Working Remotely

A bit of conversation has been going on around the web first because of Yahoo’s decision to axe telecommuting, and today because of a nicely written article from Jeff Robbins, CEO of Lullabot, the Drupal company. Bob McWhirter who I worked with a long time ago on JDOM, had a very similar spin on this back in 2010 where he talked about how Twine changed from being a distributed team to a co-located team leaving him as a remote worker.

I have worked a lot with off shore remote workers and I am currently working remotely most days of the week. This really can work, but as these articles point out, you must do this very consciously, taking time to think about your communication patterns that (sometimes) are just natural when you share a work location. Based on the number of management seminars, consultants, books and boot camps on leadership, teamwork and communication out there, I have to think “comes natural” is probably overstated. Taking some care to understand how your coworkers feel connected, included, with contributions encouraged and welcomed is important to all teams, but people seldom do this. The result is worse then for remote workers who lack the physical interactions with all their cultural norms to at least partially help people get on the same page.

For the me the key things that are absolutely essential are these:

  • A group chat tool everybody is in all day. Currently I like skype for this
  • A group video conference tool with good screen sharing capabilities.  Currently I like gotomeeting and Google hangouts are too slow and two fuzzy. So is Skype for the most part which is too bad.
  • IM with presence actively maintained,
  • equal attention to IM conversations that you would give somebody walking up to your desk.
  • Daily “stand up” phone conversations to talk about progress, plans, open (but don’t solve) questions and problems
  • willingness to jump into short, focused phone calls, individually or in small groups when needed
  • A propensity to CC email to more rather than less people. 
  • inclusion in the non-work conversations, babies, cars, trips, bands, all the good stuff
  • face to face get togethers, more often at first as you get to know people, but at least once per month after. I personally like to meet once per week face to face
  • very limited restrictions on what you can actually do remotely. This means distributed source code systems, accessible systems, vpns, whatever it takes to be equally productive remotely. Don’t make the office work 100% better than the remote worker.

I find this works for me, and found it worked with remote teams in other countries as well, at least to the extent that time zones are an issue. If language is an issue, most people can read and write much better than they can speak and hear a second language, so emphasize IM and chat over the phone call.

Mostly, actively include the remote people and you will be fine. Anything else and you will be one of the many people that have failed to incorporate a distributed work force. And too bad for you!

3 responses to “Working Remotely

  1. Glad you liked my post, Philip. I agree with your list of essentials. I’m about half way through a post talking about the role that timezones play in distributed companies, so its interesting that you bring that up. I’m also mulling over how what we’re learning in these coding environments can translate to non-coding companies. What other types of companies would work as distributed?

    Anyway, thanks for the shout out. Glad to inspire your post.

  2. You are right, timezones are very tricky. I spent 4 years working with a group in Agrentina, and that worked pretty well with a max of a 4 hour difference and as little as 2 hours depending on the time of year. My current project has a team in Thailand, and that kind of throws out much of what we have been writing about out the door. Some people meet during a cross over time, evening for us and early for them, but a lot of the time it seems like throwing project requests over the wall.Look forward to your post about it.

  3. Nice list of key points Phil! Addressing those things early could prevent some real disasters.