A few days ago, at a pitch meeting with a client, I replied to fairly typical question with my fairly typical answer about remote working. It went;

“No, we don’t have an office as such; we work remotely, so I work from home or anywhere else.”

I’ve given this reply hundreds of times, but what surprised me this time was the answer. The client went, “Oh that’s great. I was just telling an employee of mine how much I’d like to do that. In our case though, there is a single document which essentially binds us to have an office. The day the authorities replace it with digitally signed version, I’ll kick everyone out of here and we’ll all work from home too.”

This set me thinking, especially as the client in question is not in an industry normally associated with remote working at all, as it is a heavy industry with innumerable ties to the ‘real world’. And as I was thinking, I remembered how much I disliked the traditional office job setup, why I set out to build a business that didn’t need it, and what I love most about remote working now that Systemato has been my focus for over five years.

Here’s the comprehensive breakdown – What Systemato loves most about working remotely.

1 – Working remotely saves on costs

Given I work from my own apartment, as do all the team members here at Systemato, we haven’t needed an office yet. Our biggest client is based in Sweden, and 99% of our work takes place and is focused entirely on the internet, so an office space hasn’t been high on our list of priorities.

Naturally, renting office space comes at a cost. We’ve never had to fork out this money, which frees up money to be used elsewhere, for example, paying our people better than we could afford to if we had an office, or spending it on team events. I estimate we save around €10,000 in rent per year this way, which is quite the chunk of money for a small business, and which we can instead invest in new hires, tools, or taking a gamble on things we otherwise couldn’t afford to.

2 – Remote working saves us time

I am a rare breed on this island in that I still love driving. That said, I came to love driving because I drastically cut down on commuting during rush hours, so when I drive, it’s to go to a meeting, which I often schedule outside of peak traffic times, or else because I choose to drive. On normal days, my commute is 3 minutes long; wake up, yawn, walk to the kitchen and get a coffee, walk to the study and start the day.

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Same applies to our team members. They don’t have to drive anywhere to get to work. Some of them don’t drive, so this works out doubly well for us.

3 – Working remotely helps us do our bit for the environment

Since we don’t need a building or a floor for ourselves, we don’t contribute to the huge energy demands our society has. We work from the same place we live, so there’s no fuel burned getting there, no energy consumed to keep fridges going, air conditioning and so on in an office, even as they’re still running at home.

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Given the huge advantages technology has afforded us in the past two decades, why should we need a power hungry building to do our work, a lot of which is rather ephemeral? Given we don’t need a place to hold stock and have clients view it, I don’t see a reason to get an office.

4 – We get less distractions because we work remotely

Everyone I know who works in an office tells me of distractions. These are numerous and varied, from loud colleagues and office banter, to tradespeople and unexpected walk-ins, to loads of unnecessary meetings. Loads of people I know start their day super early or finish very late, just so they can grab a few hours of quiet and solitude in the office in order to really buckle down and get work done.

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At the risk of sounding smug, we eliminated those problems with one fell swoop when we started working remotely. Sure, there are other distractions, but I’ll tell you, it’s far easier to mute a Slack channel’s notifications than it is to be the asshole that silences a whole floor of laughing associates. What in the hell is Slack? I’ll tell you in a minute.

5- The world is our oyster because we work from home (or a suitcase)

If we need someone to write in Swedish for us, we don’t have to have them right here next to us. Same applies if we need someone to help us market a product in Burundi, or Birmingham, Alabama.

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The odds of someone who’s the best at what they do being super close to you, especially provided that Malta, where we’re based, is a small island, are slim indeed. Given that the internet gives us access to these minds and their talent, why should we not put it to best use? We’ve had people work for us while living in the UK, Sweden, the US, Pakistan, India, Thailand, wherever.

Similarly, our largest client is based in Sweden, and we’ve had other clients from Scandinavia, and the US, UK, the Netherlands, and further afield. The clients themselves have lived and worked on all four corners of the globe. We think that’s pretty neat.

6 – Working remotely gives us freedom

I guess I’m a fairly atypical boss in that I don’t really care what hours my colleagues work so long as the work is done, is on time, and is of the standard we expect. I for one, have fallen into an office-hours routine over the years, largely because that’s when most client communications happen, and because my extra curricular activities demand it, however, others on the team are different, and have different roles. There’s individuals in the team that are night owls, so I’ll get notifications that they’ve completed tasks at 4 in the morning, but then I won’t hear from them until early afternoon. And what’s wrong with that? I much prefer to let people work as they please, knowing that mostly, this allows them to produce even better results than if I were to try be the Governor General.

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In addition, we have team members for whom Systemato is not their full time thing, and that’s ok. We have team members who have other jobs, obligations, or who are students, and that’s perfectly fine.

Our Quartermaster, (ok, ok, let’s say Director of Operations, we’re not really big on titles here at Systemato) David, started out just this way; while studying at University he made buck on the side doing work for us. This went on until his studies and thesis were over and done with, at which point he became a much valued full time member of the team, rising through the ranks steadily. When time came for him to read for an MBA, he could do so too, knowing that he can make up time spent in lectures and studying with a bit of planning.

And because it’s in the name, working remotely allows us to do exactly that; work from anywhere. I myself have worked from cafes, public gardens, clients’ offices, and even other countries. And why not?

We have the tools, we have the technology. With some planning and willingness to learn from your mistakes, you’ll quickly get the knowhow too.

But is it really so perfect?

No. Definitely not. Everything has its pitfalls, and remote working is not lacking here. These are the things we have found to be an issue, and how we’ve gone about to counteract them and their effect.

a) You need crystal clear communication

Working close to someone day in day out will naturally teach you loads about them and how they work, as well as how they talk and how they listen. You simply don’t have that effect when you work with someone for years but only physically see and meet them a few times within the same time period.

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So, communication needs to be crystal clear. No prose, no faffing about, just clear, concise, effective instructions or feedback. Not curt, not rude, simply clear, and always fair. Remember that things have tendency to appear harsher when written, so read what you’ve written at least once before pressing ‘send’.

b) Build a system of traceability

I meet clients who run local, brick and mortar operations and am aghast at how little traceability their work has. We are very different. If I get an irate email from a client about a piece we’ve written, within minutes I can see not only who was responsible for the job, when it was due and when it was handed in, but I can also get the document itself, and the brief the team member received.

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A system like this is paramount in any remote team worth its salt. Not only does this keep everyone organised and on their toes, it also serves as a great way to get a bird’s eye view of how the team is doing in terms of volume and productivity, And in the case where something does go wrong, we can triage it within minutes and solve it super quickly too.

c) Use the tools

I am a digital man in a digital world. Everything in my working life is digitised, on the cloud, and so many other cliches. One thing only remains in good old pen and paper; my daily to-do list, for reasons I can not fathom.

The tools though, they are so important. We use loads of them, and here’s a rundown of a few we use ourselves, and how we use them;

  • Slack – for real time chat communication. Super useful as we split it up in channels by client, so that if I post a question in the channel called ‘KING’, for example, everyone know that this concerns that client. Has the pitfall of possibly becoming a notification frenzy, but nothing a change of settings can’t fix.
  • Dropbox – for document sharing, collaboration, and so on. A must in a business as ours.
  • Google Drive – same as Dropbox, with even better collaboration features.
  • Asana – for project management. We’ve been loving Asana since 2009, and it’s gotten better by leaps and bounds. Every task the Systemato team does, from a 200 word press release to a run of 200 articles for one client, it all gets done within Asana. There are tonnes of other project management tools out there, so find one you like, but we’ve stuck with Asana.
  • Google Apps – specifically, Gmail, apart from Drive, of course. Email is still very important indeed, although as a team, we rarely ever communicate using it, as we use Slack instead.
  • Skype/Hangouts – for voice or video calls, because sometimes nothing beats hearing the person’s voice.
  • Dashlane – for secure password management and sharing

d)Work together

This will run counter to most of what I said earlier, but where possible, do work together. Here’s how, and there’s two levels I see here –

  • Work together on a project. For example, we split big jobs up between writers, and all writers know they’re working on similar pieces, possibly to the same template, so they can share knowledge, info, and their research. Team brainstorming also works super well here; for example, we once generated over 50 top notch article titles for a client simply by asking everyone in the team to write their ideas in a shared document. Some of the ideas from this same sheet became the highest trafficked pieces on the client’s site shortly thereafter.
  • Work together in the real world. I did this when our Swedish clients started flying me out to Sweden or elsewhere once or twice a year, and I saw that shit got done. Because I knew I had a limited time face to face with these people, I tackled the most important things first, and got those out of the way. Afterwards, having been clear in a face to face fashion, I found that my work was much more focused and on point. So, I decided to adopt this for Systemato. When we were a small team, David and myself used to go to a working lunch, where we’d have an agenda of the things to discuss while we waited for our food. The discussion often kept going until well after, but a consensus got reached. Now that we’re a bigger team, I organise voluntary (but highly encouraged) coworking days, where we all get together and work on whatever tasks we have. We don’t do them too often, but when we do, it’s good,as ideas bounce around, we have fun, and most importantly, work gets done, and we enjoy doing it. So yes, the occasional coworking session does wonders for a remote team. I echo and am fully in agreement with the assessment our boys from Hotjar made in this regard.

e)Trust

Listen, I get it. As a young, inexperienced boss of my own little company, trusting is hard. You’ve built this business up from nothing all on your lonesome, and now your work, reputation, and clients are at the mercy of someone who hasn’t had to risk it.

It’s understandable and human to feel that way, but, get over it princess. Very few people can build something awesome all on their own, and I am not one of them. To get bigger clients, better work, more money, and so on, I’ve had to risk by trusting people. Yes, it’s gone awry sometimes, yes people will let you down, yes you may get a tough talk from a client. But for the most part, people have surprised me by their dexterity, talent, goodwill, and sheer hard work. Those are the people we’ve kept here at Systemato. The rest of them are gone.

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Of course, don’t be an idiot. You can’t hand people the keys and walk off into the sunset, fully expecting some huge return come end of quarter. Build systems of checks and balances in, by all means, but better still, build systems of trust, accountability and pride in one’s work. Even a cynic like myself gets huge surprises on a regular basis, believe me. When trusted, people rise to challenges, and exceed all expectations, including those I set. So find good people, work with them, and if they don’t let you down, show them gratitude, pay them, and carry on the relationship.

And lastly, know when to stop

The biggest pitfall of working remotely, or from home, is yourself. You’ll have to learn when to stop, when to separate work from life, or otherwise your body and your circumstances will teach you. The hard way. I myself have fallen prey to this, and they’re tough lessons, one and all. But I did learn. For instance, nowadays, my work is done in only two spots in my apartment, the study, or on the kitchen bench. A full workday is a full workday; if I’ve been pushing it for 10 hours and my brain is fried, I know I’m useless in that state. So I stop, and carry on more effectively later. And by all means, keep pushing yourself and learning, and doing new things, even in your work because it’s super easy to get complacent, but it’s boring there.

That’s everything I know about working and running a remote working team. I was even interviewed about remote working and its perils by the Times Of Malta once, by the way.

If you work in a remote team too, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how we work and how we differ from you. Let us know in the comments below. And if you know someone about to make the leap to remote, share this article with them. I hope it helps.

Author Mark Debono

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