How remote work can make your small company global

CNET@Work: While remote work has been under assault at larger companies such as IBM and Yahoo, an increasing number of US workers are working that way.

Larry Dignan
4 min read
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With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- from prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.

From 2012 to 2016, the percentage of US employees working remotely jumped from 39 percent to 43 percent, according to Gallup's State of the American Worker report. Given that fact, it makes sense for small business owners to think through remote work -- chances are you're doing it now -- and ponder how the practice can help you scale from a one-person entity to five employees and beyond.

We caught up with Michael Pryor, head of product at Trello. Trello makes team management tools and was recently acquired by Atlassian. Pryor's team has worked remotely since inception as the company has scaled. Here's a look at how remote workers can help you scale from a solo act to a larger business and have a smarter office.

Remote work means talent. Pryor said Trello's initial plan was to have a crew of people in the New York area and that approach worked initially. "Most start in one place and you have a crew of people. But we had a great engineer and his spouse got a job. We were faced with a decision. And we started the work remote journey there," said Pryor, who noted that employee still works in Hawaii.

Once Trello started hiring remote workers, the caliber of people it could hire increased. For instance, Trello posted a job for an Android developer and a top expert happened to live in Minneapolis. "There are 20 Google developer experts in the US and two of them live in Minneapolis," said Pryor. "Not everyone wants to live in NYC."

The lesson: Small fledgling companies can upgrade their talent, become global and look bigger than your revenue with the help of remote workers.


 If there's a meeting it has to be a video conference.

Zoom Inc

You'll have to have a remote work strategy even if you don't consider your company to be distributed. "Remote work is part of the way we work even if you don't consider your company remote. Just think about the time you're not in an office," said Pryor, who noted Trello's parent company Atlassian is in Austin, San Francisco and Sydney.

Typically your remote work strategy will emerge early. "If you're starting with two people it makes it easier to start remote work," said Pryor. "If you put remote work practices in place at the start it'll be easier."

The lesson: Even if you don't plan to have remote workers, think through an approach early since you'll eventually have them.

Communication is everything whether the office is physical or digital. Pryor said chat programs can approximate a physical meeting, but not as well as video conferencing. "The big issue is what's missing in the conversation when you're remote," said Pryor. He noted the following best practices Trello found through trial and error:

  • Use common working hours. "You have to figure out what the common working hours are because you need overlap," said Pryor. "There has to be a time when there is real time communication because asynchronous is tough."
  • Move the center of work from a physical location to a digital one. If there's a meeting it has to be a video conference. Pryor uses Zoom conferencing, but has tried just about all the services out there. "The technology is getting better and the tools are taking a huge step forward because there's a lot of competition in that space," said Pryor.
  • When a company moves beyond a handful of employees and scales it's important to recreate the water cooler chat that'll happen in a physical space. "In a physical place you see people you don't work with. Recreating that is important, but can feel clunky. We've teamed people up on Zoom so an engineer and sales people can talk for a half hour." Remote workers loved the arrangement and Trello eventually went with a four-person video chat with disparate workers every Friday for 20 minutes.
  • Have physical gatherings at least twice a year. A small team can all come together easily. When a company grows it's worth investing in the travel to move teams around for gatherings.
  • Create an off-topic room for workers. You need a space to separate the signal and the noise of work, but the noise is just as important. Off topic conversations are critical because that's what would happen when people pass through the kitchen at the office.
  • Interview a remote worker remotely, but bring them to a physical space for training when hired. A remote worker shouldn't have a in-person interview because it's not how he or she would work once hired.
  • Make sure your remote workers get out of the house and have a space that serves as an office. Pryor noted that physical work has its rituals with coffee and commutes that put a definitive beginning and end to a day. Remote workers don't have that work-life separation. "You have to remind yourself to get out and meet other living human beings. Remote workers may not talk to anyone for a month," said Pryor.

The lesson: Think through all the digital and remote work communication to replicate a physical experience as much as possible.

Use remote workers to go global. Trello was able to hire talented people who spoke different languages via remote work. That diversity has a real impact on products. For instance, global remote workers noted that Trello needed a way to handle payments without credit cards. Why? There are multiple markets that don't procure software via credit cards.

The lesson: Remote work can make you more globally savvy.