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

Gene Marks
4 min readFeb 12, 2023

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.

(This column originally appeared in The Guardian)

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.

I have workers who I’ve never personally met face to face.

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.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com on February 12, 2023.

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Gene Marks

Columnist on smallbiz, economy, public policy, tech for The Guardian, The Hill, Philly Inquirer, Wash Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur. Small Business owner and CPA