Remote Work's Greatest Challenge

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. Photo credit WikiMedia.

We’re working on a book about remote work. One of our goals is to honestly discuss the challenges in working remotely. We’ve already written about some of them. You may have to change the way you think about managing. You may need to get better at assessing your team’s productivity. You probably will need to adapt your development process. Our upcoming book will dive into these in more detail. But there’s one challenge that I believe is the biggest of them all. And it’s one we haven’t written about, until now.

Sharing Desks Versus Working From Home

My tentative initial experiments with remote work were successful. But the next step was imposed upon me by circumstance. I had been hiring rapidly and we ran out of office space. Consequently, some people had to share a desk. I decided to see if I could make lemonade from this particular lemon by offering senior members of the team the opportunity to work from home up to three days a week. My hope was that this would free up desk space so that no one would end up having to share their desk, at least not while they were in the office.

I was in for a couple of surprises.

First, there was less interest in working from home than I’d expected. Which created the second problem. My less experienced developers were still stuck sharing a desk because not enough senior developers had taken up my offer yet. And so they started working from home even without my authorization.

My initial instinct was to cancel the whole work-from-home thing. But by the time I got around to it, I realized that nothing awful had happened. The same amount of work was getting done, give or take a ticket. And no one was sharing a desk. Mission accomplished.

Well, almost. One of the more junior team members just stopped coming into the office. Not only that, but no one could reach him for days at a time. When he finally came into the office again, we had the first what would be several difficult conversations. Allowing people to work from home on a limited basis had effectively unmoored him. He needed the structure associated with coming into an office every day. He eventually got on track and now runs his own company.

And, of course, other people apparently desired that structure, and opted to come into the office, even if that meant sharing a desk. This led me to consider more seriously the benefits of an office environment. What was it about an office environment, even a suboptimal one, where you only got half a desk, that people enjoyed—and even needed?

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

It wasn’t until a few years later, when we started Panda Strike, that the answer to this question became obvious to me. It wasn’t a question of productivity. Or the need for structure. Or some indispensable emergent quality of face-to-face interaction. No, the reason people enjoyed coming to work was simple and even primitive. They came to the office to get something that they couldn’t get any other way.

They came to spend time with friends.

In an office environment, we spend a lot of time with the people we work with. And we share victories and defeats and all the moments in between. And we grow to care about those people. Maybe not all of them. Maybe just one or two. But that’s all it takes. We become accustomed to seeing them each day. And this makes us happy.

But working remotely means that we don’t see our friends each day. That makes us sad. And this is the single greatest challenge in managing remote work. Remote work is, by it’s nature, isolating. And it’s one thing we haven’t quite figured out at Panda Strike.

Sometimes It’s Okay To Be A Little Sad

I genuinely love our team. We don’t say this enough, something a dear departed friend taught me. There isn’t one of them I wouldn’t like to spend more time with. Not just on IRC or video chat or even on the phone. But in person, face-to-face, just, you know, hanging out. Maybe I’d spent too much time in toxic work environments, I don’t know. But for whatever reason, I had been blind to the fundamental human draw of just seeing the people you care about on a daily basis. Ironically, this means migrating to remote work is probably harder when you have a healthy work environment. On the other hand, it’s not an all or nothing proposition. You can add remote members to an existing team, however close-knit, without requiring that everyone work remotely. How to do that is another story.

At Panda Strike, we were starting a new company, so we had no existing team, nor an office. Within a few months, I noticed that our more-or-less weekly video chats were…well, drifting. We had trouble staying focused. We’d chat for an hour before realizing our scheduled time was up. At first, I tried insisting that we focus better. But I soon realized that we needed that time. After all, starting a company is a daunting endeavor. And it felt good just to catch up a bit each week. It was a reminder of why we had chosen to work together to begin with. I learned to let meetings wander a bit, to let everyone enjoy each others’ company before getting down to business.

I don’t think any of us regret going 100% remote. I certainly don’t. And I believe the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. I get to work with these amazing people exactly because we work remotely. Put another way, working remotely gives us more choice in who those friends are that we work with every day. The trade-off is that we don’t get to see them, but, since the alternative is not to work with them at all, it’s an easy one to make.

We’re slowly figuring out the social interaction element. We’ve grown too large for our weekly bullshit sessions on video chat. One thing about being asynchronous and spread out around the world is that it’s hard to coordinate everyone’s schedules. Technology is a limiting factor, too. We typically can’t get more than a half-dozen people in a video-chat session without connectivity issues. So interactions tend to happen in smaller groups. Of course, that’s what happens in an office, too. No one thinks, great, a company-wide meeting! We fly people into town from time to time, which is great, but that’s disruptive to people’s lives, and not everyone is here in Santa Monica anyway. We throw parties, but, again, that only works for the people who are local. Still, all things considered, I think we’re pretty happy.

We’re Like A (TV) Family

The analogy I’d make is to a family. This analogy depends on a kind of Platonic ideal of family, which probably no one really has, but bear with me. Modern families spread out, sometimes all over the world. They may reunite over the holidays, but there’s usually a few that couldn’t make it this year. You stay in touch via email or Facebook, and the occasional phone call. And you get used to being spread out. And it’s worth it because of this job or that university or because you want live near the ocean or because you enjoy winter sports or because you fell in love. A century ago, this was the exception. Today, it’s the rule.

The same transition is overtaking our work lives. Remote work, in essence, is this same kind of spreading out. Which means being apart. And that’s the hardest part. But it’s worth it because some of us want to live near the ocean while some of us enjoy winter sports and some of us do improv and and so on. And, working remotely, we can do those things and work together, too.

And like family, we know we can pick up the phone at any time, even if just to say hello.