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Oct 23, 2017

When remote working doesn't work

As a long time remote worker and manager of both distributed and co-located teams, I think about virtual teams a lot. While I have had great personal experiences with remote teams, there seems to be little consensus about whether it is a good idea. You have some articles touting the health, retention, and productivity benefits of letting people work from home. And you have other articles, like the recent Atlantic piece "When working from home doesn't work," that indicate a shift back to traditional office environments. Based on my own experience, I find it hard to imagine large companies succeeding by dictating enterprise-wide policies around remote workers.  The effectiveness of distributed teams depend on critical factors that will vary from team to team. Here are three things that undermine the effectiveness of distributed teams.

1. Hybrid teams do not work

A team should be either all colocated or all remote. A remote member of a predominantly colocated team will always be neglected. It is unavoidable. Co-located employees build habits that depend on seeing each other. They look around the room to decide who to include in a discussion. They respond to visual clues that a colleague may be struggling. The interactions that are available to remote team members tend to be restricted to events that are either boring (like standing meetings) or stressful (like performance reviews). But relationships are formed in between these two extremes when people can be themselves and have the space to curious about each other and build trust. 

2. You can't convert a colocated team to a distributed one

A team is not just a collection of people. It is an ecosystem that is shaped by individual talent, chemistry, goals, and an environment that presents constraints and opportunities. The environment plays a huge role in how people interact. And by interact, I don't just mean communication (although that is part of it) but also how responsibilities are divided and handoffs happen. If all of the sudden people start working remotely, you need to treat the group as a new team. You need to establish new norms and ways of working together. Roles will change. You need to use different methods to develop camaraderie and create an engaging work experience.

3. Not everyone will thrive as a remote worker

It takes a special type of person to be an effective and happy remote worker. Their work environment has to be conducive to productivity. They need to be goal oriented and invested in the success of the team. They should be committed to their craft and want to build mastery by continuous refinement. I have also recently begun to appreciate the importance of being in the right phase of one's career. At some point in your career, it is helpful to go into an office to do things like: build professional social skills; find a mentor; bond with people; try different roles; get lots of feedback; and have the general sensation that you work for a company. It is harder for remote workers to advance into new roles because they don't get to see other people doing those roles. Personally, I am grateful that I got to work at a number of different kinds of offices and I have some great professional connections from that time. I think I would be a wreck if my early managers had to deliver feedback over phone and email without being able to modulate tone and provide support based on my reaction.

Based on these three observations, a smart executive will not dictate working style based on business journal articles or office leases. Instead, he/she should empower teams to construct and distribute/consolidate themselves for optimal efficiency.