When we say remote work, what do we mean? Depending on context this can mean a few different things in normal conversation. Remote work simply means work performed outside of the workplace. A similar concept is that of the Distributed Team, which simply means that the team works out of more than one place. It is entirely possible to have a Distributed Team where everyone works in an office, and anytime you have one or more remote workers on your team your team is effectively distributed.
To better clarify the definition of remote work (a definition which we'll use throughout this blog series) it's helpful to use the perspective of the person who is working remotely. There are typically two major factors under consideration: location and frequency. Throughout this article we'll use you to refer to the remote worker and your team to refer to the rest of your team (who may be back at the office).
There are three primary types of locations that may classify as remote work: home, a client office, or a public space. If you travel between various workplaces owned and operated by your employer, you may very well experience similarities to either the client office or public office.
Working out of a client's office can be a really mixed bag, both for you and your team. In some cases you will have restricted digital access, either because of on-premise networks and firewalls restricting your access, or because you're issued a laptop by the client that doesn't allow access to your work accounts. These infrastructure barriers can be isolating, sometimes it's the culture of the client office, or simply the pressure of needing to perform in full visibility of the client, that can cause stress and make you feel isolated from your team.
When working at a client office for a long period of time, sometimes you start to build stronger relationships with the client than you do with your team. This can cause a disconnect with your employer and can often lead to leaving the employer to work for the client instead.
This category is slightly less well defined and includes a wide variety of public spaces (or even private spaces that are shared between people over time). This can include coffee shops, airports, conference centers, hotels, co-working spaces, a park, or even your parent's house. These spaces often have substandard internet access (either inconsistent or low bandwidth) and may include a variety of distractions.
Even if you find this environment rejuvenating, your team may find that it doesn't work well for meetings (due to background noise or internet connectivity) and that they tend not to reach out if they know you'll be in this type of environment. If this environment is temporary, it might make sense to make plans with the team on how best to keep connected. If this is a long-term situation (such as a co-working space) do your best to line up quiet meeting space.
This is perhaps the most-talked-about category in the last couple years. It turns out the experience you and your team have with working from home may depend a lot upon your financial situation and family relationships. If you're home alone during the day, have good internet, and have a dedicated workspace then working from home is pretty fantastic.
On the other hand, if the kids are screaming, the dog is barking, there's a jackhammer running outside your window while you try to connect to a video meeting over 3G wireless then you might have a very different opinion on the matter.
This wide variation in experiences is something that companies need to take into consideration with their work-from-home (WFH) policies and employee compensation. The upside of working from home is that it tends to be more consistent than public spaces. You're probably able to establish communication routines with your co-workers. Maybe you take calls with video off and try to fit all your meetings in while the kids are at school, but this is something most teams can easily work around.
One of the big factors of remote work is how often you do it. This is particularly important when every member of the team is working out of the office with the same frequency.
This is when you only work remote a few times a month. I find that most people working in tech have had some sort of as-needed remote work policy even before the pandemic, so this may be familiar to you. In this scenario the team experiences very little disruption from the occasional absences, simply working around the person being gone. The side effect is that most teams never invest in remote collaboration or building the habits that will serve them well when remote work becomes more frequent.
For companies that have a fixed percentage in the office or an X days per week WFH policy, you're regularly remote. This can be anywhere from 1-3 days a week out of the office, which it turns out can be a very large range. If everyone on the team is out of the office on the same days, it's not a big deal as you always know if any given person is in or out of the office. But if the policy is something like 2 days at home, 3 days in the office without more guidance than that, it turns out there's less than a 40% chance that you'll be in the office at the same time as that person you really needed to talk to.
This frequency is the point at which remote work is the most disruptive to the team, especially if combined with an inconsistent work location. Because you're working remotely somewhat consistently, you'll have the ability to build up personal habits. But in my experience, teams can flounder at this stage unless communication is guided by strong leadership and policies. Otherwise, teams that once communicated effectively in-person struggle to connect with those who are remote, often putting the communication burden entirely on those who are remote on any given day.
This is when remote work is the norm, and in-person meetings are the exception. I've seen anything from total remote to a 1 day a week in the office for meetings. But at this point the team has chosen to embrace remote work as the norm and you'll see team habits change and communication channels configure around being remote. Once everyone embraces remote work you tend to lose the us-vs-them mentality of in-office vs remote and start to build team habits around how to collaborate remotely.
It can take work, but I feel like it's pretty important to implement frequent remote work as part of any plan to build strong teams. Even if (and I'm not a fan of this) your long-term goal was to have your teams 50/50 in the office, you really need to first test your processes around remote collaboration by going all-in for a period of time. If you don't, you're really not committing to the necessary practices.
Whether you're remote or distributed, it's important to understand how the location from which you work, and the frequency with which you change locations, can impact your team dynamic. We discussed how some level of consistency (even if just during an initial break-in period) can be extremely important to teaching a team how to build the right practices.
What are these practices? The first one we discussed was Celebrating Wins, and more will be coming in future articles.
Since this is a series about remote work, I feel that it's important to mention that I love working from home, and am an advocate for WFH options for all employees. In fact, Andromeda has been remote-first since its inception. Because I believe in remote work my goal will be to highlight some of the good and bad aspects and hopefully provide useful tips on how to emphasize the best parts and mitigate the hard parts.
Have your own thoughts about Remote Work? Please be sure to let me know, either through our contact form or by reaching out on Twitter.