Remote Work Doesn’t Scale … or Does It?by@getadam
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10,021 reads

Remote Work Doesn’t Scale … or Does It?

by Adam SchwartzSeptember 13th, 2017
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Earlier this summer, I posted an article on <a href="">why I chose to build a fully remote company before it was&nbsp;cool</a>.

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Earlier this summer, I posted an article on why I chose to build a fully remote company before it was cool.

A few days later, I received an email from an investor at a private equity firm. He’d read my article and was desperate to know how we’ve scaled at Articulate.

“I’m the crazy one running around the office trying to convince people that remote work/distributed teams is the future of corporate structure,” he said. “But I’m continuously told that it’s a good way to start a business, not a good way to maintain a large and successful one.”

Are his colleagues right? Does the remote model prevent growth? Does it break down when you start to grow? Are there limits to what you can do remotely?

No. No. No. And … not necessarily.

In fact, for a company like Articulate that offers intangible goods and services, scaling a remote organization is much easier than scaling a traditional one.

It’s less costly, less time-consuming, and less risky

Say you’re a company with 5,000 employees who work in your San Francisco, New York, and London offices. You’ve just launched a new product line, and your frontline sales, customer care, and service folks are drowning. It’s time to add 250 frontline employees, but you have no extra space at any of your existing offices. So you have to find, secure, build out, and pay for office space. Then you have to find, screen, hire, and train 250 new employees in an expensive market. Finally, you hold your breath and hope that your expensive, time-consuming investment pays off quickly.

If you’re a remote company, you simply find, screen, hire, and train 250 people using modern online recruiting and training tools. Because there’s no physical office, you can hire in secondary markets in multiple time zones, avoid hefty office space investments, and ramp up quickly. And because you’ve spent so much less, your new product line has time to generate returns before you start freaking out about your investment.

It lowers the barriers to geographic expansion

When you’re fully remote, entering a new geographic market gets a whole lot easier and less costly. Again, no need to build out an expensive office presence or replicate core functions in the new market. Your business already supports employees wherever they are. The remote model gives you the flexibility to make a few key hires, test the waters, and grow organically.

It leverages cloud-based infrastructure

The tech stack we use to run Articulate is best-in-class. As a remote company, we’re (happily) reliant on a cloud-based architecture that’s designed to scale. Cloud-based tech changes quickly, and we’re always right at the forefront of adopting better, faster, cheaper, more flexible solutions to run the business. We aren’t locked into legacy systems that might otherwise prevent us from scaling operations quickly. And we don’t need people walking around the server room to update systems and install software.

It promotes smart organizational structure

Every company should be thoughtful about organizational structure. I suspect many don’t even realize that they’re sacrificing productivity and employee satisfaction by not giving it more attention. At Articulate, we’re constantly evaluating how we structure our teams and trying new configurations. Because we’re remote, we’re laser-focused on productivity. We know a team’s working well because they’re producing high-quality work. And we know when things aren’t working well because there are hiccups in productivity or quality.

If you have a tight feedback loop (like our productivity meter), then there’s no reason you can’t scale your organizational structure effectively. We’ve tripled staff in the last few years and, if anything, gotten even smarter about testing and tuning how we structure our teams. In just the last few months, we restructured our sales team, moved a group of engineers to our IT department, and changed the way product teams are organized. We’re already experiencing the wins of these adjustments. And we’ll continue to experiment as we evolve.

But what about collaboration?

You’re not alone if you’re thinking, “That sounds great, but how do you collaborate?!” It’s the first question I get from people trying to get their heads around remote work.

In fact, my investor reader was most curious to hear what tools Articulate uses for collaboration and communication. I imagine his partners think that it’s hard to collaborate remotely and that the problem just becomes more acute as you grow larger.

Not so. In fact, I firmly believe that Articulate is better at collaboration and communication than many traditional companies because we haven’t had the luxury of assuming it’ll just happen organically. We deliberately architect the way we work to support collaboration and foster clear, direct, open communication. And, if anything, we’ve just gotten better at it as we’ve grown.

Of course, we use all the modern cloud-based tools you’d expect to facilitate remote collaboration and communication. I’ll go into these in detail in my next article. But I suspect the culprit of people’s skepticism stems from the image they have in their minds about what collaboration looks like: people sitting around a conference room table spitballing ideas that they write on a whiteboard. How do you do that if you’re not in the same location?

That’s not what collaboration looks like at Articulate. And yet we collaborate intensely. It’s part of our culture of productivity. We believe that the fastest way to move projects forward is to involve key stakeholders early and often. Unlike many traditional companies, we don’t work in a vacuum then throw things over the wall to another department or manager to pick up. Collaboration here looks like ad-hoc video conferences, pair programming, Google doc riffing, and 40,000 Slack messages a week for the 200 members in our Slack team.

Limits to what you can do remotely

I’ve never worked at a place with higher productivity than Articulate. Our remote environment works for us for all the reasons I’ve outlined above.

But there is one thing you can’t do remotely. And that’s spend day-in, day-out time in the same physical space as your coworkers. This can be a real problem for people who rely on work for social interaction, which is one reason why we’re careful to hire people who thrive working from home.

That doesn’t mean, however, that people in remote environments can’t build deep, trusting, meaningful relationships with their coworkers. In fact, one of the reasons most cited as a benefit of working at Articulate is, “I love my coworkers.”

We hire kind-hearted, smart, driven people who tend to like one another. They also build trust by showing up for each other with a work product that’s excellent, day in and out. We don’t suffer jerks or disingenuous people, so people who join Articulate quickly learn that they can count on the authentic good intentions of others. We nurture these relationships by holding an all-company retreat once a year that’s designed to do one thing: provide time for people to hang out and bond. Also, teams often get together physically when they want to focus intensely on a particular project.

So, are the colleagues of my investor reader right? Are there limits to scaling remote work?

If there are, we haven’t reached them yet. And I’m confident we never will.