Sunday, March 22, 2020

Remote culture

Fully remote is a culture, not a technique — a company that is not already equipped for it can handle individual contributors working from home temporarily but will struggle to let anyone go completely remote. Tellingly, these organizations almost never support home office work for managers or executives, because their decision making processes rely on face to face.

Those managers and executives certainly do whip out their laptops and iPads at home and on planes, and it’s rare not to find some weekend hours clocked by this group of people. But the work that they do at home is typically solo work: asynchronous communication (long form writing or email exchange) is the majority, and synchronous communications (calls and instant message) are used to handle emergencies or set up a meeting at an office. Organizations have to have processes to communicate information up and down, and to make decisions based on that information. If those processes are built around office meetings, they stop working properly when important team members aren’t present, because remote meetings suck.

I think there’s lot of remote-oriented folks posting about their tools out of a genuine sense of helpfulness, and just as many blank stares on the receiving end. Instead, it would be more helpful to repost Chelsea Troy’s blog. Tools don’t fix people and process problems: the first corporations made do with quill and parchment and sailing ships, while modern corporations fail in the midst of plenty every day (never mind hard times). Extolling different collaboration tools misses the point because it doesn’t address the cultural differences between remote-rare and colocation-rare teams.

Because it is a cultural shift, going from a fully on-prem culture to a fully remote culture over the weekend is not going to just happen without some active and intent work. The good news is that there is now ample incentive to put that work in, because the alternative is to stop communicating or making decisions. Going all the way remote as Coronavirus-driven shelter-in-place orders are demanding is better than the hybrid that is tried in better times, even though it is under duress.

To be clear, I’ve worked equal amounts in remote-first and colocation-first companies, and I think that remote-first companies have a distinct advantage in the marketplace. The advantage is because there’s often more thoughtfulness and discipline devoted to communication practices. Communication processes are clearer, because chance encounters and overheard conversations aren’t a thing. A manager that is used to getting their 1:1s done by dropping by desks or taking a coffee walk will have to pay atttention and think about how to maintain communication with their team.

Decision-making processes are also clearer in remote-first, because osmosis towards a shared consensus is nearly impossible. Executives should take this time to consider how decisions are made; if the final word only happens in a room full of people, that’s going to need to change.

Unfortunately, remote-first is not a panacea, and a fully remote organization can still squander their opportunity. Anti-patterns such as closed-loop communication cells, HIPPO decisions, and analysis paralysis absolutely can and do happen.

Those are all flaws for any organization though; the worst way to fail that is remote specific is to forget about time zones. In order to work as a team, a group of people has to have some common hours for synchronized problem solving. If you don’t have that overlap, then you’ve got multiple teams. Multiple teams can depend on and serve each other just fine, but don’t mistake them for a unified whole.