By Kaitlin Solimine
It was November of 2012, and my friend Anna Redmond and I had an idea. What if we took fascinating content from academia—destined to languish in ivory towers—and made it accessible to a wider readership? Before we knew it, we had a business plan, and Hippo Reads was born.
Although we were nearly neighbors when we founded Hippo, within less than a year I moved to Singapore, while Anna stayed in Los Angeles; by default we would be remote workers. We then began hiring contract workers across the world, focusing on talent rather than geography.
But even if we had remained living next door to each other, we still would have designed our company around a remote workforce for one very important reason: work-life balance. A lot of organizations pay lip-service to that idea, but at the end of the day, their workers have very little flexibility and the scale is often tilted far more towards work than life. We wanted Hippo Reads to be different.
A Remote Workforce is a Flexible Workforce
Anna and I aren’t alone in appreciating the power of a remote workforce. According to a Gallup Poll released in 2017, 43 percent of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely in 2016, up from 39 percent in 2012. The report stated that “Gallup consistently has found that flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities play a major role in an employee’s decision to take or leave a job.”
When we launched, Anna was a mother of one young daughter; within a few years, she had her second. While she was devoted to our fledgling enterprise, she was equally devoted to her children, and didn’t want to spend her days away from them. I wasn’t yet a mother—I now have a two-year-old—but was deliberately designing my career to have the space to be a very present, hands-on parent when the time came.
There was another, practical reason: economics. We founded the company with only $600, and for the first few years ran it exclusively with freelancers and contract workers. We couldn’t afford to pay ourselves a salary, let alone an employee; and we certainly couldn’t afford to set up an office. Financial considerations were secondary, however, and as our company grew (we launched Hippo Thinks in 2015) and we were able to hire full-time employees, assembling a team of remote workers simply made sense.
Remote Workers Have Better Work-Life Balance
The fact we deliberately designed our company to utilize a remote workforce is significant because a management strategy that works in an office won’t necessarily work with remote employees, and vice versa. Both Anna and I had to take a hard look at our own strengths and weaknesses to determine if we had, or could develop, the skill set to run our team successfully.
We now have a core team of eight and hundreds of contractors in numerous countries; while there are certainly challenges to running a remote team, we feel confident in our system, and find that our employees excel when they have control over their schedules. In fact, we believe they work harder from home than they would at an office because they are happier, due to, yes, a better work-life balance.
“I don’t have children, but I am involved with a couple of volunteer organizations that have meetings during the day,” says Hippo Thinks Executive Editor Nathalie Lagerfeld, 30, who works from her home in Chicago. “It would be hard to keep up if I worked in a normal office. Aside from that, not having to commute cuts an hour or more off my workday, which frees up more time to run errands, see friends, or just relax. In my career, I hope to never have to work in an office again.”
Managing Remote Workers Can Be A Challenge—But a Worthwhile One
Of course, the model is not without pitfalls. First and foremost is communication. Because we can’t pop into each other’s offices to ask a question, there are times when team members are left hanging, waiting to receive a call or email reply. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that our employees are flung across multiple time zones. To counter this, we hold weekly calls for the whole team, where each member is given time to discuss their work, and to bring up any issues they may be having. If the issue can’t be resolved on the team call, Anna or I will jump on the phone with the team member for a more in-depth discussion. We also schedule check-ins where employees are given the space to talk openly with their supervisor; and employees know they can reach out to Anna or me anytime.
We realized early on that we had to be particularly sensitive to ensuring our team felt connected and acknowledged. Although we do endeavor to create a feeling of family, in reality our employees are isolated, and we understand some of them might be missing the social advantages of working in an office. Sharing a laugh on a phone call isn’t the same as grabbing a cup of coffee in the morning or a drink after work with a colleague. This challenge can be tough, which is why we tend to hire people who are accustomed to working on their own. Beyond that, we make an effort to learn about our team members’ personal lives, and to spend time on each call asking about them. We also have annual team summits to connect in person—and to meet each other’s children and significant others.
Lastly is the issue of trust. Micro-managers and remote teams don’t mix. Anna and I understand we can’t be looking over our employees’ shoulders; we have to trust them to do the work, and we do. If we didn’t trust them they wouldn’t be part of our company. At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding—or the output—and we feel confident we are all working towards the same goal. Sure, team members might glance at social media a few times during the day, but office workers do the same or waste time chatting at the proverbial office water cooler.
The Future of the Remote Work Revolution
Anna and I have endeavored to face all of these challenges with understanding and creativity. As our company has grown and we take on an increasingly diverse range of clients, we’ve found that having a remote team is a distinct advantage. With each new hire, we have the luxury of looking for the very best candidate for the job – regardless of where they live. From a pure business standpoint, we fervently believe that having remote workers makes our company stronger and more nimble.
We also believe that remote work can change society. I am excited by the fact that we're a female-strong company; there's something empowering about giving women, and many working moms, an opportunity to continue a career outside of a traditional, and often restrictive, male-dominated workplace. The really exciting part though is that the model empowers everyone equally: our non-parent and male employees are reaping the benefits of remote work right alongside our working moms. The days when remote work was reserved for C-suite level executives are over, and I say good riddance. Working remotely is not a perk; it’s simply a smart way to do business. And it’s here to stay.
Learn what our remote team can do for you--get in touch with Hippo Thinks today.
Kaitlin Solimine is a China scholar and co-founder of Hippo Reads and Hippo Thinks. Her debut novel, Empire of Glass, was a finalist for the 2017 Center for Fiction First Novel prize.
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