So, 90 percent of my job so far has been done remotely.1 I’ve wound up spending a month in SF over the last year, mostly in 7-or-so day visits, and have got to experience both “working from the office for consecutive days/weeks” and “working remotely for consecutive days/weeks”. Each has their advantages and disadvantages, but remote working definitely sucks the most.
Part of it is my individual circumstances – I’m based in Cardiff, meaning I’m 8 hours off PST/PDT, meaning that my work day officially starts at 5pm. Meetings tend to be scheduled at either completely ungodly hours, or when I should be eating dinner – both of which are sub-optimal – and even on the days when I don’t have meetings, or the meetings are at a relatively reasonable hour, my coworkers and managers are only going to be answering emails from 3pm at the earliest, giving me a choice between staying up late or adding a 24 hour time delay to any communications.
Part of it, however, would suck even if I was 1 hour off, or just in another part of California, because it’s to do with how we communicate. There are, broadly-speaking, two mechanisms for talking to someone not physically in the office; email and conference calls (via skype, webex, phone, whatever). Both have advantages and disadvantages. Email is certainly easy to run (you can email off a 3G connection) and gives you the opportunity to ponder and consider whatever you’re being asked or told before giving a response. On the flip side, it’s very hard to convey emotion through email; it’s not really a human communications channel. There are none of the visual or vocal cues that give you a hint as to what the other person is feeling.
Skype and other conference calling software is better at this: it’s a more empathic channel of communication. The downsides should be obvious – as well as the technical limitations (ever tried relying on the WMF office wifi to convey both audio and video? Answer: no. Nobody has ever relied on it for that, because nobody has ever considered it reliable) it also requires all parties to be available at the same time, which is kind of a pain in the arse when one party lives on PST and the other GMT.
Skype also introduces a load of….I’m not sure how to categorise them. Empathy gaps, perhaps? So, most of our staff are based in SF, and they’ve been based there since they joined the Foundation. They’re not used to being the butt of the constraints of teleconferencing, and, make no mistake, there are a lot of constraints…particularly if the meeting is run by people in an actual office.
My standout example: at some point or another, people will inevitably have laptops or slides or whatever open. And someone will point at them, and go “so, what I think of this -*tap*- is…”. This makes perfect sense if you’re in the office, but if you’re not, it is worse-than-useless. You end up with no idea of what’s going on, except that it’s pretty important and you’ve been cut out of the loop.
Ditto meeting attendance. It’s fairly standard for office-based staff to be 5-10 minutes late to meetings: this is fine if you’re in the office. The person who is waiting is waiting near a fridge filled with mountain dew and pretzels, and you can give them a warning that you’re going to be late because you have to run out and do [thing]. If the person you’re meeting with is remote, no such luck: they’re stuck at home, probably at stupid o’clock (see above) and with no idea of what on earth is going on.
So, all-in-all; remote working kinda sucks. And I’m not entirely sure how to make it work, but I have a few ideas to at least improve on the baseline.
First and foremost (and this, we are already doing): teach people that it sucks and how to make it not suck. Following the All-Staff, this is well underway and I’ve noticed substantial improvements in things like microphone availability and meeting protocol. But this can only go so far – it convinces people “this is something we really should care about”, not “this is something we care about”. People will inevitably slip. Staffers in SF need to be courteous about protocol not because they’re told to, not because they feel guilty, but because there’s something in it for them, and there’s an easy way to change that.
Obliterate the convention about meetings on Work From Home days.
See, each of the SF staffers get one day a week working from home; I, of course, get five. And on this one day, there’s a pretty strong but unspoken convention that meetings shouldn’t be scheduled because “that’s when I get all my actual work done”. Take this convention and kill it with fire; if people aren’t able to do work efficiently in the office then we have bigger problems.
By killing it, you ensure that pretty much every staffer experiences the shittiness that is remote meetings. It moves from being a problem that impacts on people they know and like to being a problem that impacts on them – which means that fixing it is in their best interests. Now: this isn’t going to solve the problems on its own, and should be interpreted as the random ramblings of one junior scutmonkey, but it’d be a start.
- it would be much higher if I didn’t occasionally pay for trips out of my own pocket [↩]