I’ve been a telecommuter-work from home-virtual team member for over 13 years now. I’ve long been a promoter of flexible work places and work times and have tried to bring that ethos to every “real” office I’ve worked in since. But something struck me this week, something that woke me up to the realities of work, people, and teams: teams work best when the team is either virtual or located all together in an office—not both.
This line of thinking started with this article from LinkedIn—Why It’s Time to Ditch Your Office—and on the surface I was thinking “heck, yeah! virtual all the way! who needs an office!”, then I dug in a little deeper. I thought about all the teams I’ve worked with over the past 13 years and realized that while ditching the office is a great idea, it doesn’t always work out like you plan. To add an additional wrinkle to this whole line of thinking, I further realized that the issue or together or remote isn’t an issue (though it can be) on a company scale, but rather on the team scale.
Teams on a single type of communication
Here’s why (optimal) teams need to be either one or the other (virtual or not): communication. When I worked remotely during my pharma days I was one of only a handful of people at head office who worked remotely. While email was essential for company-wide communication, the old “wander by someone’s office” was, of course, a big part of how things got done. Those of us who were remote were left out (and had rather large phone bills to expense at the end of the month as well). After I left pharma and worked at a Vancouver-based market research firm (I was still on Salt Spring Island at this point), I was the only remote person and although I was armed to the teeth with high-speed internet, chat, the telephone…things were still disjointed between me and the rest of the folks at the office. Just a few months later I was working at my first startup (Qumana) and the entire team was virtual. Where there team or productivity issues being remote? No. Why? Because we all communicated by email, IM, or phone. There was no office where people were. The team was entirely virtual and it worked. Now here’s the part that really cinched this virtual or together team idea: b5media.
An entirely remote team, connected to a real office
While I was working through the whole virtual or together idea, I thought it was all a company scale issue. That the entire company had to be one or the other. Then I remembered working for b5media. At b5, a lot of the company was in Toronto, but most of the people (bloggers) were remote. I was part of a team with Shai Coggins and Christina Jones and the three of us were all remote (B.C., Texas, and Australia). We worked together through email, IM, and Skype. As far as the rest of b5 went, they were all just as remote as we were—at least as far as we were concerned. All of the things we needed to do as a team were down by people who weren’t together in the same space—even when dealing with the office.
Since b5 I’ve watched this play out time and again. When a team of people are entirely remote things work. When they are all together, things work. When you try to mix things in with one or two people remote and the majority together, things don’t work as well. The linchpin here is how default communication is conducted. With an established norm of say starting a conversation through IM, if you need to bring someone into the discussion you make a group chat (or as we did in b5 have endlessly running group chats for each team) that’s how it’s done. If you have three people out of five working together in an office, mandating that everything be done through IM for the other two is disjointed and impractical.
Focus on the team as a unit
Consulting and writing for Nugg, like this post on virtual teams—Teams fuel innovation, even virtual ones—I’m again working on a team (essentially a team of three) and it’s working essentially as a virtual team (two of the members are together, but sporadically) so the communication norm has been established for people who don’t share the same physical space together. The LinkedIn article cites 37 Signals (the folks behind Basecamp) as paragons of remote work. I’ve heard through the grapevine though that the “remote is awesome, remote rules” line at 37 Signals is hitting this exact problem I’ve outlined: mixing virtual and office doesn’t always work. I do wonder how Automattic does it. They have a mixture of office and remote people, but I suspect that it’s the team-based model at work there as well. New versions of WordPress are developed by people all over the world, so IRC (and other electronic comms) are the de facto if not de jury norms. I’d bet that even in the Automattic office that people rely on electronic comms for basic communication.
Radical or Realistic?
As much as I do think that companies need to be flexible in letting people work how they work best (the when, where, how), I think there has to be some pragmatism as well. If two members of a team of ten are remote, I believe (and personal experience has born this out) the team won’t be as effective (and note I didn’t say ineffective) as a team that is all in the same place at least some of the time. Does this mean that companies should shun remote workers (or boot everyone out of the office)? Not at all, but I also believe that before jumping on the “work wherever you wish” bandwagon, companies need to asses which teams this will work best for—and which teams it won’t.