Once upon a time, you could instantly access the size of a company by strolling through their office and doing a head count (give or take one or two staff members pulling a sickie or playing Snake on their phone in the canteen).
But nowadays, if you judge a company by their office quota, you may seriously underestimate their manpower. Take The Collective – if you came to our office you’d think we miraculously produce a monthly publication with just eight or 10 people.
What you won’t see is our “invisible army” – the 70-plus freelancers we employ across the world, and the senior members of the team who work from home (or from a hammock in the middle of a rainforest, as one of our senior writers prefers, because it inspires her).
It might sound like a risky strategy – allowing your staff to roam free – but it’s a business model more start-ups are implementing and the government is encouraging.
With companies such as Medibank, Telstra, Dell, American Express and Xerox leading the way in teleworking (defined as “working regularly from a place other than the office.”), the Australian government has even launched a website dedicated to explaining the benefits. The site also has a tool to calculate the savings you might make.
The big question for small business is productivity. When I tell other entrepreneurs I let selected staff members work with unrestricted flexibility, I’m sometimes met with aghast expressions, and the question: “But, how do you keep track of them? What if they spend all morning watching television?”
First of all, I would argue that if you choose your team wisely and ensure their work is rewarding, you should never have to worry that their duties will come second to reruns of Jerry Springer. In fact, research shows that working from home can make employees far more motivated.
In 2014, the travel website Ctrip gave its call center stall the opportunity to work from home for nine months. At the conclusion of the study, performance data revealed staff working from home completed 13.5 per cent more calls than the control group in the office – that’s almost an extra workday each week. They also reported much higher job satisfaction and resigned at half the rate of the office crowd.
So what about other common concerns – maintaining communication and creating culture? These can be solved with a savvy use of technology.
“My team is across five countries, six time zones and eight cities, so all work remotely. But even if they all lived in Sydney I’d definitely allow them to still work from home,” says Tom Dawkins, the Australian co-founder and CEO of StartSomeGood the crowd-funding platform for non-profits and social entrepreneurs.
“I've been splitting my time between an office in the city and my home office since my son was born 2.5 years ago and I love that freedom and flexibility.
“We just make sure we have the tools in place to give us a lot of transparency around how much people have on and how much progress they’re making.”
These tools include the messaging platform Slack for day-to-day conversations, brainstorming and updates, Trello for project management, Dropbox for sharing files and Google Drive for collaboratively editing them.
“Most members of our team come from a very entrepreneurial background and are used to working independently within their own space.”
Freedom is a luxury
This doesn’t mean that you should necessarily offer it to everyone. The level of freedom should reflect experience. The deputy editor of The Collective has two children under the age of four and needs to do her share of childcare. However, she’s has worked for me for 10 years and I trust her completely. She also has a very clear and trackable KPI – she has to produce a magazine every month - so I can very quickly assess if this isn’t happening.
However, it’s important to maintain a collaborative atmosphere.
“The biggest pitfall of the working-from-home model is looking at it purely from a financial point of view and ignoring the potential eradication of collaborative creativity,” says Claudia Barriga-Larriviere, Innovation Strategist for Start Mesh, which helps mid-tier start-ups transition into scalable businesses.
“If you look at it purely from a financial point of view, the savings in rent, insurance, office furniture and stationery, and other materials are incredible. But, isolating employees from their peers is very risky as you are potentially eliminating any form of casual interaction, bouncing of ideas and accidental strategising.”
To ensure a team isn’t fractured, technology can be used to replace real life meetings and water cooler collisions.
“I am a big fan of video calls, as most of our communication is non-verbal and we develop relationships through our body language, our tone of voice, shared experiences and social bonding,” says Claudia.
To me it’s all about balance. While I believe that freedom and flexibility are key in attracting and keeping talent, the human touch is still important. I’m not planning to go the way of Silicon Valley, with meetings full of “Telepresence robots” and every teammate beaming in from their bedrooms. But with the right talent, the right checks and the help of technology, a successful team should be productive… whether home or away.
With more employees working from home and many organisations encouraging employees to BYOD (“bring your own device”) the issue of cloud security is paramount. Cue a new wave of start-ups offering solutions to the problem.
For operations using the cloud, BitSight measures the security rating of your network daily to help understand risk, whilst CipherCloud detects compliance violations, protects sensitive data and monitors user activity across your cloud.