Integrated Teams: Remote People 31 Dec 2011
Five years ago, when we started Mutually Human, we shared the belief that colocation was essential to build the type of community and organization that we wanted to work in, be a part of, and invite others to join. My thinking was primarily around the social and relationship aspects of being physically present with one another. If I am going to spend the majority of my life working then I want it to be with people in situations that have the potential to develop deep, lasting, and meaningful relationships. There are people who are capable of cleanly separating their work and personal lives. I’m just not one of them. For me, it’s all intertwined.

The idea of hiring remote has always made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. Given the amount of emphasis placed on relationships it always felt like hiring remote would never work for us, at least not in the long-term. However, this past year has really challenged many of my own assumptions.

For one, it’s been hard to see people who I’d love to work with end up somewhere else. I’ve also found myself too often asking ‘what if?’ instead of ‘why not?’. As it turns out being human has a way of reinforcing the safety and comfort of colocation: thousands of years of social and genetic evolution. It hasn’t been until the recent advent of technology that being remote, in the ways possible today, has even been possible.

As social animals we’re so used to the obvious benefits of colocation: non-verbal gestures, social gatherings, information and cultural osmosis, and hallway chatter among many others. Have you ever had the feeling when you’re at the white-board with someone and you know its time to stop? Without saying a word, a mutual understanding that you’ve ‘got it’ washes over both of you. That seems rather hard to re-create when you’re not physically present with one another. There will be no more facial cues or non-verbal gestures; no more going back and forth with the marker expanding on what the other just scribbled or drew.

Our brains are quite incredible, interpreting and processing complex and intricate social interactions. This extends to environmental and cultural factors as well. Near the end of the day when I sense someone over by the couches I know its time for standup. Or when everyone in the office congregates around two desks when there are six available a sense of community washes over us. It’s a good feeling when the people prefer the company of each other despite our individual quirks and idiosyncrasies. This all reinforces the type of place we’ve always wanted Mutually Human to be. I think it’s also why considering remote workers has never been as easy as looking for non-remote people. We’re more than simply serving our clients and users, and providing a service. We’re people who like to be around each other.

But, this remote worker phenomena isn’t going to go away. It’s becoming an integrated component in the workplace. In many organizations and in many ways this is already true. 37Signals is one of many companies that is almost entirely remote (Stop Whining and Start Hiring Remote Workers); services like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk make it extremely easy to find remote individuals (different than how this article refers to remote workers) for specific tasks; and my ears are still ringing from a conversation about virtual personal assistants.

For a while now the trend has been the growing availability of remote workers and the shrinking pool of those willing to relocate. At some point, a balance will be found, but I don’t think the industry is anywhere near that yet. Of course, it would be ideal if small teams were fully co-located as we’d be able to take advantage of what social and genetic evolution has outfitted us with. But this isn’t likely to happen as there are too many variables in play culturally, socially, professionally, etc which will continue to give life to the possibilities and realities of being a remote worker. This is especially true in the world of software services and products.

As always, technology continuously has and will evolve how humans interact and organize to get things done. The discomfort felt around embracing these changes are likely a symptom of something bigger; that our social structure as it pertains to the professional world is evolving. This evolution will cause people to experiment and innovate, finding new and adapted means that can be used to achieved desired ends. This will be true whether these ends are technical/professional (e.g. quality products being built) or social/relational (e.g. strong relationships, healthy company culture).

Between the completely co-located and the completely remote lies a middle ground; one where two very different working styles co-exist in an often uncomfortable (but natural) tension; one which when looked on in the right light provides the fuel and discomfort necessary to ignite non-traditional thinking related to how we work to evolve just that – how we work.

Over the past five years, opinions have changed, both mine and those at Mutually Human. Essentially that bringing remote people into the team is more about finding effective means of working together when we can’t use the traditional channels of communicating and interacting. It’s something I look forward to exploring as we continue to grow.

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