Thoughts on remote working

On a business trip to Germany last year, I had a conversation on remote working with colleagues covering issues like ‘how it works’, pros and cons, difficulties and so on. It set me thinking about the whole thing again. What does make it work? What are the issues? Where does it work?

I have been on all sides of the remote working model for years and currently remote work with colleagues in Germany, UK, Poland and France. In times past, the USA, Romania, Tunisia and Bulgaria and India was in the mix too.

remote1

What’s the big deal?

To some degree I find it curious that the whole topic is such a big deal given that a good % of people work for themselves anyway. But the issue here is about remote working within a traditional company framework, where people normally go to a place of work every day.

Why remote work?

Your organisation could be spread across the country or countries already so in a sense you might already remote. Great staff might not be where you are and might not want or be able to move. You can get to a bigger talent pool if you allow remote working and depending on location, staff costs can be reduced.

Also, allowing remote flexibility might allow you to keep staff needing to balance the needs of raising a family or other personal issues with work. It can be very efficient too. Perhaps staff just want a day working at home each week to simply get things done.

When to remote work

Clearly there only so many jobs or industries that can be made to work remotely but desk based positions are probably suited and a lot of companies do that already in that staff might be able to work one or two days a week from home. IT jobs where work is done on remote systems all day anyway seem particularly appropriate.

Home working isn’t a silver bullet for efficiency though, modern internet collaboration tools are helpful but they make it easy to be interrupted, and online meetings are no different to physical meetings, they will still break the day and force context switching.

 

… the foundation of making remote working ‘work’ is communication and trust… No process or technology will fix a lack of trust or communication.

 

Selling it to management

This is probably the hardest part and it will be even harder in larger more established companies. I think there is a valid fear that if one person is allowed to remote, then everyone will want to and then what? Can the company handle that? Traditionally, managers like to walk the floors and see their staff at work, or at least think they are seeing their staff at work. If staff work remotely they are probably goofing off, watching TV all day right? How do we know what they are doing? The team will disintegrate and management will lose control right?

With modern computer based jobs, I don’t think that office time is relevant any more as a measure of productivity. Staff can goof off looking at Facebook, Youtube or whatever all day at the office pretty much as easily as at home. With our work stations open to the internet and our permanently connected lifestyles, distractions in our working day are endless either at home or in the office. And do you know what staff are doing already anyway? Sure, they might physically be in the building for nine hours but do you know what they are actually doing?

For me, at the end of the day I think management needs to know:

• is the work getting done?
• how can I see what is getting done?
• is the team working, effective and pulling together?
• am I still in control?

Large open source projects with legions of contributors distributed around the world can organize themselves and get work done, companies can do it too.

How to start

I think firstly, define the scope for the remote working. For which roles in your organisation could it work? Will it be for a day or two a week, or full time? Do you want to pilot it first? Are you prepared to change processes and technology to support it, to introduce a different work culture, to train staff? Will certain things always happen face to face? If you pilot it, what are the criteria to measure success and failure? Are you ready for the question “he’s working from home, can I work from home too?”.

There are probably two broad approaches to allowing remote working, the first is to allow remote working for only some of the week, the other is for full time remote working but with periodic trips to the office or in-person meetings.

Someone working from home a single day a week might find that this is the day when they get all their work done and rave about the benefits, but for a full time remote worker, that might not apply. Full time remote workers can be just as involved in meetings and other work distractions as anyone else.

It will definitely work better with staff who are already good communicators and naturally more transparent and vice versa, allowing your already most distant workers to work from home might not work out.

• Define the boundaries and context, part time, full time, pilot?
• Announce it as a pilot and be careful about how it becomes policy
• Define criteria with which you can measure success and failure
• Allow your best communicating, most focused, trusted and transparent staff to try it first
• Make sure your processes, technology and office based staff are ready/prepared
• Get regular feedback from all those involved. Review, improve, iterate

How do you make it work?

Assuming the basic requirement of a good internet connection is met, I don’t think there is a silver bullet for this. Online collaborative tools, modern practices, internet chat and video and so on all help, but the foundation to making remote working ‘work’ is communication and trust. Colleagues simply must communicate well with each other and they must trust each other. No process or technology will fix a lack of trust or communication.

It helps if colleagues already know each other and have worked together. If not, then get people together from time to time. Get together for the starts of projects or things like milestone meetings, important company meetings, sprint planning and review, new staff joining and the fun stuff like company parties. Or just work together for a few days or a week in the same location. That can be a lot of fun.

Do regular reviews with colleagues to check things are working fine, this isn’t just about the work and communication, but also more mundane issues such as networking and tools working as they should.

remote2
A great thing about working from home, you can work pomodoro style with a real timer and not annoy anyone.

Tools

You need tools to facilitate communications and tools to facilitate distributed working. For communications you need some kind of internet chat software, plus the ability to do video conferencing with screen and document sharing. The basic requirements there are good internet speed, webcam, microphone with headphones and software such as skype. Also look at lync, teamviewer, jabber and slack.

Chatrooms are very useful where teams need to collaborate as is the ability to take control of someones’ PC, or someone yours for support purposes. It’s also handy to have software that lets you schedule meetings with an online join link too. Microsoft Outlook does that but for sure there are other solutions.

We also use Atlassian Jira Agile (formerly called Greenhopper) the scrum and kanban tool which is very useful for visualising work and progress. If your team is distributed, a tool like this is essential and check out new kid on the block Trello too. Finally, whilst I haven’t personally used it, Basecamp looks good as a project management tool for distributed teams, they have written some very interesting books too.

And don’t forget your staff will need secure access to intranet tools and files, so likely access through a VPN.

Work environment

You need a dedicated work space and it needs to be quiet, and also somewhere that helps keep you in the work zone. You might find it helps to have some artifacts from the office in your home workspace too.

Organising work

The work tasks must be clear, transparent and with defined timeframes and deliverables. Agile techniques help here and we do a sort of scrumban. Our backlogs and tasks are managed in Jira, Atlassian Jira Agile helps visualise work, we record our velocity and for software tasks also have transparency through use of git and gitlab. We try to minimise discussions through e-mails and rather encourage discussions to take place in gitlab, Jira tickets or in collaborative wiki pages.

All this means that it is easy to see what people are doing at any time, how much they are managing to do within the sprint cycle and view the output. With such practices and transparency, I think it is pretty hard to goof off as a remote worker and it’s certainly not in your interest to do so, the work needs to get done right?

In my experience, contractors are generally better at work time accountability since they are used to filling in time sheets, dealing with work packages and so on. A good scrum process with meaningful and reflective sprint review helps as well.

One other tip: write everything down. At best I prefer to have discussions in tickets (as comments) or collaborative wiki pages, or at least in chat/chatrooms with a recorded history. It becomes a complete pain to trawl through emails after a while, it is even worse when people leave and knowledge becomes locked in dormant mail accounts. Transparency is king.

Meetings

With modern communications software, meetings aren’t a problem. All our scheduled meetings have a link to join online and unless there are network issues, we nearly always have video on. I think seeing your colleagues is important and it helps the team to feel connected.

Office based staff might be sat in a traditional meeting room looking at a big screen and it is important here that screen sharing software works so that remotes can see what is going on.

I don’t personally like video on all the time, simply because I don’t want everyone scrutinising my face when displayed large on a conference screen if I’m feeling unwell that day.

Remote working sounds easy, is it?

A lunchtime walk to clear the head.
A lunchtime walk to clear the head.

Working remotely isn’t necessarily easy, all that time alone might drive some people a little crazy and full time remote working definitely won’t be for everyone. You need to be organised and disciplined both with work and breaks, and the hardest thing I find about remote working is the lack of physical movement. It is all too easy to just sit and work all day and to that end, I try my best to put exercise breaks in the day. Many good ideas come when I’m out walking, and not sat at the computer.

One thing I miss sometimes is a period of disconnect – normally covered by the commute – from work before plunging into the evening family life. On those days where my head feels fried, I just go for a 30 minute walk and that helps.

Working remotely can make it easier to be distracted, in the sense of people talking to you on messenger, and beware feeling the need to be visible online all the time just to show colleagues that you’re there. I tend to get asked a lot of things all day and from time to time go into a do not disturb mode to get things done. It is surprising how not everything turns out to be urgent.

dont_disturb_0

Where it can fail

I think it can go wrong when your remote staff get forgotten and office staff involve them less and less in things. If trust is lacking or communication is poor, things can go wrong and on that point, if the work can’t be seen, that can erode trust. Visual kanban style boards are great here (Jira Agile, Trello). Then there are the basics; is networking reliable? Do staff have the software tools they need? Is communication as good as it can be? If your staff need to go through a VPN, does it work reliably? Does everyone have good headsets and webcams?

And don’t forget to have team meetups from time to time, as with any relationship, once a bond is made, distance isn’t a big deal. I think the biggest point of failure is simply having office based staff who are poor communicators and who don’t care to have remote colleagues. But then, that’s not a remote working problem, that’s just a staff problem.

My experience and final thoughts

I think I can say that I have been on all sides of the remote working model now. On and off, I’ve worked remotely in a different country to my colleagues for around six years, I’ve worked in the ‘office’ managing offshore teams and workers, and also hired and built fully distributed teams both office based and as a remote too. And also hired staff remotely too. It’s all possible.

Certainly some industries are better suited to it than others but most office based jobs could probably support some degree of remote work.Your staff are ultimately your best asset and anything that helps you hire and keep the best people has to be good. The bottom line is that remote working can really work, try it.


Interesting links

http://blog.cloudpeeps.com/top-10-companies-winning-at-remote-work-culture/
https://www.acquia.com/resources/podcasts/acquia-podcast-180-working-rem…
http://37signals.com/remote/
http://www.ted.com/talks/jason_fried_why_work_doesn_t_happen_at_work
http://whenihavetime.com/2014/07/08/10-lessons-from-4-years-working-remo…
https://slack.com/ – communications tool, real time chat.
http://asoftmurmur.com/ – great for background sounds.

Edit, 10.09.2015. – now these I like
http://p2theme.com/, and http://ma.tt/2009/05/how-p2-changed-automattic/
http://simplenote.com/

Edit 12.12.2015
http://www.wired.com/2015/12/digital-nomads-telecommuting/

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