redesign | work: Distributed workforces are a win for companies, teams and the environment

There’s been some discussion lately about the pros and cons of distributed workforces. Paul Graham says no. Matt Mullenweg says yes.

I’m firmly in the yes camp. I find it ironic that companies that build tools that allow people around the world to communicate and collaborate insist that their employees endure commutes of 3 to 4 hours a day to develop those tools. These are often the same companies that use contract developers in the Ukraine and India, call center employees in the Philippines and manufacturers in China.

It’s the height of arrogance to believe that all of the smart people in the world live within a 50-mile radius of San Francisco.

If you build an exceptional team and empower them, you get a lot of benefits:

  • Cheaper team. People don’t have to pay $3,500 a month to live in a shoebox in San Francisco, so they don’t have to be paid as much.
  • Cheaper office space. You’re not competing with zillions of venture-funded startups all vying for the same limited office space in San Francisco or the valley.
  • Easier recruiting.  You have the entire world to draw from, not just people who are nearby.
  • Better retention. Google, Facebook and every startup aren’t trying to poach your team every other day. A lot of people value flexibility a great deal. If you can provide flexibility that others can’t or won’t, you have a big competitive advantage.
  • A happier team. Commuting is one of the greatest frustrations for working people.

The biggest benefit, which no one talks about, is connection with the broader market. At a time when many startups are building companies that can only succeed in affluent, tech-savvy markets like San Francisco, being connected with the rest of the country and the world is critical.

The United States is a very diverse country with people living in rural, suburban and urban markets. A lot of people live in poverty — and a lot more live on substantially less money than people in the Bay Area make.

Some companies will do “market research” by way of a focus group in which a few execs go to flyover country and “watch” people from behind glass talk about their lives. (I say “watch” because, in my experience at Microsoft and AOL, most of the execs who showed up were too busy emailing and IMing to pay attention.)

Having a distributed team makes every day an opportunity for market research.You can draw on the real-life interactions of your team to help inform your product instead of people who are showing up for $100 and pizza.

There are also environmental benefits. Company shuttles have dramatically reduced the effect that commuting would otherwise have, but there are still lots of those shuttles. And many employees don’t use them. Beyond fuel and CO2 emissions, there is the wear and tear on roads.

Our current notion of a company is largely a relic of the industrial age, when the means of production became concentrated. Now the means of production are in our pockets and laptop bags.

Instead of building workforces like we did in the 19th century, we should be building for the 21st century.