Remote Work in Ops

by Kristen Ribero December 29, 2014 | 6 min read

We weigh the pros & cons of adopting remote work policies, and what to consider if you’re thinking about ditching the office

Remote work in ops is divisive. The perks of working from home, your local coffee shop, wherever, can be quite obvious to engineers and contributors. But some team leaders and company execs aren’t buying it. One faction sees it as a way to do better quality work. Another has watched deadlines and motivation fall by the wayside because of unresponsive remote workers.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of remote work? What should you consider before you take the plunge into flexible hours and asynchronous communication?

Why Do Companies Go Remote?

Company leaders worry that remote work erodes culture. Workers fret that colleagues and reports don’t get enough done outside the office. And team leaders lose sleep chasing down time-sensitive updates and deliverables.

Remote work can definitely present some challenges. So, why do companies go remote? Because it can provide serious benefits when implemented properly.

By considering remote workers, businesses are able to attract high quality talent from a larger pool of candidates – that’s especially important in the technology & software world where recruiting top-notch engineers is often a company-level initiative. If your company is based in a geographically competitive market, this opens doors and extends your reach to premier candidates outside of that area. It also goes the other way around – engineers who don’t live in tech-focused cities are given opportunities to be a part of those companies and cultures and aren’t penalized simply for where they live.

Some contend remote policies produce better work. GitHub argues that code doesn’t follow a 9-to-5 schedule. Remote work can enable engineers to write great code during their peak hours of energy, focus and productivity, not on a set schedule that doesn’t play to their strengths. Because all employees – and engineers – are different, remote work provides the option to hone that creativity and focus outside of normal working hours.

Since we’re so used to operating online, both in our work and personal lives, remote work embraces that to make employees more efficient. Remote workers communicate asynchronously: they respond to messages and transcripts when it makes logical sense, without interrupting serious tasks or disrupting intense focus. Plus taking the communication online naturally leads itself to fewer meetings, and more doing. You’d be surprised how much you can cover in a 3-minute chat via Skype, Slack, Campfire, etc.

That’s to say nothing of fostering happier work. Plenty of people believe remote work improves morale. Who doesn’t want to work flexible hours and code when they’re in the zone?

For some close-knit teams, there’s no difference between chatting in Google Hangouts and meeting on-site in a conference room. Going remote helps everyone get more done, more efficiently and on their terms.

How Do You Get Started?

That’s not to say remote work is for every company. Your business needs or culture might not work best in a distributed environment. But if you do want to give it a try, there are some basic ways to start.

Using centralized, common tools is key. 37signals, the company behind Basecamp, literally wrote the book on remote work. Most of their team works remotely, using the company’s Campfire chat client to aggregate company communications and keep everyone on the same page. When teams use the same tools, they’re more inclined to communicate and collaborate seamlessly. Pick tools that are right for your organization, and try to make sure they’re liked and used by every employee.

Be judicious about which tools you pick, though. Text, video and voice all have pros and cons. You’ll need to use communication channels that make sense for your company’s work style. For instance, typed messages amongst teams that are used to face-to-face stand-ups lead to miscommunication and misinterpretation. You’ll get more value out of the tools that enhance your in-office interaction methods. You may have to adopt several tools for your needs: User experience company, Hanno’s team of developers use nine different tools to work remotely, including Basecamp, Slack and Google Hangouts.

As GitHub points out in this post on how the company works remote, if something doesn’t work, just ditch it in favor of something that does.

While tools are important, they’ll only take you so far. You need to develop strong foundational relationships among teams, colleagues and management before implementing remote work policies. In-person relationships set the tone for remote ones. Try to grab a beer or lunch with your your colleagues – it’ll help form healthy relationships and keep remote work really effective.

And as with many other tests, start small first. Maybe you have a smaller engineering team that’s used to working this way already – let them test drive with a couple days per week so one piece of the company has a chance to hash things out before rolling out more widely.

What To Consider When You Go Remote

Just because everyone’s excited to go remote doesn’t mean you have a bright out-of-office future ahead. Remote work comes with its fair share of challenges and considerations.

If remote work isn’t ingrained into company culture, problems won’t be far behind. Projects can be delayed because dispersed teams aren’t used to communicating in a timely fashion with out-of-office colleagues. Discontent may simmer if in-office workers view remote teams as slackers. Subcultures can also easily form among remote and non-remote employees.

Communication presents another daunting obstacle. Teams outside the office might over-communicate, while on-site workers bristle at a deluge of messages. Conversely, remote workers may fail to communicate enough, furthering the perception they’re not getting much done. As mentioned at the USENIX LISA 14 conference remote work panel, refrains of “your team’s never in the office” might become all too common.

In the end, interpretation matters. For remote policies to work, employees in-office and outside need to understand that they’re both working hard towards a common goal, even if their methods differ. But that doesn’t happen on its own: you need to implement the tools, processes and culture to make it a reality.

Bottom line, remote policies work for some organizations and not others. What matters is finding a sustainable organizational culture that leads to business success, whether you do it from behind a desk or at home in your pajamas.