Remote offices find creative workarounds as more Americans stay home

May 6, 2019

Working from home has more than doubled among workers who are not self-employed since 2005, according to figures from the Census Bureau. Some companies are taking the trend to an extreme by doing away with shared physical workspaces. Such arrangements can pose challenges to communication and collaboration, but companies are finding creative ways to make it work.

Every week, Emily Breuninger gets paired up with a random colleague in a kind of office video-chat roulette. Even though it’s mandated by her company, it’s not a business meeting.

"It's just 30 minutes to just talk about anything," she said. "Where do you live? Where are you from? What's your family like?"

It’s the kind of casual chit-chat you would normally hear around the office water cooler. But Breuninger and her colleague don’t share a water cooler, or an office. They work for Zapier, an app developer with about 200 employees, all of whom work remotely. Chief executive Wade Foster said that despite the physical separation, it all comes together.

"We have sort of a shared set of goals and initiatives, and everyone sort of contributes their piece of the pie and it all sort of works out," he said.

Foster is an evangelist for flexible work. Zapier has been all-remote since he co-founded it eight years ago, for good reason: no overhead costs, the ability to recruit from anywhere, satisfied employees and therefore better retention. With the advent of cloud computing, video-conferencing and instant messaging, arrangements like Zapier’s are becoming more common. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 8 million Americans now primarily work from home, with more than half of them working for companies, not themselves.

"When I started, remote work was very much viewed as fringe. It's evolved dramatically," said Sara Sutton Fell, the founder of FlexJobs, a search site for remote and flexible work. Listings for remote jobs on the site have increased by more than 50% in the last five years, and they’re springing up beyond the tech industry. Sutton Fell said she's seen a growth in the depth and breadth of job types that do this, now including law firms, medical services, even golf instructors — all virtual.

Xerox, American Express, Dell and about two dozen other Fortune 500 companies have made entire divisions remote. But it’s not as simple as just giving employees a laptop and sending them home, said Judith Olson, a professor of informatics and computer science at UC Irvine. Moving people out of the office can make simple collaborative tasks much less efficient.

"When you move to being distributed, then you're basically blind and you're invisible," she said.

That means workers have to go to greater lengths to communicate, which can breed distrust, even in instances that would seem totally benign with someone they see every day.

"If you're distant and you do something weird, like you don't respond to my email, I'm going to add what's called attribution error," she said. "I'm going to think that you are being bad."

That’s why it’s so important for companies to foster relationships among remote workers, said April Rinne, a business adviser on the future of work. The best remote companies, she says, find creative ways to simulate the benefits of office culture, with things like Zapier’s chat roulette or video-conference birthday parties and trivia nights.

"I guess I could call it engineered serendipity. That’s a sort of an oxymoron," joked Rinne.

Still, she worries solo workers can feel isolated and need more opportunities to connect beyond their co-workers.

"They want to be connected to humans, to professionals, to a community," she said.

Emily Breuninger at Zapier certainly does. In the beginning, the self-described extrovert was worried about being isolated from her co-workers. But she’s finding a way to make it work. She spends much of her time in coworking spaces, though not in the U.S. For the last six months she’s been traveling with friends, hiking and surfing her way through Central America between meetings and emails.

"Then lunch break at the pool," she said.

Not such a bad replacement for the water cooler.