I came across an article recently, which I have to admit made my blood boil a little. Yes, I know it’s the season of goodwill and all that, and I’m going to risk sounding a little Scrooge-like, but I couldn’t help it. It was written by someone who’d tried out ‘telecommuting’ (big sigh) a.k.a. remote or distributed working. They’d tested it in their company and decided it didn’t work.
Why did it enrage me so much? Well, this person sounded like they’d almost set it up to fail. To them, it was the latest buzzword, and they wanted to offer their employees a ‘perk’. But it was going to be risky, because, well, they just couldn’t trust their employees not to be lazy and sit around in their pyjamas at home, watching TV, occasionally flicking their mousepad to ‘appear online’. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
Well, no. This attitude towards remote working is baked in the past, where working from one office and people all sitting around together in a cosy circle singing kum-by-yah* was a necessity not an option. We all know the reasons remote working and flexibility can happen more easily now: fast internet, numerous communication channels, and so on. But why are companies like Yahoo! and IBM backtracking on this? Why is there still such a negative perception of this way of working when it has so much real potential for the future?
*this might not have ever really happened in an office.
So what is remote working? It can come in various formats. It’s actually not just the typical office worker, working from home on a specific day. The nature of digital projects has been changing over a number of years. In this era where organisations are squeezing budgets and trying to find the best value wherever they can, it seems that the days of whole projects being tackled by one team, in the same place, is fast becoming the past. What I’ve noticed more recently is a much more fragmented way of putting together a project – a mixture of in-house and agency, or multiple agencies or organisations, or working with an offshore team. In the past we might have done the full integrated project from beginning to end, now, it’s a piece of the pie.
Which means that everyone is having to work with people who aren’t sat next to them even more than before. Whether that’s a freelancer you’re working with who’s not in the office, an offshore agency doing development or a partner company in another city tackling UX… the future is looking more and more like a distributed workplace.
So why the negativity, man?
As I’ve seen from this article, and from examples of large corporations changing their entire philosophy away from remote working, there’s a lot of negativity towards this way of working. Of course if you decide to let everyone work from home when they want, set them off and then expect them all to check in at the right time or be available 24/7 it’s going to be a bit of a mess. Equally if you just jump into work with a team on the other side of the world without any setup, should you expect anything less than a problematic project?
Okay, okay so what about these people who are going to sit on Facebook all day if we let them work from home? It’s the age old response to the idea of working from home. I can’t see the person, so how do I know what they are doing?
This comes up regularly as one of the biggest fears of letting people work remotely. There’s also the perceived lack of productivity and distractions at home. The limited collaboration and communication with distributed workers. The lack of availability. The lower response times.
Hang on a second, can’t these all still be problems even if you’ve got your whole team sat in the same place? “They won’t focus on work.” How many people will go on Facebook or Twitter whilst sat in an office? “They won’t collaborate as much.” How many people sit in the office with headphones on to block out distractions? I think we have to move away from the idea that being sat next to people automatically makes them work harder. If the work is satisfying, challenging, and relevant to a person – surely we should trust them to do it, wherever they are sat?
There’s actually a lot of benefits to remote working, and having distributed teams. Offering this as a way of working can attract and retain employees, due to the improved flexibility. There can actually be fewer distractions and disruptions at home, which leads to increased productivity. To paraphrase Jason Fried in his talk ‘Why work doesn’t happen at work’, at home there are voluntary distractions where you have to choose to distract yourself with something. At the office these distractions become involuntary. Impromptu meetings and people coming to talk to you all the time are actually a lot more disruptive. Often, people find it easier to focus away from the office environment.
There’s also the big benefit for a lot of people of the time saved commuting. The employee can actually do a lot that’s beneficial to them in this time, rather than standing squeezed into people’s armpits on public transport. Hence increased job satisfaction. With a distributed team, say if you’re working with an off-shore team, there could be a wider range of talent to pick from and it also encourages diversity. There can be a wider range of cultural differences and opinions brought to a project, which encourages more diverse ways of thinking.
Tackling the issues - or, how to set up a project with a remote team
But that isn’t to say running projects with a distributed team or being a remote worker is easy, and can just happen, like that. It needs work – and good groundwork – to ensure you don’t set it up to fail. So how do you help create a smoother remote project?
Start with trust
First of all, the basis of the team needs to be trust. Yes I’m going to sound a little like a cheesy, self-help guru here (perhaps in an attempt to seem less Scrooge-like and inject some Christmas cheer) but you do need to trust the people working remotely as well as them trusting you. This extends to a distributed team. You can’t just tell the offshore team what to do, and micromanage them, scared they won’t do what you want, how you want it because you can’t see them. You need to give them ownership and let them manage the tasks. Remember, people are less likely to criticise their own work. Make them own the work and they are more likely to be engaged and productive.
Set a structure
Distributed teams and remote workers can fail when there is no structure – just as much as teams sitting together fail without it too. It’s not so much setting rules, as having a framework to work within. Eliminate blockers before they happen. Think about what could cause issues for the team, and think of ways to solve this. For example, what do you do if you won’t be able to get hold of someone for a few hours because of a time difference? Put together a contingency, e.g. is there someone else on your time zone you could go to with queries after assessing the priority? Would it be put aside until that person is back in? Define team roles and responsibilities clearly. Sit down at the beginning of the project and clearly set out expectations. Also ask the team, what are their expectations of you?
There won’t be a one size fits all framework either. Think about your team, the people in it, the type of project you’re working with, the type of client and stakeholder. This should give you an idea of what sort of communications you’ll need on the project. Daily calls, video calls, Slack channels, the choice is yours.
Decide on the tools
To be honest, I could spend hours talking about the different tools you can use for communication. But you know them, right? And in the end it’s not the tool that’s important here - it’s the communication that’s being done on the tool. Tools need to match the type of communications needed for your team. One caveat here though, never rely solely on email! Emails are silos, and can become beasts to manage communications on.
Transparency in communication
Good communication is key. Make sure there are clear objectives for communication. Set up one time during the week where those people meet together, discuss all the work during that week that they’ve done. If decisions are made between team members who are together, make sure everyone knows what these are. But try to make collective decisions where you can, when it doesn’t impact on people’s time.
Have a face-to-face kick off
Yes, I know this might seem to counter my argument, but face-to-face comms are still really important. If it’s feasible, have an in-person meeting to kick off your project, and to kick off your team working together. An initial meeting, to break the ice, discuss ways of working, set the goals, can go a long way to making working with distributed teams successful. If this is really not viable, then hold a video call with the team. Try to make this a little more informal. I know, I know, not the dreaded cringey icebreakers… but something to make everyone relax and get to know each other is really important. Bring everybody together physically on a regular basis if you can, for example with quarterly meetings. You’ve got to really make sure people still feel part of a team, and it often takes a little more work with a remote team. Connect with new team members, one-on-one first, then you can have more of a ‘remote’ relationship.
Visual communication is often a lot better tool to use than just a written sentence, and can help bring ideas to life. Encourage people to sketch things, take a photo and add this to your written communications. Or use a mockup tool to sketch ideas.
But what about Agile projects?
The whole premise of Agile projects is to have face-to-face contact I hear you cry. The Agile Manifesto itself states “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation”. However, this doesn’t mean the death of remote working. In fact loads of successful companies still run Agile projects, whilst having a distributed team. With all the collaborative tools you can use for centralising code, tracking tasks, visualising products, it’s not difficult to still communicate in a way that works. Just think about how to replicate the principles of Agile remotely - working together daily, a supportive environment, trust, and simplicity. How can you translate these to your remote or distributed team?
One last thought to leave you with before you run off to eat your mince pies (in your pyjamas, whilst working). A common mistake in working with a remote project team or working remotely yourself, is replacing distance with time. If you’re away from the office you think you need to always be ‘on’ – messaging, being online, replying to requests. If you have a distributed team, you might think a lot of meetings, calls, and messages will be good to foster communication. But don’t overload these meetings, calls, and communication. This can be disruptive in itself. Give people the gift of some uninterrupted time to actually do some work, and not feel like they have to check in every second.