On Remote Workers and Working Remotely

I’ve been on both sides of the remote worker relationship. On the manager side, I’ve managed some good-sized projects using an all-remote work force. Indeed, I’ve hired, managed, fired, and promoted workers without ever knowing what they look like. On the worker side, I do most of my work remotely, and I have for some time now. Judging by the amount of repeat business I get, I’d say that I’m more than acceptably productive working remotely.

In dealing with various clients, recruiters, prospective employers, business owners, and talking to friends who manage people for a living, I’ve heard pretty much every excuse/reason there is for not wanting to deal with a remote work force. I’ve heard and experienced successes with remote workers as well, and they all have a few key things in common, which are missing from the stories of failure. I’ll talk about them in a minute.

I first want to just say that I’m not some kind of fanboy who thinks remote workers are the answer to every problem. There are valid reasons for not having remote workers. For example, it’d be hard to build cars with a remote work force. Some things (some!) just require a physical presence. Whoever maintains the printers at your company really has to be around to change out ink cartridges and stuff like that.

There are certain classes of jobs, though, that are well-suited to working remotely. There are even classes of jobs that are necessarily performed remotely to some degree (field sales and support technicians for example), that could be made 100% remote with the proper tools and processes in place.

So what makes a remote worker success story different from a story of failure?

Always be prepared…

The number one difference I’ve seen between success and failure in managing a remote work force is that  successful managers spent the time to prepare the managers, the team, the department, the organization, and the remote workers themselves to work remotely.

If you don’t prepare for a remote work force, you will fail miserably. As a result, I’m a big advocate of treating “Let’s go remote!” as an internal project with goals and milestones just like any other project. Preparing an organization to manage a remote work force takes a good deal of forethought, with a focus on communication and collaboration tools, reporting, accountability, scheduling, etc. In addition, you have to prepare the remote workers themselves, to insure they know what’s expected of them in terms of reporting their status, scheduling, communication, etc. They also need to know *about*, and *how to use* the tools they’ll be expected to use from home.

You have to plan this. You have to prepare, or you’re going to be like the HR manager who told me their company no longer allows for remote workers because “we tried it once and the guy made a complete mess of things”. When I asked the HR manager why he attributed that to the geographic location of the worker, he said “good point, he could just as well have made a mess here in the office”. You need good workers no matter where they’re going to work. The workers need expectations and goals from the manager, and the manager needs feedback and communication (and results!) from the worker. Tools help to facilitate these things. This is already a long post, so I’ll probably make a tools list in another post.

Communicate, and set expectations

Before the tools come other higher-level decisions and communication. For example, one problem I’ve heard more than once about remote workers is “we can’t hire a remote worker full-time, because then everyone will want to work from home”. As if they didn’t already all want to work from home! Everyone would love to have the option! Even if they didn’t take advantage of it, they’d consider it a really cool perk! They’d tell all of their friends about it, because it would make them jealous, and guess who their friends will contact first when they start to look for other opportunities?

You have to start somewhere, and you can’t just swing the barn doors open and let everyone go their own way on day 1. If you have an existing corporate structure in place with assets and services and regular meetings and the like, then you have to decide who can make the most benefit from a remote situation the soonest, make them the pilot group, and manage the expectations of the rest of the organization while the pilot group prepares to move to a remote workspace.

1, 10, 100, 1000

A common software application rollout strategy is to make it accessible to 1 user, then 10, then 100, then 1000, then… move up from there. In preparing your organization or department, you might consider a similar strategy.

I work for a client right now where I’m the “1″. If I can work effectively with the rest of the team (in the office), if I can produce results, remain accessible as-needed during working hours, manage the expectations of my team with regards to my presence (appointments happen), and overall be an asset to the team, then the management may decide that it can work on some larger scale – even if ‘larger’ means 2 instead of 1. It might also be useful to do a ‘remote rotation’ so that glitches can be caught early before making a physical presence in the office optional.

Success, of course, means getting together with the team and figuring out what tools will be used to best emulate an office working environment. We use IRC for 99% of our communication, falling back to email when we need to cc managers, we have a wiki for documentation and status updates, we have a trouble ticket system, everyone has everyone else’s phone number, blackberry PIN, or whatever. We’re a technical group doing system administration. It’s working wonderfully.

“But if the sysadmins work from home, the developers will want to work from home!” Maybe so. That’s where you have to manage expectations, and communicate with your workers to let them know that the company’s ‘office optional’ project is in an early alpha stage, that it’s being tested on the group most familiar with the technologies involved, and most capable of exploiting those technologies successfully to produce results. Once the geeks work out the shortcomings, and management is able to evaluate the effectiveness of the plan, the tests will become more widespread.

Really, it’s not a whole lot different from doing anything else that affects the whole company: changing payroll providers, healthcare options, software and desktop hardware upgrades and replacements… it just takes communication. The process has to be managed, just like every other process.

There’s more than one way to do it!

There’s no one solution out there. When I joined php|architect Magazine in 2003, it was run by Marco Tabini, and I was a remote editor. A couple of months after joining, I became editor in chief, and was in charge of remotely managing the magazine. I did it differently from Marco, but he still remained involved and engaged through good communication.

Python Magazine was created and managed by me, and for the entire lifespan of the magazine, I have not seen anyone else involved in its production in person. Ever. Design, production, web site admin, executive administration, tech editors, authors, accountants… time lines, budgets and planning documents… all remote, and mostly delegated. I started the magazine with the thought that at some point someone more engaged in the community and with Python should take charge — I was just a “temp” to get the vision off the ground. Sure enough, when I handed the magazine over to Doug Hellmann, he did things differently from me, and it’s working out wonderfully for him as well!

Everyone has their own management style. Don’t think that just because your management style is a little unique you can’t handle remote workers. Good managers are creative, and aren’t afraid to execute on creative solutions.

  • m0j0

    I believe comments were not working earlier. What a total drag. I’m really sorry. They should be working now.

  • http://www.telecommutingforum.com Brandon Dempsey

    m0j0,

    Excellent post. I feel you are right on in your guidance to other remote managers out there. I have spoken to so many managers who either struggle with remote management or fear it like the plague because, “how do I know they’re working, if I can’t see them.” If you don’t mind, I would like to further elaborate on some of your best practices. When looking at allowing a large part of your workforce to work remotely, consider the legal liabilites, work processes, core competencies, and assesment tools that will be used to measure success.
    1. Legal liabilites, it’s important to know that employers can be and have been held accountable for injuries in the home, so setting some standards around safety and security is a must. Also standards around protecting your companies’ proprietary information should be considered.
    2. Work Processes, managers need to map out their employees’ job descriptions and work methods. This assessement will inform managers what resources and support employees will need to complete their jobs. It also makes it easier to set performance expectations off specific job functions.
    3. Core Competencies, managers should look at what it takes to be a good remote employee. (to see an example of these core competencies, check out http://www.hrtelecommuting.com ) Managers can then use these competencies to also build performance metrics.
    4. Assessment, track your remote workers results! This is so fudamental, but also so critical to bolstering your cause for further Remote Workers. You should track such things as productivity, quality of work, retention rates, attraction of new talent, and other things commonly associated with Remote Work.

    I often tell employers that they need to provide a base level of standards for managers to work from. From these standard policies and procedures, managers should then be able to better manage and support their remote employees. For more information or for some sample telecommuting and remote work policies and procedures, check out my blog at: http://www.telecommutingforum.com . Keep up the great posts, this is great information!