The Remote Team Danger Zone
There are some positive things about working in an office with other people:
People can have coffee/lunch together to build friendships;
There are watercooler conversations that could turn into "aha" moments for the team;
Information can be shared easily with a team member by simply walking over to someone else or standing up to make an announcement.
If a team is remote, these situations can't happen in a physical space, so people need to make an effort to create these types of experiences in a virtual environment. Even with the best of intentions and the cultural desire to make this happen, the reality is if a large majority of the team is co-located in an office, it's difficult to remember or see the need to include the people who work remotely. Companies have varying scenarios in which individuals are considered to be remote workers; some employees work in the main office, while others might work in satellite offices or from home. Moreover, some companies have no offices at all! There is a danger zone in terms of the number of employees in an organization that has some part of the team working remotely. Being in this zone can be very difficult for both the employee and the company.
Let's look at the possible scenarios:
A company in which 100% of the employees work in one office. In this scenario, the company has no employees that work remotely. Everyone is in the office five days a week, or maybe working from home is an unusual exception. There is no issue here because everyone benefits from the watercooler effect described above.
A company in which 99.9999% of the employees work in one office. If one individual works remotely, he/she is not privy to all the watercooler benefits that being in an office would provide. However, the overhead costs needed to develop a remote-enabled infrastructure or culture for one remote employee doesn't make sense. The person who works remotely has the hardest time obtaining information from the team since he/she is easily forgotten and most communications and meetings happen face-to-face. You've probably seen it before: your public Slack channels are dead and the comments on your GitHub issues are non-existent. Unless the person really needs zero context apart from the tasks assigned to him/her, this isn't an issue. However, if the remote employee must make any decisions that depend on input from others, or if his/her input could be used to help make decisions, this could hurt the company. This negative outcome can occur until a large percentage of the company’s work force is remote.
A company in which around 50% of the employees work remotely and/or in satellite offices. Once a company has enough remote employees that must be included in conversations to move the company forward, the lack of information dissemination/conversations with everyone in the company has a major impact on the decisions that must be made for the organization. Once a company hits this point, moving to an asynchronous communication and implementing online company management strategies is really the only way to continue with the remote practices. Once this is established and people feel they are contributing to meaningful decisions, they can work from home, or, the key indicator, work from anywhere in the world without being less productive (or even more productive). This is an effective way to ensure the health of a remote-enabled company.
A company in which 100% of the employees work remotely. Once the majority of a company’s employees work remotely, and the organization is moving along smoothly, the hardest part is over. Growing to a situation in which 100% of workers are remote (if that's the desire) is not as challenging as going from 0% remote workers to 50% remote workers.
The key takeaway here is that while having a remote team creates a strong competitive advantage for a company, there are growing pains as teams shift from having a small number of individuals working remotely to a large number. Having this in mind during the growth phase will help the transition. Knowing is half the battle.