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.
I am trying to get a friend of mine to quit his job. No, I don't want him to join the massive ranks of the unemployed. I want him to move to a job that appreciates his talents and efforts. My friend (let's call him Bob) is totally dedicated to his profession. He is continually trying to improve his skills and productivity and wants to help his colleagues achieve better results too. Nobody brings more thought and interest to any task he faces. But he is surrounded on all sides by people who just don't care. They are satisfied by doing mediocre work. If something they build doesn't immediately fall over, they consider it done. If they can assign responsibility to someone else, they will. If nobody else notices a problem, it never happened.
It's frustrating for Bob. He can't accomplish his goals without help or at least cooperation. His company doesn't recognize the difference between his performance and that of his peers. In fact, he is constantly getting passed over. It doesn't feel fair. But it is fair. Bob is just playing the wrong game. Queue the metaphor...
Imagine that you are a world class tennis player. You live and breath tennis. You go into every volley trying to do your best and to improve upon the last one. You invest in coaching and resources to improve your game. If something might help you play better, (like a different diet, a different racket, or even one of those magnetic bracelets) you will try it.
One day, a friend challenges you to a game of Wii Tennis. You start to play tennis as you know how. Your knees are bent. You move your feet. You swing with explosive power. You are playing great tennis... but you are losing. You look over and you see your friend. He is slumped on the couch barely moving his controller with a flick of wrist. He looks like he couldn't walk across a tennis court without losing his breath.
As pathetic as he looks, Wii thinks your opponent is a better tennis player. Wii doesn't care about his form, his position, or how much leverage he has over the ball. Wii only cares about timing and maybe a couple other factors. Your friends knows this and he is not wasting any energy on what Wii doesn't care about. Your friend is the better Wii Tennis player because he has figured out how to do less but still satisfy the minimal inputs that Wii has been programmed to observe.
Bob is trying to play real tennis in his company's Wii Tennis tournament. He is not exactly losing, but he should be winning. The frustrating part is that he could be doing a lot less and get the same results. When he is on a team, he is constantly questioning whether he should be compensating for others by fixing their work — like in a doubles game when you see your partner is not running so you cover more of the court. His extra efforts only result in bumping into things and annoying people who just want to "sit on the couch and casually wave their hands."
Now the big question: who is playing the wrong game? It is difficult to tell if Bob's company would perform better if it paid attention to the finer aspects of how people worked and measured performance more holistically. It is unknown whether the company's customers would appreciate a higher quality product. But there are two things I know. 1) Bob wants to play real tennis, not Wii Tennis. 2) He doesn't have the clout to change the game that the rest of the company is playing.
The reason why I am writing this post on this blog is that I think that this story is very relevant to the pursuit of any type of organizational change, be it adopting Agile development or Enterprise 2.0. Companies can delude themselves into thinking they are playing a different game than they actually are. They may think they have a bunch of real tennis players who are striving for excellence and victory on a dynamic playing field; instead, they have a bunch of Wii tennis players who are looking for ways to minimize their personal/professional investment to only what is recognized. These companies get confused when they put a tool or way of working out in the wild and nobody adopts it; they shouldn't be.
Organizational change is much harder with the Wii Tennis company because you have to actively incentivize every behavior you want to see. It is not enough to say "this will make our company more effective." You have to say "do this specific thing and get points towards your performance review;" and you better not be lying because Wii Tennis players will see right through that. Finding real tennis players like Bob is hard to do — especially if you work for a large company. Real tennis players need a lot of room to move around and large companies tend to compartmentalize people. They need to be challenged in different ways to keep things interesting. Their rewards need to be tied to company achievement. Plus, other employees will get annoyed when you change the game that they have gotten so good at.
When building a company or even just a team within a company, think about what game you are playing. If your industry is commoditized and the difference between average and excellent is under appreciated by the market, it may pay to go after the Wii Tennis players and be very specific about expectations and incentives. If you are competing in a dynamic industry with a large upside, build a team of competitors who will take ownership of optimizing their personal performances and also the effectiveness of the overall team. They will innovate and try new tools and techniques that are offered. Most importantly, they will not stop a practice if it is difficult to do — they will only stop if it is ineffective or if they find something more effective.