“We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they [are] at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.” - Richard Branson
I had a future client ask me about the reality of a purely virtual company - can remote offices really work? My answer, like Sir Richard above, is a resounding yes, but it needs to be approached in the right way, and you need to develop a new set of skills to make it run smoothly.
Introducing remote aspects to an organization simultaneously creates and solves some common challenges. As a person that has managed remote workers and organizations for almost 10 years, I have an obvious bias towards remote/virtual offices. Here are some of the issues and benefits I’ve encountered, and the options to address or leverage them I’ve discovered through this process.
Traditional office - this is the traditional model, where the company leases a space and all workers perform their work in it. They are expected to maintain a schedule close to 8 hours, within fixed shifts, commonly 9-5 and are also allowed access to the space to work additional hours before and after. This organization is optimized for shared resources and is difficult if not impossible to participate in from remote locations.
Flexible Traditional office - The flex office is a traditional office, as above, but people have the option to shift hours from time to time or work from home on occasion. Acceptable frequency of telecommuting or mandatory overlapping hours might be stated or implied. This organization is also optimized for shared resources and is difficult to participate in from remote locations, with remote members frequently placing demands on those in the office or circumventing policy in order to function remotely.
Remote Aware Traditional office - As above, but with an explicit option to not come into the office. Typically there will be fewer desks than employees, with the expectation that people will pop in and out as their schedule suits them. Commonly those using the office will stick to a semi-fixed schedule, and that imposes itself loosely on the people working from other locations. This organization is optimized for in-office work, which often causes frustration for remote workers, possibly resulting in two or more distinct cultures forming within the company.
Remote Friendly Traditional office - As above, but the organization is optimized for remote work. This company essentially is a fully remote shop as detailed below, which also provides a common space for workers to plug in and work according to the remote rules, with a fixed and safe space and scheduled framework to do it in.
Fully Virtual organization - This is a fully remote shop, with no fixed working space where workers can expect to go to perform their duties. Most members will work from their homes, others may make use of shared co-working spaces, inhabit cafes or work wherever and whenever the whim strikes them. This can include very remote locations, including distant time zones and even other countries if the organization’s legal infrastructure supports it. The company’s main address may be a PO box accessible to the administration or even a lawyer’s office.
What’s GOOD about having a traditional office?
Communications - Being able to tap someone on the shoulder is remarkably efficient and makes constant, fluid communications possible.
Culture - Proximity can serve as an accelerator for jump-starting culture in an organization.
Credibility - Having a “real” office in a nice location where customers and investors can visit can serve to create credibility and enhance your image with people who are not accustomed to the virtual office environment. Being able to show a quiet, organized team hard at work can up the ante for a nervous client.
Visibility and Accountability - Something can be said for the simplicity of looking around a bullpen and seeing what’s going on at a glance. Why is that guy never at his desk? Why does that lady have a huge stack of folders she’s working through, but no one else does? Why is everyone whispering - what’s going on?
Scheduling - Traditional offices create an expectation of traditional hours. There is comfort in using your eyes to confirm there is actual effort being put forth for the hours someone is being paid for.
Homefulness - Some people LIKE having a place to hang out. It promotes social interaction, and they may just not have a decent place to work from, unless the organization provides one.
What’s BAD about having a traditional office?
Commuting - Travelling is possibly the most annoying and inefficient part of a traditional office, even though it’s one we’ve become used to. The average US worker spends 25.5 minutes commuting each direction every work day - that adds up to over 100 hours, more than the same worker typically gets in vacation over the same period. Workers that don’t commute can roll out of bed, check their mail and start work as soon as they are ready, wherever they are.
Environmental Impact - All that commuting and takeout and paper and fluorescent lighting takes its toll on both the environment and the people working.
Comfort - No office can satisfy every person in it perfectly, and most offices with more than three present find the day a process of compromise between personal efficiency and comfort, and attempting to address co-worker efficiency and comfort. She likes it quiet, he likes loud country music. She thinks better while bouncing a ping-pong ball to “Staying Alive,” he’s most efficient to work from a massage chair with Netflix on a screen behind his monitor. I like craft coffee that’s been allowed to reach room temperature, someone else wants it piping hot from a pod.
Space and Flexibility - Personally, I work best on three different desks: one for email and administration, one for projects requiring heads-down concentration, and one for wild projects. Allowing for that much space is expensive - and not providing the same to everyone can cause resentment.
Cost - Renting a suitable space invariably costs something, whether it’s rent or equity or the owner’s free space. If you want a good enough place to meet with clients and investors and impress them, you’ll be shelling out even more.
Redundancy - Networks go down, floods and fires happen, parades and government activity shut down roads, snow takes out power … all of these things can shut down an office for hours or days multiple times a year, often at inopportune times. When everyone has their own independent utility that they are motivated to maintain and upkeep, downtime is less impactful.
Moving - Nothing disrupts an office quite like packing it all up and moving it somewhere else. When you all share a traditional office, you all do it simultaneously, and can cause repercussions in the organization that are felt for years, until you finally unpack that box you forgot in the closet and you find the good ping-pong paddles.
How to mitigate and leverage the issues above
As I pointed out above, I have biases, and those biases run towards the last two scenarios outlined above, the Remote Friendly Traditional office (RF) and the Fully Virtual organization (FV). Here, I’ll outline how to overcome some of these challenges, and how to leverage some of the benefits of these environments.
Increasing communications frequency and efficiency is probably the most imperative issue with remote organizations. With people never in the same place and frequently not working at the same time, good communications with solid hygiene is absolutely necessary. While this is as critical in a traditional office, it’s often “good enough” organically that these issues are never addressed.
RF or FV, most remote communication will take place over text-based chat. It’s convenient, immediate and doesn’t require people to look good for a camera. It maintains a record of the conversation and can result in instantaneous response of a request or question, but to make this work it needs a few ground rules:
First of all, everyone lives in the same chat client. I emphatically endorse Slack. It’s the first line of communication, status checking/check in, team dynamics and action logging. When you start work, say hello. When you take a break, announce it. When you come back from a break or start the day, scroll back and read what happened since you left.
By moving everyone to the same communications medium, no one is left waiting for a reply on Hangouts or Skype chat for hours or days while an issue starts to rot. Everyone is instantly available - or even knows instantly if someone isn’t going to talk to them.
Controlling noise in this environment is critical - both too much and too little. Chatter should be near-constant, everyone should know their opinion matters and is required - it allows supervisors and co-workers to ensure no one is secretly stuck on an issue or fuming from a perceived slight.
Email plays its role in communicating with the outside world, it’s value in expressing long and complex ideas, and email is just better for searching some things; since it has a larger cost per transaction than a chat client, each word is more likely to contain context that’s useful in 6 months.
Note that Slack is such an efficient communications tool, often people will get out of the habit of checking their email regularly.
Higher-bandwidth communications are available as pop-up video conferences and screen sharing experiences, and it does a group good to have some recorded video addresses so people can put a face to a name and recall good direction or advice from managers and co-workers.
A large concern some managers have with remote workers is one of accountability - losing the ability to walk around and sense worker’s efficiency, mood and presence. This brings great comfort to some managers, as they feel this is a critical piece of their duty.
I generally consider this to be completely wrong. Very few workers are comfortable with this behavior. Some are neutral, most consider it an invasion and deterrent to getting work done.
We hire adults and should expect them to provide an acceptable level of security, loyalty, self-management and motivation. If they fail to perform at those levels, then we have failed as managers, either at hiring the right talent, setting the right expectations, grooming the right skills, or encouraging proper behavior, whether they work in a traditional office or not. Those limitations within ourselves are what we should address, because ultimately that’s our job as managers.
I work to create and enforce public and transparent metrics on performance - if we can’t measure it and compare a standard it to a baseline, then we have no fair expectation of holding a co-worker to that standard. As leaders, setting a proper example and explaining clearly is 90% of our responsibility. Those that do not absorb the message are probably not a good fit for the organization and would do better elsewhere.
Holding one-on-one meetings with regularity, daily “standups” and regular town hall meetings are some of the techniques we can use to encourage the accountability and behavior we require, in hand with identifying problems with our process or personnel and taking care of them as soon as possible.
Once we identify and codify those practices and metrics we deem necessary, we can allow employees to act as they wish, with almost total freedom and still expect maximum efficiency from them.
Organizations cannot succeed alone, they succeed according to the artifacts and behaviors they produce and provide to the external world, and the value that wider audience attributes to and exchanges for those products. They also succeed according to the artifacts and behaviors they manifest inside the organization, those that build internal values like pride, loyalty and respect.
Those artifacts emerge from a core culture of espoused values - when individuals act within the organization, they should feel comfortable to act individually, and find that their individual effort helps build the whole into a constantly improving organization. Done well, this increases joy, efficiency, team building, camaraderie, respect and honor, and vocally stating those values helps others become comfortable with them … or determine they can’t or won’t relate.
None of this requires a tangible space for people to work. It does require diligent activity on behalf of the leadership to establish a set of basic assumptions that can inform those behaviors. When someone is unclear about their expected behavior, they need a set of guidelines, mission statements, ethics, or fair and documented past precedents to fall back on, as well as a clear line of communication to their peers and supervisors.
Understanding people’s motivations, treating them with respect and as though they were the actors we wish them to become goes most of the way to shaping them into those actors. Listening often goes further than telling, and acting goes much further than ordering.
In short, happy people work hard.
Satisfied people are happy. Satisfaction comes from consistent respectful leadership, appropriate compensation, and feeling they provide value with their effort.
Scheduling and Overlap hours
I’m not a big fan of requiring a specific number of hours sitting in seats. I expect and communicate a certain amount of performance from every contributor, on a sliding scale based on factors such as: Has this person been overworked lately? Is this person learning a new skill? How experienced is this person? Is he/she deep in personal or family issues? Everybody gets pushed but hopefully just enough to be slightly better than they would be without.
That being said, people do need to be present enough to know what’s going on, and they need to be present at the right times to talk to the right co-workers. Most time zones have some overlap in “common” working hours, and important meetings should target those. (Unimportant meetings should be eliminated and turned into nap time.) Use calendar scheduling tools to make sure the right audience is present for the right meeting. If you need to slip out of someone’s “comfortable” hours, make sure you don’t do it all the time - make yourself uncomfortable once in a while, too.
If it’s sheer impossibility to get someone into a meeting or conversation because of scheduling conflicts, do the same things you would do if you all shared an office and it happened, as it does all the time. Summarize in email, keep a recording, issue “dueling” videos, etc. Do it well, and you’ll find you may need fewer meetings than you thought. Zero inbox is a laudable goal. Zero scheduled meetings is a saintly one. Isolation, Social Interaction and Overwork We should always be on the lookout for people who are in an unhealthy place with the integration of work and life. Working too little limits their value to the organization, restricts their potential and risks inefficiency and termination. Working too much risks burnout - potentially leading to a death spiral to the previous scenario. Remote work surprisingly pushes people far more frequently in the “too much” direction than in the direction of “too little”, and most managers are not used to watching for the warning signs of people working too hard.
Isolation can lead to depression - people should get out and work on things that aren’t “the job” on a regular basis. Remote organizations don’t easily do group trips to the local watering hole … encourage people to develop fun or useful interactions in their life, involving face to face meetings with humans.
Encouraging chatter (see the noise level paragraph above, under communication) provides people with a social outlet to determine if others like and respect them or not. Without this sort of feedback, introverted people get into their own heads too much and extroverted ones become annoying. Entice everyone into conversation, and you can watch the social dynamic self-govern.
Many organizations provide remote workers with vouchers for co-work spaces or reimburse Starbucks to encourage some work outside the home. I’ve never done this, but it’s an interesting idea.
This is a set of tools that can provide immense value while managing a workforce. I would say that these tools are of great value in a traditional office or a remote scenario. Used correctly, they level the playing field until there is no value whatsoever in workers being co-located in the same building.
- Embrace a Blameless Culture so no one is afraid to face up to their failings. Shield someone’s back if it looks like they need it.
- Deploy Metrics Everywhere and increase their Visibility. Ask people about their dashboard, to see if they are checking it.
- Encourage Flexibility and Accountability for everyone at every level of the organization.
- Enforce Uniform Ownership of systems, efforts and tools. Never need to call someone back from a vacation or bar mitzvah to restart a service or enter a password.
- Create Small Systems that are understandable and repairable by a wide audience, within a comprehensive and common framework or architecture. Ideally, devops (or whoever is wearing the devops hat) should be able to understand what’s broken, if not be able to Fix It Themselves.
- Allow only Temporary Specialization within a department. Cross train all the things. Fight stagnation by making people Move Chairs once in a while.
- Frequently Recognize Contributions to combat isolation, enforce good interaction and Train Leadership.
- Introduce people to Getting Things Done or Bullet Journaling. It isn’t for everyone, but learning that time management is a skill instead of a natural ability is useful in itself and helps people Seek A System. Provide decent Pens and Stationary to workers.
- Start a Reading Club or Skill Workshop - it’s useful for groups of people to be learning the same skills at the same time, or engaging in the same thoughts at their individual paces.
All in all, anything that’s good about a well-running physical office is also good about a virtual one, with the difference that a virtual one also allows workers to better integrate their work and non-work activity into a single healthier alternative.