NEW YORK – At more small businesses, any water-cooler chat takes place in a messaging app. Staff meetings are held via Skype. There might not even be an office.
Having a remote staff can be a good fit for many companies. Among the upsides: It expands the pool of job candidates and lowers a company's overhead since there's no need for a big office. But there can be downsides, including the risk of personal and professional isolation. And sometimes interaction isn't quite as effective as it is in person.
"There is only so much that you can communicate through text," said Max Sheppard, CEO of TrustedPros, an online service that helps people find home-improvement workers. "This makes it difficult to gauge employee emotions, morale and well-being."
Sheppard, like many other owners, uses messaging programs like Google Hangout and Slack that let remote staffers hold group or individual chats. He has six employees, all in the Toronto area. Video services like Skype and Zoom are also popular.
Many owners have at least one meeting a year that brings far-flung staffers together. Some, Sheppard among them, gather with employees for periodic dinners or other social activities.
Employees overall are doing more telecommuting, though it's hard to quantify how many work remotely and how many of those are at small companies. In a report from Gallup released earlier this year, nearly a third said they work remotely 80 percent or more of the time, up from nearly a quarter who said that in 2013.
Having some staffers work remotely while others are in one office can create separate cultures, and some remote employees may feel left out.
At Todd Horton's software company, KangoGift, four staffers work together in Boston and six are remote, scattered in Europe and India. Communication can get problematic — some employees feel so distant they forget to keep everyone in the loop with them.
"Information can get trapped in silos," Horton said, whose business helps companies send performance awards to employees. "If the European team gains an insight and doesn't share it quickly, the others will never know something happened."
Another wrinkle: Horton will sometimes take the Boston crew out for a business lunch, and the overseas employees do learn of it.
"They know they're missing out," Horton said.
At H2O Media, an advertising agency based in Eden Prairie, where seven of 12 staffers work remotely, "We all try to look at the separation as a positive, and we make an effort to stay connected via team e-mails, calls and annual meetings," said Allison Baker, social media and marketing coordinator.
But Baker notes that the remote workers include salespeople — a job that had employees working away from an office long before computers or telecommuting.
Timing may be key to the success or failure of a remote work situation, said James Celentano, managing director of EnterGain, a human resources consulting firm. If a company transitions from in-office to remote staffing, it can be a difficult adjustment. Start-ups, especially those with tech-savvy staffers, may find it easier.
"Those that do it well or have fewer issues are companies that embrace it from the get-go," Celentano said.
Owners need to be aware if working remotely is getting staffers down.
Kean Graham is mindful of the need for his staffers to sometimes see different scenery during the workday.
"You have to be proactive and change your environment — go to a coffee shop or shared workspace or even go take a walk," said Graham, CEO of MonetizeMore, an advertising technology firm in Victoria, British Columbia, that has 80 remote staffers on five continents.
With a remote staff, a company can lose some of the spontaneous chatter about sports, movies or news. KangoGift's Horton finds that without colleagues nearby there's less of an ability to just bounce an idea off a co-worker and brainstorm. That can hurt communication and affect people's creativity.
"I try to combat it," he said. "I'm always encouraging everyone to constantly share ideas using messaging tools."