The pros and cons of running a remote-first company

Remote work comes with its own set of trade-offs that need to be managed. This post is about the positives and negatives of running a remote-first company along with some of the tools we use and the adjustments that have worked for me.

About me

I am Arun and I run Qxf2 Services. Qxf2 provides testing services for startups. We work well with small engineering teams and early-stage products. Since late 2015, all my employees have been working from home. We meet in person (Bangalore, India) four times a year. We meet as a group twice a year for half-yearly company updates, once a year for a Hackathon and once a year for a team outing. Additionally, every employee meets me in person for their first annual review.


remote working chess pieces

Advantages of running a remote company

1. I can hire experienced people from anywhere in India.
I limit employees to India because I am too small (12 employees) to deal with all the paperwork needed to employ people from all over the world.

2. My employees do not waste time in traffic.
Not having to drive is a BIG perk for people living in India.

3. I have fewer personality conflicts to deal with
… but this could just be a side effect of being a really small company.

4. My employees develop better remote working skills.
This helps a lot since all my clients are abroad.

5. I save on office rent.
Renting commercial space is a relatively large overhead for a small company like mine.


Disadvantages of running a remote company

1. I find it hard to hire junior engineers.
In India, folks with 0-3 years of experience prefer having a collegiate culture with their colleagues. I do not blame them. I’ve seen the culture work well for them. They share knowledge and split work amongst themselves. It is hard to cultivate a collegiate culture when you work remote. So junior engineers do not like working in fully remote companies. The inability to hire junior engineers hurts me as a services business because I get better margins on more junior folk.

2. Many senior people do not want to join my company.
Senior people that I interview request me to be more flexible about being remote-only. They would like to have better visibility into their direct reports. They ‘feel like they are managing’ if they can see their direct reports working. This objection wasted so much time during the phone screens that I have had to list ‘we are a distributed team’ as a negative on our careers page.

3. Swanky offices are a genuine status symbol.
The lack of posh office space is a major downer for a lot of people. People would like to bring their relatives and show off a fancy office and well-dressed colleagues.

4. We have weak personal connections with our colleagues.
My employees often complain that “we do not really know our colleagues”, “we do not get together often enough”, etc. This is a genuine problem. I have heard this complaint from a majority of my employees.

5. ‘Work from home’ is misinterpreted as ‘easy work’.
Many of our friends and relatives misinterpret ‘remote work’ to mean ‘less work’. E.g.: “I have this errand in the middle of a weekday. Come with me. You work from home anyway.”

Bonus: You can read about the perspective of one my employee here.

If you read through the downsides of running a remote company and are still open to the idea, I have a few extra pointers for you.

I. Our toolbelt

We rely a lot on written communication – documentation, blogging, code, and drawings/sketches to stay informed. We use Trello, BitBucket, Github, Google Calendar, Hangouts, Google Drive, Evernote, and Skype. We also meet (on Hangouts) every Friday for an hour to review the work from the past week. Everyone briefs the team about the work they did with clients or talks about internal Trello tickets they worked on during the week. Near the end of the meeting, we discuss upcoming leave plans and what to expect in the coming week.


II. Adjustments that worked for me

a. Framing remote work as a challenge and not as a perk.
Emphasize remote working challenges right from the first day. I have found that if I stay silent about the challenges of remote work on the first day, employees fill up that vacuum with their own mental models of remote work. So during our employee orientation, I mention adjusting to remote work as one of the hardest challenges that the new hire will face. That usually gets the new hire thinking and asking more questions about how to become a better remote worker.

b. Being patient about temporary dips in productivity.
Expect a dip in employee productivity around the sixth month. My experience is that newly minted remote employees are super-productive for the first few weeks. But once the novelty wears off, there is a visible dip in their productivity. This phase, depending on the person, seems to last for about 2-8 weeks. Being patient with the employee during this phase has worked out well for me.

c. Correcting poor writing habits quickly.
When all your colleagues are in one place, you get sloppy about leaving a written trail for your work. Often, it is enough to have a conversation in the hallway. Writing is not a big priority. But when you work remote, writing down ideas is critical. So make sure you correct any poor writing habits early. I still feel really odd nitpicking writing habits of experienced engineers but the results have been good. Note: I am not referring to grammatical mistakes here. I am more concerned about how well people communicate their ideas through writing.

d. Helping people communicate error messages better.
“Hey, I have a problem. Can you come take a look at my screen” is a practical problem-solving approach when you are co-located with your colleagues. People who are new to remote working are going to be trying something similar and it is going to feel pretty jarring. Be patient and understand that they are not being lazy or dumb. They are just continuing old habits. Help new employees express their error messages better.

I hope this post has given you a more realistic idea about running a fully remote company!

2 thoughts on “The pros and cons of running a remote-first company

  1. is this for all peoples or only senior staff? how you know your employees are working 40 hours per week? what happens when there is emergency? when you give too much freedom people misuse. how can that be prevented?

    1. is this for all peoples or only senior staff?

      We allow (and encourage) remote work for all employees.

      how you know your employees are working 40 hours per week?

      Ah, honestly, there is no way to know if your employees are working 40 hours per week even when they are present in the office. The best I can do is to ensure they are present at work for 40 hours/week. This takes slightly different rules, a few systems and some forethought right from the hiring stage. One rule that helped us was that each employee can choose any 8-hours they plan to work but it should be consistent through the year. When they deviate from their normal routine, they post on a public Skype channel that they are stepping out and approximately when they will return. If they know in advance they will not be available, they additionally update their calendars too.

      what happens when there is emergency?

      I don’t think I understand the question. If there is an emergency, the employee obviously skips work and takes care of their emergency. This is true whether they work remote or come to the office, no?

      when you give too much freedom people misuse. how can that be prevented?

      I don’t really see this as me ‘giving freedom’ to anyone. This is the system that works for me. As noted in the post, we do a lot to protect our ability to work remote. But I totally understand that I am lucky to have stumbled upon sincere employees whom I can trust. And that one or two bad apples can upset our culture. For now, I have steeled myself to be harsh on anyone who is seen exploiting the system rather than punish everyone. Time will tell if this is a good choice or not.

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