We decided to go office-less at the very start. For a small translation agency focused on working with IT companies via the Internet, this was a logical step. Now, ten years later, Alconost includes more than 300 people worldwide. Our staff is diverse: besides translators, we employ marketing specialists, contextual advertising experts, sales staff, editors, localization managers, and video production pros. But despite our growth, we still think that offices are inefficient and we feel good about the choice we made. As company co-founder, I, Kirill Kliushkin, would like to share about how we make the absence of an office work for us.
Not having an office has had a large and positive effect on our business. Our clients are located all over the world, so they often write to our managers outside of our local working hours. Because of this time difference, an ordinary, office-bound company would take days to communicate with distant clients and resolve issues. But not us. We do not hold our employees to a strict eight-hour regimen, instead asking them to answer messages quickly whenever they have the opportunity. Clients truly appreciate fast answers, even if it is just to say that "I will get the necessary information and write back to you tomorrow." The client is happy, which means that we are happy too.
We have gone without offices not because we wanted to take a more relaxed pace. If anything, the answer is the opposite: often tasks need to be finished in minutes, not hours. Half of orders on our Nitro rapid online translation service are completed in less than two hours. We promise to reply to all client questions regarding Nitro within one hour. If we were stuck to a fixed office schedule, we could never attain the responsiveness that we have today.
Our formula: remote work + people + freedom - control
Our formula for success consists of remote work plus excellent people and an open schedule, minus overbearing control. Remote work is common enough these days - work wherever you want, as long as you get the job done. The same goes for the schedule too: we do not actually care when and how much you work. What counts is that tasks are resolved, processes launched, projects completed quickly, and the other employees not waiting because of any delays from you. Often I find it easiest to write articles or scripts at 2 or 3 AM, when the day's problems are finally set aside and I can get more done in two hours than I have during all of the last week.
We do not ask our employees to fill out time sheets or, even worse, install tracking software on their computers to monitor time worked and get screenshots of what they are working on. Our approach is fundamentally different. Standing over an employee's shoulder with a stopwatch and a calendar is counterproductive both for the employee and for the company. If a person is putting in the proper effort, we can see this by the tasks that get done and the satisfaction of colleagues and clients. If someone is lagging behind, we can see this too. We value the results, not the processes that led to these results. Business is what interests us, not control.
The next component of our formula is "excellent people". Without them, nothing else works. But "excellent" is the key part. If someone just wants to sit in a desk chair for eight hours and does not care what they are working on, that person would not last long here. If work for someone is exclusively a way to earn money, that person would not fit us either.
How do I identify excellence? My way involves asking a lot of questions at the job interview - some of them personal, some of them uncomfortably so. By the end of the conversation, I have a high-resolution psychological portrait of the candidate. Looking back at all of my interviews with potential employees, I think that our conversations have usually allowed figuring out right away whether a person is the right one for us.
Mistakes can always happen, of course, and sometimes employees lose their motivation and start to drift. We battle for each employee: we try to figure out the reason for this change in attitude, inspire the employee to get back "into the groove", and think of interesting work that could excite him or her. If we still lose the battle, we cut our losses and part ways.
Motivation vs. internal crisis
If we are on the topic of motivation, I should add a few words about the importance of motivation for employees at office-less companies. It is not a question of salary. When you are not sitting side by side with your boss, colleagues, or subordinates, it is easy to forget that you are part of a team. After working online for six months or so, an internal crisis sets in - you can forget that you work at a company and fall out of the corporate culture. Even Internet-centric companies like ours have a culture: in our case, one of care for the client, the desire to be a step ahead of the game, and the ability to answer questions that the client has not even thought of yet.
There is no one-size-fits-all technique for fighting off these teleworking blues. One effective method in our toolbox is to ask the employee to write an article for the media or to speak at a conference. While the employee is preparing the text or presentation, he or she dives into the topic and feels like part of something bigger. Another way is to simply meet and socialize informally, maybe drink a little whiskey. One way or another, managers need to think proactively about how to preserve motivation and help employees to feel socially needed, so that they do not suddenly snap one fine day and jump ship for a company with a plush office and after-work drinks on Fridays.
It is absolutely critical to be in contact with every employee and provide them with proper feedback. Don't forget to praise a job well done, and don't be afraid to say if a job could have been done better - but critique the work, not the person. The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open and not be silent. I learned this the hard way, unfortunately. Last spring I traveled together with the other co-founder, Alexander Murauski, to Montenegro (another advantage of remote work, incidentally!) for three months with our families. All of the hassles of the temporary move distracted us from communication with employees. As a result, we lost a pair of workers who, if we had been "virtually" at their side, could have stayed, had we been able to help them in maintaining their motivation.
But leaving the country is not the only way of losing contact with employees. Simply concentrating too much on one aspect of the business can leave other employees feeling lonely and uncared for. Now I know how dangerous this can be.
Trello, Skype and The Cloud
Setting up workflows is much more important for an office-free company than it is for a company with employees housed in a giant cubicle farm. We realized this right away at the beginning of our company's growth, when we needed to hire a second and later third project manager for handling client requests. We had to design processes and mechanisms to make telework just as efficient and seamless as working with a colleague at a neighboring desk.
Finding task management tools was a long effort. We tried Megaplan and Bitrix24, but later migrated to Trello, which is both very convenient and intuitive. Trello remains our project management tool of choice, although we continue to refine our processes. For localization of large projects, we often work with translators through a cloud-based platform. The rest of our communications go through email, Skype or Google Hangouts, which allow sharing screens in virtual group conferences.
All of our documents and files are stored on Google Drive. We forego Microsoft Office and other offline programs in favor of online documents only. The advantages are that documents are accessible from any device and the group collaboration/revision process is convenient.
We also have created an internal wiki to centralize and systematize our knowledge, rules, references, and procedures. Everything is in there, from step-by-step setup of Alconost email accounts to basic principles for working in Trello. Wiki articles are regularly added and updated, which helps new employees to get oriented quickly and makes work get done quicker.
Automating routine tasks and simplifying business processes is key. This saves work time, reduces headcount needs, and simply frees up resources for more creative tasks. A monotonous task that eats up five minutes every day will consume almost a week over the course of a year.
And of course, I recommend acquiring the tools you need so that you can work anytime, anywhere. With today's devices and mobile Internet access, this is eminently doable. I remember when I spent an entire day writing video scripts, communicated with clients, and managed the company as I was waiting in line at a customs checkpoint. All I needed was my mobile phone and its five-inch screen!
Three tips for those working without an office
First: create a schedule. Wake up at the same time every day and figure out which times are most productive. People need rhythm.
Second, if you cannot work properly where you are, create the right setting so that you can. You simply cannot be productive in a two-room apartment with screaming kids and hyperactive pets. You need your own clearly marked, private space. For me, this is the study in my apartment. For Alexander, the other Alconost co-founder, the solution to two noisy children is a small room at a nearby business center.
And third: when there is no set schedule, your working day imperceptibly begins to "morph". You do not have the clear division between personal time and working time that an office gives. Some people become fatigued by this, which is a sign that remote work is probably not right for them. When you like your work - if it is something that you are passionate about - it does not matter which of the day's 24 hours you choose to spend doing it. Personally, I don't even like the word "work". I don't "work", I live and simultaneously pursue my business. It makes me happier - and lets me truly live.