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I launched Great.com with a mission to build a completely remote organization that leverages technology to connect talented teams from across the world with one common goal: make as much money as possible so we can donate 100% of it. When I set out on this task three years ago, it seemed insane to a great many (if not most). But now, as the global workforce shifts digitally and advancing technologies make it easier to work from home, it’s an idea that seems far more achievable.
I’ve learned much about remote teams over the last three years — from goal-setting and building accountability to developing a company culture online — and have grasped, among many lessons, that the flexibility of remote work can be a double-edged sword. Many entrepreneurs are readjusting strategies to build business, and are likely exploring a remote-first approach, so let’s dive into that model and address some of the questions, obstacles and opportunities it presents.
What are fully-remote businesses?
As the name suggests, such a business operates completely online. These organizations have no physical location — their teams interact with each other and customers digitally.
A fully-remote business relies on technology to run its operations and is completely dependent on digital solutions.
What do you need to run one?
First, you will need a digital infrastructure — both consumer-facing and internally. Building it will require the right technology, along with developing scalable systems.
The entrepreneur J.J. Hebert has been managing MindStir Media remotely for more than 12 years, and he and his team have adapted to the digital workforce by finding software solutions like Basecamp and Salesforce that streamline internal and external activities. “Technology is at the heart of all of those interactions,” he writes in a May, 2021 Entrepreneur article, one that goes on to include tips on home office ergonomics and ways of setting clear boundaries separating work and home life.
As I looked to build Great.com as a completely remote business, I knew that we would be innately dependent on technology. While this may seem daunting, I actually found it liberating. Technology is meant to solve problems, and applying it vigorously while developing a business from the ground up can mean potentially fewer organizational framework problems.
I came from the traditional workplace, so knew some of its limitations — especially as they relate to communication and project management, and prioritized these two areas specifically when developing our remote infrastructure. To help with communication, I wanted to arrange frequent video calls, for example. Most of our employees are from different parts of the world and had never met each other before; visually interacting with each other is important for developing rapport across the team. Zoom has become the solution, and we’ve held weekly virtual meetings for the last three years using that portal.
Just like any business, a fully-remote company needs infrastructure to help manage processes, workflows and organizational tasks — and tech can make all this easier. It can actually give such businesses a leg-up over the traditional workforce model, because remote employees are already dependent on technology and potentially more adaptable and less resistant to new solutions.
Can fully-remote businesses eliminate silos?
When thinking about whether a remote-first business is the future you seek, ask why that structure solves specific problems. To answer this question, you need to dive into one of the biggest challenges of running a business. “Silos” within an organization are essentially departments that operate independently and do not share information with each other. For example, many businesses have sales and marketing departments; while you might think it’s obvious that these two divisions would work together, many times they do not. The marketing team might be pushing one product and the sales team another, leading to a disconnect in messaging and poor customer experiences.
Suhail Arfath from Hloov — a “data, technology and services” company with a mission of delivering carbon-neutral infrastructure — recently wrote in Entrepreneur about the digital transformation happening within the construction industry, and how, “if a digital-first approach is to work, the first thing that needs to be done is democratize data across the supply chain.” He further pointed out that nearly 96% of the data collected in this sector is left unused — vital information, not least because it provides context and insight that can be used to make better strategic business decisions.
Fully-remote businesses in and of themselves do not eliminate silos, but they can make it easier to share information across departments. Moreover, digital businesses also tend to collect more data, which means more insight.
How do you build accountability in a remote team?
A fully-remote operation is not all positive — there are disadvantages, too, and one of the biggest is building accountability. Johannes Larsson, CEO of Financer, has a team of 45 remote employees. When asked about accountability, he explained that, “The main reason why our team performs so well is that they’re interested in getting results and actually providing value”, adding that the key to his company’s success is finding people who want to work remotely and who thrive in that environment. As it relates to a fully remote structure, such an environment usually features autonomy, flexibility and metric-based goals.
I think Larsson’s take on accountability within remote teams is incredibly important because it hinges on finding the right staff members for specific situations.
This sounds nice, but how do you put it into practice?
First, look for employees who align with your vision. I’ve been transparent about my 50-year vision for Great.com to every employee, and look for people who share my passion for driving genuine change in the world. I also don’t shy from discussing the negatives of our company and industry with every potential hire. Too often, businesses hide their warts from new employees, only to reveal them after the hiring process.
Accountability is a huge hurdle for the fully-remote workforce, but finding the right people can go a long way to mitigating this issue.
Is fully-remote business the future?
It’s impossible to say with any certainty whether society will move to a predominantly remote workforce, but there’s no denying the value that many businesses have recognized from adopting some level of remote engagement. From decreased overhead and improved employee morale to agile solutions and more flexibility, remote employees are proving their worth. If you’re considering the move to a fully-remote business, just know that you’re not alone.