The recent kerfuffle about TWiT.tv letting go of news anchor Tom Merritt resurfaced the conversation about whether teams can really work together when some team members work remotely. Turns out that it may have been more a contract issue than an “in the office” issue, but it still is a thing that even high tech companies have prejudices connected to team members not working in the same physical space. It seems counterintuitive that companies connected to technology would struggle with this, the more famous example being when Yahoo CEO, Marissa Meyer decided to pull the plug on their work-from-home program. How could a company based on Internet usage close down one of the cherished promises of the Internet: working from home? Having spent only two-months working from home this past year, I can say that there are real issues that need to be address by any enterprise undertaking having team members work remotely.
If your job primarily requires interacting with data or others via a computer screen than it would seem pretty obvious that the job can be done almost anywhere with a good Internet connection. Small tech start-ups routinely are small teams where no one lives in the same city. Hell, one IBM-er (NOT a small start-up), manages his world-wide team from the Canary Islands and he does it without relying on email! So where does this scenario not work, why is it that Yahoo is calling back all it’s employees and Chief-TWiT, Leo Laporte, cite the need to have the News Director in the office as a requirement?
For the employer the question is how to track employee productivity and for the worker how to interact with coworkers. The first one seems like it should be relatively easy to deal with, but may require the manager to do more than look to see who is sitting in their cubes to get a sense of whether the employees are doing their jobs. This is where the yearly employee improvement plan and review might come to actually mean something and should be more carefully constructed and considered. On the worker-interaction end of the question, my office actually began a two-day-a-week-work-from-home plan because we needed the time away from each other to focus on the paper-work because we enjoyed each other’s company so much that we weren’t always getting the paperwork done. But when my work-from-home stretched from two-days to two-months I missed the energy that I get from my coworkers when they discuss what they’re working on or when we’re troubleshooting some problem. But the real hassle working-remotely was when I tried to participate in meetings where most of the team was meeting physically somewhere. I very much believe in the tools like Skype and Go-To-Meeting/Go-To-Training as far as staying connected. But the problem with mixed-some-present-some-remote meetings is that unless there is an individual monitor set up for every remote person and that what slides the presenter is using is directly piped through something like Go-To-Meeting, then those remotely sitting in are reduced to the largely ignored peanut gallery. You would think that this wouldn’t be a problem for a work group that’s been teaching purely online for five-years, but it really was a point of failure. But just like manager’s not being able to manage their groups by tallying butts in seats, one cannot conduct mixed meetings without putting extra effort into providing the means for those attending remotely to have a real presence in the meeting.
And just like teaching online, it is not enough to have the tools and just convert what you normally do to something more “techy.” It requires some work-culture changes and more focused uses of technology to get the job done. When Leo Laporte and Amber MacArthur interviewed the remote IBM-er, Luis Suarez, he shared that he carefully chose his communication tools, including in-house blogs, collaborative platforms and twitter, so that his managers and coworkers were always in the loop on what he was working on. But he added that it’s not about the tools but on the office culture that understands the job they are trying to accomplish and that just clearing one’s email inbox is not the job. That’s the last point in Chris Pirillo’s five steps that are essential to having a successful virtual workspace experience:
- In Virtual Offices, Close Communication is Key
- Define Goals for the Virtual Offices of Your Team
- Train Your Virtual Offices Team Well
- Set Performance Standards for Your Virtual Offices
- Foster a Collaborative Mindset Among Virtual Offices
I completely believe that teams spread across the globe can do great work, but it requires extra work by all parties. Most of us already think about work differently from a place to do something to something we do… we just need to be more focused that we stay connected with team members using the tech we’re already using.