Let’s Get Flexible: Buffer & Co. Double Down on Remote Work

Tuesday, March 12, 2019
Michael Zunenshine

The trend in workplace structure is no longer just the open loft space, crisscrossed by staff on kick scooters chasing Boston Terriers around ping pong tables, rock climbing walls, and intelligent barista machines.

Instead, there’s another trend on the rise: remote working.

What’s good for me is good for you

State of Remote Work: 2019” is an annual report showcasing the world of remote workers. Social media management software company Buffer led the study, in partnership with several other companies, interviewing nearly 2,500 remote workers in 31 countries within several different industries and income brackets.

The results of the study are pretty clear: Remote working is working out great!

But how is great defined? In terms of employee satisfaction (which ties into employee retention)? Or is it in terms of efficiency, productivity, and ultimately profit?

Buffer, a one hundred percent remote team, are heavy cheerleaders of distributed workforces and shrug off this either/or choice. Instead, they’d argue that both happy employees and company success are absolutely co-dependent.

Here’s a quick sum-up of some of the more salient numbers to gain some perspective:

  • 99% of workers like the idea of remote work

  • 91% of business owners support the idea of remote working

  • 84% of remote workers work from their homes

  • 56% of remote workers (surveyed) are in tech industries (software and IT services)

  • 40% of companies that support remote work have mixed in-house and remote employees

  • 31%  of companies that support remote work are completely remote

What’s gleaned from these stats is that remote work is popular for both workers and business owners, particularly in industries where creative and intellectual labor is done through digital technologies. That should be no surprise; try imagining factory assembly lines instituting remote working.

There’s no place like home

The stat about working from home might be surprising to anyone who imagined digital nomads snapping pics of their laptops on beach towels next to chilled buckets of cervezas. The truth is less glamorous—84% of remote workers report working from home, 8% hustle from co-working spaces, while 4% prefer working from local cafes.  

While working from home may not be glamorous, it does give remote workers the advantage of taking on careers with companies located in expensive tech cities (like San Francisco, London, Shanghai) without having to spend hours commuting or blow half their earnings on skid-row flats or micro dorms.

According to Buffer’s study, remote workers value flexible hours slightly more than location flexibility. From crack-of-dawn roosters to midnight owls, the when edges out the where at 40% to 30%.

Of course, combining flexibility in time and space leads to other kinds of less-quantifiable freedoms, like the freedom for social relations—spending more time with family; to the freedom to indulge in one’s Lone Ranger work ethic—avoiding getting dragged into office socio-politics.

The problem with unplugging

It’s not all perks, however. The biggest struggle is “unplugging after work.” People once complained of work following them home (dominating dinner conversations with the family, colonizing their dreams). But when you work from home, it can feel ever-present, as if the clock never stops.

It helps to segregate one‘s own workspace from living space, but not everyone can afford a place with a spare room to be turned into an office—hence the cafés.

Also, when work has no rigidly defined time and space, one can feel that work is following one around always and everywhere—not just home. At any moment, that pocket computer can ding you with a request from a manager: Hence the nagging feeling of being permanently “plugged-in.”

Some say remote work encourages a better work-to-life balance, but the “unplugging” issue problematizes such a claim. The strongest advice is for employers and employees to be clear about boundaries.

Progressive employers get all the perks

Conservatively-minded employers might balk at the idea of remote work: can’t monitor the workers, can’t properly clock hours, can’t instantly extract every ounce of output-value from each worker’s blood, sweat and tears.

This controlling micro-managerial style is proving to be less effective in motivating and developing the latest generations to enter the workforce, especially in tech and digital industries.   

For the more progressive business owners, the boons of remote work are clear. Firstly, on the more technical bottom-line side, having a remote workforce means less overhead on office space and supplies.

Secondly, it also means less wasted hours, as in many cases, remote workers are not paid hourly wages, and therefore time is not tallied up against productivity. Compensated value rests firmly on results.

And this more open managerial style encourages better employee engagement and development.

Winning the talent war

Finally, remote work goes deeper than saving a couple of bucks on rent and pay. Employers who are prepared to hire remote workers receive access to a much larger, more diverse talent pool, and not only in terms of superficial factors like everyone having different accents.

For example, remote working is very convenient for parents, which when included in a startup workforce, can bring whole new perspectives to teams otherwise dominated by fresh-out-of-college un-wedded/un-kidded 20-somethings.

In the tech and creative industries, access to talent which is untethered to a specific IP address represents a monumental opportunity for companies to build their dream, superhero-style teams.

Wider talent pools doesn’t just result from including applicants who live far or have restrictive schedules. More people apply because increasingly, more people want to work at a company that has remote work possibilities.  

Vacation with a bonus

Same might be said about people attracted to companies with more flexible vacation policies. However, this becomes a trickier issue with distributed teams.

Unlimited vacations seem to have been a noble experiment, but ultimately the results point towards misguidance. Employees don’t seem to feel confident enough to take full advantage.

Instead, companies like Buffer are experimenting with things like minimum vacation requirements. Other companies are offering bonuses to employees who take every vacation day allotted to them.

It all goes to show, happier employees are good for the company, even if sometimes the employees need to be nudged towards holiday happiness.

Tips for opening the gates

For established companies considering opening up to the possibility of remote working, or for new startups thinking of going totally remote, here are some pointers:

If possible, hold in-house onboarding and orientation sessions. Remote workers could benefit from getting to meet their teammates briefly in person before becoming mere digital avatars to one another.

Don’t dive into the remote work deep-end all at once. Try one or two days a week out of the office. Some people need a chance to discover if this is really for them.

Regarding projects, set clear goals that are results based, as a major point of remote working is to allow freedom and creativity in the process.

Hold regular 1:1 talks with remote workers. Make sure the talks are scheduled, not random, as otherwise, it seems like Big Brother is constantly intruding.

Organize events and activities. These may be more relevant to workers who are still located in the same city as the office. But even companies without a brick n’ mortar headquarters hold events at great locations around the world to bring their remote team together for training and team-building exercises.

A note on the contributors

The State of Remote Work 2019 report was produced by Buffer in partnership with several other companies exploring the remote work scene.

Doist has two products: Todoist is a task management app that helps one juggle priorities and deadlines, which is ideal when one works outside of a group structure. Twist is a communication tool designed for distributed workforces.

Hubstaff is a tracker tool for companies managing remote teams, allowing them to keep track of time, collect screenshots, see what URLs are visited, and even get GPS data.

Remote-How offers resources for digital natives as well as companies who want to set up more distributed employment networks. The platform covers things like time management, communication, and task prioritization.    

The other companies involved include: RemoteYear, which curates traveling work experiences around the world; Trello, a project management application ideal for distributed workforces; Workfrom, a shared workplace database in many major cities; and We Work Remotely, online classifieds for remote-based employment.

The results are in

Buffer & Co.’s study demonstrates that while this semi-revolution in work organization still has some kinks to be ironed out, the promise of fusing flexibility of work with company success is well worth trusting.  

Of course, not every company in every industry can take advantage of distributed workforces. Yet for those that can, the number that will is likely to increase.