The Way We Work
January 7, 2014 by Julia Camenisch

At first glance, you wouldn't peg 37signals as a multi-million dollar company. And for good reason: it just doesn’t fit the bill. The Chicago-based company avoids venture capital, deliberately keeps headcount low and gives employees amazing amounts of flexibility.

In spite of eschewing traditional wisdom (or perhaps because of it), partners Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson have built both a successful business and a corresponding reputation as true workplace innovators.

Their recent book, "Remote: Office Not Required," delves into some of the underlying philosophies about remote work that shape the culture of 37Signals. The authors speak from hard-won experience—and it shows. There are plenty of practical takeaways that make the book worth a read for even seasoned remote workers and managers.

The productivity sweet spot

To avoid the phone calls and meetings that often litter an in-office schedule, the authors contend that working remotely is necessary to allow people to work in the "zone" for long stretches of focused, productive time.

“That [remote work] may end up reducing costs spent on offices and result in fewer-but-more-productive workers is the gravy, not the turkey.” Quote by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, from the book “Remote: Office Not Required”

This "zone" is where meaningful and creative work is accomplished. In this assertion is the authors' chief argument: companies that implement "freedom to work" strategies (which include a flexible schedule and/or location) give employees the elbow room to perform their jobs, and managers the full power of their workforce’s potential.

But before diving too deeply into the benefits of remote work, the authors are quick to make a point that is repeated throughout the book: using remote workers is not about cost savings. It's about increased productivity, access to better talent and improved quality of life.

"That it may end up reducing costs spent on offices and result in fewer-but-more-productive workers is the gravy, not the turkey," they reiterate.

Reinventing work

Because Fried and Hansson believe that happy employees are loyal employees, they strongly urge companies to make quality of life a priority. They advocate applying this principle in several different ways.

First, give employees meaningful, engaging projects. It's a lot easier for people to give 100 percent when they care about what they're doing.

Second, recognize that "office hours" is a flexible term. Yes, certain employees need to keep regular hours. But not everyone has to be bound to that same schedule. The goal is to "let people work the way they prefer...and judge on what—not when—work is completed."

Finally, set an expectation for "reasonable office hours." This isn't to make sure people work enough; on the contrary, it's to set boundaries so that they don’t work too much. When the line between home and office is blurred, there's a very real danger that employees will let project-related demands take over their life. Encourage them to do what the authors call "a good day's work," then call it quits.

The brave new management world

Many managers have struggled with how to adapt traditional managerial practices to successfully supervise remote workers. It's here that "Remote" offers some the book's most useful advice.

  • Trust is essential: As Fried and Hansson point out, employees that want to waste company time are going to do so whether they're in the office with you or not. That's why it's so important to hire people you trust, whose work ethic is unimpeachable. If you can't trust your workers to perform without supervision, you'll become a babysitter, not a manager.

  • Building culture:  A strong remote work culture isn't comprised of random social events. Instead, it is built as employees see that what is practiced matches what is preached. When the majority of your staff works remotely, you're forced to clearly define what's important to the company and live it out in everyday operations.
  • Security procedures: Keeping employees in the office won't make things more secure. In fact, with today's technology, remote work security is no longer much of an issue. The key is to implement effective safeguards and common sense procedures—then make sure they're followed religiously.

  • Collaboration: Hansson and Fried point out that for virtual collaboration to work, everyone needs to regularly connect in real time with their teammates. "Working remotely, if it is to be successful, usually requires some [schedule] overlap," they write. For 37signals, they've found that the best formula is four hours of schedule overlap each day.

There's too much great content in "Remote" to cover here. So help us out! If you've read the book, share your review in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.