Martin Albisetti's blog

24Feb/131

Remote working

There seems to be quite a bit of buzz around Yahoo! effectively laying off remote workers (making them choose to start going to an office or resign), and I've read different perspectives on the subject, for and against remote working.
Having worked at Canonical for over 4 years, and in open source projects for quite a bit longer than that, my knee-jerk reaction is that the folks crying out that remote working just isn't as productive as working in an office is pretty short-sighted.
Canonical has hundreds of employees working remotely, far more than working in an office, and it seems like we're generally a very productive company. We take on huge competitors who have ten times the amount of people working on any given project, and we put up a pretty good fight. So I can tell you remote working is full of awesome for both the company (productivity, get to choose from a huge pool of talent) and the employee (no commute, less distractions).
I also think that the fact that open source projects are taking over the world at an incredible pace is a pretty huge testament to just how great remote working can be. This is even an extreme case where people aren't even available on a regular schedule with much tighter and clearer shared goals.

 

All that said, there are several ways things can go wrong with remote working.

Thoughtlessly mixing remote and co-located teams. All-remote and all co-located tends to work out easier. Mixing these things without having a clear plan on how communication is going to work is most likely going to end up badly. The co-located team will tend to talk to each other in the hallways and not bring the people who are remote into the loop, mostly because of the extra cost of communication there. If making decisions in person is accepted, and there are no guidelines in place to document and open up the discussion to the full audience, then it's going to fail. Regardless of remote-or-not, documenting these things is good practice, it provides traceability and there's less room for people to go away with different interpretations.

Hiring remote workers that are not generally self-directed. I can't stress this point enough. Remote working isn't for everybody, you have to make sure the people who are working remotely are generally happy making decisions on their own on a daily basis, can push through problems without a lot of hand-holding and are good at flagging problems when they see one. These types of people are great to have on site as well, but in a remote situation this is a non-negotiable skill.

Unclear goals as a team or company. If what people are suppose to be doing isn't crystal clear to everybody involved remote working is going to be very messy. Strongly self-directed people are going to push forward with what they think is the right thing to do (based off of incomplete information), and people less strongly independent are going to be reading a lot of RSS feeds.

 

I also think there are some common sense arguments against remote working that are actually an argument in favor of it.

Slackers will slack harder when at home. So, if you're at home, who's going to know if you spent your morning watching TV or thinking about a really hard problem? When you're at the office, it's much easier to check up on what you're doing with your time. I think that if you have an employee that you need to check up on what he's doing with his time, you have a problem. The answer is not going to be to put him in an office and get him to learn how to alt-tab very quickly to an IDE when you walk by. You should be working with them to make sure their performance is adequate. If it's not, and you can't seem to find a way around it, fire him. Keeping him around and force-feeding work is a huge waste of time and money. Slackers are going to slack harder at home, use that to your advantage to get rid of people who aren't up to task or don't care anymore quicker.

Communication is more expensive. It is. It also forces people to learn how to communicate better, more concisely, and in a way that's generally documented. While you can easily have calls, in the end you need to email a list or some form of communication that reaches everybody. So there's a short-term cost for a long-term benefit. You may need that short-term benefit right now, in which case you bring people together for a week or two, spend some of that money you've saved on infrastructure, and push things forward.

 

So, in general I think having remote workers forces a company to have clearer, well-communicated goals, better documentation on decisions, hiring driven and self-directed people makes you think long and hard about your processes and opens up to hiring from a much larger pool of people (all over the world!). I think those are great things to have pressuring you consistently, and will make you a better company for it.
Like everything else, if you have remote workers and pretend they are the same as co-located it's going to fail.

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  1. Nicely put Martin. I pretty much agree with everything said here.


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