DuckDuckGo, like other distributed companies, also creates specific opportunities for bonding. There is a weekly “neighbors meeting” in which four or five colleagues who don’t normally work together are randomly assigned to mingle, and an annual companywide gathering that is normally in person but was held online this year.
Several academics and industry experts said the changes might go even further. For example, remote companies, because they are set up to allow people to work efficiently on their own, are also well positioned to use contractors and other workers who are not employees.
“If you know how to have remote full-time employees, it’s much easier to have remote on-demand people from a freelancing platform,” said Stephane Kasriel, who until recently was the chief executive of Upwork, which counts Automattic, the Wikimedia Foundation and other fully or heavily distributed organizations as clients. He added that much of what made this possible was sound management that companies with physical offices didn’t adopt simply because they could afford to be sloppy.
The ease of working as a freelancer can be a boon to many skilled workers, who can command high hourly rates through Upwork and other freelancing marketplaces.
But for lower-skilled workers, such as those in customer service or data entry, working as a contractor tends to reduce wages and increase insecurity. Companies often pay low-skilled employees above-market wages because they have internal pay scales, but pay only the market price for a contractor or freelancer.
Mr. Ozimek of Upwork acknowledged that outsourcing work could reduce wages for low-skilled workers but said this didn’t take into account the lower cost of living for remote workers outside expensive cities and the job creation that platforms like Upwork made possible by allowing new businesses to form and scale quickly. Both he and Mr. Kasriel said freelancers on Upwork tended to be relatively skilled and well paid, as a new study from the company shows.
Even highly skilled workers could find less leverage at a distributed company than at one where they work in offices, however. Laurence Berland, a longtime Google engineer who was active in organizing workers there before he was fired last fall, said that digital tools made it easy to coordinate remotely among workers already involved in an organizing effort, but that it was often difficult to recruit new workers who were not in the same physical space.