Many articles describe in detail how to establish an agile approach in a company. But what does an agile organization with remote teams and only one location need to do to both enable distributed work and to integrate distributed employees in the best possible way? Why should any company think about these issues? What are the hurdles and how can they be overcome effectively? And who is actually suited to be a remote employer or employee? Here are some experiences and my thoughts.
In the first part, I looked at the reasons why anyone would work remotely. In this post I go into more detail about the characteristics of a remote employee and their company.
Jeff Sutherland talks about this in his book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice The Work In Half the Time
The heart of Scrum is rhythm. Rhythm is deeply important to human beings. Its beat is heard in the thrumming of our blood and rooted in some of the deepest recess of our brains…
We also know this rhythm as “being in flow”, a state of complete concentration on the current task. All too often in the office you are torn out of this state by disturbances such as emails or colleagues that drop by your desk. Some people don’t mind interruptions, because they quickly find their way back into the flow, others however need longer – in both cases, this context switch costs energy. The advantage of working remotely is that you can avoid these interruptions when you want to.
Jason Fired and David Heinemeier Hansson (in REMOTE: Office Not Required) make a very clear point:
The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done. In fact, offices have become interruption factories.
Cool, I’d like that too!
When I tell friends about my remote work, the reaction is usually: “Cool, I’d like that too!” Only when we talk a little about my everyday life do some people get the idea that they would miss the personal contact with their colleagues. Others see the danger of getting stuck in front of their game console or TV.
These issues point to core characteristics of suitable remote employees: independence and self-organization.
You can’t quickly ask short questions of colleagues at neighboring desks without technical aids. In chat there is no guarantee that an answer will come, and if it does, then it’s usually not immediate. You have to be able to solve problems on your own and to develop suitable strategies for finding solutions.
At home you can get comfortable, but there are also many things that can distract you from your work. Without a certain discipline, you can easily drift off to do something around the house, you lose the flow again and again, or you don’t even reach this state. A relatively fixed daily routine helps me – if you have children, you have routines automatically thanks to kindergarten or school. A dedicated study with a desk free of temptations such as a TV or games console makes sense. Plus, you can shut the door to your home office if things get too loud in the house.
Along with the danger of working too little, there is the – probably higher – risk of working too much. For many, the working day ends exactly when they leave the office. But when the office is right next to the living room, the temptation to work a little longer than eight hours, or to “quickly” check emails again in the evening, is high. When I started working remotely, I felt that I had to prove to my colleagues that the additional effort to enable the distributed team really paid off.
Teamwork from home
Another extremely important point for remote employees as well as for colleagues on-site is: teamwork. With so much space between us and our team members, it is all the more important that we know we can rely on each other and trust each other. If any important information was discussed orally in the team office, it know it will reach me via one channel or another. Furthermore, I can always contact a colleague to ask a question or get help. The same applies the other way round, of course. It was helpful in my case that I already knew most of my colleagues or had met them during one of my regular visits to the office. Dan Radigan from Atlassian also writes about this in his blog post, Think globally, code locally: the secret to remote teams:
The more we know each other as people, the stronger we are working together as teams.
Communication and marketing are also important for remote workers. I’ve created this series of “working remote” blog posts to describe my everyday life, including ups and downs, to my colleagues – to help create understanding that a little extra effort is appreciated and valuable, so that I don’t get relegated to the outer edge of the team. I may also be a little more active in our team chat or microblog than my local colleagues. Such systems are my gateway to the office and help to increase transparency as described by the Scrum Guide. Because of this, many internal support requests reach the team via our chat room, and there I can help directly as the first point of content, thanks to my short response time.
When I started working remotely, the phrase “inflationary communication” was coined. It is not a question of highest number of contributions, but of participating in the available channels and being part of an open discussion culture.
And the company?
Now that we have defined the perfect remote employee, what about the company? It all comes down to: Trust (also covered by the Scrum Values). A remote employee can be “monitored” worse than in an office. Although surveillance is an illusion in the office – independent of the senselessness of such an approach.
The company must also be willing to bear the initial additional costs and to make investments in the infrastructure. It is important to keep in mind that these expenses benefit all employees in the long term. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, systems that support remote colleagues are useful if you have more than one location, they improve networking in large offices, and have other advantages.
In summary, I see four core characteristics that help when establishing yourself as a remote employee:
- Affinity for teamwork
- Inclination to be communicative
At first glance, the final two characteristics sound contradictory to working remotely, and seem to fit better with on-site teams. Yet, they are particularly important characteristics for remote colleagues in a team to have. The worst case would be a remote team within the team. Ultimately, it depends on the person, the team and the company whether the foundation for successful remote collaboration are there. I don’t know if I could continue to work so well at a distance with other colleagues, or in another company. However, it’s certainly much easier for our second remote employee because many things they need are now normal.
The third part of this particular series of posts will look at how to make the first remote transition a success.