Thursday 30 April 2020

The one question you should be asking about remote working

This post is about the most important question you should be asking about remote working.

This is not a post to answer your questions on remote working, but I'm hoping it may cause you to ask some.

A lot of people are questioning the best ways to do effective remote working, this is not a post about that.

Some are questioning whether remote working could be the new normal, this isn't about that either.

To find out what the most important question is about remote working, I'll start with a question myself.

If the move to remote working of your software team is presenting significant challenges to the leadership of that team, what does this say about how healthy your culture was in the first place?

Why co-location works

I'll be honest at this point and say I've always preferred having a primarily co-located team for a number of reasons. In my teams in the past I've always looked for people who are able to access the common place of work as I feel it provides a number of benefits.

  • There's a huge amount of engagement and focus that comes from people in a shared space working together towards a common goal.
  • Co-location allows low friction, light touch leadership where team members can get quick pointers of guidance at opportune moments when they can see their mentors are at a natural break. Even with the most efficient on-line tools it's hard to know what someone is doing at the exact point you decide to interrupt.
  • There's a lot of value in being able to see body language and non-verbal signs of stress or frustration in colleagues that simply don't come across remotely.
  • There's a huge amount of productivity that comes from people overhearing conversations that are going on and chipping in if and when they can help. As I wrote in my post on bug "Feeding frenzies" - eavesdropping is one of the best techniques out there for picking up on problems, frustrations and opportunities or simply stepping in to correct mistaken assumptions.

Yup - when this is all over if I'm lucky enough to still be working I'll still prefer leading and working in a co-located rather than remote team. It may seem surprising therefore why I wouldn't consider moving to remote working to be a significant hurdle. The reason is simple - I believe that the characteristics of a team that provide for healthy remote working, are the same characteristics that provide for a healthy team in any context.

Trust shouldn't be a new thing

I can think of 3 key characteristics of working relationships which are essential to successful remote working - but this post isn't about successful remote working. The key takeaway here is that these are characteristics that believe are important in any team.

  • Trust - it isn't a new thing in this age of remote working. In co-located situations I still believe that a heavy dose of trust goes a long way in establishing a motivated and productive department. Allowing people to be flexible with their own time management has been a principle of mine for years and it always surprises me when I've employed people who found this approach to be a refreshing change from previous roles. In a fully remote context it's simply not possible to monitor what people are doing every hour, but if you were doing this in the office then that indicates a potential lack of trust that could be having a major impact on your team morale and engagement.
  • Autonomy - Having autonomy over your own work is another key element in employee engagement and motivation that is just as important in the office as in remote work. If providing people with autonomy over their work is a new and strange idea in the Covid-19 world then perhaps that's something to think about when you get back to the office, because if you're micro-managing them with piecemeal task allocation this could well be preventing them from truly engaging with their work.
  • Flexibility - people have lives outside work. Despite the best efforts of some Silicon Valley companies to get employees to live, sleep and breathe 'the company' - healthy and happy employees are ones with a work-life balance where their home life is their own - and that means flexibility. Flexibility can be harder in an office context but giving folks the keys and allowing them to come and go flexibly can remove a huge amount of stress for people, whether it's allowing them to do the school run, missing the rush hour or working from home at key times.

Put simply - I believe that these should be characteristics of any healthy software development team, whether remote or not. Building an effective team culture in an office context should implicitly prepare you for working remotely and if you're having to rethink your levels of trust, autonomy and flexibility in the new remote world then I suggest your office culture was overdue a rethink anyway.

The servant office?

I'm sure that some in the light of current events will be discussing whether an office is necessary at all. It's an interesting idea, but for me the more interesting questions is - what was the office for in the first place?

For those with a more command-and-control management approach an office can provide a mechanism for monitoring the activity of individuals. Ensuring people physically come to work gives a level of control over time spent working, activities performed and even clothes worn whilst there.

As anyone who has read "The sacrifices of the servant leader" will know that I align more closely with the idea of servant leadership where leaders are there not to control and assign tasks but to serve teams, clarify goals and remove blocks. Adopting a similar view to our physical working spaces provides a compelling insight of the purpose of the modern office.

Once we establish trust, autonomy and flexibility into our teams then an office is no longer a place for managers to control work. Instead the purpose of a shared workspace is to provide a hub where empowered team members can come to get support from others in order to do their jobs effectively. This support can come in many forms such as

  • from ongoing regular interaction with a team unit
  • through looser interactions sharing support and information with other stakeholders
  • from leaders who are there to provide guidance and remove blocks
  • from coaches and mentors who can more effectively provide guidance and advice face-to-face

Looking at an office in this way, what becomes clear is that while there's benefit in having overlap in presence between those who need and provide that support, in reality as long as people get the benefits that come with co-location they should come and go as they please.

It's not about remote working, it's about agility

So what is the most important question about remote working? After all there are already many posts out there looking to answer the questions that some may be asking right now - "how do we effectively work remotely", "how do we organise virtual teams?", "how do I run remote meetings?".

I think that the most important question you should be asking is

"So what?"

as in

"yes my company has moved to remote working - so what?"

I can honestly say I've not felt the need to look at a single post or attend a single event on effective remote working since this all began. The reason for this is that I work in an organisation with a high level of agility built around trust, a huge amount of autonomy and hopefully working relationships that provide support that allow people to perform effective work even from afar.

For organisations that find the transition to remote working particularly challenging as they fear they are losing control and aren't sure what people are doing - this may say more about their culture than it does about having to remote work. If the current situation highlights anything it's not the importance of learning how to shift to remote working, but the cultural importance of this not being a shift at all.

Footnote - clearly this post is aimed at software teams finding themselves remote working as a result of global lockdown. I appreciate for many this situation hasn't just brought a situation of having to work remotely, but many far more serious consequences both in employment and health, for those more seriously affected I wish you all the best and hope that you are able to return to a situation where you have to worry about such trivial things as remote working very soon.

Photo by Jules Bss on Unsplash

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