A developer at a Hamilton tech company works away from the office – about 6,000 kilometres away – but he still gets invited to all the office parties.
"Last night, for our CEO's birthday we had a mini-party at end of day," said Andrew Holden, chief technology officer at Weever Apps Inc., which makes an app that lets companies track workers in the field. "We had a mini-keg of beer, a game of this bocce ball sort of thing and, for Garth who's in Peru, we set up a laptop with a webcam so he could be right there talking to everybody."
Companies, especially tech companies, are increasingly relying on employees who work remotely, Mr. Holden said. They let existing employees work from home – or anywhere on Earth, as long as they can get an Internet connection.
And, some aren't just letting existing employees travel – they're hiring people around the world who they've never met in person.
"We have 18 people on our team and 10 of them are remote – we have people in Vancouver, Romania, the Philippines, Thailand and Argentina," said Mohsen Hadianfard, co-founder and chief operating officer of Sweet Tooth, a Kitchener, Ont.-based company that helps companies create online loyalty-reward programs.
"We're no longer restricted to who we can hire locally," Mr. Hadianfard said. "We can go for the best people out there."
Hiring employees remotely helps companies attract workers who may not want to – or can't – come to them.
"The immigration process is a total pain – we've had to go through a whole labour market evaluation where you have to prove that you can't get anyone locally," Sweet Tooth co-founder Steve Deckert said. "We've done it and we still do it – but it's difficult."
Having staff in other time zones helps Sweet Tooth provide customer support 24/7, Mr. Deckert said.
It can also be cheaper. Companies that can't afford to pay salaries expected in expensive cities such as Toronto can hire in people in cities – or countries – with a lower cost of living. And, depending on the job, they may be able to pay workers less than they'd pay somebody here.
"It depends, if you're looking at general business administration, yeah, pay [in other countries] would be lower," Mr. Deckert said."But, for example, some of our engineers are certified to work on Magento [an open-source e-commerce platform] and that certification sets a floor."
And increasingly, software engineers and developers are expecting to be able to work while travelling the world.
"There's this digital nomad culture," said Mr. Hadianfard, who worked from Morocco for a month last year. "If you really want competitive talent, it makes sense to have some sort of remote working policy."
Companies use chat and video-conferencing tools such as Slack, Google Hangouts and Skype so employees can stay in touch – and build a rapport.
"In tech, when there is a strong remote culture, there's a lot of investment under the hood in maintaining the processes and culture for it to work," Weever's Mr. Holden said. "It's not easy to buy someone a beer or a latte and send it to Lima, but we do what we can so they feel included in everything – we've done things like Photoshop people into pictures at parties they couldn't be at."
Hiring "geographically remote" workers is best for "roles that are relatively independent as opposed to interdependent," said David Zweig, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto.
"If I know what I'm doing and I know what the deliverables are, then it's okay," Mr. Zweig said. "If it's a project that doesn't require co-ordination of effort or team involvement, the issues around working remotely are lessened."
Those issues can include "difficulties in perceptions of how much they're doing and the quality of the work," Mr. Zweig said.
And, when there's no face-to-face contact, misunderstandings can be a problem.
"We need to see facial expressions – you can get that with Skype but it's not a complete replacement for dealing with somebody in person," Mr. Zweig said. "But that can happen now even if you are working in the same building as your boss but everything is done over e-mail."
Mr. Holden said a company's culture helps determine how well it can handle a remote work force.
"There are companies that put cameras on their employees – but we see our employees as participants in a growing company and not as a commodity," he said. "The tools are there to facilitate communication, not to keep tabs on what people are doing."
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