By Alex Code
There’s no questioning that COVID-19 (generically known as Coronavirus) is changing the way we think about our movement, travel and disease vectors. Whether you’re watching the evening news or you’re someone who was supposed to travel to one of the many conferences that have been cancelled, the impact of COVID-19 is being felt widely.
While many people are making simple, everyday choices to limit potential exposure, many companies are taking a proactive approach to addressing both the personal impact the disease could have on their employees and the economic impact that the virus could have on their bottom lines. Beyond cancelling travel, conferences and other activities pulling together large groups of people, companies are looking at how they do day to day business and implementing opportunities for employees to work remotely. Enterprise software companies are joining in to support (and potentially profit from) the effort by offering premium services that make communicating remotely easier for free for a limited time.
While information on COVID-19 is still evolving, what it represents is something that is not entirely new. Every year, 12k-61k people die of the flu alone. That doesn’t count the number of people who lose days or weeks of work for illness. The fact is that as we pack more people into tight spaces, diseases run their course on larger numbers of people. As COVID-19 is making us especially aware of the challenges of disease transmission, perhaps we can reflect on the ways that allowing workers to work remotely can benefit our companies in both the short and long term.
Line 45 is a remote-first company. This means that all of our team members work remotely (i.e. from home or a workplace of their choosing) by default. We’ve built our systems, communication and work practices around this approach and feel it has benefits beyond just keeping you healthier.
Benefits of Remote Work
Remote work has been gaining popularity over the last several years. Whether remote work is offered as a perk at a brick and mortar business or established to get a wider reach when hiring, the benefits are numerous. Below we’ve broken out a few of the benefits we’ve experienced.
Disease/Illness - Since we work remotely, we have control over our environments. I used to work in an office environment with about 50 employees. It was a big open room with cubicles, and you could hear everyone within 20 feet. I remember a winter where I swear I got sick every two weeks. It was miserable. As soon as you heard one person hacking away, you knew it was going to spread. We can say that person should have stayed home, but maybe they didn’t have the leave time or maybe they had a tight deadline that just couldn’t wait. If you have physical buildings but your staff don’t have to be physically present to do their job, provide the flexibility for people to work from home. Working remotely exposes our team to fewer contagions. We also let people flex their time. Some days you could use an extra hour of sleep to fight off that bug and we say, “take it.” Everyone is more productive when they are healthier, they’re also just healthier which makes us happy.
Travel time - While not directly benefiting your organization, working from home saves your team time. The average commute time in the United States is around 27 minutes one-way. That means that staff members are losing an average of an hour a day just getting to and from work. While that time can be used to catch up on the news or wind down from the day, it is time that could be better spent working or spending time with family.
Reduced Overhead - a remote work policy doesn’t just help your staff, it can help your company’s bottom line too. At Line 45 we have no physical offices. This saves us a significant amount of money each month. We share our savings with our team by providing more fringe benefits. We provide gold level PPO health care, short term disability, long term disability and life insurance. We also provide annual equipment reimbursement and home office reimbursement. Staff can buy their own devices and outfit their office the way they want, and we help cover those costs. These programs still cost less than an in-town office space might and it allows us to get by with fewer “billable” hours, which allows us to provide staff with dedicated learning time so that they can develop their skills. Improving our staff’s knowledge in turn helps us get more specialized and lucrative contracts.
Intentional Communication - One of my favorite byproducts of remote work is that you have to be more intentional about communicating. You can’t just walk down the hall to see if someone is busy. You have to think about what you want to say to them, craft a short but-to-the-point message and deliver it to them in a non-invasive way. Our team generally focuses on asynchronous communication, meaning that we communicate in ways that don’t expect an immediate response. People can respond when it’s convenient and doesn’t interrupt a train of thought. We also encourage people to set aside time to have more casual conversations that you miss by not having a communal “water cooler.” This means that people can focus when they need or want to focus and have more social interaction on their own terms. This helps team members engage in deep work where they can truly dig into complex problem solving and thought-based activities.
Limited Distractions - This topic can be contentious, but I would argue that you have more control over distractions at home than you do at the workplace. This depends on your personality and living situation (e.g. family, roommates, pets). In an office, you often get only your office, desk or cubicle to claim as your own. Your ability to focus is at the whims of your boss, co-workers and whatever shenanigans may occur around you. At home, you can set aside your workspace, set some family rules and do your best to stay focused. This doesn’t mean it is distractionless. It just means that if done intentionally, you should be able to limit distractions at home more than you would be able to in a shared workspace.
Finding Talent - Being headquartered in Gaylord, Michigan is great for many reasons (e.g. the town’s motto is “All Outdoors”). Finding tech talent is not one of them. Hiring for remote jobs gives us the ability to access a much larger talent pool, stretching across time zones and countries. While we’re still mostly based in the United States, we’ve worked with specialists from Los Angeles to Malaysia and been better for it. We get to interact with people with different viewpoints and approaches and are able to engage with highly talented people who challenge themselves and us to do better work.
Remote work policies aren’t right for everyone or every type of business. A remote work policy simply won’t work if your business involves a brick and mortar location where customers come in on their own will and schedule. Remote work arrangements work best for business types or job positions such as the following:
Sales (not on-the-floor types)
Data management and entry
Remote work also depends on the workforce. If your workforce knows what they need to do and is self-motivated, remote work is great. If your workforce needs significant training, tends to be ephemeral and is motivated by the presence of a manager, then remote work is probably not a good fit.
At Line 45 we try to hire employees with a strong sense of personal and communal responsibility and great interpersonal skills. This means that they’re motivated by being a part of the team, delivering high quality results, and being empowered to make decisions that help move our organization forward. A big part of this equation is developing the right system of accountability. We don’t count the minutes our team works, we measure progress by getting things done. As a manager, my job is to let people know where we’re going, what is expected of them as individuals and as team members, and to help them understand key dates in projects and business timelines. I then let them perform. Our goal is that everyone has bought into the team's success. Once this happens, they mostly manage themselves.
A big part of developing this system is trust. We give trust until it is broken and we find that our team values trust and uses it responsibly. Remote work is a big part of this. Letting someone work from the place they choose and at hours they determine means we are saying, “We trust you to get your work done and we don’t need to look over your shoulder. Get your work done and show us the results.”
And you know what, it’s exactly what they do.
If you have questions about remote work and flexible work environments, feel free to reach out to me.