One of the questions that all tech companies have to address is whether to build a team that is primarily on-site, in an office, or a distributed team where people work from remote locations. Even though there are numerous tools to manage remote teams effectively, most web industry companies still do not have the option of working outside of the office.
Many tech companies want everyone to assemble in the same place because they believe in capturing the energy in the room between co-workers. I get that. The arguments against remote work almost always mention hallway meetings and calling people over to your desk. I agree it is convenient to be able to show people things quickly, but a cornucopia of tools exist that allow us to do that remotely, too.
To me, the whole mindset feels like a hold-over from the Industrial Revolution, where we had no alternative but to gather and work in the same place.
It comes down to a matter of trust. On remote teams, there’s only one relevant metric for judging performance: whether the work gets done or not. You’re not being measured by how many hours you spent in the office. Hopefully, you’re not being measured by units of effort. You’re not being measured by anything except the completion of the work.
If communication is good, it’s going to be good on an office team or a remote team.
The crux is whether proper structure is in place to make communication a priority or not.
I saw a wonderful talk at WordCamp San Francisco last year in which Jeff Veen talked about how the Typekit team communicates, and how communication permeates every part of their culture.
They have weekly and daily meetings. These don’t take up a lot of time, because everyone has work to do, but they get everyone involved. And that’s what you want. They give communication the necessary amount of time and priority, and it enables their team to build better products.
I remember when Yahoo did away with their remote team members. I don’t know for certain, but I’d venture a guess that there was resentment from the workers in their location-based offices. In my experiences, It’s the same thing when you have physically located teams, and you try to add remote elements to them.
When a company doesn’t fully embrace a remote workplace, but tries to implement it anyway, there are internal objections. But it’s not about productivity or slacking off. It’s not about culture or communicating face to face. Those are excuses. If you dig deeper, I think you’d find it’s about trust and control issues in management. If you investigated internal opinions, you’d find employee resentment and politics.
The employees who have to commute, and then go sit in the office for eight to ten hours a day — I believe they resent the employees who get to work from home. When an office culture tries to add a remote initiative, the office employees ask themselves, “Why are they so special?” I can see office workers getting together and going to their superiors to voice their opinions. Eventually, all the remote employees are gone.
But if you have a remote culture built into your company from the start, and not just bolted on after several years have gone by, it will work.
Another big factor is whether the decision makers need to be on-site or not. If you have a physically located company, and only 5% of your work force is remote, it’s not going to work. There must be a substantial percentage of your staff that works remotely, or management will not treat it seriously. Eventually things will just go back to the way they were — building websites on the factory floor.
I hate the “butts-in-seats” methodology of managing employees. If you have to physically have eyes on every employee, every minute of every day to feel comfortable, you’re probably a lousy manager. If you don’t trust your employees enough to get their work done without watching them, like a teacher in front of a classroom, your company has serious culture and trust issues. Top performers don’t need overseers to watch over them to make sure they get their work done.
Remote companies operate on trust. Either you get your work done or your don’t. It’s that simple.
Communication is the foundation of a distributed company. If communication breaks down on either side — either from leadership or employees, a distributed company will fail. If communication breaks down between on-site and remote employees, the culture will devolve into a gossipy mess of hot drama.
That’s why remote work failed at Yahoo. The people who had to go live in the Bay Area — who had to commute, and spend all their time and money living there were resentful. It wasn’t about hallway meetings, or culture or anything else. On-site employees and management simply didn’t want others to have perks that they didn’t have. That’s human nature.
I’m an unabashed fan of working remotely and building distributed teams. I believe in working on your own time, and not having to be at an arbitrary building from 9 to 5. Not everyone works great on banker’s hours. Some people work really great early in the morning, before the sun comes up. Some people work really well late at night, after the sun goes down. It doesn’t matter as long as the work gets done.
The best companies I’ve worked for in the last five years have been remote companies. Let me say that one more time for my people in the back.
These companies embrace the idea of using technology to build remote teams. It’s in their DNA. The work gets done, and most importantly, they have excellent communication.
Distributed companies are able to be successful because they over-communicate. I think on-site teams could benefit greatly from the same habit of over-communication. If you have an office team, and no one talks to each other, that’s not good communication.
There’s still an inordinately large amount of tech companies mired in the old factory mentality — “We must have you on-site.” But I believe that remote work is the inevitable future of the web industry. We have too many reliable tools right now for this to still be an issue. You can either embrace the future or you become part of the past.