Remote working may be closer than you think

Remote working may be closer than you think

Some notes from a talk I gave as part of the Chartered Management Institute’s event The Technology of 24/7 and Remote Working part of their management trends network.

I’ve been remote working for much of my professional life. Not since 2001 have I had a classic “desk job” where everyone in the company was co-located. Since then I’ve worked mostly in distributed teams and my best professional experiences have been in this environment.

Looking up ‘remote’ in my dictionary you can find the following definitions:

  1. (of a place) situated far from the main centres of population; distant:
  2. having very little connection with or relationship to: 
  3. (of a chance or possibility) unlikely to occur:
  4. aloof and unfriendly in manner:
  5. computing denoting a device which can only be accessed by means of a network.

I suspect most people would gravitate towards definitions (1) and (5) when thinking about the topic but what really grabbed me was (2) and the notion of how so much of ‘remoteness’ was about not only about location but also about what happens when we lack a shared context.

In so many organisations it seems like people can be in the same office but still struggle to communicate with each other. In my experience this becomes even more acute when people from “business” and “technology” functions need to communicate and end up talking past each other.

It’s tempting to look at tools as the answer to communication problems.

There certainly are a lot of them to choose from. Yammer for asynchronous conversation and keeping track of a community, Campfire, Slack or HipChat for synchronous chats, Skype for voice and video, email, then there’s Github for source code and issue tracking, Trello for task management, PipeDrive, the list goes on.

Yet we still end talking past each other: what can we do to create a proper conversation?

To someone who spent a lot of time blogging this feels like an old problem. Through blogging a lot of people who didn’t share the same location, background, or cultural context seemed able to come together and communicate very well indeed. If it’s not about the technology per se, then what was it about?

What blogging was able to do in the large was to create a space in which trust could gradually build up between people. This trust is the glue that binds together groups of people no matter where they are located or what their context. Therefore, in our tools, we should be looking always to see how they can create the conditions for, or amplify the development of, trust.

It’s all very well when it’s a self-selecting group of bloggers come together with not much at stake. What about when people are thrown together to deliver a project? Although the challenge is greater we’d argue that the principle is even more important: to work remotely, in an effective manner, we need to use every solution we can to build up trust between the participants as this trust is both the glue that will hold them together and the lubricant that helps them work effectively even when conflict arises.

What this means is ensuring that people can align around the goals that drive the project, no matter their language. Everybody should be able to get a sense for how things work even if they don’t understand the detail of the work others are carrying out.

It is useful for everyone on a project to observe the patterns and relate them to events and outcomes, to see what productive work arises even out of process you do not understand or directly participate in. An appropriate use of these tools is how these steps can rise into our perception.