I never liked that term ‘remote’. Whether in relation to me or to colleagues. It is exclusionary. And betrays a sense of ‘otherness’ that I feel is unhealthy for team cohesion. I understand that not everyone finds it easy or productive to work mostly apart from daily, in person, social interaction. But success is an arm in arm effort and the strategies to build successful teams work regardless of geography if we reward the right behaviors.
Every now and then, discussions around distributed teams, the hiring practices of a distributed team and all the details that go along with that come up whether in Twitter or in person with friends and co-workers.
If you follow me on twitter, it won’t be news that I work ‘remotely’ and have been for a few years since a couple of family moves. It has been a mostly successful experience that still goes on. I am not only still on the team, but I have since seen a promotion, have grown the team and am now growing it even more by hiring some level I DBAs to mentor and help grow.
So yes. It’s been and continues to be a success story. Even in a company that isn’t remote first.
What I do not talk about often is the story of when I didn’t succeed as a remote employee, resulting in being laid off years ago. And I think it’s important to talk about that as well. Because as gratifying as it may be to claim full credit at my current success, I’d be dishonest to pretend that success was all me.
The past few years were not the first time I’ve worked from home. However, when I’ve done it before it ended in lack of engagement and ultimately in my value being seen as dispensable, replaceable. I simply didn’t have a team around me that valued communication or the people management apparatus that understood what i did day to day besides just showing my face in meetings.
So what is it that makes the same person excel or fail miserably at the same thing? Let me share some of my experience around this and how I think it may matter to your organization.
There is never a ‘successful remote employee’. There is always a ‘team that communicates well’ and this goes beyond locality and who’s physically where. I’ve seen Engineering teams in the same office fail spectacularly at basic communication around work in progress or around setting expectations for delivering feature work while other teams with three different timezones producing results efficiently. This is all a roundabout way for me to say that my success is really my team’s success. There are a number of habits that make my team so good at this and they are worth calling out
- Most conversations happen in chat. Keeps everyone in the loop
- Joining stand-up from laptops even for those in the office. Everyone is on the same communication channels
- In meetings where a large portion of the group is in a big room, someone is designated as representative of those calling in. That way we can still get the group’s attention and ask questions if we want to
These are not just behaviors that are useful when not the whole team is local. Life happens, co-workers who are parents have to work from home sometimes, errands, all sorts of things. Allowing for your people to still be part of important discussions while living life is a real sign of wanting life balance for your people and not just talking about it.
The effects of human laziness
Humans are by nature lazy, we do not seek what we do not see. And we make presumptions about things we do not know for a fact. These natural shortcuts our brains take will always show themselves in the systems we design. I have seen it multiple times where teams have developed and deployed software that did not actually meet all the needs of the business only for retrospectives later to declare the ‘root cause’ a failure in communication.
Noting the skepticism I have towards any mention of ‘root cause’, it amazes me how often organizations will over and over again prove Conway’s law in this specific dynamic. Teams that only communicate to humans in front of them will also fail to involve all stakeholders in decisions in design, will fail to notify other teams when they are about to ratchet up customer involvement in their new beta and will create products that ultimately are a reflection of how the team itself handles its communication. It has been my experience that teams that put the effort into being good at communication, at writing things down, at making everything explicit and as little as possible implicit, that also find the most alignment and find all their members rowing in the same direction. Having people work from wherever they live at this point becomes the cherry on top.
Diversity and inclusion
Here’s a harsh truth: If you require hiring in a specific geographic location but pinky swear that you value diversity and inclusion, then you are at best misguided as to how to create diverse teams and how to keep underrepresented groups included. Intent doesn’t matter when hiring practices have the opposite impact. Let’s say you are a company in the bay. Building a new product that has to solve large scale problems ,you know you need experienced distributed systems engineers. What average number of years experience do you think you will find in the bay?
If you decide to open the experienced roles to ‘anywhere US’ but none of your Engineering managers have managed people not local to them before or worse are not interested in that, you are hiring experienced engineers to see them fail. Remember, People quit managers not companies. Engineering managers who have not in the past honed their emotional intelligence to manage people not necessarily physically near them will not retain experienced engineers who have built the experience to know all the skeletons in your infrastructure. One thing I have learned in the last few years is that backchannels are a strong force in this industry. And people will tell each other whether that ‘Anywhere US’ position company Foo just posted is really something that is setup for success in a team that uses mature communication skills or if it is a Hail Mary because that position was open for nine months in the Bay and no one is applying and now that company is desperate to fill it.
We are in an industry that has far more demand for talent than is available to hire. And that’s an advantage for us as workers. Somehow I see companies clearly state hiring as a potential challenge and something that’s a competitive edge, yet they hamstring those same efforts out of the gate by requiring that people relocate. Not only does this make hiring harder but it is also not inclusive.