Why great software doesn’t grow in cubicles

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Plenty of businesspeople still see virtual enterprises as second-class operations that can never truly deliver. But remote working isn’t just a compromise: it’s the best way to build a flexible, high-performing software company in today’s world.

So, I’m out networking. I meet another business owner. We chat about the weather, the news, the warm white wine we’re sipping.

Then, suddenly, it all goes wrong. We start talking about work. And I have to reveal that my firm, E-Accent, is a virtual company, with team members around the world using remote working exclusively.

Out come the questions, as insinuating as they are predictable. ‘How do you know people are working?’ ‘How can you work across time zones?’ ‘What’s your culture like?’

Or maybe they go straight for the jugular: ‘How do you manage that?’

I know what they’re really saying. You don’t manage it, because you can’t. Remote working doesn’t work. And your company isn’t a real company.

Beyond compromise

Are we real? Well, we have real people who build real software that solves real problems. Our clients are real, and so is the money they pay us. And we do all this not in spite of remote working, but because of it.

For us, remote working began as a necessity. We simply couldn’t find enough bright sparks in our local area. To build the company we wanted, we had to cast the net wider — around the whole world, in fact.

However we soon realized that remote working isn’t just a practical compromise that we have to accept. It actually offers many benefits we couldn’t otherwise get (on top of recruiting from the world’s top talent, that is).

In fact, if I could wave a magic wand and turn E-Accent into a traditional, single-site company, I honestly wouldn’t do it.

But before I say why, let’s turn this thing on its head. What’s so good about traditional, single-site firms? What’s their USP?

Machine thinking

From talking to other business owners, I’d say it’s control. The idea is that you can only build a truly efficient operation by having everyone together in one place. After all, how could you build a machine if the parts were scattered all over?

Unpack that metaphor and the problems become clear. Companies aren’t machines; but groups of people. And those people aren’t components; they’re living, breathing, thinking, autonomous human beings.

Assuming people want to be productive, would they choose the traditional firm structure and work style in which to do it? Or is it just a relic of the industrial revolution, when everyone had to be in one room to work the cotton looms?

For many, the truth lies somewhere in between. But for software development firms, traditional structures are adequate at best, downright counterproductive at worst.

Finding concentration

It’s not news that today’s technology makes communication a breeze. Email, phone, instant messaging, Skype and Slack can give you all the conversation and knowledge sharing you need. But what’s harder to find — and far more important — is concentration.

Concentration is the gateway to creativity, innovation and problem-solving. Moment by moment, brick by brick, concentration builds a bridge from imagination to the world, turning ideas into reality. That’s how I’m writing this post, how our developers write code, and how Bach wrote the Brandenburgs.

Without concentration, ‘human capital’ is squandered. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, talented or even motivated you are. Concentration is the lens that focuses your efforts; without it, they’re diffused, scattered, and ultimately lost.

Yes, we need collaboration and communication. But real work happens at the desk, not in the meeting room. In the end, true value flows from what you do, not what you say.

Freedom to focus

So how do you help people concentrate? Is it by making them clock in at 9am, shoving them into cubicles, dragging them off to meetings?

If you’re the sort of person who goes round party guests asking them if they’re having fun, the answer might be yes. But like the song says, ‘If you love somebody, set them free.’

People who are free to choose their working hours, configure their workspace, and pace their working day are more likely to concentrate for more of the time. That means they deliver more value, which is better for the business, better for clients, and better for them. After all, nobody really feels good after a day of chatting, loafing around or surfing Buzzfeed. Concentration releases work’s rewards.

Out of sight, not out of mind

‘But how can you build a strong culture that way?’ the doubters say. ‘Don’t you miss the human interaction?’

Our base is in the Netherlands, but our developers are scattered across Germany, India, China, Australia, and the US. Many of us have never met face to face. Instead, we collaborate digitally and hold half-hour audio conferences three times a week. These virtual ‘meetings’ are focused, they’re a nice break from work and they rarely overrun. We get through the agenda and we have a bit of fun. It’s enough.

What’s more, we’ve learnt to gauge each others’ moods from speech patterns and tone of voice. If someone has a problem, we know right away. After all, blind people are no less empathic than those with 20/20 vision. People adapt.

Personally, I feel face-to-face is overrated. Sure, there are times when it can help collaboration. But just as often, meetings are a way to feel busy, and make others feel busy, without really producing much.

Remote working isn’t for everybody. If you love the banter and camaraderie of the busy open-plan office, you might find solo working tough. But if you suspect that all those interruptions are holding you back from doing your best work, you’ll probably love it.

Catching butterflies

We’re always hearing about leadership, motivation, getting the best from people. Business leaders seem to think that their role is to take the most talented people and help them ‘fulfill their potential’.

I think that’s profoundly patronizing. Talented people don’t need a lumbering, traditional company to ‘bring out’ their talent. Their talent is complete and sufficient in and of itself.

The impulse to employ talented people is really about capturing the butterfly. Instead of nurturing talent, the aim is to own it, lock it down, and exploit it.

No wonder so many talented people find their shiny new roles so disappointing. Instead of flowering, their talents wither on the vine. And nobody benefits: not them, not the company, not the clients.

Control and security

This idea of control leads to another objection to remote working: that it’s impossible to keep a team in line when it’s spread out over the world.

Maybe people feel you can only manage someone when they’re in your physical line of sight, like a prisoner in a panopticon. I’d like to think we’ve moved on from that.

As we scope out a job, we get a sense of the time and budget it will require. Then, when we start developing, we learn how many hours different features will take to code. That gives us objective benchmarks for individual team members’ work.

Every line of code is pushed to Github, the shared development platform, so everyone can see what everyone else has done. Everybody wants to play their part, and nobody wants to be the one who’s holding back the team.

Permanence and performance

So where does it come from, this irrational affection for traditional, bricks-and-mortar firms?

A company meets many needs, some practical, others psychological. Above all, it has to be fit for purpose, deliver what it promises and achieve a certain quality. But clients are human, and their choices must also meet their needs for self-esteem, security and validation. Nobody wants to buy something that makes them feel stupid or vulnerable.

Traditional firms do their best to project strength and stability, which reassures clients that they’re making the right choice. It’s a performance that is also a promise: ‘These resources are under our control and available only from us. Choose us and we’ll put them to work on your behalf.’ And while technology and intellectual property play a role, the main resources we’re talking about are human.

In reality, many firms are much more fluid and porous than they admit. Staff churn can bring software developers’ average tenure down to just one or two years. (It’s more like six or seven years for us.) Fluctuating workloads can make freelance backup a must. Whatever clients think they’re buying today, it could all have changed by tomorrow.

So instead of trying to hold back the tide, how about going with the flow?

In a small team, there’s code, and there’s everything else. The manager’s job is not to micromanage every line of code, but to take care of everything else — marketing, writing requirements, allocating tasks, answering the phone, so that the rest of the team can focus on real work. And you can do all those things just as well remotely.

The truth is that the virtual company is the natural, obvious way to let everyone do most of what they’re best at. Designers and developers get to focus on what really matters — the product— while managers (like me) take care of everything else. People are happier, sharper, and more productive. I think it’s the optimum design for a software business today.