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How does it look when an entire business is remote?

Remote work is becoming more and more common: according to a recent Gallup study, 43% of American employees work at least some of the time remotely. The rise of remote work has produced entirely remote workplaces, where employees communicate and coordinate from their personal computers. These all-remote businesses face both drawbacks and advantages.

Lowered Overhead

Offices tend to be expensive, particularly in startup-rich cities such as San Francisco or New York. Alex Turnbull, founder of startup Groove, included overhead costs in the reasoning behind his company’s decision to transition from a “big, trendy SoHo loft” in New York City to a remote set-up. Office space requires rent, furniture, maintenance, and commuting woes. An electric or internet outage at the office location swamps the entire company until service can be restored. Remote business overhead costs aren’t non-existent–most teams will have to subscribe to necessary management and communication tools such as premium Skype accounts–but they’re still far cheaper than office space.

For some companies, there are still advantages to central office space that outweigh its costs and disadvantages. Turnbull, however, points out that before the office transitioned to remote, employees mostly spent all day sitting in front of their computers wearing headphones–work behavior they could just as easily do at home. Some businesses already behave “remotely” by relying almost exclusively on computer-based, networked interactions and tasks. For these companies, office space rental costs might be beside the point.

A Larger Talent Pool

Physical office space inherently restricts the talent that companies can attract to hires who live nearby or are willing to relocate. Though some locales boast larger talent pools than others (and densely populated business hubs such as New York also tend to have the highest office overhead costs), limiting where employees can live inevitably cuts down on available talent drastically.

Remote businesses, however, can hire any qualified person who’s willing to work remotely. This talent pool is competitive not only due to its sheer size (someone with an internet connection halfway across the globe is as viable a candidate as someone in the same city) but because many employees crave the flexibility and freedom remote work can offer. Two out of five working adults would accept a pay cut in return for more flexible hours, so flexible remote businesses become incredibly desirable employers.

Technological Challenges

Switching to remote can lower companies’ overhead, but technological drawbacks are sometimes the price to pay. Though many office spaces already use digital organization, communication, and task assignment tools, the decision to go remote means dramatically increasing the business’s reliance on them (and perhaps obtaining more to replace in-person or paper-based solutions). Slack, a popular workplace communication tool, hobbled remote businesses during its worldwide shortage in October 2017.

The Challenge of Creating Community

The most significant challenge most remote businesses encounter isn’t technology or finances, but creating a community within a workforce. Community and a workplace culture aren’t just nice ideas, but real financial assets. A recent white paper found that employees who feel like part of a community in their workplaces are more productive and better at working in teams.

Remote businesses are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to creating community because they lack face-to-face opportunities. Virtual employees don’t have the chance to talk to each other at the water cooler or go out to lunch together. Remote businesses have to actively work to develop community, encouraging, for example, a certain degree of friendly chat in less formal communication venues. Hannah Moyer with Nusii recommends having a “random” Slack channel for company banter, dedicated channels for project teams, and holding regular phone or Skype meetings so people can discuss work “in-person.”

A Different Experience for Employees

Are remote businesses better or worse for employees? Though every worker is different, studies have shown that remote workers, on the whole, are a happier bunch than office-bound ones. The reason for this seems to be time flexibility. Data from TINYpulse shows that employers who work sporadically throughout the day, on-call, or seven days a week with shorter-than-average workdays are generally happier than employees who work typical 9-5 M-F office hours. Remote employees report feeling happier and more valued at their jobs than the overall employee population.

There are many reasons employees might prefer flexibility–a work-at-home parent, for example, might take a few hours off in the afternoon when their kids return from school and then make up those hours later in the evening when kids have gone to bed. Many people do their best work early in the morning or late at night when most offices are closed. Employees may enjoy getting to wear whatever they want to work, choosing their work location for the day, and even traveling while working. Many employees find that remote and flexible work allows them to maintain a better work-life balance that in turn lessens how much time they need to take off.

Of course, the remote lifestyle is not for everyone. Employees need to function well with less supervision than they might have at an office space–they may get an email, but no one’s going to stop by their remote office to ask why their work is late! Some employees might also struggle to establish boundaries between their personal and work time or feel socially isolated without seeing their coworkers in-person.

Future Tools?

Blockchain offers some unique opportunities for the remote workplace. One of blockchain’s most fascinating potential applications is the DAO, or Decentralized Autonomous Organization. Smart contracts, inherently reliable programming that triggers upon completion of certain blockchain transactions, govern relationships between DAO participants. Because smart contracts need no third party enforcement to be reliable, responsibilities that traditionally resided with hierarchal leaders such as CEOs or HR managers can instead be distributed among DAO participants, as the contracts ensure they’ll only receive payment in return for fulfilling their obligations.

The future workplace could see more and more DAOs, where blockchain interactions are the central force governing participant interactions (and because blockchain is an entirely online technology, this would facilitate more remote workers). DAOs could be radically different from businesses of today, with leadership positions replaced by a mesh of interdependent free agents who collectively steer a company. It may sound far-fetched, but workers should expect more and more DAO options as blockchain adoption rates grow and tools such as DAOstack, a recently launched suite of tools for building DAOs, grow more common.

Remote work will continue to change, presenting opportunities and challenges to businesses as time goes on. But the most radical change of all could be the advent of remote DAO businesses.

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