Working remotely: Ugly/Bad/Good

A typical home office

The last thirty days has given us a lot of snow (at least by Virginia standards) and higher-than-usual incidence of colds/flus/sick colleagues.  Between the snow, ice, and sick days we’ve had a lot of remote working days.  The concentration of these remote work days  in the last month percolated up a fresh perspective on remote work / telecommuting; the ugly, the bad, and the good.

I think about remote work in the following terms:

  1. Individual effort:  heads down work – I know my task(s) and I need to get it done.  I am a soloist.  Depending on your primary role in the Company this can be a majority or minority of your task load.  Example:  implement a feature.
  2. Communication:  I am writing email/IRC messages and reading them.  I am trying to exchange and refine information and ideas with my colleagues.  This is ping pong soloist work.  Example:  Explain a revenue model spreadsheet.
  3. Collaboration:  I am a member of a team or workgroup that needs to get something done together.  There is no expert; we are all pushing, pulling, prodding, arguing, re-thinking and refining the end result.  Example:  Work out an approach to social media integration.
  4. Coordination:  Lower value collaboration – I need a resource, asset to be in a certain place at a certain time and need to work out details.  Example:  Plan a live user testing session at the office.

Ugly

Early product development requires an especially fast pace.  As we develop our new product, Reacht, the remote work has taken a toll on Collaboration.  It only takes one (1) person to be remote to impact the collaborative effort.  Non-verbal communication makes up somewhere (depending on whose statistics/research you believe) between 60% – 90% of total communication bandwidth.

Video tools notwithstanding a majority of collaborative communication is lost when a collaborator is not physically present.

A friend and former colleague of mine, Benji York, made an excellent point about the mix of remote and present workers.  Paraphrased he made the point that mixed-mode work (i.e., when some people are present and some are remote) is significantly less productive than when all workers are remote.  It’s a very interesting perspective; one worth thinking about.  If everyone is working under the same set of constraints (e.g., limited communication “bandwidth”, reduced non-verbal cues, need for more deliberate, succinct, and precise communication) then no participant is uniquely disadvantaged.

Bad

We’re a software product company; we have deadlines.  People come in (even when under the weather or in suboptimal driving conditions) when deadlines approach with the (correct) instinct that timely collaborative work is most effective when you’re working in close proximity.  Despite best intentions and reasonable precautions people catch what’s going around.

Good

Remote work keeps people off of dangerous roads.  It keeps people that might have a contagious cold/flu away from co-workers during periods they could otherwise be productive.  Remote work’s cost/benefit tips well in favor of Individual Effort, Communication and Coordination.  Together, these could be a large portion of a workday… except when you’re in new product development which, by definition, is dominated by Collaboration.

Tools like WebEx (awkward) and Google Hangouts (damn frustrating when your collaborators all have multiple Google addresses) help but they’ve not reached the place where they are simple extensions of your work space.  Between Google Hangouts and WebEx I’m much more optimistic that Hangouts will become that work space extension.  Either because I callous to the pain of having multiple Google accounts or Google improves how they deal with multi-Google account users.

In Sum

I enjoy working with people in a room together.  I like the energy, the sense of group accomplishment and appreciate the increase in the quality of the output when several qualified people collaborate on an outcome.  In our world, remote work is here to stay.  I hope presence-computing tools continue to evolve so they are a more seamless extension of our workspaces.

I really want to be able to glance at a monitor, say, “Hey Bryan,” and have Bryan there ready to talk to me…JUST like we do in the office – even if he’s working from the lake.

photo credit: citrixonline via photopin cc

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