I can envision a scenario in which a product manager dictates "deliverables" to remote designers/engineers. There would be no real need for discussion, or exploration, or pairing. It seems like a remote team would probably flourish under these circumstances...they would know exactly what they needed to do and would be able to work on it on their own schedule.
But we're a team of generalists and that's just not our style. We want the development team to feel like they're more than just the brick layers, to involve them in the decision making process. We want designers and developers pairing to code up new features. We want to work together because it's more fun, more fulfilling, and results in a higher quality product than if we worked alone, in silos, on our own time.
Being Remote Affects More Than Just Our Productivity
As founders, one of the things we worry about most is creating a strong company culture. We can't be around to help make every decision or answer every question, so we rely on a strong company culture to help other team members make the decisions we would want them to make.
Culture is hard to spread when your team is remote. This is because culture is spread through team members interacting with the founders and watching the founders interact with others. Remote workers are going to have fewer opportunities to do either of these, almost by definition.
Having everyone together in the same room creates a sense of camaraderie that just doesn't exist (at least, not to the same degree) for remote teams. There's something to be said about being in the trenches together during the hard times and the good. It creates a bond between people that helps them to work better together.
When you're thousands of miles away from the majority of the team, you lose out on that.
Happiness Suffers (For Some)
Some people just aren't wired for working remotely.
I've spent the majority of my life surrounded by other people. I grew up with two brothers, played sports as kid, had a good amount of friends while going through school, have always had a pretty active social life, and lived with three friends in college.
In the Summer of 2012 my life changed pretty drastically. I moved in with my wife (then girlfriend) and quit my job working at ReverbNation. The amount of social interaction I got dropped pretty significantly, the majority of which was due to the change in job.
We have daily standup, pair together over GoToMeeting, and I work out of coffee shops or co-working spaces, but these are poor replacements for normal human interaction. For people who are used to and need to be around people to be happy, this can be an enormous problem. To be honest, I haven't been myself and I haven't truly been happy since leaving ReverbNation, and I feel like it's due to the isolation of working remotely.
My whole life growing up and even as a young adult I was always one of the happiest, most easy-going people I knew. So to say that I haven't been happy for a few years is a pretty big deal. Some people just aren't wired for remote working. And that's ok.
The Tools Help But Not Quite Enough
We know there are a ton of tools to help remote teams work together. We pretty much already use all of them.
- We share word docs and spreadsheets with Google Docs
- We do roadmap planning with Asana
- We're hanging out with each other on GoToMeeting all of the time
- We chat with Slack
- We pair program with Floobits
- We share files with Dropbox
All these tools definitely help remote teams work together and they've improved our work flow a ton. But things just aren't where we think they could be by getting the team in the same room.
What We're Doing About it
As of now, we have people in San Francisco, Denver and Raleigh. The plan is to consolidate down to two locations. I will be moving to Denver in June. Going forward, we're only hiring people that live in or are willing to relocate to Denver or San Francisco.
It's OK If Remote Isn't For You Either
I'm actually a little bit worried about putting this in writing and sharing it with the world because it's not the popular thing to say right now.
But we feel pretty confident about our decision (for now) and are tired of meekly telling people that being a remote team is great when we don't really mean it. You may be in the same boat as we are. It's OK if you started building a remote team and realize that the tradeoffs just aren't worth it for you.