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What is the Deal with Remote Offices?

| James Riley |

Remote Office WOrker

This week, I am headed to an IT conference in Orlando where I will have the privilege of presenting on how we have built our business and culture with a 100% remote workforce. Advancements in technology allow people to work remotely, often with similar access to IT resources as they have when they are onsite. However, a remote environment requires some paradigm shifts and maturity, both in the team and the leadership, to work effectively.

Work Environment

The first thing to realize when talking about remote vs onsite is that, unless your office relies, 100%, on everyone coming into a physical office and all the work they perform is only ever performed in that office, you have, to some degree, remote workers.

In traditional office environments, these remote workers are seen as going out to do something specific but the expectation is that their productivity is usually diminished and they will need to come back to the office to get the rest of their work done.

In a purely remote office environment, often, this paradigm is shifted. People perform the bulk of their work in a remote environment (Home office, client office, Starbucks, etc.) and come into the office to do something specific (ie. Meet with someone) but the expectation is that you will get back to work once you get back to your remote office.

Blended work environments can be great in that they can leverage advantages of both environments but they also have some pitfalls as you can easily end up with cliques within your business between onsite and remote people.

What is the Same?

Regardless of the work environment, there are a number of things that remain just the same. Bad leadership is toxic, no matter what work environment you have. Similarly, rock stars will find a way to shine and slackers will find a way to slack off regardless of the environment. At our core, as humans, we need to build strong bonds, work with others and have meaningful work…that doesn’t change, regardless of the work environment.

What is Somewhat Different?

While politics are toxic in any environment, managing politics and the rumor mill is even more critical in a remote work environment. Little things can blow out of proportion easier without the physical proximity that an onsite environment allows.

While having the right people on the bus (see Jim Collins’ Good to Great book) is always critical, it is even more critical in a remote environment as you must rely more on people to want to do the right thing.

Watercooler chat isn’t completely eliminated but it does take on the form of things like Instant Messenger. The key difference that I see is that chat in a remote environment is not coincidental. Just running into someone at the watercooler can be coincidental while initiating an IM chat with someone requires an intentional act. It is hard to say whether this is good or bad as both IM and watercooler chat can be good and destructive.

What is Significantly Different?

In an office environment, if you want to see what someone is doing, you just look over a cubicle wall or in an office window and check in on the person. In a remote environment, this ability is completely gone. There are ways to compensate but the physical, tactile ability to just look across the room and see what someone is doing is gone in a remote environment. Of note, just because people can see each other doesn’t mean that meaningful work is actually being done, it just means that you can directly and immediately see if a person is typing on their keyboard, sleeping in their chair or taking their 20th trip outside for a smoke break.

A remote work environment does allow some very unique flexibility with team members that are marginally sick and/or have children that are home sick. One of our engineers’ daughters was having a child and he was able to work while he was waiting at the hospital. For him, this was powerful as he felt the freedom to be there, with the family, the entire time and it gave him something to do other than just sitting around, waiting for the news. For our team, it was powerful as he remained available and productive. We have had numerous other situations where someone has a scratchy throat, a child has to stay home from school or any one of a myriad of other situations.

Is a Remote Work Environment for You?

This is a hard one and we could probably do a 15 part blog series discussing it. The differences outlined above are important considerations but a lot of this boils down to what you want in your work environment. For me, there are a few major considerations as follows:

  1. Product – If you have a product that relies on you physically assembling or manipulating it, a remote work environment would be rather difficult to make work.
  2. Toolsets – If you have toolsets that are more manual or paper-driven, a remote environment can be more difficult. When you have toolsets that leverage technology and can be accessed remotely, the groundwork is laid for you to work remotely as people can communicate and collaborate remotely, using technology.
  3. Business Process Maturity – If your business processes rely on people leaning over your cubicle wall to ask a question every 30 seconds, a remote work environment would, likely, become prohibitively disruptive and difficult. However, if you have solid business processes where people are, often, able to follow defined processes to perform their work, without requiring frequent direction, a remote office environment might be a good fit for you.
  4. Leadership Maturity – Leaders that rely on managing their team by constantly looking to make sure they look like they are busy, have little trust in their team, etc. will have a difficult time leading in a remote work environment. Leaders that tend to fare well are ones that can provide clear direction and clear definition of what is expected, then, trust their people to execute.
  5. Team Maturity – If you have great processes and leaders but have a team that likes to do everything halfway and doesn’t care about taking care of their customer or doing things right, a remote office environment will just exacerbate this issue. A remote work environment relies even more heavily on the capacity of the team to receive direction and perform the work they know to do in a diligent and effective manner.

Remote work environments are most definitely not for everyone and they have some unique pitfalls that might make this a bad idea for you and your organization. However, they also offer some unique advantages that, if handled right, can be powerful. I hope this blog has at least shined some fresh light on the topic.