Technology

Could Your Association Thrive in a Remote-First Culture?

By / Apr 1, 2019 (Rawpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

In an age when centralization is running into a cost-of-living wall for many industries, embracing a remote-first culture could expand both your pool of talent and your base of operations.

In some fields and disciplines, it’s important that you have a presence in the middle of the action.

That’s why a lot of associations are located in places near the halls of power, like Washington, DC, or in centrally located parts of the country, like Chicago.

But what if this desire for a central location, both in terms of office and locale, comes at the cost of innovation? And what if not every role, especially not the ones involving technology or creativity, need quite that level of centralization?

This is a growing debate in the fields of technology and media in particular that I think associations could probably appreciate. The issue is this: These industries have focused on certain regions of the country—tech in Silicon Valley and Seattle, media in New York and DC—a model that made more sense when physical limitations made it harder to spread out.

A great example of this: During the “Mad Men” era of the 1950s and 1960s, many newspaper comics (among them, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, and Nancy) were made in the same region of Connecticut, in part due to its fairly close proximity to the syndicates that published and distributed the comics. The syndicates were in New York City, and both the relationships and logistics involved were important to the comic artists. (A notable exception to this rule was Peanuts, whose creator Charles Schulz lived most of his professional life in Minnesota and California.)

Nowadays, technology has effectively removed the need for work like this to be done up close. If an illustrator finishes a week of comics, he or she can just email it, rather than having to rely on a courier.

This inertia has long lingered with media, even as the internet has allowed for the spread of content: Much of the content in BuzzFeed, for example, could technically be created anywhere, but its primary office is in New York City; same with companies like Vox Media, whose main media outlets are spread between New York and DC. This creates a situation where lots of potential talent who can’t afford the higher costs of living or choose to stay closer to home are basically taken off the table entirely.

And the tech world runs into this problem a lot, too. Part of the hubbub over Amazon’s rescinded decision to add a headquarters in New York City, beyond the tax breaks the company received, had much to do with the fact that the company was moving into an already expensive, highly developed area. San Francisco and Silicon Valley are pretty much the poster children of this cost-of-living problem, to the point where some startups are literally moving away.

As I pointed out last year, a CompTIA study reports that many tech hubs exist in areas of the country disregarded in this broader conversation. But there’s also a lot to be said about embracing the value of tech workers no matter where they’re located. Which brings me to Automattic, the company that makes the popular content management platform WordPress.

Recently, the Houston Chronicle noted that Automattic’s founder, Matt Mullenweg, embraced the Silicon Valley lifestyle for years, but then moved back to Houston in part because he wanted to be closer to his parents, who were growing older. The wasn’t a problem because Automattic, which has more than 850 employees, is totally “distributed,” with no central office.

“You can work at one of the best companies in the world that is changing the web, while not having to leave your friends, your family, your home, all the things that you [like] about wherever you live,” he told the newspaper.

Automattic has been able to pull this off because it made decentralization a key part of its culture. (Mullenweg travels a lot to reach all those people, by the way.)

And other countries are doing the same. As TechCrunch notes [subscription], tools have made it possible to expand culture beyond the physical space, and that has made remote culture not only possible, but feasible.

The problem is, the tools themselves don’t allow for the buy-in—the culture does. From the piece:

But the use of these tools for occasional remote work at companies that aren’t distributed has caused some confusion. Just using the tools doesn’t imply being good at remote work. A company that uses Slack as part of its distributed DNA is a different beast from a company with an office, where Slack is used in between visits to coworkers’ desks or the water cooler.

If you have an employee in Missouri or Missoula and they know how to do the job and can be trusted to do great work in a remote environment, that can prove incredibly valuable as competition for resources increases.

This is something I’ve written about in the past, especially regarding employees who already have a presence within your organization—say, like Mullenweg, they started out in one place but ended up moving somewhere else. But there’s a case to be made that, when querying for a job, the location should matter a lot less than it does. A lot of organizations require an employee to work out of their headquarters, for reasons of having a strong internal culture, even if there’s no technical reason they can’t do their job at their house or a coffee shop.

But what if the culture works around the employee? Suddenly, a lot of avenues are opened up for your organization. Maybe not everyone can work at home. A lot of smart folks can.

We’re not in the 1950s anymore, with a need to ship comics via courier. People don’t have to be in one place.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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