The remote handicap

Remote work is all the rage these days. Its adoption is growing across both small startups and large enterprises, despite some very public setbacks. If you read the news, it seems that it can solve all of your problems – access to an infinite pool of talent, reduced fixed costs with large and expensive offices, more diverse teams due to the greater ease to accommodate different need and cultures. However, as I’ve said before, not everything are roses with remote work. I worked remotely for six years and have recently moved back to a regular office setup. So, let me burst the hype bubble some more by saying that, depending on your circumstances, being a remote worker can be a severe handicap when compared to your on-site colleagues.

Mixed co-located and remote teams are probably the most difficult to get right. If your team is entirely co-located or entirely remote, you can optimize for whatever your situation is. However, when you have people in both circumstances you have to identify which situations put people in one group at a disadvantage versus the other and find ways to mitigate those. The biggest challenge is ensuring that everyone has a level playing field. When you succeed, you end up being able to get the best of both worlds – reaping the benefits that a particular geography might provide to your business and the global reach that distributed teams can provide all at the same time. If you fail, you might end up alienating part of your team or, at the very least, not letting them contribute to their full potential.

I should add that a balanced, effective workplace is always a challenge, regardless of location. So even though I am listing issues that might be bigger in remote, and particularly in mixed remote environments, it does not mean that they magically disappear in other settings.

Contracts shouldn’t matter

Let us start with the basics – your contract. For various legal reasons which I am unequipped to discuss in detail, the way people are hired can be different in remote and co-located teams. For instance, companies who hire remote people internationally typically hire them as businesses, not as individuals. This naturally creates different requirements and obligations around things like taxes and benefits (holidays, vacations, health and pensions, equipment allowances and so forth). However, all of that should not matter one inch in how the teams operate. The way the company is set up should provide an “abstraction layer” over any contractual issues so that the end result is having all of this be completely transparent in everyday life. Everyone needs to access the same tools the same way, take part in the same ceremonies, have access to the same information. Anything else is segregating your people into separate groups.

New work method, old work practices

There are old patterns ingrained in the way “traditional” companies operate that can be hard to break, or even to identify. The most common, and most insidious, is the heavy reliance on synchronous meetings and discussions. Co-located teams favor synchronous because that’s just the way we naturally operate. This can be a challenge for distributed folks particularly because of time zones. It will either mean that you’re only available to participate in those important conversations during the limited time window in which your time zone overlaps, or that you’ll have to sacrifice some aspect of your personal life to be able to “be there” some more.

Thing is, you don’t have to. The vast majority of synchronous meetings held at your typical organization can be easily removed from the calendar and reorganized. There are plenty of tools and techniques that can help eliminate a lot of synchronous communication. Go asynchronous as much as possible.

Same experience across the board

Meetings in mixed teams are very unfair for remote people. Ensuring adequate, even participation for the remote participants is very hard. Some companies adopt the “if one person is remote, everybody is remote” practice. But there is a reason why this is so hard to achieve. Meeting in-person is just better. The huge difference in communication bandwidth means that no matter how good your setup, people who are physically together will just communicate better. It’s also more natural.

“Out of band” communications

When you share an office with people, you will quite frequently bump into each other. Conversations happen serendipitously. Information flows informally quite spontaneously. Decisions are made that are not recorded or communicated. This sort of communication that happens outside of any channel that was designed for the purpose is sometimes referred to as “out of band” communication, a reference to the telecommunications concept. Out of band communication will severely hamper your mixed remote/onsite team. And

Impromptu communications and how remote teams require you to be very explicit about opportunities to foster serendipity. This includes both serious work and socialising.

Team building

It is extremely hard to build a strong team when everyone is remote, and even harder to do so when only a part of it is remote. Teams rely on personal bonding – if not friendship. Personal bonding, and friendship, arise when people discover other dimensions that they agree on. I like dogs – but I also like cats. I have three children. I have a certain taste in music. I like my coffee in a certain way. I once went to a baseball game, and actually really enjoyed it. So many little things, that only come up in broad conversations about fairly random topics.

Remote communication, however, is always very specific. When you reach out to someone on Slack it is to discuss about a specific work-related topic. It leaves very little room for the serendipitous discovery that is the basis of bonding and friendship. So you end up having to be very deliberate about making this sort of conversation possible. It might work, but it can also feel very forced. And either way, it adds up to the “cognitive burden” of remote work. How you end up always having to think about how to do things that would otherwise come naturally to you.

If you have mixed on-site and remote teams, of course this gets worse. You have a part of your team that is open to the bonding made possible by random discovery, and another part that is not. No amount of “meet ups” can cover for the fact that half of your team can see the look on my face when I come in to work while the other half cannot.

Sure, people are different and everyone slides back and forth on the scale between “I need isolation” and “I need to talk to people”. Some people are “intimidated” by all the sometimes forced interaction in modern open-plan offices. A good office will provide a setting in which someone can retreat into “quiet mode” when needed. But a physical office offers the possibility of having both things, which is a lot harder to do when remote.

Cognitive burden

We have spent our entire lives working and collaborating with people that are physically next to us. It’s how families work. It’s how schooling works.  Being together with other people and talking to them in person is just how we’re wired to operate. When you’re not operating like this, everything adds overhead. You start having to think how to do things that are natural otherwise. Want to share some abstract idea? Grab a marker and get your team to look at the whiteboard in the corner. Except if you’re remote, you have to log in to some app (which you’ve previously had to evaluate, select, purchase, and set up for your team), figure out how to convey your idea in that app, share a link to said app, and hope everybody can access it and knows how to use it.

Doing things remotely requires that you think about the right way to do it at all times. This adds a big cognitive burden. Sure, even when co-located you still have to think about proper meeting etiquette and practices, how to be respectful of other people’s time and how to set proper context for discussions (going back to the “grab a marker and head to the whiteboard” idea). However when remote you’re constantly thinking about things that in other settings would come to you naturally. In the long run, this is just tiring. You want to be spending your brain power on the object of your work, not on the work itself. The “what”, not the “how”. Remote working forces the “how” to take up a huge share of your mind. Sure, you also have to think about “how” in any setting, but the proportions are not the same.

And maybe that is the gist of it. Remote work is one of the great advancements of the last decades, made possible by our wonderful new technology and work practices. It solves a lot of problems, both on a macro scale as well as for individuals. For me personally, remote work was hugely important in building my career and I would not have come this far without it. However, it is still far from perfect and it is important that the challenges around it are discussed. I won’t say I’ll never work remotely again, but after doing it for six years I am certainly grateful to be able to walk into an office and be able to see how my colleagues are feeling without having to make use of emojis.