Caldwell, Idaho. Edmond, Oklahoma. Phoenix. Rapid City, South Dakota.
What do these places have in common? Someone who works at 37signals lives in each of them. Our home base is Chicago, but more than half of our 32 employees live somewhere else. When someone asks me where we're based, I like to answer that 37signals is everywhere.
These are not peripheral workers. They are core people, the ones who design our products and keep our customers happy. Our lead system administrator (the guy who keeps the servers running and our applications online) lives in Florida. A designer is in Colorado. We have programmers on both sides of the country. Key customer service people live in Texas and Tennessee.
In fact, David Heinemeier Hansson, my business partner, is from Copenhagen. We started working together remotely before we'd even met in person. For years, we worked seven time zones apart. Today, he splits his time between Chicago and the south of Spain.
I never planned on building a company like this; it just sort of turned out that way. But I'm not complaining. Our willingness to hire remote workers gives us some key advantages—and has led to surprising revelations about what it means to work together when you aren't together in the traditional sense.
One upside to having a company spread across many locations is that you typically get more work coverage during the day. Because of time-zone spreads, a business can be effectively open for 12 to 15 hours, instead of just eight or 10. This means you're more available to your customers. Sure, you could stagger workers into separate shifts, but that often segregates people and isn't worth the trouble.
Another, more important, advantage: By not getting hung up on geography, we can hire the best people we can find. This has become more important than ever. Unemployment may be stubbornly high, but talk to anyone in the media and technology industries, and there's a good chance she will complain about how hard it is to find talented people. Why limit yourself? Great people are better than close people. Great and close, of course, are ideal—but ideal is tough to find these days.
Of course, not everyone can work remotely. Not everyone does his best while working from his home, a co-working space, or a café. As a result, we usually try to hire people who've had experience working away from the mother ship.
Another issue is culture. Can you create a cohesive, healthy company when staff members rarely see one another face to face? I think so. The key is not to let two cultures emerge. You can't treat the locals and remote workers differently. Everyone has to play by the same rules and communicate the same way—no matter how far away people's desks are.
You will need a place where everyone, regardless of location, talks, shares work, and discusses ideas. It could be a cloud-based chat room, a project-management tool, a teleconferencing system like WebEx, or a wiki. The key is to find a way to make your virtual workspace the place where everyone communicates, not just the people you can't see. It can take some getting used to, but eventually, employing such tools becomes second nature. At our office, even people who sit next to one another communicate using our collaboration tool, Campfire.
There's one question I hear from entrepreneurs all the time: "How do you know work is getting done if you can't see people doing it?" My response? Observing work take place is not the same as seeing work get done. In fact, I have found that it's easier to know if people are getting work done when they're remote. That's because their work has to speak for itself. When you don't have just being there at the office to hide behind, it becomes all about the work. And it's hard to argue with that.