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No office, no cry? Should your startup go remote or in-office?

Since 2020 most of us have tried all sorts of collaboration setups trying to make work happen. Some companies have gone fully remote (or never got a physical office in the first place), some ended up in a hybrid workplace, while others (hello, Elon Musk) unapologetically preach the return to the good old office or bust.

Luckily, we still have a smorgasbord of novel work arrangements to choose from. Yet, for startups, this freedom often comes with the burden of choice. So what kind of workplace would help a startup thrive and ward off inevitable vulnerabilities associated with such ventures?

The perks of going remote

Remote collaboration is naturally a very appealing option for most startups. The growing number of successful remote-only tech companies out there suggests that WFH is not just a temporary fling. Remote work is actually a love to last. Here are just some of the advantages that such a work arrangement can offer.

Lower overheads

One of the most straightforward benefits of getting a remote or partially remote workforce is the chance to lower overhead costs. And these are usually going far beyond the office space rental expenses. According to Global Workplace Analytics, a typical U.S. employer can save up to $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year, which makes an astounding $22,000 for a full-time remote employee per year. You can also try their Telework Savings Calculator to get a more precise picture of what to expect for your business.

More diverse talent pool, faster

Another brilliant advantage of being a remote-friendly business is that you can hire professionals worldwide. Hiring overseas is much less of a tantalizing uncertainty now than it used to be in the past, thanks to companies willing and ready to build entire remote teams for you. This hikes up your chances to find people with the right skill sets and values faster and start delivering results when you would normally still be lining people up for interviews in an on-site office. This looks like an unbeatable edge in the context of extremely time-conscious startups.

Fewer absentee employees

A 2021 report from The U.S. Council for Disability Awareness (CDA) revealed that employees at remote-friendly companies showed a significantly lower absenteeism rate — not only during the pandemic but also over the five-year period leading up to it. This may signify that remote employees are pressed to clock in and do some work-related tasks even when they are down with a cold. On the other hand, we may also suspect that people are more comfortable working from their home offices and less compelled to skip work for a couch day (after all, they are already on the couch).

Higher productivity

Ironically, despite all the distractions, one may face while working from home, remote employees tend to be more productive. Moreover, workers with full schedule flexibility reported 29% higher productivity scores than traditional ‘9 to 5’ employees, and remote and hybrid workers showed 4% higher productivity than their full-time in-office counterparts. In spite of the reservations against remote work expressed lately, keeping your business remote-friendly is still a wise thing to do.

Better responsiveness in critical situations

When your team is scattered across countries and time zones, it may be hard to keep that sense of togetherness and make sure that online meetings happen at a reasonable time of the day for everyone. However, this challenge can be seen as an advantage because there is always someone to put out the fire if something goes wrong. Since most startups cannot afford downtime, increased responsiveness is a very convincing argument in favor of going (or staying) remote.

Better employee satisfaction

Studies show that employees at remote-friendly companies are 20% happier than those who can not work from home. Happiness at work translates to overall happiness in life, which in turn means less burnout and higher productivity among remote employees. On the other hand, commuting kills happiness and is less sustainable than staying in the comfort of one’s home or neighborhood.

Remote work pitfalls

However alluring the idea of going fully remote may be, one should realize that it is not a universal solution for every business or employee. This is true not only for assembly line workers or surgeons. Some challenges of remote work apply to all companies, including those that have no problem digitizing all of their operations.

Communication gets way harder

There is no secret that only 7% of information is communicated verbally. Important context is conveyed through body language, tone of voice, and other non-verbal cues. Online interactions often lack spontaneity and cut off loads of information passed through paralinguistic signals. Imagine adding the language barrier and cultural differences on top. Exchanging ideas with your remote team may become quite a bit of a conundrum.

People do not mingle with each other

Not only is our business communication affected by distance, but our informal connections with colleagues also suffer too. Remote employees often feel isolated and engrossed by technology. Even the most introverted ones crave casual human interaction from time to time. Yet, remote work setup rarely makes space for just sitting and vibing. As a result, chances to build meaningful connections at work are rather scarce.

Company culture is hard to establish

As remote employees do not connect naturally, you cannot expect them to adopt the corporate culture or develop loyalty to the company. In fact, there have been speculations about whether remote work can be responsible for the so-called “quiet quitting” of employees — a term referring to doing the bare minimal tasks of one’s job description well enough so as not to get fired.

While the claims about the alleged connection between the phenomena were soon refuted, it is obvious that if we want our remote companies to thrive, we need to revisit our approach toward employee engagement.

Remote fatigue

Just as any good thing in this world, remote work needs moderation. Yes, our productivity during the ‘honeymoon phase’ of working from home can be phenomenal, but eventually, the luster will wear off, and the remote fatigue will kick in. Any minor inconveniences in our home offices will grow into huge obstacles just because we humans get tired of the routine and mundane.

Take your startup to the office?

If you already feel overwhelmed with the challenges posed by remote work and would rather go the traditional way (the Henry Ford or Steve Jobs way, you name it), you will certainly have some aces up your sleeve.

Better infrastructure

A physical office guarantees each employee equal workplace standards — from equipment and desk furniture to office temperature. Choose an office properly, and you will never have to leave your team’s performance to chance or the mercy of each employee’s internet provider or living conditions.

Higher employee engagement

An employee who has woken up and commuted to the office has likely done so with a certain purpose — to work, as opposed to a remote employee who may be attending to their tasks in-between their household chores or hobbies. In-office employees tend to learn faster as they grasp the broader context of the business and have more spontaneous check-ins with their colleagues. Finally, offices provide a sense of adherence and physical perception of the brand and promote company loyalty, which may be important for those who long for the ‘real job’.

Better communication

Offices (especially the open-plan ones) foster communication and a free exchange of ideas. It is much easier to discuss the daily tasks or ask questions on the go without scheduling a Zoom call. As a result, offices create a positive work atmosphere and promote innovation and collaboration.

Boundaries

Many people find it hard to maintain a work-life balance when working remotely. Offices help draw the boundaries between work and personal life, thus contributing to a better quality of life and mitigating the risk of burnout.

Security

The office definitely beats remote work when it comes to cybersecurity. According to a survey by an email security company Tessian, more than 50% of IT leaders believe that employees have adopted bad cybersecurity habits since they have started working from home. Almost three-quarters think that a return to the office can mitigate the security risks.

Office challenges

Needless to say, an office is nice to have if you can afford one. However, just a fleeting glance at the common challenges associated with traditional offices is enough to view it as a non-viable solution for a startup.

Cost

This one is probably the most painful, yet the figures are relentless: in the U.S., you will need to pay up to $23 per square foot of office space monthly.  Each employee needs at least 75 sq. ft. and do not forget to include the space for meetings and communal areas.

Hiring issues

If you decide to hire employees on-site, you will either have to source them locally or help them relocate to your country. The first approach is, by all means, harder than choosing from the global talent pool of potential remote candidates. In contrast, the second one can be rather costly and complicated in terms of bureaucracy. There are ways to make recruitment more cost-effective, but many startups are simply not in the place to sponsor work visas or offer relocation packages to their new hires.

What if we still got work to do?

Obviously, both remote and in-office work have their advantages and downsides when considered in isolation. While the full-time office is an unaffordable luxury for most startups, remote-only work is hard to pull off when the business is just at its onset. Luckily, we are free to devise a mode of collaboration that will suit our teams’ specific needs. This can be a virtual office or any combination of a hybrid workplace. You can definitely have the best of both worlds as long as you are creative and open to innovation.

Here are some tips on how to make the most of your remote/hybrid collaboration:

Establish clear communication with your colleagues

Revisit the way you set tasks and give feedback. Remember that online communication is different from high-context real-life interactions. Do not expect your colleagues to read between the lines; try not to provoke second-guessing with vague wording.

Make sure your remote employees feel appreciated

If you work in a hybrid workspace, ensure remote employees do not feel left out. Credit them for their achievements, initiate casual check-ins, and make space for non-work chit-chat and other ways to create a virtual ‘watercooler experience’.

Work on time management and organization

Lead by example: prioritize organization and set strict work-life boundaries to minimize remote fatigue.

Create processes to handle emergencies

Clear protocols will help remote employees address issues timely and effective.

Celebrate your success together

Take time to have fun and celebrate important events with your remote team. Make good memories together and inspire your colleagues for further victories.

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