'The flexibility is incredible': When companies ditch the office, everyone's a remote worker

Virtual workplaces offer employees much greater choice over when and where they work than a traditional office environment. It's not for everyone, though — it can also be socially isolating if employees don't put extra effort into communicating with co-workers.

Virtual workplaces offer freedom and flexibility at the cost of social contact

Hailley Griffis works for Buffer, a social media company with no physical office, from a bachelor apartment in Toronto. (Sebastian Leck/CBC)

Buffer used to have an office until the company realized almost none of its employees worked there.

Most people working for the social media company opted to work remotely, whether it was from home or from coffee shops in Canada and around the world. Buffer closed its office in San Francisco in 2015, becoming one of a small but increasing number of companies that rely exclusively on remote workers.

"I think it increases happiness on our team because you get to be around your family and be in an environment you choose," said Hailley Griffis, Buffer's public relations co-ordinator in Toronto.

Griffis, who was born in Ottawa, previously worked for Buffer in San Francisco. She says the arrangement has allowed her to see her Canadian family much more frequently.

Griffis often makes tea during breaks from work. (Sebastian Leck/CBC)

"The flexibility is incredible for the ability to travel," she told the CBC from Tillsonburg, Ont., where she works when she visits her grandfather.

She is one of many workers taking advantage of virtual workplaces, which offer employees much greater choice over when and where they work than a traditional office environment.

It's not for everyone, though — remote work can also be socially isolating if employees don't put extra effort into communicating with co-workers.

Griffis meets with Buffer's marketing team in person once every six months and flies to a different city each year for a company-wide retreat — this year it was in Madrid. Other than that, she works online from her bachelor apartment in downtown Toronto and communicates through video conferencing and online messages. 

Shuttering the office saved Buffer more than $7,000 US per month, according to a post on the company's website. Because Buffer's 73 employees work in different time zones, they can also provide tech support around the clock without doing night shifts.

Buffer still has a legal address in the U.S., and like any other company, it has to occasionally deal with mail. To solve the issue, the company routes physical mail to a P.O. box in San Francisco, where it is photographed and forwarded to Buffer's human resources department as a digital file.

Challenges of going remote

Remote work has become more popular in Canada over the last two decades. ​More than 1.7 million Canadians worked from home in 2008 at least once a week, up almost 23 per cent from the 1.4 million in 2000, according to the most recent Statistics Canada report in 2010.

"Our technology is enabling this more and more," said Sandy Staples, a business professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. 

"As the middle structures of a lot of companies thin out, it becomes more common to reach employees in different locations."

The flexible workspace provider Regus released a survey in March that found 47 per cent of 1,600 Canadian businesspeople surveyed spent half their week or more working outside the office. Only 11 per cent worked exclusively from home.

Griffis says all communications between employees have to be deliberate in an online workplace. (Sebastian Leck/CBC)

The company used responses to an online survey from 20,000 people around the world who were sourced from a global database of two million businesspeople.

Entirely virtual businesses are still unusual, although they appear to be more common than in the past. Flexjobs, a job search website for remote work, releases an annual list of companies that are "mostly or completely virtual." The website identified 125 such companies around the world in 2016, an increase from the 26 listed in 2014.

As attractive as going virtual might be, it also has drawbacks. Without face-to-face communication, it can be difficult to build teams and develop social relationships.

Staples said informal activities that happen over time in an office, like building trust on a team and setting workplace norms, have to be formalized in an online workplace. 

"It takes more effort to communicate the softer things," he said.

He also said text-based communication tools, such as email, remove context from social interactions and can easily lead to misunderstandings.

"If we have a relationship with somebody, we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt … whereas someone we don't know that well, like a stranger or someone remote, we'll go the other way."

Work-life balance can also be a concern — while many managers worry that employees won't work as hard, research shows the opposite is true. 

"People actually tend to work more," Staples said. Managers should also ensure employees take time for themselves and don't overwork, he said.

A screenshot from a video meeting at Buffer. The company uses the video tool Zoom to stay in touch from locations around the world. (Buffer)

Griffis finds her communications at Buffer have to be deliberate because there are few opportunities for casual conversations. It can also be hard to brainstorm.

"That brainstorming element, that energy you get in a room when you're trying to generate ideas — it can definitely be more difficult," she said. Buffer arranges for employees to "meet" new people online, which she said helps employees socialize without an office environment.

It can also be lonely working from home. 

Daniel Siemaszkiewicz, who works for Buffer from Vancouver, said he felt isolated working alone in his house. He began working in rented "co-working spaces" where he could work alongside other remote employees in an office-like environment.

"I had my own office crew to talk with and hang out with," he said.

These days, though, he's working from home to care for his new dog.

Cost-savings for entrepreneurs

Amy Laski, founder of a virtual public relations agency, Felicity PR, said the arrangement allows the company to compete directly with more established brick-and-mortar agencies.

"Our clients' fees don't go towards boardrooms and physically keeping the lights on," said Laski, who works from Toronto. 

Amy Laski, founder of Felicity PR, says working online gives her an advantage over traditional public relations agencies. (Sebastian Leck/CBC)

Most of the 30 people on her team work in the Toronto area, but one works from British Columbia and another two work from Montreal.

She said working online allows her to spend time with her three children between work activities. 

"The traditional work environment implies that you're either working or not working. This way, I'm able to integrate my own life and my own work all in one," she said. "That's a huge benefit to be able to do that."

No set hours

At Automattic, the parent company for the blogging platform, almost all its 565 employees work remotely around the world, including 37 in Canada.

The company has offices in San Francisco, Cape Town, South Africa, and Portland, Maine, but it's considered co-working spaces and employees aren't required to work there. The San Francisco office will be closing this year after going largely unused.

Employees are provided with a $250 monthly stipend to rent co-working spaces, which can also go towards coffee if they prefer to work in a café. 

Mohammad Jangda, a web developer at Automattic, works in an apartment in Toronto for part of his week. (Sebastian Leck/CBC)

Mohammad Jangda, a web developer at Automattic, works a few days a week from downtown Toronto and spends the rest of his week at his parents' home in nearby Mississauga.

Because the company doesn't track the hours each employee works, Jangda can sleep in until 10 a.m., but then log in to work from midnight to 3 a.m., when he can get "tons of work done."

Jangda said the company's open and transparent culture makes remote work easier. Every meeting takes place online, and employees can access discussions, announcements and information about ongoing projects through a private blog website hosted by WordPress.

As a remote worker, Jangda has more time to spend with his pets. (Sebastian Leck/CBC)

"It's actually easier or more visible in a distributed or remote company to see someone's output, because you can literally see how much work they've done," Jangda said. 

To prevent remote workers from becoming isolated, Automattic arranges one-on-one online chats between employees and holds annual retreats for them to meet in person.

The lack of a formal work schedule takes some getting used to. Jangda says he used to wake up and immediately get to work, but realized he was working all day without showering, getting dressed or eating. 

"It's important to have a regimen where you wake up, shower, get dressed and show up to work, even if it's just the 10 or 20 steps to get to this desk."