My company has been virtual for 18 years. Remote working is tough

The office expenses I’ve saved on since 2005 have come at the expense of my company’s culture

The pandemic is “over” – sort of. But one big question it generated is here to stay: should we ever go back to the office? It’s a question I have been asking myself for 18 years.

My technology consulting company went fully virtual in 2005. Prior to that we – I ran the business with my father – had an office in a suburban neighborhood of Philadelphia. When my father passed away I started to spend more time in the office and I realized something: the office wasn’t so great.

Clients preferred to meet about their projects in their offices, where they could bring together more of their team, so our employees were either at clients’ offices or working from home (yes, people did that in 2005). Other than a coffee maker and a cat, not a lot was going on. I shut the offices down and we became a fully virtual company. A very, very dysfunctional company.

Sure, our overhead became much lower thanks to not paying rent or all the costs of maintaining an office but – initially – it was a pain. Those were the days of dial-up connections, ISDN lines and broadband. No Salesforce, Teams, Zoom, Slack, Gmail. Our company’s accounting and other databases were kept on a server in the basement of my house, precariously close to that same cat’s litter box.

All of that has improved of course. And the ease of virtual working means it’s here to stay. Gallup expects fully remote work arrangements to nearly triple compared with 2019 figures.

But running a fully virtual business still isn’t any better today than it was in 2005 and – long term – I can tell you it has issues. And then some.

First, closing the office should have cut my overhead. It has and it hasn’t. I no longer have to pay rent and utilities, nor do I have to maintain a coffee machine and pay a cleaning service or all the other expenses required to maintain an office. Instead I’m forking out endless, ever-increasing subscription fees for countless cloud-based applications, tools, services and platforms and for security software.

Then there are the ever-evolving list of tax issues. What forms should that remote employee or contractor be filing to be in compliance with all the local rules? What are my responsibilities? What are my liabilities? These are headaches I never had in 2005.

There are additional employment costs, too. I’m reimbursing my employees more for their travel as their need for human contact has increased and for the costs of their own home offices, for which I have assumed responsibility. I’m paying extra if they’re located in higher tax locales. I’m paying more for their paid time off and expanded flexibility which comes hand in hand with a virtual organization. I may be paying more for their lack of productivity but I have no way of knowing this.

All of those are the direct costs of running a virtual company. But there’s something – though indirect – that amounts to a much bigger cost: my company’s culture.

My team never – never – sees each other, except rarely at clients’ offices. That’s strange. I have workers who I’ve never personally met face to face. I’ve met other employees at clients’ and had to do a double-take to make sure it was really who I thought it was. In the past I’ve tried to have holiday parties but the gathering of strangers who shared a slim employment connection was just too awkward to bear and so I discontinued those.

There’s no collaboration, no innovation, no fun, no personality, no dramas, no shared opinions of The White Lotus. Everyone’s off on their own little islands. We don’t exchange client stories or ideas or problems or issues and solutions on projects which, if pooled together, would certainly benefit everyone. I sometimes have trouble hiring people, particularly younger people who – despite what some studies may say – want to be in an office, at least some of the time, so that they can be mentored, guided and helped to adjust to their new life.

We have no onboarding or off-boarding rules. I have trouble evaluating people, other than relying on client feedback and my accounting manager emailing me when there’s a collection issue due to bad service. We are a small, interconnected collection of strangers who happen to be working on the same clients.

You could tell me that all of these problems are fixable. I could make it a point to hold more face-to-face meetings, social events and team-building activities in restaurants, hotels, event spaces or public parks. We could throw axes together, join a volleyball league, go on a company retreat, barbecue burgers but … nah, I’m too lazy for that. And besides, most of my employees – surprisingly, you might say – have been with my company for enough years that I’m pretty sure they would resist. Given that turnover has been pretty low, I’d say they’re happy with this arrangement. Maybe things would be better if I opened an office. I’ll never know.

Sure, running a fully virtual company can save money and apparently it’s what people want. But it can also be very, very dysfunctional. That’s been my experience. So now you know.


Gene Marks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How Brazilian women avoid sexism at work: by working for themselves
Saleswomen at companies such as Tupperware take out micro-loans and sell products directly, becoming financially independent on their own time

Olga Oksman in New York

01, Oct, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
It’s time for US small businesses to offer a four-day workweek | Gene Marks
A shorter week could attract employees to your small business – as well as increase productivity and morale

Gene Marks

23, Jan, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Employers can’t forbid romance in the workplace – but they can protect workers | Gene Marks
While workplace romances aren’t against the law, certain behaviors could cross an ethical line – but there are models that work

Gene Marks

20, Feb, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
Unlimited vacation isn't as crazy as it sounds – and it can save you money | Gene Marks
Unlimited vacation may seem like a cultural shift for your business, but consider payout: when an employee leaves, it’s possible you may not owe them anything

Gene Marks

08, Aug, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Turns out the Great Resignation may be followed by the Great Regret | Gene Marks
Yes, there’s lots of turnover and people changing jobs – but maybe the problem isn’t all with the employer

Gene Marks

20, Mar, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Three in four female small business owners say glass ceiling still exists
Bank of America survey also shows 28% of women owners feel they have less access to capital, borne out by 2014 study that they receive only 4.4% of loans

Jana Kasperkevic in New York

04, Aug, 2016 @3:12 PM

Article image
For small business owners, the pandemic proves it: millennials were right
Many business owners resisted the work-from-home policies younger workers wanted. But those who listened easily adapted to the new reality

Gene Marks

05, Jul, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
Businesses can’t afford to be stingy – or they risk losing good employees | Gene Marks
A new study revealed that 47% of workers do not have a ‘high intent’ of staying in their jobs – but small businesses can combat this by paying more

Gene Marks

09, Dec, 2018 @12:00 PM

Article image
Is the work from home debate is already over? | Gene Marks
Both remote work and a return to the office have their benefits – which is why a compromise is inevitable

Gene Marks

28, Aug, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Employers are now ‘ghosting’ applicants in tight labor market – and that’s not all bad | Gene Marks
It’s rude to end a relationship in radio silence, but it provides insight into a company’s culture and how it treats its employees

Gene Marks

06, Nov, 2022 @11:00 AM