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The pros and cons of building a remote development team

working remotely

Mike Bartlett is CEO and co-founder of Gitter, a communication tool built on Github, and he is the former director of product management and product strategy at Skype. In this article, he discusses the benefits and challenges of establishing a remote team.

Stack Overflow published a report last year that found nearly half of developers (44%) value the opportunity to work remotely.

Nowadays, however, geographically disparate teams can be found across all different sectors.

Companies with a remote workforce are among some of the most successful in the world – WordPress, AirBnB and Buzzfeed allow at least 50% of their workforce to operate remotely.

Technology makes it possible

For a decade or so, remote working has, for the most part, been an aspiration rather than a reality and despite the availability of fast internet, laptops and smartphones, it’s never become the norm for most businesses and employees.

The recent popularity of hot-desking and co-working spaces in major cities across the globe, including in holiday destinations like Bali, has made it easier for those working remotely or abroad to feel less isolated, and has also gone some way to counteract the suspicion or reluctance some bosses felt about allowing employees to work outside of the office.

Provided internet is fast and reliable, both the employee and the employer should have everything they need to make remote working a reality.

Collaboration tools like Google Drive, Trello, Skype and our very own developers’ chat platform Gitter mean you can keep up to date and collaborate on projects from wherever you like.

Want to work in a warehouse in New York? Fine. Beach in Thailand? Not a problem.

Flexibility of working remotely

I have personally found working from outside the stuffy confines of an office can do wonders for creativity.

I started Gitter after leaving Skype when I took time off to not only recharge, but also to start fleshing out ideas for the business.

I did so in the French Alps, where I rented a chalet for a season with my wife. It had an amazing study with views over the snow-capped mountains and gave me enough freedom to pop out for a quick early morning snowboard, then spend the rest of the day and night working, which was quite liberating.

The fresh air combined with getting away from the intensity of the city stimulated my creativity and productivity and the goal was to create a company where being able to balance a personal passion and desire with a traditional and professional career was truly possible.

We now have two thirds of our total staff (six out of nine) working remotely.

Empowering the workforce

Remote working is empowering for both the employee who is trusted to work hard with minimum supervision as well as the employer.

Factors that often lead to the loss of staff, such as the job impinging on other factors outside of work, disappear when you give your team the freedom to work remotely.

Remote working is also a cost-saving exercise, cutting down on both office space and utility costs.

Additionally, it allows people in different times zones to work, meaning the business can keep going 24/7, if necessary.

The challenges

There are some challenges that need to be thought about long and hard before any decision relating to a remote working policy is made.

Working up a mountain or on a beach can be great, but the effect that being isolated from colleagues can have on employees’ morale should be considered.

Teams usually celebrate success by going to the pub after work or going out for a meal or a party. Having a global remote team makes these kind of celebrations impossible.

This is when face time becomes important. Even if only done on a weekly or monthly basis, a bit of sociable video chat over Skype can lift team morale and boost productivity.

At Gitter we try to have a video chat whenever possible, but this may not be necessary for others. Of course there are strategies for managing these issues, but it is something that needs to be considered.

Your employees should be aware of the company culture and mission despite working remotely.

Communication is key, especially if some of your employees are working remotely.

The benefits of remote working and structuring your business in this way are prodigious. If both employees and employers are committed to the process and some structures are in place, there’s no reason why you can’t find success, happiness and new found levels of creative ambition with a remote workforce.