by Jeff RobbinsMarch 27, 2013

Yahoo, Best Buy, and Telecommuting: Advice From A Distributed Company

As you may know, Lullabot is a completely distributed company. Most of our people work from their homes all across the U.S., Canada, and Europe. We have an office in Providence, RI near where I and Lullabot's other co-founder, Matt Westgate, live. However none of us work from that office as our primary location. We've found ourselves to be much more productive working from home or wherever we can get a connection for our laptop and mobile phone. Over the past 8 years we've had almost 75 employees and we've worked with many Fortune 500 companies. The walls of our office are covered with logos of companies like NBC Universal, The Grammys, Turner Broadcasting, MTV, Sony Music, Harvard University, and more. We use the space for meetings, meetups, and workshops, but we don't work there.

There's been a lot of talk recently about Marissa Mayer's memo requiring Yahoo's remote workers to relocate to company facilities. Now Best Buy, a company whose logo is also on our wall, has jumped on board and started reeling in its telecommuters. I've felt obligated to weigh in, and many of my friends and coworkers have been pushing for some defense of remote working. However, I've been struggling a bit to come to terms with my feelings about this. The truth is, I'm just not sure this is a bad thing for Yahoo or Best Buy.

Alienating Remote Employees

Certainly it's a bad thing for the employees. And Lullabot would love to hire some of those talented, self-motivated, Yahoo or Best Buy programmers, designers, and project managers who want to continue working from home. We think we can make them happier and more productive.

My feeling is that most conventional co-located companies simply don't know how to manage, and more importantly, how to include their remote workforce. It creates a situation which sucks for the company and sucks for the employees. Acknowledging the hubris in quoting oneself, I have a saying that I like to use:

“A conventional company with several remote employees is a company with several alienated employees.”

This discussion isn't all about productivity. It's also about culture, relationships (both romantic and platonic), understanding office politics, in-jokes, birthday parties, and general inclusion. Without these things, a company's work-at-home staff won't feel like they're part of the team. They may feel too disconnected to surface concerns about a project early. They may not understand the politics of a situation well enough or feel included enough to make suggestions for the direction of the project. They may not even think about the project as a whole as opposed to their role within it. Feeling alienated sucks. These employees can become myopic, focusing only on the work that comes to them via email and nothing else.

For many remote employees, there will always be the feeling that there is a "mothership" and they're not on it. Do you know how excited people get when a birthday cake gets brought into the office? Perhaps a little too excited? Well the remote employees aren't getting any cake. I've seen remote workers drive great distances and carefully coordinate an in-person meeting or two so that they could be there for the cake party. It sucks not getting cake.

The truth is that they're missing out on a lot more than cake. They're missing out on stories and in-jokes, engagement announcements, and new babies, not to mention office drama and politics, rivalries, and conflicts. While some of this might seem like a relief, it all adds to a feeling of disconnectedness. It leads to unproductiveness and unreliability.

Vice versa, for office-based employees who might spend two hours a day or more commuting into the office, it can feel like the remote workers are cheating. They're cheating because they don't need to sit in traffic. Maybe they're even cheating on their hours. Are they even putting in a full work day? Is their work really taking as long as they're saying or are they sitting around in their underwear playing XBox? This paranoia and resentment can really build up over time. Companies can end up with factional splits between the in-office and remote workers. Nasty business.

The Difference Between Remote And Distributed

Perhaps I need to make a distinction between "remote" and "distributed" here. In my mind, "remote" workers are remote to something – removed – from the center of activity. Things are happening somewhere and they're not there. By contrast, "distributed" workers are simply spread out. There's no implication of a center of activity. The activity is distributed across the team.

So am I saying that remote workers are a bad idea? To be clear, I am not. I'm simply saying that a company who wants to add remote workers should probably learn a thing or two from distributed companies like ours. They need to figure out how to avoid the cake problem. They need to figure out how to avoid the cheating-on-work problem. They need to figure out how to avoid splits between the in-office workers and the remote workers.

Evenly Distributed

Being distributed, Lullabot has no mothership. Yet, there still needs to be a center of action, doesn't there? A canonical place where work happens? And in a distributed company the office functions need to move into the virtual realm. They move online. We can see each other "at work" because we can see each other logged into our chat room. We can see each other posting and commenting on our microblog. We can see the results of our work as we post progress on our project trackers and code repositories. Our meeting rooms take the form of telephone conference lines. We have frequent meetings to check on progress of our projects. Management has frequent calls to discuss company directions and ideas. We brainstorm a lot. We have twice weekly meetings where every person at the company gets 2 minutes to talk about basically whatever is on their mind.

It's a level playing field. No one feels alienated. We're all using the same tools for communication. We all get access to the same information in the same ways. We're all equally connected.

How It Works For Us

As a fully distributed company, it's built into our DNA to avoid remote worker alienation. We bend over backwards to make our team feel connected and involved in the company. Being a good proactive communicator is a requirement for any job at Lullabot. And our company's infrastructure is built around facilitating many different types of communication. We can easily and quickly see who's working at any given moment. We can easily get quick answers from anyone on the team whether they're online or off. We can post questions company-wide for discussion. We spend a lot of time on conference calls, but people are often multitasking and we rarely feel like a meeting was unproductive.

Most new Lullabot employees say that they feel more connected, involved, and supported at this distributed company than they ever did at an office-based company. All communication has to happen clearly, and explicitly. Very few of our interactions are implied. We usually opt for over-inclusiveness, cc'ing liberally to make sure that even people peripherally involved with a project can keep track of what's going on. Positive feedback is also clear and explicit, and without co-workers in adjacent cubicles, can also be more focused without making others jealous.

We celebrate birthdays online. We meet new Lulla-babies online. (There have been a lot recently!) We provide sympathy when employees get sick or have hardships. We have weekly "post a picture of..." threads and people have posted pictures of their workspaces, the view from their desk, and had impromptu facial hair photo contests. We celebrate engagements. We gossip. We talk about the weather. We complain about difficult clients. We appeal to the company "hive mind" when we're stuck or lost. We link to funny videos. We turn each other on to books we're reading, new technologies we're exploring, and must-read blog posts. We inspire one another.

Our company is the best social network I've ever been a part of.

One of the 'bots lost 110 pounds in the past year and it was really wonderful to see the support and encouragement he got from the rest of the Lullabot team. This communication is explicit. He posted, "I've lost 50 pounds so far," along with a picture of himself. And everyone cheered, posting words of celebration and encouragement as comments on his post. Later he posted at 75 pounds and so on receiving similar support from the team. If we worked at a co-located company, I don't know if the emotional support would work like this. Would he post a company-wide email? That seems a bit extreme. Would he try to work it into conversation when he could? Would coworkers who didn't know him very well watch him getting thinner and thinner and wonder if they should comment? In some ways, the conventional in-person communication inhibits the type of support we were able to give him. He explicitly posted (paraphrasing) "I'm losing weight. Celebrate with me!" And we did!

Face To Face

Don't get me wrong, there is a lot to be gained from in-person interactions. Telephone and online communications may have their advantages, but our pre-verbal monkey brains are hardwired for face-to-face communications. Beyond spoken interactions, our senses are well honed for things like body language, tribal authority hierarchies (a.k.a. office politics), and even the personality messages that people project with their clothing style. And "sense of humor" isn't just a saying – it's critical for understanding the nuances of productive, friendly, and respectful interactions. This stuff is really important for understanding how to communicate with people and how to understand the messages they're sending in the virtual world. The guy with the dry sense of humor may just seem like a jerk over the phone. But then you meet him in person and with a wink you realize he's actually a comic genius.

We like to start off most of our client engagements with an in-person meeting. It really helps get the communication off on the right foot. It also adds a level of formality and clear commencement of the project. "We're here. We see you. You see us. Let's all get this project started and do a great job." Distributed communication becomes a lot easier after these meetings.

Lullabot Wall

We do a lot of traveling to meet with our clients and with each other. We get together in exotic locations to work on important projects. We go out to dinner together and we bond. We may not eat cake together, but we hang out. We laugh. We eat food. We establish strong face-to-face relationships which we can become the basis for our online interactions.

Each person in Lullabot will go to two company retreats per year – one for their department and one for the entire company. Company retreats seem to be a common device for almost all of the distributed companies I've talked to. In-person interaction is important. It bonds people together. But it's not needed every day. It's not even needed once a month. We can get together, connect on a personal level, get comfortable with one another, then build these relationships online.

The Distributed Company Guy Sides With Marissa… Kind Of

While it may seem like a wonderful convenience and even a perk for conventional office-based companies to let employees work remotely, it's not as easy as enabling a VPN and sending employees home with a laptop. Culture, communication, morale, and feelings of equitability can erode very quickly while no one is watching. And from a bottom line perspective, once these things have eroded, the work-at-home employees will become less and less productive. Remote workers don't want to feel like they're sneaking around and slacking off. But if they are being isolated and essentially pushed out by others at the company, they will fall into this pattern because they won't know what else to do.

There is a lot that office-based companies can learn from distributed companies like Lullabot. Remote workers need to be supported. They can't feel like they're missing out, shielded, or disconnected from the company. The solutions to these problems extend from decisions around communications technologies to basic company cultural decisions such trusting workers to self-direct, committing to a results-oriented work environment (ROWE), and committing to an open communication style where the day-to-day affairs of the company are more widely shared.

Companies can't assume that it all evens out because remote workers don't need to commute. Office-workers get cake. Remote workers can slack off on their hours. A feeling of alienation is not a fair tradeoff for working from home – not for remote workers, not for their office-based counterparts. Remote workers can't be second-class citizens. They need to be just as involved, immersed, and woven into the fabric of the company as everyone else.

If companies aren't going to spend time to understand these things, they will alienate their remote employees. And once they've done that, they're probably right to shut down their telecommuting policies.

The truth is that technology is allowing us all to communicate better and be better connected wherever we are. High definition videoconferencing and screen sharing will soon be ubiquitous and we will all get over the social uncomfortableness which currently encumbers these technologies. Remote employees will be less remote. There will be more and more ways to be together without actually being together. It's progress. It's the future. Some companies will get it. Some won't. For the companies that don't get it, they’re better off not pretending. Do it right or don't do it at all.

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