I’ve recently found myself reflecting a lot on being a distributed team and the nature of a company where the team works from remote locations to accomplish our work.

Scaling remote working has been a challenge as the team has grown. Remote companies are still relatively rare, and therefore all of us who are choosing to have a remote-friendly culture need to do two things:

  1. Work through the normal challenges of growing as a company and as a team
  2. Put time into figuring out how remote can scale, where there is no real pre-existing playbook

One of the significant commitments we’ve recently made at Buffer is to approach our company growth goals in a long-term fashion, staying true to our culture of remote working. This means we are deliberately making time to try to scale remote working, even if this may at times feel like it comes at the expense of short-term financial growth.

It is my belief that working to develop a great remote working culture is an investment that will pay dividends for decades to come. If we can make this work over the long-term, we set the company up for many significant advantages and great freedom for us as a team.

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The 5 Points on the Scale of Remote Working

In my reflections, I realized that I see remote working as a scale, with five points along the spectrum from “not remote” to “fully distributed”.

Scale of remote working (2)

1. Office-based culture (not remote)

At the far end of the spectrum, we have what is today perhaps the most typical working environment for companies. In this model, you have your whole team in one or more offices.

These companies have set working hours that are strict or loosely enforced. Employees work from the office all day and don’t have much flexibility in their day. They also wouldn’t be able to choose their work environment and to focus on the space they find themselves the most productive in.

Of course, office-based environments are also awesome for a whole bunch of reasons. People more naturally have close bonds and friendships forming. They can whiteboard and brainstorm, which is often very productive. If there are people who are junior in their role at the company, they can very readily and easily get help so they don’t get stuck.

2. Office-based with a work-from-home option

Next on the scale are companies which operate from a single office and have started to give team members the option to work from home one or more days per week. This is a great start and perhaps a perfect way to start to experiment with a remote working culture.

This small degree of remote-friendliness will already test the culture and require a few key changes to how work happens within a team. For example, on those days that team members are working from home, the team will need to mostly communicate through email, chat tools, or some other means than the more traditional face-to-face methods, which are sometimes more relied on in an office environment.

One key challenge when starting to experiment with this setup is avoiding the people who work from home feeling left out of discussions that lead to key decisions. With most of the team in one place and a few people not in the office, it’s easy for the people at home to feel like second-class citizens.

3. A remote team, in a single time zone

This is where things start to get more truly remote — although some remote companies do still choose to have the team mostly in one time zone or very few largely overlapping time zones.

This is a truly remote setup, so the way work happens is different than a team based in an office. Text-based communication and collaboration tools will come in here.

At the same time in this setup, there are still a lot of hours of overlap, if not full overlap, with everyone on the team. So at least the team can rely on someone being available when a teammate needs to get work done. This means a lot of the day-to-day work can still be done in a synchronous fashion and work well.

4. A worldwide remote team spread across numerous time zones

A step further is to have a team spread across different time zones — a setup where asynchronous collaboration becomes even more vital. They are likely just to have a few hours of overlap with other people on the team. This setup requires a little more structure to make communication and collaboration efficient.

Sometimes companies set up this way will choose to concentrate certain roles in the same time zone. Other times, it will be a completely location-independent setup. In either case, there are generally team members staying permanently in their location, for a long duration of time. So the company can create some consistency surrounding the setup of each team and can set up some forms of synchronous communication at the times of overlap.

The challenges with a fully remote setup like this are numerous; however, there are also many benefits. One key benefit is around-the-clock coverage of customer support or engineering.

5. A fully distributed team with nomadic team members

In my mind, this is the most extreme case of remote working. It’s a fully remote team where some of the members of the team are nomadic and traveling.

Our distributed team setup at Buffer is a result of our vision to create a workplace of the future and around our value to live and work smarter. This final point on the scale is the ultimate level I am currently striving for us to reach.

Currently, we see some challenges in reaching this level of freedom for team members, especially while also having a collaboration system that can be efficient for this setup. A key milestone in my mind is that work continues regardless of people moving locations. Of course, it should be kept in mind that moving to a new place can affect productivity. I do, however, believe that there is a way team collaboration can happen, where regardless of the productivity challenges a team faces, work can happen the exact same way, no matter a teammate’s location. This is what is truly needed to be able to work efficiently with nomadic people in the team.

I believe open source can be a great inspiration for the kind of asynchronous collaboration that is core to this setup. Synchronous chat tools are problematic. At the same time, to cultivate culture and create bonds, synchronous chat tools and video calls are effective here, too. The key, it seems, is to separate “how work happens” from those synchronous communications.

Over to You

I’d love to hear about your perspectives on remote work in the comments.

  • Do you do remote working at your company?
  • Which level are you at, or do you see yourself a different level I’ve not covered here?
  • What do you think is worth striving for?

This article originally appeared on Joel.is.

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Written by Joel Gascoigne

Joel is the founder and CEO at Buffer. He is focused on the lean startup approach, user happiness, transparency & company culture. Say hi to him anytime @joelgascoigne.

  • Brian

    Love this, Joel! It has been amazing to be able to fully lean into both work and travel as a nomad. I feel (personally), since Katie and I began to nomad at the beginning of 2016, that both our happiness and productivity have increased in an incredible way :-)

  • Thank you for this post, Joel! It couldn’t have come at a better time. I lead a startup which was founded as a remote company from the very beginning. We didn’t have such a clear distinction between different ways of working remotely but we did have the idea that we wanted to be digital nomads someday, although today we’re all based in the same city. :) So we had all our systems and procedures built in such a way that every team member is pretty much autonomous on a daily basis and can do their work at any time and from any place they like, without being dependant on synchronous communication with others to get things done. We have a weekly meeting when we make the decisions, set the goals and tasks and catch up on who’s been doing what, and we do have Slack for the occasional question (or gif :)) but most of our communication is in Trello, isn’t urgent and most tasks have a single owner who works whenever he/she can. Thank you for making it even clearer and here’s to hoping we get to the digital nomads stage pretty soon!

  • Maria Alejandra Yepes

    I also believe it is possible to create team work as the one you describe in number 5. I’m a CEO and cofounder of a nascent business without facing this kind of challenges yet. But I always have in mind the vision of the company culture we are building. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. They’re inspiring :)

  • I appreciate your post.
    Thank You
    Vissa Assistants

  • Laura García-Courrau

    Our team is actually a 2 & a 4. We have a local team in each city where we’ve launched (Miami & Seattle), and folks in those teams can either WFH or go to the office. The local teams don’t just interact with themselves, they interact with other cities as well. Our company is expanding to three other cities this year so figuring out how to management engagement with this mix will be interesting. Your post made me realize that remote-working isn’t a gradient, it’s a 3D challenge of options & timezones. Interested to see how this plays out!

    • Hi @lmgarc:disqus! Wow, that is a pretty neat mix. Best of luck with all of the expansions this year!

  • Steve Campbell

    Joel I have found myself reading a lot of buffers blogs lately. This one is excellent. While learning the importance of teamwork, with Toyota for 14 years, I can definitely see how remote jobs can flourish with the right employees. I work for a very large manufacturing company now and to my knowledge no one works remotely, at least at our plant. We are supposedly self managed but that has come into question much more recently. I would say our company is Level 1, possibly level 2. Since KC has so many divisions and plants, I imagine someone works remote sometimes. In my opinion level 5 is definitely worth striving for, maybe this is because I just read Remote by Jason Fried and David Hansson. I could definitely see my wife and I working remotely, and traveling while we work. I guess in small town Kentucky I never realized remote to be an option, I wish I could have found out about this years ago.

  • Angela Rollins

    This is great :)

    I do Marketing for Tortuga. We’re a mix between 4 & 5. Most team members can work from anywhere and change locations as they please. However, as we are a physical product team, we need someone who is based in China to oversee production.

    The marketing team has the most nomadry — by chance, not necessity. One member of our marketing team was changing locations monthly for 8 months. I travel often for 1-5 months at a time. And another other one, I never know where she is in the world. She’s always going somewhere. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to keep our weekly marketing meeting time even with changing timezones. It’s also flexible though. We’re comfortable with moving a meeting to accommodate whatever someone has going on in their lives. This week, we’re moving the marketing meeting so I can attend a choreography workshop =D

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