Remote Work Lessons Small Businesses Can Learn From Big Companies

5 min read • Dec 04, 2020 • Barry Eitel

Working from home has become standard for millions of employees across the world in an array of fields. Even companies like Google that previously shirked remote work are embracing it as the future.

But a successful remote work strategy does not end at setting up a Zoom account, as many companies throughout recent decades can verify.

The Mixed History of ‘Telework’

Even though the coronavirus pandemic has made working from home a lifestyle for millions of Americans, the prophets of American business have been heralding a remote work revolution since the 1980s.

It’s telling that it took a global viral outbreak to bring these predictions into reality—that is, there are myriad reasons why we weren’t all working from home in 1999. Many giant corporations have ventured into the world of remote employment. While the results have been mixed depending on the industry, the lessons of big businesses’ work-from-home successes are relevant to today’s small businesses.

“Teleworking” took off as an idea around 1985, decades before Zoom and Slack. The appeal is pretty obvious for both employees and management: commuting, expensive office real estate, and a location-restricted talent pool become theoretically obsolete in a work-from-home world.

IBM, Yahoo!, and Best Buy’s corporate offices all famously allowed a huge swath of their global staff to work remotely in the 2000s. And, for a variety of reasons, each of these companies drastically limited this policy several years later. In many cases, revenue declined and management decided that roaming workers needed more direct supervision.

At times, leadership became very publicly antagonistic toward remote work. When Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo! at the time, called remote workers back into the offices, she said the comradery and conversations that happen naturally when people work together in an office were essential for the company to thrive.

Before the pandemic, Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook seemed to be pushing for a workforce that spent more time at the office, not less. Instead of streamlining remote work operations, many tech companies invested heavily in lavish and playful company campuses.

No matter what happens, though, 2020 will go down as the year that work in America changed, even if just temporarily. For thousands of companies big and small, remote work is not a luxury or experiment—it’s what working must become during the pandemic.

Therefore, it’s helpful to consider why some companies nailed the remote work concept before the pandemic and why they continue to succeed.  

Automattic

Automattic is best known for creating and running the WordPress blogging platform. Launched in 2006 and now valued around $3 billion, you might assume the company has expensive, sleek offices on some trendy street in San Francisco.

However, Automattic is totally a remote work operation. With a staff of almost 1,200 working from some 40 countries, the company has always placed a strong emphasis on letting employees work from home.

The leaders of Automattic stress that the company succeeds because of its quality staff and constant communication. The company emphasizes hiring highly qualified people from the outset—and then keeping them happy. Automattic boasts about its high employee retention rate.

Automattic employees worldwide communicate through chat applications like Google Hangouts, technology that millions of other employees have now learned to use. Interestingly, Automattic doesn’t stress email. Instead, it keeps a constantly updated internal blog filled with information about ongoing projects.  

AT&T

Remote work has been a priority for AT&T since the 1980s, although the company has had its ups and downs with employees working from home throughout the years. Like IBM and Yahoo!, AT&T called a large portion of its remote workforce back into the office in recent years, although not to the same extent. The company has saved some $30 million in real estate costs alone because of its ongoing remote work program.

Because of its breadth of experience with remote work, AT&T does a great job of defining work-from-home culture. If the pandemic has forced you into remote work, then you can probably attest to how difficult maintaining a work-life balance is when the line between home and office doesn’t exist. AT&T encourages experienced remote employees to share their wisdom with newcomers.

“Make time to call some of your coworkers every day, not just for business, but for ‘chatting and having a few laughs’ as well,” suggests Tony DeGonia, an AT&T Cybersecurity Technical Sales Consultant. “You would do it in the office, why not do it from home, too? It helps to keep your sanity and keeps those relationships active and current.”

Remembering work’s social components and breaking up the workday how you see fit can be monumental in terms of staying sound in this new remote reality.  

Microsoft

Microsoft is like many big tech companies in 2020: while remote work was never a focus before, it has now become the default, and it will likely continue to be so for most employees for months to come.

The creator of Windows has done a fantastic job of analyzing its work-from-home data, however, and published its findings in the months following the start of the pandemic.  

One finding that stunned the company: the rise of the 30-minute meeting. While the number of meetings that took place increased, the length of each meeting decreased significantly after the workforce went remote.

“This was surprising,” Microsoft Workplace Insights said in a report in Harvard Business Review. “In recent decades, meetings have generally gotten longer, and research shows it has had a negative effect on employee productivity and happiness. Our flip to shorter meetings had come about organically, not from any management mandate. And according to our sentiment survey, the change was appreciated.”

Overall, the company suggests that continuous communication is critical, but the medium for this communication needs to shift for remote workers. Instead of extensive email threads and long meetings, remote workers seem to appreciate shorter clips of interaction spaced more often throughout the day.

Barry Eitel

Barry Eitel has written about business and technology for eight years, including working as a staff writer for Intuit's Small Business Center and as the Business Editor for the Piedmont Post, a weekly newspaper covering the city of Piedmont, California.