Alienating Remote EmployeesCertainly 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 DistributedPerhaps 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 DistributedBeing 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 UsAs 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 FaceDon'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.