Why We Are Distributed
When I was still a student at VCU, I dreamed of the day I'd run a busy agency downtown with a beautiful office that created an atmosphere of creativity and excitement. As we grew Left Plus Right, I quickly realized that finding all the expertise we needed in Richmond was going to be almost impossible. Not that the talent isn't here - it most certainly is - but because of the competitive atmosphere of corporations and more established agencies that snatch up the best with offers we simply can't match (at least in some aspects). So we build our talented team by offering other perks you can't find in many companies today. Things like the opportunity to work from home, flexible schedules, and an environment where you truly matter and can make a direct impact on our company and our clients.
Today, we are a distributed team and despite my earlier doubts – it does work. Of course, a distributed team is not without its downsides, but let's take a look at the reasons we established our company with distribution in mind:
1. We can hire the best - No matter where they choose to live
Larger companies can charm talent with big fancy offices, huge salaries, and relocation packages. We can't top the financials there (yet), but we can integrate anyone in the world if they're willing and able to work with us in real time. No other company who is forced to tap into one local talent base will ever be able to compete with a team comprised of people from a global pool of prospects. It's proving to be true today, and I expect more companies will realize this fact over time.
2. True work/life balance
For most companies, "work/life balance" is nothing more than a clichéd buzz word. With larger companies, it's more like work/work balance. Instead of spending one to two hours per day commuting to and from an office, our team spends that time doing what they love. That means more time with their family and friends. It makes our staff happy and when the staff is happy, they produce better work. It really is that simple.
3. Save time. You can't code from behind the wheel.
That brings me to my next point. Those hours wasted during a commute are completely lost. You're not getting anything out of someone while they drive to an office. For years, employees have taken on the expense of the daily commute, and in our industry, talented designers and developers don't want to waste their time. The younger talent is on the way in, and they're looking for employers who are flexible and practical – not filled with red tape and old policies that don't put the staff first.
4. Save the planet. Save your body.
Speaking of the next generation of talent, they are typically interested in reducing their impact on the planet. Every daily commuter we keep off the roadways keeps CO2 out of the atmosphere and helps to reduce climate change.
Don't care about what the commute does to the planet? Maybe this article on what the daily commute does to your body will convince you to avoid it.
5. Save money.
Here in Richmond, an office space downtown for our entire staff would cost us about anywhere from $2000 to 5000 per month. And that's just the rent. Add in utilities, furniture, cleaning, etc., and an office for our whole staff goes up to $3000 to $7000/month. Beyond that, many office spaces would need a build out which would easily be in the 5 figures. Instead, we take those savings and use them to provide lower rates for our clients, and higher pay for our team. Win, win.
Now, those are just a few of the main reasons we went the distributed route. But, we can't just stop there because I wouldn't be honest if I tried to say a distributed team was the winner on all points – it's not. Here are some of the drawbacks we've experienced:
1. Some people can't handle it.
For all the appeal of working from home, it just doesn't work for everyone. Our staff must be self-disciplined and self-starting. Some people need that office space with a boss hovering over their shoulder to be productive and stay on track. This is the main reason everyone on our team starts out as a contractor. In one week of contracting, we can tell if a new hire has the ability to work in our distributed setup. Many people have started with us and fizzled out quickly because, despite their talent and experience, they couldn't stay on task and deliver on time. But at the end of the day, this would be an issue in an office environment as well. At least with a distributed team, you can avoid the deadweight earlier.
2. Loss of face-to-face serendipity.
This point is more on the creative side than on the development side: some designers thrive on the feedback and iterations within the team. Design by committee is always a nightmare, but if you have a few highly creative individuals under one roof, interesting things can bubble up organically. Despite all of our tools to stay connected, that serendipity is lost when everyone is physically in different spaces. To combat this, we try to get face-to-face when we can, and mix the focus on highly creative tasks during that valuable time together.
3. Combating the distributed team stereotypes.
With clients and industry veterans alike, there is an unwritten stereotype: distributed teams can't produce the same high-quality end-product of a typical team under one roof. Some people will always have this opinion, but we're here proving that wrong every day, and many other agencies are following this path.
4. Cabin Fever
The convenience of working and living in the same space is great, but the immediate drawback is you quickly start to feel confined. Most people need to change things up and get out of their usual environment to combat the cabin fever that builds up over time. To avoid this, our staff frequently sets up shop at coffee houses, co-working spaces or wherever they need to go to spice things up, and avoid the typical physiological issues of being in the same space for too long.
All this being said, we're growing quickly and we're in a great position to change on a dime. Our team will continue to be distributed on a day-to-day basis but we also recently found the perfect place to call home. In December, we opened a small office in the Manchester District of Richmond. The cost was minimal, in fact, it was only a bit more than we've paid for co-working space in the past. Some days that office is empty, but other days we gather there to work or meet with clients.
The flexibility of the distributed team works for us, but it's not for everyone. We were lucky to be able to build our team from day one with distribution in mind, and with software like Slack and Zoom, it's easier than ever to operate a global team. Older companies who want to convert an office team to a distributed team will most likely fail due to entrenched habits and expectations. But we will continue to operate this way – as long as it works for our team and our clients.