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Remote Worker: A Primer

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matt davis, complex personage

I am the nerd who annoyed you as a roommate because I always had the phone line busy dialing into BBSes when you were pounding cheap beer to “jump up jump up and get down” in the living room, while I searched Usenet for pirated software and other nefarious files, loving the thrill of connecting to a different reality.

I am the music major geek at a largely engineering-focussed university that sat for hours at the library VAX/VMS amber-toned terminal using raw telnet to log into MUDs and MOOs, attempting RPG challenges, having “virtual sex” and all other kinds of things, collaborating on tracks, partying together as a community IRL, and creating some of the strongest friendships I have today.

I am the underground file sharing maven, exploring an entire world of both listening to and creating music that I only know through meeting people on Hotline and IRC. It’s also very likely I would have never experienced fly fishing without them.

One day while working on the music department gopher server on an Apple LC running MacBSD, I learned about the “talk” command, and was amazed that such an operating system could connect me directly to someone on a computer in the UK. Even though I had been on MUD/MOO and BBS for years, I remember it making a big impression on me. It gave me a sense of independent worldliness, where I did not need any one of these tools to communicate immediately with people across the globe. I glimpsed a world of opportunity unfolding before me.

Getting into BSD got me into ACM, among even more people who spent the majority of their social life as avatars that comprised a “cyber self”. There was no Facebook, no graphical social media at all. Even so, throughout all these online platforms, I began to think of myself also inhabiting a “cyber world” in addition to the analog world. Not only that, as I spent more and more time online, my typing got better and better! I absolutely account my strong typing skills to being so involved in text-based social networks. There is an inherent creativity in needing to use only words to communicate, Twitter’s character limitation always reminds me of an early high school English assignment to “write an entire story in one sentence”.

Indeed, I got my real start in my current career by being heavily involved in these tools. From the very beginning, the idea of being remote and collaborating with people in different locations and time zones has been ingrained in my work approach. This style of communication became a distinct part of me. Not only were programming languages important, but so was an attention to human language itself. I already wrote a lot of poetry, so the transition to interactive wordsmithing was not too far a jump. At AOL, where I worked in a real office but remote to HQ (then in Virginia), you were considered “in the office” by being present on AIM.

This isn’t to say there aren’t face-to-face interactions. This is a crucial part of making remote employees work, there has to be some intersection of in-person human contact. This could be weekly or monthly or more, but in my experience even a one-time visit with a remote collaborator/employee/colleague/friend can make a universe of difference in understanding how to work with them. You’ll notice in my lineage as a “cyber personality” I often mention in-person interactions, it is always an important part of it, even though it may not happen very often (that said, I have known people who were married online without ever having met in-person).

Companies where I’ve been employed have always had a mixture of in-office and remote, and while some do it naturally and consider it a core value, others cannot seem to gain any consistency. Regardless of whether it’s a nearly 100% remote situation, multiple offices separated by both distance and time zone, or a small population of great employees external to headquarters, the company culture must embrace it.

One enemy of this approach is the “open floor plan”, which is closely related to the other enemy: unintentional locality. When a team is distributed, the entire team needs to be a part of what the team discusses and decides. When there are concentrations of that team in any one place, there is a tendency to make decisions and communicate planning to only those who are local. In database operations, we call this “split brain”, and it can have catastrophic results; one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing, even if it’s the same thing.

Anything at all that feels like a team-wide thing should be taken to your distributed team tool set. I’ve found that it feels much more natural to default to this behavior if you also socialize on the same tools. Just like you’d joke around or share some knowledge in person, do it in chat. Make it a habit that it’s the first place you turn. In fact, I have even found that text-based chat tools surmount language barriers. There are former colleagues of mine who spoke terrible English, but had a much better command of it when typing, so I would much prefer having a conversation in chat than otherwise.

I might be a special case because I have been insufflated with the concept of working with people remotely since before the “web” even existed. Nevertheless, I believe it can be a learned skill, and it doesn’t have to be entirely chat-based either. Collaborative video and whiteboard solutions exist nowadays as well. Regardless of the tool, what it does take is commitment to making it work, threading it into your company culture and not treat remote employees as exceptions that become a second thought. The first thought should be: how are we making sure we’re inclusive and communicating well?

What will happen if you don’t do this? Remote workers will feel unloved, uninformed, and cut off. You will lose good people and not be able to hire more. The perceived trouble with communicating with them actually extends from not planning on supporting that style of communication from the beginning. I would go as far as making this part of the interview process, even on the job description. Underline that collaboration with remote workers is necessary and required, and the company supports this paradigm as part of its culture.

In at least one case I have witnessed a company go the opposite direction. Praise was handed down multiple times that the advantage they had was that everyone was under one roof, and agile teams can work more closely together. This attitude went un-checked and un-corrected, which gives remote workers – even in large remote offices – the feeling of exclusion. There must have been some sense that a successful distributed company will “just work” by nature of it already containing remote workers, but that’s not enough. You have to go the extra mile to make it happen, you must foster a culture of inclusion and respect for remote employees. This is one thing you cannot half-ass and “just see if it works out”; commit to it working, and it will.