Tech Life We listen as a group

The Pond

“Can I work remote?”

I cringe. It’s Ian and Ian is a senior engineer. He’s a rock. He gets it done. I never have to ask him twice and, after six years, Ian has every right to ask to work remote. But I’m still freaked because my first thought when anyone asks to work remote is, “This fine person is a year away from either quitting or being fired.” Why? Because they’re asking to leave the Pond.

The Pond

When I think of communication in a large group of people, I imagine a pond. Small, round, slightly green water. You can see the edges of this pond and there’s a willow tree over there looking both informed and sad. Metaphorically, all the people in the organization are standing somewhere on this pond. Our positions are based on whom we know and where we are in the organization chart. When something happens in the company, when something noteworthy is said, a drop falls in the pond and creates a ripple.

The ripple is the piece of information traveling from one person to the others. Big drop, big ripple… travels further.

With me so far?

There is a constant flow of information in your company. That means there are constant drips in the Pond, creating various-sized ripples traveling every which way, bumping into each other, and transforming each other into slightly mutated ripples. These mutated ripples are the rumor mill, gossip, and all those small pieces of slightly bizarre information that cross your path during the course of the day.

If you’re in the Pond, you’re gathering data, whether it’s intended for you or not. It’s inevitable. It’s what we do as curious humans; we receive information, digest it, alter it, and then send it on its way tweaked to our own personal wavelengths.

A remote employee is not in the Pond. Yes, he’s on the mailing lists and he aggressively updates the wiki, but the subtle, unintentional, tweaked, quiet information that is transferred throughout the Pond doesn’t leave the Pond. There are those whose jobs it is to look at the Pond and attempt to relay the interesting ripples, but while these program and project managers are well intentioned, they relay poorly because they’re just single observers of ripples. Real information is never conveyed by the individual; we understand by listening as a group.

The group forms a collective picture of the state of the Pond – it’s a distributed picture understood by everyone, but never completely known by one. It is the unspoken royal “we” and this intricate, immeasurable thing is absolutely essential to how a group gets things done well.

Do you mean it?

Remote has to work. It’s not just Ian. There are bright people in your building right now who are going to want to return home to Colorado, and you’re going to let them because losing them is not an option. Also, there’s a planet full of talented people who will always be at a distance, but who represent huge, untapped productivity for your team. Your challenge is how to augment the remote employee’s absence from the Pond.

This article is about how to decrease the risk that you will have to fire your favorite employee who decides to become remote. I’d like to give advice from the other side, on how to work remotely, but I’ve never done it. I don’t have the personality. My professional satisfaction comes from being able to look those I depend on in the eye and ask, “Do you mean it?” There is essential content to be discovered in that stare that will never be fully conveyed in an email, IM, or tweet.

My belief is that without deliberate attention, the remote employee slowly becomes irrelevant to the organization. Through no fault of their own, they can be gradually pushed to the edge of what’s important. And when you’re at the edge, you’re an organizational shudder from falling over it. Failure happens at the edges.

Avoiding failure involves asking four questions before they leave:

  1. Do they have the personality?
  2. Do they have the right job?
  3. Does the culture support it?
  4. Do you have a remote friction detection and resolution policy?

The Personality

Whether the employee has the right personality to be a productive remote worker is a tricky call because most of your data about this person is based on working with them. What’s going to happen when you can’t see them? How are they going to react when you forget to include them in the staff call? How are they going to feel when the product launches and they aren’t there to celebrate?

This is what I consider.

Are they eloquent in email? Every bit of communication is more expensive with remote folks, so they’d better be good at it – no matter the medium. Can this person construct and convey a complex argument in a single email? Can this person make an important point… via iChat? Written communication is bereft of much of the intangible value of the Pond. It lacks the nuance of face-to-face communication, which means the author needs to be painfully explicit about the details. Can this person do that?

Are they self-directed? How do they deal with ambiguity? If you’ve given them crap direction, do they bump around for a bit before admitting defeat, or do they immediately ask for clarification? Many of the subtle ways you check in and error correct co-workers leave when they leave. If they’re in the weeds, are they going to ask for help? How long until they ask for help?

How detail-oriented are they? If self-direction indicates how they start a thing, their detail orientation is how well they finish. Is this a person who needs help across the finish line? Do they get lost in nonessential details? When you ask for a thing, are you getting the end result you expect?

How well do they know the Pond? We’ll talk about their job in a moment, but whatever that job is, it will have dependencies on people they are leaving behind. Does this person know how the organization communicates? Do they know both the organizational structure as well as the social structure? Are they asking you who to follow up with or are you asking them? Are they instinctively aware of whom they might piss off and proactively account for this in the first mail rather than after the flame-o-gram?

Do they need the Pond? Knowledge of the Pond is great, but does this person thrive because of the Pond? How much of their day are they spending talking with co-workers? Is this conversation essential to what they do or purely social? Which part of them are you going to socially amputate when they’re no longer in the building?

Are they reliable? I imply at the beginning of this article that it’s a senior employee who has a better chance at being successful remotely, but that’s not true. The ability to work remotely is not entirely a function of seniority; it’s also genetic. There are those who do it better solo. Their standard operating procedure is to simply get it done. Seniority can improve personal efficiency and the quality of the finished product, but I’ve discovered innate reliability at all levels of experience. There are people who simply do what they say they’re going to do.

The Right Job

Typical corporate logic dictates that a remote employee should work on a project that is separable from the rest of the team’s. The reasoning here is flawed. The belief is that the inconvenience of communication and decision-making latency around their distance means they should be separated and placed on non-dependent work.

Every part of that reasoning is wrong. Every part is another reason that remote fails.

My most successful remote employee was a perfect anomaly. He wrote standards — protocols. The heart of his job was to define a structured means of communication where the primary goal was the removal of ambiguity. He was a phenomenal communicator. He went out of his way to completely and promptly answer every email. 24 hours a day. When he visited, he took the time to do a complete circumnavigation of the Pond, vetting all the ripples he could find. He instinctively knew that the skill in defining a protocol is creating a structure that is going to meet the needs of right now, but also the unimagined needs of five years from now. And he applied that not only to what he wrote, but also to how he worked. He was a wonderful anomaly and he taught me that a remote job must be perceived, in all ways, as equal to a local one.

There should be absolutely no consideration of a person’s location on the planet Earth when considering the work you need of them. Each time the concern “Well, they’re remote” comes up, you need to turn the concern around and ask, “What about my company, my people, or the work makes remote an issue?” because that is what needs to be considered locally.

The Culture

How are those back in the Pond viewing the remote employee? The means by which Pond-based employees discriminate varies from the discreet to the direct, from the passive to the aggressive. The reason for this discrimination always boils down a single, fundamental tension: remote creates productivity friction.

The friction sounds something like this:

  • “I don’t know what the hell this remote person is doing, so I’m going to assume he’s stumbling around the house in his underwear.”
  • “This remote person is messing with my deadline or deliverable.”
  • “He doesn’t answer his email.”

How long does it take to build a thing of quality? There’s a cost and the question is how is the remote worker affects this cost. Anything higher than the cost of a local employee creates friction. What was a 27-second walk down the hallway to yell at Bob about his crap code is a now 30-minutes constructing an email. Staff meetings start with a wasted 10 minutes trying to get the videoconferencing to connect. Every single communication with a remote worker costs more and generates more ripples in the Pond, and both their job and yours is to either make this cost go away or justify it.

Respect comes from knowledge and the question is: does your culture support a constant and consistent flow of knowledge to and from the remote worker?

Let’s find out:

  • Have you created or implemented specific communication media for the team? Wikis? IRC? Are they used? Do different teams need different media? Are there too many and, if so, how are you going to anoint the one true medium?
  • Other than the job, how are you encouraging other random interactions between local and remote folks?
  • How often are you seeing these remote folks face-to-face? My vote is at least monthly.

Friction Detection

Remote friction is going to crop up. Just like interpersonal tensions randomly appear in the building, so does friction around remote employees. What are you doing not only to detect these, but also fix them? An example.

I hate meetings, but the brilliant thing about a meeting is that it’s full of people, and in a room full of people you never quite know what the hell is going to happen. The knee jerk reaction to bridging this meeting gap when there are remote workers is always, “We need good video conferencing software.”

After 10 years of hearing this argument, I’m calling fail. Video conferencing works when you need to talk to your kids during that trip to Chicago. It fills that visual gap, but all of the video conferencing solutions I’ve been a part of relative to a meeting create friction rather than remove it.

Yes, I can see Anne on the screen, but she’s flat. She’s also got this 1/10th of a second lag on the conversation, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you’re in the middle of that strategic rant about design and Anne chimes in, mid-sentence, with a bright thought that completely disturbs the creative cadence of your rant. That 1/10th of a second. Her inability to inject her essential thought at precisely the right moment. These micro-disturbances of the Force are a constant reminder that Anne’s not there. She’s being projected on the conference room wall like a well-intentioned screen saver. This isn’t just hurting the tempo of the meeting, it’s eroding her credibility.

In this case, surprisingly, less technology, rather than more, is better. Skype’s proximity to my computer and the usual lack of lag is far superior to video conferencing for 1:1s, and spending a little money on a quality Polycom is a fine solution for the staff meeting, but technology is a tool and never the answer.

Friction detection is paying attention to all the ways a remote employee interacts with the group and constantly asking, “Is this working?”

Another Pond

You, as the manager of people, are responsible for making the remote call regarding a person, putting them in the right job, and making sure the culture supports remote people. But the responsibility of delivering while remote is squarely on the remote employee. Yes, a remote employee answers to himself. At four in the afternoon when they run into an impossible problem, it’s almost entirely up to them to develop their plan of attack.

Working remotely isn’t a privilege; it’s work. And it’s the same work we’re all doing back at the mothership… fully clothed… in the Pond.

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43 Responses

  1. marvinpandroid 15 years ago

    Great article. I’ve seen you comment about this in previous posts, and I appreciate that you took the time to do a whole piece about it.

    My company encourages teleworking up to twice a week, which is different than what you discuss here, but also has its own set of challenges. Try setting up meetings when a different member of the team is remote on any given day of the week. We’re still struggling to get people to make a conference phone a standard meeting item. I think it’s important for every employee to be educated on remote protocol, regardless if they use it themselves.

    I certainly appreciate the option as an employee — I typically get more done when I’m at home — but I’ve found myself questioning how I’d feel as a manager. I hate meetings, too, but you got it spot-on: Nothing works as well as a face-to-face conversation.

  2. Think of it this way, when you’re outside the Pond you have to throw larger rocks and they make bigger ripples.

    Or not.

    The biggest delima of course is if the person is capable of still actually doing work remotely. Personally I think many jobs could be done just as well remotely with much reduced cost (no drive time, no lunch, no coffee shop trip etc). Also, somewhat on the “can they get work done” more and more jobs are pushing out of the “9-5” area.

    On the other hand, the people I’ve worked with who also worked part time from home, I seriously question how much work they do. Especially since I can log onto thier terminals remotely to maintenance and half the time those terminals aren’t even on line.

  3. Adrian Ross 15 years ago

    “Can I work remote?”

    “No! You can work from a remote location, or you can work remotely.”

    What is it with Americans and this aversion to adverbs? This isn’t some obscure and contentious grammatical point, like splitting an infinitive – it’s basic stuff. Ye gods!

  4. Thanks for the time you take to write these great articles. It’s hard to even call it a blog post because it’s so well written and composed!

  5. Panos 15 years ago

    One other detail:


    In my experience this can be the biggest issue with good people working remotelly. The time difference is a productivity killer unless properly managed. Obviously this problem spikes the more reliant the remote worker is on other team members (remote or otherwise)

  6. William Seville 15 years ago

    How often are you seeing these remote folks face-to-face? My vote is at least monthly

    I’ve done the remote thing (about 5 years). You need this face-and-whiteboard time, particularily around key project moments. You need to talk on the phone at least once a week, even if there’s nothing on the agenda.

    If you can rotate staff, even for a week at a time, do it.

    Finally, periodic love-ins are absolutely necessary to nurture the social bonds

    The other hard part is finding managers who can manage remote workers (or teams, see the timezone comment). Many can’t – but those who can build a geographically distributed team are gold.

    Not suprisingly, a lot of lessons can be learnt from how successful sales teams work.

    Oh – I do find that having one or more remote people is a good lever to get all the “leads” to write daily/weekly summaries (don’t care if it’s in the wiki or a blog or just email) – which forces everyone to focus on what they’re actually doing.

  7. I’ve been working from home full-time for around the last four years, and with a daily meeting, the occasional skype meeting, and a quarterly extended trip to the office it works nicely.

    A pint on a Friday night would be nice though. 🙂

    Your point about the culture is spot on. In a previous job, I’d work two days from home, and even though I answered emails within seconds, and delivered far more then I would with the distractions of the office, the general impression was that I was bumbling around watching Dr Phil and eating cereal all day. In some companies remote working will work perfectly, otherwise it may be more hassle for the employee than it’s worth.

  8. Allen Laudenslager 15 years ago

    I write technical manuals remotely. In fact I am a freelancer and as such I am out side the normal loop anyway. But, we maintain good communictions by aswering email the same day even if the answer is “I’ll check and get back to you”. We also use teleconference (the computer don’t have speekers) and netmeeting to keep us all on the same page – pun intended.

    Each project has a new to the process PM and once they get used to the system, they seem to like it and tend to use it more. Companies that have remote offices, field engineers, sales, etc. are already using these tools and could extend them to their co-located staff.

  9. Allen Laudenslager 15 years ago

    I write technical manuals remotely. In fact I am a freelancer and as such I am out side the normal loop anyway. But, we maintain good communictions by aswering email the same day even if the answer is “I’ll check and get back to you”. We also use teleconference (the computer don’t have speekers) and netmeeting to keep us all on the same page – pun intended.

    Each project has a new to the process PM and once they get used to the system, they seem to like it and tend to use it more. Companies that have remote offices, field engineers, sales, etc. are already using these tools and could extend them to their co-located staff.

  10. Godfrey 15 years ago

    You sound like a control freak. This is the digital age, the tools exist to easily keep people informed about what’s going on.

    Do you think it really matters for a company’s productivity whether they’re informed about the latest gossip or rumours swirling around?

  11. Christy 15 years ago

    I’ve recently begun my first stint as a manager and I have a completely remote team. I’ve found your writing immensely helpful, but have wished that there was another Rands out there that was more intimate with the realities of remote teams.

    When the pond itself is virtual, your list for knowing if this person is right for working remote becomes an essential part of hiring.

  12. Great article. Our company is entirely remote, with no real mother ship of our own, so we’ve really had to keep ourselves in check for the past 15 months of our existence. We break down our work into as many fragments as is practical and meet online every 2 days to discuss a basic agenda of:

    a) What we’ve done

    b) General direction of the project

    c) What we’re going to do next to keep in said direction

    d) Support and maintenance issues and resolutions

    e) Anything else we have on our minds

    We’ve changed our workflow several times to accommodate either unforeseen circumstances, changes in the team, or the ‘mode’ in which the project demands we are operating, but the only changes we’ve made in the way we communicate is simply to communicate more often, and this has worked extremely well for us.

    Swallowable chunks discussed often.

  13. Good observations. I’ve had remote members on my team, in lots of different remote locations, for most of the past 14 years. I agree it depends to a great extent on the remote person to make it work. It also needs to be based on enough time together face to face to build a level of trust and understanding that can then be sustained over the reduced bandwidth.

    One thing I did to simulate the random interaction was to occasionally (weekly is good) “wander by their desk”. That means a phone call without warning, and without an agenda. Something important always comes up, and the remote employee appreciates that you were thinking about them without an explicit reason to call. Or rather, that the explicit reason to call was just to spend a little time talking to them, not because you “wanted something from them”.

  14. James A. N. Stauffer 15 years ago

    but while these program and project managers are well intentioned, they relay poorly because they’re just single observers of ripples.

    But the Senior Engineer is also just a single observer.

    (I telecommute 3 days/week.)

  15. Mike Kramlich 15 years ago

    Great article.

    I think you gave a lot of points about the ways in which it’s bad to have a remote worker, all the disadvantages. But there are advantages too. For example, you mentioned how the cost of communication is higher when dealing with a remote worker. True. And I think for the initiator of a communication that is a disadvantage, in a certain narrow way. But it has a positive flip side in that since the barrier’s a little higher, the initiator is going to put a little more thought into the “payload” of his message. The signal to noise ratio often goes up. If the recipient had been in a cubicle nearby, you’re more likely to say things to him like, “Yo.” or “See that Lakers game?”, etc. While there’s social value in that, no question, it also means that you’ll be interrupting that person much more throughout the day, for essentially non-work, non-productive communications. Now multiply that by all the other people in the office with you. All the edges in that graph, all pointed at his node. Bad. Put him at a home office (whether in same state or country or not), and now suddenly that worker can go hours and hours without interruption. Live in a better environment, culture, perhaps closer to the great outdoors, no more daily commute on a highway, work in the comfort of a home office and with a computer setup perfectly tuned to his tastes, etc. So many advantages to consider.

    But again, great article, and thank you. Keep it up! 🙂

  16. Damon Oehlman 15 years ago

    Awesome article. As per previous comments it’s almost a disservice calling it a blog post and I appreciate the amount of effort that has gone into it.

    I’m a big fan of the “Did you mean it” section. I know exactly what you mean by being able to look somebody in the eye. Whilst you can pick up undertones and inferred meaning (and that includes something that was never intended to be there in the first place) in email and written communication, you can detect in a very short amount of face-to-face time a person’s intentions.

    Ah the pond…

  17. I think you’ve made a lot of really interesting points here, mainly negative stuff but interesting all the same. However I think it tells me a lot more about you as a manager than it does about remote workers…but that’s still really useful as most people who work out of the office are going to have some sort of manager.

    I’ve been a remote worker for over a year and am my organisation’s ‘Remote worker champion’. I basically co-ordinate and support everyone who works off-site. I’m not a manager or their manager though. We work really well as a team and are great at getting stuff done. I personally feel that we communicate better with each other and the rest of the organisation than they do with each other. They may be sat next to each other but that doesn’t mean they are having a productive conversation!

    I think that your post shows that there is still a lot of work to do persuading middle managers that remote working can work well and be highly effective for your company, but it may require a slightly different style of management. Anyway you’ve inspired me to write a blog post on this.

    I’ve written about all sorts of other remote worker challenges on my blog: Ramblings of a remote worker

  18. @ Godfrey

    > You sound like a control freak.

    You need to read the rest of this blog. Rands is a PM, not a control freak. There are some similarities, but there’s just as many differences.

    > This is the digital age, the tools

    > exist to easily keep people informed

    > about what’s going on.

    Sure, that’s not the point. That’s great for the transfer of explicit knowledge. None of those tools work well (if at all) for transferring tacit knowledge. Unless your job can be completely reduced to a checklist, you have to be able to transfer tacit knowledge to other people in the organization. This is a big enough problem in the IT world that there are journals and conferences and academic research groups who work entirely on this problem.

    > Do you think it really matters for

    > a company’s productivity whether

    > they’re informed about the latest

    > gossip or rumours swirling around?

    Yes, that’s his whole point.

    That’s what makes you part of an organization, rather than a cog in a machine. Cogs are replaceable, people aren’t. If your job *can* be reduced to a checklist, you’re obviously not a software programmer.

  19. As a 3 year remote worker in a few different positions at a couple companies and as a contractor for a dozen more, I have spent perhaps 20% of my career outside the pond, and this article rings fairly true for me.

    I especially liked the part about the type of tasks to assign remote workers. Giving someone isolated non-dependent tasks is just a mental write-off, and not the way to engage a remote worker.

    The ability to work effectively from a distance is somewhat a function of the job (management is nearly impossible), but I’d say the biggest part is individual personality. Some people will never be able to get things done outside the pond period.

    That said, don’t discount the benefits of leaving the pond. As much as being surrounded by colleagues keeps you plugged in to the culture, it also comes with an its own unending barrage of distractions. A great manager will keep as many distractions away from his engineers as possible, but you can’t control everything.

  20. foljs 15 years ago

    But I’m still freaked because my first thought when anyone asks to work remote is, “This fine person is a year away from either quitting or being fired.” Why? Because they’re asking to leave the Pond.

    Hello, 90’s called, they want their fears back.

    If your company requires all this communication overhead for every single employee you are doing it wrong.

    What was a 27-second walk down the hallway to yell at Bob about his crap code is a now 30-minutes constructing an email.

    Yes. So the yanking of a developer off of “The Zone” (which could ruin his productivity for the next few hours) is now an offline message in his mailbox.

    I hate meetings, but the brilliant thing about a meeting is that it’s full of people, and in a room full of people you never quite know what the hell is going to happen.

    Oh, I do know what’s going to happen: time will get wasted.

  21. Robert 15 years ago

    I don’t think you hate meetings. Meetings are what makes work productive, whether they are the formal kind or not. What you hate are meetings in your particular workplace. (I hate them in mine too.) Conducting meetings effectively is as much an art as anything, and one that people are lazy about.

  22. aj Slater 15 years ago

    Think of every free software project you use. All of them. Now tell me how many of them were developed in an office with everyone hanging out together in person.

    Let your people decide where they like working and they’ll be happier to work. If you prize attendance over productive work, then that’s what you’ll get.

  23. Interesting post as it creates good conversation. I cringe when I read some perspectives on people working remotely. I wish our society would progress past the notion that you have to be sitting in a cubicle. The bottomline is people who have a good work ethic can get the job done no matter where they are located. A few thoughts…

    * Companies are international (across the big “pond”). Companies work with clients who are not in the same building. It is business. This is all done remotely with the occasional face-to-face meeting. No different than collaborating with your colleagues remotely.

    * Working remotely is good for the environment. It is green. 🙂

    * The employee and the company saves $$ when the employee works from a home office.

    * Technology has come a long way. Even if you are in the building, people send emails or pick up the phone. The transfer of tactic knowledge is still made available through technology.

    * Communities of practice can be a good tool for virtual teams or teams in the office or a mixture of both.

    * Yes, face-to-face time and regular meetings are still necessary and valuable for the remote worker.

    * Becareful comparing the “Friday work at home” scenerio with the remote worker. They are completely different. The remote worker has an established routine and communication process.

  24. Daniel Larsson 15 years ago

    You need to care better for your introvert(s):

  25. mycall 15 years ago

    You should consider setting up a always-on VOIP speaker-phone, with 16khz quality audio, between his home desk and his immediate manager (you?) This way, it is more than effortless to stay in communication with him.

  26. Mathew Ferguson 15 years ago

    The sad truth about remote work is that key decisions are made in the office/pond and if you’re not there … you don’t get a say.

    I worked as a copywriter three days a week and even two days out of the office was enough to lock me out of decisions I should have been part of. I would turn up at work and discover something dumb had been done but was now powerless to change it.

    Humans work best in face-to-face tribes and to mess with that is at your peril.

  27. “But I’m still freaked because my first thought when anyone asks to work remote is, “This fine person is a year away from either quitting or being fired.”

    i stopped reading there.

  28. Ian M 15 years ago

    Great article, bookmarked.

  29. Great article. I’ve worked on a development team split between Holland and India for the last two years and we tackled some of these issues as well. I plan to write a blog post on it myself.

    As for the suggestion of an always-on audio/video connection, we tried that, too, but people on both sides got the feeling of being at a particularly noisy party: lots of buzz in an unknown language on the other side, with occasional bursts of laughter. 🙂

  30. Daniel 15 years ago

    pffft. If both you and the team member are capable of defining and facillitating tasks effectively, it isn’t a problem to w@h say 20-40% of time. More than that, may cause some of the issues you describe. But the 20-40% can actually be *more* effective due to the fact you can actually concentrate on complex tasks, instead of fucking about with ripples …

  31. Bryce 15 years ago

    I love all the new people visiting your blog that act as if they can make assumptions about 1) your personality, 2) your management style, 3) your company, 4) your success as a person/co-worker/manager.

    Love them almost as much as I love the people who comment simply to go “I’m right, you’re wrong, sucker!” I’d kill for a (The) Register( poll of who does what and works where. I could guess where most of the folks in this thread would wind up…

  32. Great article, great book too.

    Rands writes:

    “…technology is a tool and never the answer.”

    That’s Ranum’s Law:

    “You can’t solve social problems with software.”

    As a manager with staff averaging 20% at home (ranging from 0%-100%) the whole remote working issue comes up regularly. There are some people and some roles where it works well, some people would rather come to the office, others would rather work at home. The hard part is when there’s an expectation gap and justifying why the other guy gets to do it but not them. For those working remotely I remind them that they have to over-compensate if anything.

    IM is my most useful tool for this. At some point I’ll upgrade to video.

    One concern whether remote or not is that if my work is so precisely defined then the company may decide to contract the work elsewhere, possibly off-shore. Human nature means that the unquantifiable work that keeps me valued is so much more visible in the pond.

  33. I’ve been a full-time remote employee for the last six years and about 50% remote the two years prior. Working on various teams and projects, there are a number of factors I’ve found that contribute to the remote experience for all involved.

    If you’re the only remote employee on a team with four or five other people who commute to the office each day, you can miss a lot of those small bits of information that just weren’t big enough to bring up in a teleconference. Everyone else had heard about it and you missed it. However, if the majority of the team is dispersed, things can go really well because everyone’s operating in the same mode.

    If you’re flexing your work hours as a remote employee, it can be frustrating when someone in the office tries to contact you. Some of this can be handled by forwarding phone calls to a cell phone or using a Blackberry or similar device to receive e-mails while away from your desk. Again, when the whole team is flexing their work hours, everyone understands that responses can be delayed by a few hours.

    If you’re working on a complex feature or bug, a remote employee can give the appearance that they are idle. There’s no significant source control activity and your assigned bugs aren’t going away. When you are in the office, a manager can at least see you’re at your desk. In these situations, you really need a good deal of trust between you and your manager, and you need a manager who can tell the “inactivity” is legitimate.

    My most satisfying working environment has been a situation where everyone one on the team was remote (or they may have been in the office, but they were the only team member in the office). The team members worked in three different time zones, but everyone had a good feel for how and when everyone else was working and everyone was able to effectively communicate through IM or e-mail. Weekly conference calls allowed for good group discussion. A couple of times during the year, we would meet face-to-face for planning sessions. We also had a manager who was extremely trusting because he knew the team was made up of high quality developers who would all work hard and finish their assigned tasks.

    During other projects, I’ve needed to maintain a more fixed schedule because co-workers are expecting that kind of environment. I’ve also needed to make more frequent trips into the office (about a one hour drive) depending on the team and project needs. Based on the situation, remote workers do need to be sensitive to how the rest of the organization operates and realize their remote privileges may be more an exception than the rule for how their company operates.

    Sometimes I feel like the handwriting is on the wall and remote work will go away in favor of on-site employees because some managers and co-workers just aren’t built for it. All the pieces do need to fit into the machine for it to be done well.

  34. Ponds are ecosystems that can go unstable. When someone who values their own productivity wants out, they’re signaling that you may have more than one problem.

  35. Great post. Since you have never worked remotely however your fears show in your prose. I would offer that you need to work remotely for a minimum of 90 days and get back to us.

    I’ve been on both sides of the pond shore. I’ve managed employees as far remote as the other side of the globe and as close as 2 blocks. Plus I have myself, worked remotely for as little as 6 weeks and am currently working from 2 time zones for 6 months.

    What I have learned is that there are at least two types of ponds. One is as you describe. The office – with a member becoming distant. The other is always virtual. Weather it’s by distance or simple corporate size, the virtual pond takes care of itself. There is a third variation where both the position and worker exist from the beginning as a virtual “add on” to the office pond. This one depends entirely on how the position is setup from the beginning and could be an article in itself.

    In order for the relationship to be successful in your case, both the manager and the remote worker have to be aware of the pond. In your version of the pond the manager becomes a PR person of sorts, in that he has to properly frame the remote worker. For example – the employee I had working from 6 time zones was an intranet developer. I enacted a framework that guided communication and set an expectation of 24 hour response on change requests. The effect was “request it today – done by the time you come to work tomorrow”. Everyone loved it. Including him as he got really good actionable requests that required little to no followup.

    For the worker – if they are leaving a pond – must be able to throw big rocks and have a network that reports ripples. I personally have a worked at my company for many years and have my personal network I rely on. When the big memo comes out or the new system arrives I know who to call and how to get the dirt. I also know who to trust when it comes to gauging my success in the eyes of my co-workers.

    The timezone issue is huge. For me I’m 2 hours east of my office. I’m working by 5:30 or 6am their time. When I’m eating dinner they are in 4pm meetings… One of the burdens of remote work is managing this effectively. What this means varies. One of my remote co-workers keeps the same hours as her team despite the timezone difference. In my environment the team at the office works flexible shifts anyway – some start at 6:30 and go home at 3:30. Some start at 10 and work till 7. Most all of us work nights or weekends on a fairly regular basis. Plus we are all very independent. Usually working our own singular projects. If we can’t find someone or get them on the phone – we are adult and leave a message or an email. All this makes it much simpler for remote workers. Your millage will certainly vary. If the expectation in your office is that you answer your phone 9-5 in your timezone the remote worker will have to abide by that. Just like the woman I mention above. Put it in the remote work contract. Think through the position and the cultural requirements – discuss it with the employee and put it on paper. Schedule a review for changes and amendments to the contract – maybe face to face.

    In my situation – remote work means I work more hours and I spread it over a longer part of the day. I start early. But when the kids get home I’m “away” for a couple hours – However I still forward to my cell while I’m cooking dinner or driving the kids. I try to minimize late afternoon meetings but still attend one or two a week. I then do a little work in the evening. This amounts to late afternoon at the home office. Long days for me but that’s the price of the flexibility remote work affords.

    Tips to the remote worker – work the telephone. Call your co-workers. Pull them into your project or visually show them you are working on theirs. I keep a virtual meeting setup most of the time so that I can whiteboard at a moments notice. Get a good PTZ webcam for the home office. One that is self contained with a web server built in. Set a static IP and just ask your boss to plug it in at staff meetings. Simple. No-setup and it will improve your understanding of meetings from the 60% on simple speaker phone to 90%. No kidding. It’s also a nice low-tech reminder for your team of your presence in the meeting.

  36. OK – I’ve now written a response blog post on this:

    Life in the Pond: Moaning Middle Managers.



  37. Most places are not task oriented. The U.S. has a bad reputation of believing that working more hours gets more work done when people are just wasting time in the Pond.

  38. I’m so borrowing that “perfect anomaly” thing.

    Brilliant, as ever.

  39. I’ve been a remote employee for the last three years. Two years prior I worked in the office every single day (same job, same company). Circumstances changed over the years, and I went from having a local team with local managers, to having a remote manager, to having a remote team.

    There are many MANY adjustments one has to make when they become remote – but over time it becomes second nature. Setting up a separate office – with a door, setting up specific times when you will be “at work” (for instance, when my IM is on – typically from 9am until 5pm, I’m at work and I’m available until I log off in the evening). We have to make ourselves more flexible and understanding to those who aren’t remote, and we have to be the squeaky wheel, sometimes reminding everyone else of our existence. Not because we aren’t doing our job, but because it’s easy to ignore the person who isn’t there (and isn’t making themselves heard).

    Certainly having remote employees won’t work in every scenario, but the biggest challenge I’ve run into by *being* remote? Working with the non-remote employees. Those who say things like “if only you were here I could just show you what I’m talking about.” Not like an emailed screenshot and a phone call couldn’t do the trick, but the non-remote employee is often times “lazy” — in that they’ve never *had* to communicate more efficiently — so they just choose not to. As a remote employee, I’ve had to learn to communicate on a higher level. This is something I’ve had to learn, but once you’ve done it for awhile you do get the hang of it. If only everyone in the company was forced to do the same.

    What I found most troublesome about your article were the fears that you continue to perpetuate about working with remote employees: they’re on the verge of leaving the company, they aren’t working as hard, the rest of the company thinks they watch TV all day, etc. This HAS to come from the top down. If the managers are putting these fears out there, it only makes sense that the rest of the team would pick up on it.

    If the remote employee a good worker, they’ll do just as well for you (if not better) outside the office than inside a cube. These days the world is flat – and getting flatter. It might benefit everyone involved if the skills to working with remote employees/consultants/clients were fostered, rather than feared.

    Great article – love the conversation that’s stemmed from it!

  40. The scenario Ninjahippie describes sounds like a living hell. Why not just go to jail and get it over with?

    Also, “eloquence in E-mail” necessarily precludes assholish top-posting. That eliminates 95% of your potential remote-worker candidates in one fell swoop. (2% of the remaining 5% think mail .sigs in Comic Sans are cute.)

  41. Alan FungSchwarz 15 years ago

    @Adrian Ross

    Over a month late, but I must add to your grammatical nitpicking:

    Working hard, or hardly working?

    Working remote, or remotely working?

  42. I think I will try to recommend this post to my friends and family, cuz it’s really helpful.

  43. Thanks for a great read. This really puts things into perspective. Ian sounds like a great employee. Keep up these great articles!