One of the things that makes Surge unique is the fact that we are a 100% telecommuting company. And although it is true that having employees spread out all over the country does create some unique challenges, it is also true that it creates some incredibly powerful benefits.
One of the amazing things about this day and age, for better or for worse, is just how connected we all are. From mobile devices, to multiple means of keeping in touch with one another, never before have we had so many different tools to stay in-touch. Now, sometimes these tools can be overbearing, in that there is value in unplugging from time to time. However, for the most part, these tools equip us to be able to work (practically) anywhere and anytime.
For knowledge workers, this creates a unique opportunity. That is, the tools needed to complete knowledge work are readily available. In fact, most knowledge work these days is accomplished on little more than consumer-grade tools. Whether we are talking about software development, design, testing, or the other functions that go into creating digital products and services, the ubiquity of tools mean that knowledge workers are not dependent upon a company to provide them the resources required to get their job done. In a telecommuting environment, everyone works on a BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) status, which suits most people just fine. Gone are the days of needing a company’s (often vast) resources to accomplish one’s work tasks. Now, with little more than a notebook, some open source tools, and a text editor, a developer can build great software. Indeed, the era of “Have MacBook, will travel” is surely upon us.
Challenges of a 100% Telecommuting Environment
Even though we have a myriad of tools and resources available to us, there are challenges in running a 100% telecommuting environment. Most of these challenges break down into the two C’s, Culture and Communication. Not that there aren’t other challenges, just like there are with any business, but time and time again we find most of our challenges can be couched in one of these two areas.
Culture is a difficult thing to build when you have a group of people who do not occupy the same physical space (not to mention even the same time zone). Often, most communication is purely task or project-based, which can strip out any sort of company culture. One of the great things about a 100% telecommuting environment is the focus is on the work, and little else, all the time. This creates a very low-stress environment for people to work in, in that it is free of interruptions, office politics, and the various undesirable side-effects that come from working in a standard office environment. However, when most communication is strictly business it can be easy for people to forget about the larger team they are playing for. In a telecommuting environment, it can often feel like everyone is simply an army of one, little more than mercenaries for hire. Because of this, extra care and concern must be made to engage people as a team, and help remind people of the bigger picture of what they are doing. Working alone, solely focused on your own work, it can be easy to adopt a myopic attitude towards what you are doing. To combat this, it is important to make sure to include people in more than just their function, if to only see how the sausage gets made, and how their work impacts not only other people on the project (and vice versa), but also the project itself (as well as the client).
Communication issues are a little easier to address. That is, with everyone spread around, it can be easy to have people get out of touch, sometimes creating holes in project work. To combat this, we adopt an attitude of over-communicating. Maintaining transparency with what everyone is doing does not happen by accident, and in my view, I would rather have our people know too much about what people are doing than too little.
Benefits of Telecommuting
To most people, the obvious benefits of having all employees telecommute boil down to simple cost-savings measures. That is, it is easy to imagine the benefits of having no need for expensive office space, furniture, support staff, and other resources that are needed to create and maintain a typical office environment. However, in my opinion, these advantages are minor. Where the benefits really come in are in two main areas, quality of life and the ability to hire (and retain) amazing people.
In my opinion, the formula of expecting (smart) people to get dressed up, sit in traffic, and spend eight (plus) hours a day in a cubicle does not make a lot of sense anymore. More and more, high-quality knowledge workers are realizing they do not have to do this. Plus, for many workers in larger cities (especially in California), rising rents and property prices mean either having to live further and further away from work, or making other sacrifices about the kind of home they can afford. Just “making it” in larger cities is getting harder and harder (especially for the younger generations). More and more, people are finding the trade-offs involved in big-city living (especially for people with families), just aren’t worth it. Plus, what I think telecommuting proves is that these things are not only not worth it, they are not necessary. That is, who wouldn’t want a zero minute commute, and the ability set their schedule to the hours when the work is flowing (rather than something arbitrary like eight to five)? From personal experience I can tell you one big group that does want (and value) this flexibility; smart people.
By offering a 100% telecommuting environment, not only do we free people up to live wherever they want, but also wherever they are. By de-coupling where they live with where they work, our people have total freedom to live where/how they want. Plus, we can hire the most amazing people we can find, no matter where they are located.
In my opinion, that is the best part of telecommuting, it removes artificial limitations that keep amazing people from doing amazing work. At Surge, we build amazing software by hiring and retaining amazing people and setting them up to do amazing things. By offering a 100% telecommuting environment, we allow our people focus on the work, and we have found that by doing this, magic can, and often does, happen.