Are Fully Remote Teams More Productive and Profitable?
Larry English is the president and cofounder of Centric Consulting, a 1,000-person tech and strategy consulting firm that has operated fully remotely since its founding 20 years ago. In June 2020, English published Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture with Virtual Teams, which offers a step-by-step guide to creating strong virtual cultures. Office Optional includes practical lessons, specific tactics, and detailed examples of virtual protocols that bond, inform, and keep employees happy, engaged, and productive.
Recently, we spoke with English via email about his firm, his book, his experience managing virtual teams, and the advice he has for employees and managers who had to pivot quickly to working remotely. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.
Vault: First of all, how are you doing? How have you been managing in these uncertain times?
English: I’m grateful for many reasons, but especially because I have a strong support system in my coworkers. Centric has managed through this pandemic so far with no layoffs, furloughs, or salary reductions. But more importantly, having great personal relationships has allowed us to lean on each other because emotional well-being has been elusive for everyone. Two of my four sons had Covid-19, and several of our employees have lost loved ones. Now more than ever, we need to demonstrate extra patience and support for each other.
Can you talk about what led to you found Centric Consulting and about the decision to make it a fully remote firm?
Right out of college, I worked 80- to 100-hour weeks at one of the big international consulting companies and ended up having a midlife crisis at 25. After a year traveling around the world with my wife, I realized I wanted to build a company culture that didn’t operate off of politics and killing people for profit. My cofounders and I wanted everyone at our company to have better balance in their lives and the ability to spend time doing the things they love outside of work. We chose to operate as a remote company not to save money on office space (which we have) but rather to create and sustain a happier workforce. Many companies are now learning about the surprising benefits of remote work that we’ve known for a long time.
You published Office Optional the summer after the pandemic hit. Could you talk about why you wrote the book and what you hope readers take away from it?
My inspiration to write the book came after many conversations with executives who would look at me like I was crazy when I told them Centric operated virtually AND had a great culture—I found myself explaining over and over again how we accomplished this. We’ve been doing this for 20 years, so a lot of trial and error has led us to valuable insights about what works and doesn’t. The embarrassing stories I share in the book will hopefully save readers from repeating some of our early mistakes.
I also looked around and noticed that very little was written about how to be remote and have a great culture. We were starting to see that remote work was gaining adoption—the technology had greatly improved to allow for remote work, and more and more companies were becoming okay with having remote workers. I’ve always been a firm believer that remote work is the way of the future, but little did I know that the pandemic would accelerate the trend right before the book published. Suddenly every business wanted to know how to pull this off.
The key takeaway I hope readers get from the book is that any company can permanently adopt remote work and have a great culture, learn to work collaboratively, and build deep relationships. The book is meant to be a how-to guide for any company that wants to successfully adopt remote work permanently.
What are some of the biggest benefits of remote work to employees? What are some of the biggest challenges?
There are a lot of benefits. For one, you can save money on real estate. We’re working with a lot of companies that are reducing their real estate footprint by half or more and reconfiguring the remaining space to encourage better collaboration. Remote employees also tend to be more productive—they don’t waste time on a commute, and as long as they set up their home workspaces well, they have fewer distractions. Research has shown that companies that successfully implement remote work have happier employees, which leads to more engaged employees and a better culture, which leads to better care of your customers and higher profits. Finally, we’re seeing that offering remote work is a must-have to compete for the best talent.
When it comes to challenges, many remote employees can feel disconnected or isolated when they’re not physically with their teammates. Another challenge—and a surprise for many new to remote work—is that remote workers tend to work too much and can become burned out.
What can employers do to help remote workers deal with these challenges? What can employees do to help themselves?
To combat employee disconnection, leaders should regularly check in with remote workers and encourage strong relationship-building across teams (this is also key to having a great culture overall). Building relationships virtually often requires training employees on new skills. We teach employees to model vulnerability, resolve conflict virtually, and bring their whole self to work (in other words, to fully share their personality to foster deeper connections).
To discourage burnout, management needs to set an example of what it means to find balance and maintain strong work-life boundaries. For example, don’t expect employees to respond to emails or chats at 11 p.m. (even better, don’t send them messages after-hours). Remote work should be more flexible than being in an office 40-plus hours each week, so instruct employees to design their days with breaks to keep them energized.
What has Centric Consulting done over the years to help employees deal with the challenges of remote work (such as isolation and lack of in-person communication)?
In addition to the tactics mentioned, we take time at the beginning of virtual meetings to make and reinforce personal connections. We’re also big believers in the value of getting together in person throughout the year. All our U.S. employees attend company-wide events three times a year. This is an expensive undertaking, but the ROI for our culture is immeasurable (each event results in a ton of great memories and new connections). Our operating groups and other organizational structures meet up regularly, too. Finally, investing in great collaboration tools not only makes remote work easier and more efficient but can also help team members stay connected, help your organization break down silos, and help your organization become more transparent.
What do you see as the future of the way we work? Is more remote work here to stay? Or will we go back to the way things were pre-pandemic?
There’s no going back now. We’re working with a lot of organizations that are polling their employees, who overwhelmingly say they want the flexibility remote work offers. In the future, I think you’ll see most companies moving to a hybrid model of in-person and virtual work. And they’ll have no choice if they want to attract and retain top talent. The best people are going to demand the option of remote work.
I also think this trend will effect broader changes in society, including the (continued) rise of gig workers and digital nomads, Zoom Towns, and a migration away from expensive tech hub cities. In essence, embracing remote work and untethering workers from the office will open the entire society up to the possibility of better-balanced lives.