You now have the technology to develop projects and products with people half a world away. Huge open source organizations like Red Hat and Mozilla manage the collaboration of hundreds of people who don't know one another and have spent no time hanging around the water cooler. And many thrifty entrepreneurs hope to reduce their risk by hiring people--but asking them to work from home.
But does this really work? That was the question one entrepreneur asked me the other day. He was starting his fifth business from France. His employees were primarily in the U.S. and Canada. Things were going fine so far--but was it, he asked, sustainable?
The Cost of Remote Teams
Obviously the technology exists to conduct quite complex operations entirely online. But everyone knows that a successful business is more than operational. For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate. But that only works if conducted with trust and respect--and both of those things are extremely difficult to create online.
I don't think a true company--one that builds sustainable value--can ever only exist online or remotely. You can get work done this way but I'm not sure it allows all involved to gain a rich experience from collaboration. That means much of the value of even the best people is lost. It also means that the company creates little sense of camaraderie, which is one of the chief qualities people want from their job.
How to Make a Remote Organization Work
The best remote companies I've seen do almost everything online, via email and telephone. But they also get together face to face on a regular basis. A mentoring company that I work for, Merryck & Co., gathers its mentors together one a month to compare notes, help each other with tricky client issues, and divulge knowledge and expertise. As someone who spends an immense amount of time on the road or alone in an office, I treasure that time to touch base and recalibrate, and I know I benefit from the learning of others. Even Mozilla runs Mozfest where veteran, new, and aspiring developers can get together and play.
So in answer to the question whether remote businesses can work, I'd proffer a qualified 'yes and...' Yes, they'll get work done. And they will do even better if, once a month, a quarter, or even once a year, they bring their teams together, look each other in the eyes and remember what it's all about.