Forms of remote work

Forms of remote work

John is sitting at home, in a bright and open kitchen. It is early in the morning and the sun is shining through the big windows. He has a headset on and is speaking on Skype using his laptop computer on the kitchen table in front of him while in the background kids are playing around with in the yard. He observes them through the window but is mostly focusing on the screen, switching between different tabs and programs. Now his screen shows an open email and a just sent smiley face through the company’s chat channel. Receiving the chat, is a woman, also sitting in front of her computer, but instead of morning coffee it is a late afternoon tea for her. Due to a different time zone it is getting late, the sun has already set and it is only the bright­ neon light illuminating her working space. She is about to close the computer, turn off the light of the office and lock the door for the day. But their conference is not yet over. The third person on the line is still talking and sending over more proposals and ideas. He is in a similar time zone as the man at home, yet sitting in a completely different environment: In a coffee shop in a busy district, surrounded by people standing in line to order or reading the newspaper at the table next door.

People meeting over coffee

They are all in a meeting, exchanging thoughts and prioritizing the next steps of the latest product feature, sharing their screen to decide between two designs, adding tasks to the company wide To­Do list all the while chatting with coworkers in various chat channels. This might not look like the usual work team for you but for them, and many others, it is the work team of the present and the future. The described situation could be a regular morning or afternoon at Basecamp ­ a company without the need for an office. 

This is a Remote Team

Basecamp sets the example of a new work ­form that has been enabled through globalization ­the creation of a global, interconnected economy unhampered by time zones or national boundaries­ and also by advancements in technology and in some parts by the transition from a production to a service sector. It is only through globalization and its forces of standardization in communication and technology and opportunities of mobility of human capital that this form of teamwork has become possible for organizations such as Basecamp. 

On the one hand, employers seek flexibility in their human capital and with increasing competition and workforce mobility, the power the employer holds over the employees grows.The combination of technological advancement and interconnectedness of economies has led to the creation to temporary or remote work forms. On the other hand, there are also cases like the example of Basecamp, in which it is the employee who chooses flexibility and opts for a non­standard work form, yet this remains the exception.

The case of Basecamp

As an example of new forms of work enabled through globalization I would like to introduce Basecamp, a tech company founded in 1999 by Jason Fried, Carlos Segura and Ernest Kim (Company Website, 2015).

The company – once known under the name of 37signals – is famous for its central product Basecamp, for the open source web application framework called Ruby on Rails which was initially internally build and later opened up to the general public and is today widely used, and for the CEO Jason Fried and his public appearances, books and also his movement of remote work (Community Website, 2015). The company’s collaboration platform called Basecamp is used by more than 15 million people worldwide (Company website, 2014) and the main credo is to ‘Keep it simple’ (Fried and Heinemeier, 2010 & 2013). Even though the company has set up their headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, everyone is “free to live and work wherever they want” and currently the team of 50 is spread out over 32 different cities around the world (Company Website, 2015). Basecamp focuses on “making life better through remote work rather than making work better” and has found that every person has a different time of day, place or location to be the most productive (Cloudpeeps, 2015).

Jason Fried, CEO and author of the book “Rework”, does not believe in the 40-hour workweek and rather invites employees to “come to the office if and when they feel like it” or have them work from home (Welch, 2009). Basecamp advocates a free, self-directed work-style where trust and responsibility is transferred onto employees and is increasingly being followed by other companies, copying this example (Fried and Heinemeier, 2010 & 2013).

Their belief in remote work has been there from the very founding of the company, when one partner was residing in Copenhagen while the other lived in Chicago. Until this day they have kept up their working style even with a grown team and declare that “remote work is about setting your team free to be the best it can be, whenever that might be”. Throughout the years Jason Fried asks his team members where they go when they need to get work done and he has learned that most of the time the answer is the office with a strong but such as “but early in the morning when no one is in” or “but late at night when all have gone home” or even “but on the weekend, sneaking in”. He learned that it is the office, but only when undisturbed. In fact, to Basecamp the office is an ‘interruption factory’ and for productive, focussed work they recommend to avoid distractions. That is why they want their team to work on their own schedule (of course overlapping for a few hours a day to be synchronized and organized) but mainly to be able to work concentratedly and with a good outcome (Fried and Heinemeier, 2010 & 2013).

Being a remote workteam gives Basecamp “access to the best talent, freedom from soul-crushing commutes, and increased productivity outside the traditional office”. The negative aspects like a possible lack of social life and resources used for organization and synchronization do not outweigh the positive effects for Basecamp  (Fried and Heinemeier, 2010 & 2013). To me, both from the academic and practitioner’s perspective, Basecamp makes for a highly interesting example of a working style – a company that operates in a traditional process ways but chooses to be remote, offering flexibility and getting a higher productivity in return. This form of remote teamwork would not be possible without globalization: It is enabled through standardization and mobility. In the following I would like to look more closely at these two changes in our interconnected work that have enabled Basecamp and other companies (e.g. Buffer, Gascoigne, 2014) to work as remotely distributed virtual teams.

Standardization through globalization as an enable for remote teamwork

Standardization, the ‘creation of comparability’ is a key feature of globalization and an enabling force for companies like Basecamp to work in this remote way. Standardization concerns trade and politics but also communication like language or time (Eriksen, 2014: 57). In the case of Basecamp the most important standardization lies in communication – in protocols that are applied in the same way everywhere in the world – and in technological standardization – software and hardware that is used in the same and synchronous way. Only because employees speak the same language – English but also language in terms of software like for example Microsoft Word (Eriksen, 2014: 67) – and can communicate via email, chats and the phone can they work together remotely.

The most used applications for communication that Basecamp’s team members use are WebEx for sharing their screen, their own Basecamp web-application to coordinate To-do lists and prioritize work, instant messaging services such as Slack to make use of real-time chatting and Dropbox for file-sharing and always having the latest version of a project (Fried and Heinemeier, 2010 & 2013). These tools allow Basecamp’s members to collaborate on a real-time basis and to recreate a virtual environment of teamwork. Even though the team lives and works spread out over different time zones, they stick to the rule of 4 hours of overlap everyday which means that in some places of the world, the daily work schedule differs from the regular 9-to-5 (Fried and Heinemeier, 2010 & 2013). With an overlap of four hours, they enable the team to work in synchronicity when it is necessary or crucial but at the same to have some offline hours without interruptions when work that needs concentrations and long spurts can be done. In this sense, differences in time become not only irrelevant but are used to their advantage (cf. Gascoigne, 2014).

Through skype, email and instant chat messages the Basecamp team is in constant contact. All communication is done in English. Even though for most employees this is not their native or first language, this standard has been set and it is only through this standardization that the creation of a virtual team been enabled. Would everyone stick to their mother tongue, collaboration in a team would be strongly hindered. However, communication goes further than just the superficial words, communication also influences the way we organize, the way we structure our documents or even the ways we send smileys through a chat program. Through close standardization, setting up rules and best practices right at the beginning, it has been possible for all, no matter the language, to communicate and to limit misunderstandings. Also, it creates a better organization as things are done in a similar matter. Since a team member cannot just simply get up and ask the neighbor where a file or folder is located, the company needs to be organized. This constraint keeps them coordinated and also disciplined.

In the same way as they have standardized their communication protocols in software development or design implementation, Basecamp has also created outlets for fun communication: On a dedicated chat service, they call Campfire, Basecamp’s team shares cat videos, countless GIFs and just funny office jokes. For the remote team this is the “virtual water cooler” – A place to meet on the Internet that creates social cohesion and a sense of group. And even in the more formal team communication between superior and team, Basecamp has established standards and protocols such as a monthly “one-on-one” aimed at keeping a consistent open line of communication (Fried and Heinemeier, 2010 & 2013).

Mobility through globalization as an enabler for remote teamwork

A second enabler of the remote teamwork at Basecamp is mobility and more precisely so, the mobility of human capital. Thanks to the increasing connections in our world, the increasing bilateral agreements between nation-state and the decreasing cost of travel migration is possible (Eriksen, 2014: 102). For our case of Basecamp this means that the workforce can work from the place they chose. As Jason Fried states even though most of their employees work in different places, it’s not the majority that are travelling on the constant. However even the mobility within a certain radius of action has been enabled only recently (Fried and Heinemeier, 2010 & 2013).

Basecamp and other similar minded companies (like Buffer, Gascoigne, 2014)  actively seek to diversity their staff, employing people from all over the world – from different cultural, religious and societal background – to have an array of different perspectives and approaches in the work they do. The possibility of mobility  – through globalization – allows Basecamp to get knowledge in their team from all around the world. They give a simple example to illustrate this: The weekly calendar starts on Sunday in the United States of America and ends on a Saturday whereas in most countries around the world, the standard is that of Monday being the first and Sunday the last day. Only through having a diverse staff working on the product did they realize that a calendar starting on Sunday would not feel usual for people outside of the U.S. There are many more little details that make the difference in the Basecamp product and those features would not have been developed, had the company not had access to an international team (Fried and Heinemeier, 2010 & 2013).

For Basecamp, migration is not only a chance to diversify their staff but also to retain their best employees. In some cases, people decide to move for personal reasons – to be with the spouse that got a job in a different location, to be with the parents who are getting older or just to satisfy the curiosity of travel (Hughes, 2015) – and Basecamp, by being a remote team, is able to keep these people from leaving the company.

Mobility – enabled through increasing interconnectedness of our world, shrinking costs of travel and fewer migratory barriers – is a big factor of success for Basecamp, attracting the best, diversifying the team and keeping those that have an itch to move close to the organization.

On a small scale, both founders and team members also believe that mobility can be achieved by moving the chair to the window, by going to the local shop or staying at home for a morning. Basecamp believes that routine has the tendency to numb creativity and that changes of scenery, on the other hand, lead to new ideas (Fried and Heinemeier, 2010 & 2013).

This is how remote work is used

It is hard to imagine a company such as Basecamp, employing engineers, marketers or designers all around the world and bringing them together in a remote team functioning without standardization or the chance of mobility. It is through globalization that this new form of teamwork has been enabled and has emerged over the course of the last decades (Kim, 2014). Organizations today are moving in a global workspace that is defined by the absence of location constraints and time constraints (Margiotta, 2015). And everyday it seems new forms of teamwork, such as virtual teams, are emerging and gaining a stronger ground.