Are Same-City Remote Teams the Perfect Compromise?
I write frequently about remote work.
I’m deeply passionate about it, and hope I never have to go back to working in an office again.
I’m currently in Aspen where I spend the winters and have a condo at the base of Ajax mountain. I ski every single day, and don’t get tired of it.
For me, it’s a dream life, and you couldn’t put a dollar amount on the freedom to spend the whole winter here.
That’s great, it’s living the dream, and stories like mine are typically what you hear when people talk about remote work.
There are some MAJOR drawbacks to remote work that people don’t talk about quite as much. If you’re thinking about going remote, you should consider the downsides.
I also think I figured something out last year that solves almost all of the problems you’ll run into with remote teams.
At first glance, you might think the major problem with remote work is employees slacking off and not working enough.
I believe that if you’re having that problem, it’s got nothing to do with remote work. It means you made the wrong hire.
I think a more serious issue (when you’ve made the right hires) than slacking off is people actually working too much, not being social enough, and becoming depressed.
Lack of Human Touch
In my opinion, the biggest advantage an office has over a remote team is that from a happiness standpoint, most people do better seeing the same faces every day.
People like routine.
In a “work from anywhere” setting you clearly just don’t get that, unless you actively seek it out yourself.
There’s two problems with lack of human touch. One, the team is not as connected. Personal relationships are shallower, and bonds among the team are not as strong.
The second problem is that in some cases isolation can lead to anxiety and depression. That’s bad for everybody.
But what’s the best way to resolve this?
Halfsies Worked Well
For a while before our first business, Robly, went 100% “work from anywhere,” we were all coming to the office two days a week.
I always thought that from a social standpoint, this was a nice compromise.
We were all clearly less productive during the two days we were in the office, but we loved seeing each other, and had stronger relationships than we do now with our co-workers.
We go on one or two retreats a year with the entire team, which are fantastic, but they can’t substitute for seeing the same faces over and over again, week after week.
But wait…is it all or nothing?
Last year I spent eight months building a development team in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
I have a few sage advisors who were telling me that I could go through an agency abroad, but I would never get the quality of work I truly wanted.
With a few exceptions, this has been my experience over the years.
Those same advisors told me that if I actually wanted to have my own employees as a productive team, someone from my company would have to go down and live there while it was being assembled.
Someone who could pass down the values from the U.S. team in the the Argentinian team.
Someone who could get buy-in to the mission, and buy-in to the people in the U.S.
That someone was me.
From Office to “Work from Anywhere”
We were operating without experience in a foreign country, so I wanted to be as conservative as possible.
So I started with an office in a co-working space.
That was fine for a few months, but after a while, the employees expressed an interest in being fully remote.
We tried one day a week together, which worked well, then went fully remote and got rid of the office a few weeks later.
The Lack of Human Connection
However, the team still expressed a desire to see each other more often than never.
I started having the team of six over to my apartment once a week, taking them to lunch, then having sunset drinks on my terrace at the end of the day.
There was definitely a lack of productivity on the day that we all worked from my apartment, but it’s made up for by the intangible benefit of a closer-knit team with tighter personal relationships.
As a result, I made a policy with the team that if they continued to work once a week from a co-working space, I would pay for it and buy their lunch, so long as they provided a photo of whatever they were doing and a copy of a receipt.
The Perfect Compromise
In my opinion, this system of one day a week at a co-working space is a dream scenario.
Everyone on the dev team works better in whatever environment they’re comfortable working in, and prefers to spend 80% of their time in that environment.
However, that one day a week is enough to keep a strong bond between them.
They love the repetition, the routine.
When I’m there, I love it too.
The major downside of a same-city remote team is that you don’t have the advantage of hiring from the unlimited global labor pool.
If you’re building the team in an expensive city (which Buenos Aires is not), you have the downside of all your employees being above the global market price.
However, if you’re team-building in an inexpensive city, that works in your favor. Everybody is below the average global market price for their skill level.
One More Added Bonus
If you’re building an overseas dev team like we are, there is the added advantage of being able to reward employees by sending them to that city, which is both a great experience for the employee, and keeps that remote same-city team feeling connected to the team in the U.S.
I personally think same-city remote teams solve many of the issues that remote work cause.
One day a week with the same set of faces is probably enough for most people to feel connected to the group and to keep the bond between the team growing stronger and stronger.
What do you think? Tell me in the comments.