If you didn’t physically have to come into an office, where would you choose to work? Home, in your pajamas? A coffee shop?
For the last year, Curtis Berryman, who calls Seattle home, telecommuted from all over the world.
And he’s part of a trend. Last year, we passed a surprising milestone related to how people get to work. For the first time, the number of people in the U.S. who telecommute surpassed the number of people who take public transit to work. That’s according to “Governing Magazine.”
Curtis Berryman, 37, spends part of the year commercial fishing, which obviously cannot be done remotely. But, the rest of the time, he’s a headhunter for Flawless Recruit. He’s found that the job, which includes browsing LinkedIn profiles and making phone calls, works well for a remote lifestyle.
And so, when he finishes work, he gets to hear music in the Mexico City park across the street from his apartment while eating tacos. This month is his last as part of a round-the-world, remote working experiment.
A year ago, he signed up for a program run by Remote Year, which provided a group of remote workers, all from different companies, with co-working space. Every month, the whole group moves to a different city: Prague, Kyoto, Buenos Aires, Bogota.
“We started in Croatia, 50 of us from all these different walks of life,” he said, “and we all traveled together, lived together, and shared work space together.” They also do service projects in the communities where they work.
But working remotely can be complicated, because of time zone differences. “When I was in Malaysia, I was working from 10 o’clock in the evening until 10 a.m. or whatever, with a nap in between,” said Berryman.
But it has its rewards. This month he flew over an ancient Mexican pyramid in a hot air balloon. That’s way better than sitting in Seattle traffic.
And believe it or not, he’s saving money. “The total sticker price is less than I was paying in rent in Seattle,” said Berryman, “This has been very affordable.”
Jen Rhymer is a PhD student at the University of Washington business school. She studies businesses that rely on remote workers. She said it’s a model that requires special attention if it’s going to work.
She told me about remote-worker-friendly techniques at Atlassian, which owns Trello. For example, if one person calls into a meeting, everyone calls in. “That means, if one person isn’t in your office and calls in, even if the other five people are all on the same floor, they’re all using Skype or Zoom or Google Hangouts to call in,” she said. That way, no one is at a disadvantage because they weren’t in the room.
Rhymer gets really excited about companies that take the idea of remote work and run with it. She calls them location independent organizations. “Those are companies that have no office, or no location at all.” At companies like that everybody is remote.
To be clear, we’re not talking about the gig economy, where freelancers do bit work at an hourly rate, although that can be one kind of remote work. These are companies with several dozen to several hundred permanent employees who often must work closely together in teams. Companies like InVision, Doist, Automatic, TimeDoctor, Basecamp, Dribbble, Buffer or GitLab.
It’s hard for managers to coordinate people who are spread out all over the world. But it’s easier if you have good software. “A lot of the technology that’s being developed to support remote work is being developed by remote work companies,” said Rhymer. Their platforms tend to focus on things like communication, or project management.
Rhymer says remote work is not right for every company and it’s unlikely to overtake location-based work. If your company builds physical things, it probably can’t become a remote company.
And if there’s one thing Amazon’s search for a second headquarters shows us, it’s that many companies still have a strong impulse to bring people together at a physical location, often in cities where the cost of living is high. The crowding and competition in cities provide a social lubrication that remote-focused organizations must build in other ways, by hosting regular conferences or regional meetups, for example.
That also may explain the rise co-working spaces and remote work group experiences that turn isolation into a social activity.
Curtis Berryman says his remote year changed his life — this from a man who basically worked at night while living in a tropical paradise.
“Looking back on it, my only regret is that I didn’t do this sooner,” he said.