When I was at the office for a decade, 90% of the insight and productivity came from informal conversations in the hallway, lunches and things I overheard in passing. As a remote worker, nearly all communication is very deliberate so I am not exposed to those ad-hoc conversations. Everything is very deliberate: I receive an email, a text or a meeting. The net result is my personal career becomes very confined and stunted... I become that guy who does that one thing rather than a team-member who has an awareness of everything and the ability to jump in as needed.
Being remote also limits my upward mobility. Most of my promotions and moves were because I would walk back from a meeting with an executive and talk about what was discussed and express interest in taking ownership. These walk-and-talks are the only availability in an execs schedule. I tried to get time with an exec remotely and it was a full two months before I could get any time-- and since it was scheduled it wasn't ad-hoc and overly formal ("What would you like to discuss?").
So, in my judgement, remote workers are fine for very defined single tasks. For dynamic workers that move about the company and immerse themselves in lots of projects and want upward mobility, I can't recommend it.
I feel like my experience of being in office and remote at the same company gives me some unique perspective versus the people who join a company remotely and never fully appreciate what they are missing.
The issue is not remote working, the very thing you wrote is the issue.
Virtually every time, remote working doesn't create new issues but reveals and - embarassingly - exposes existing ones.
You can no longer take a chance by letting things such as hallway affairs become a norm and an invisible force. You need to plan everything(and know what to plan), track everything relevant (and know what's relevant), be in control of the conditions for career and team progression (and therefore know precisely what these conditions are), you need to know your stuff. You can no longer just wait for magic to happen, put people in rooms and cross your fingers. Or send them to restaurant and expect team communication to have improved to the benefit of your KPIs.
The truth is 60-80% of today's companies are terribly run. Management of these companies is playing games without realizing it.
Remote working simply requires real management for it. Real managers quickly love it as remote working basically is : output-as-a-service : no noise, just efficiency and result. But the manager more tham ever needs to know what he is doing, because remote working accelerate the consequences of managerial weaknesses. What would have tanked a company in 5 years can tank it in 5 weeks.
But the positive is that once a remote setup has been successfully established, there is an organization insanely streamlined, efficient and competitive.
Indeed remote working exposes poor communication e.g. relying on random water cooler conversations instead of having proper communication channels - and many companies prefer to kill the messenger.
This is beginning to look like the blind men and the elephant.
The inside joke on remote/distributed work is "You know, if we just had 1) better managers, 2) better specs, 3) better tools"
We have been trying all of this for 30 years or so. At some point a reasonable person would look around and see that most all startups are colocated, physically in the same room having to deal with each other all day long.
There are plenty of theories as to why this is true. Another observation: people not in the office do best at rote work: fix the bugs, align the images on the website, and so on.
If your job could be done by robots -- if it required minimal interaction over electronic tools to get specs and deliver on them in an over-the-wall manner -- it will be done by robots. Creating technology is about people, not technology. You sitting in a room and getting into flow-state and cranking out code is nowhere near as important as you interacting minute-by-minute with messy humans and trying to determine the nature of the problem you're solving.
Best-case scenario: you work on a tightly-knit team for a few weeks/months on a fixed-length job. Everybody gets into sync on the customer, specs, terminology, and solution. The customer's problem is not changing that much. You deliver some stuff as a team that people like. At that point, and not before, who cares where people are? Just get the work done.
You can scale that out to working in BigCorp on a fixed domain, but only so much. And the scary thing is that there are no alarms that go off if you're doing it wrong.
It's not impossible, or bad. But it works under very limited conditions. Understanding that is critical. I know there are a ton of folks who want to work remotely. I am one of them. But wanting something and looking realistically at what works or not are two different things.
Are you implying that "interacting minute-by-minute with messy humans" requires physical presence?
I really wish Moral Mazes was required reading in college. It would have helped me prepare for the shocking business world dysfunction that awaits virtually every employee, in every field, after graduation.
Peopleware is a classic within specifically software management, and deals with many of the same human-affirming principles that you see in Moral Mazes, but deals with them in formats that are specific to software. There are a lot of connections between the two books, but the connections haven't been well formalized as far as I know.
I love these two books because as you read them the slow feeling of horror comes over you as you see the true diff between how companies operate and how a company should operate if it is to maintain even the tiniest degree of humanity-affirming ethical commitment or even the tiniest degree of genuine concerns for (even from a market competition point of view) how productivity should be marshaled for general human progress.
I find there are more or less two types of reactions. Some people read them and go, "Yep. I've seen all that. No surprises here. Oh well, back to work." and just don't care because they just want to focus on local instrumentally rational actions even if it means participating in what is making the entire concept of employment so shitty. Some other people read them and find that it makes their soul glow again a little and they have a hard time ever fitting back into a company now that they have some formalized tools for recognizing how shittily they are being treated at all times.
Also a good popular article drawing on Moral Mazes: < http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/the-banality... >.
I haven't encountered _Moral Mazes_ before; I'm going to look for it now!
LOL. I work remotely and this is exactly what I do all day long. The problem lies with the companies communication processes. Thats all. If the majority of team communication is centralized in Slack, if documentation is stored in Google docs, if planning meetings are held on skype/google hangouts, if code reviews happen via github what is left? Given many companies use most of these tools already it seems really weird to me that they cling to this "Butt Seat / water cooler Culture" It is so easy to take ownership remotely if the team is remote, just IM the lead or executive and say so. Again, I think that companies the "Allow telecommuting" are to be avoided. "Remote-first" companies are where it is at.
This is a culture issue at companies that will evolve over time. The focus needs to shift from "good their butts are in their seats" to "good they just delivered X number of features". The focus should be on the results.
As I have been performing above average for all my time there, they insisted to find a compromise so that I wouldn't leave. Told them I would consider staying but with 2 days per week telecommuting, 3 days on-site. I already had their trust, they knew I delivered, so they agreed cheerfully.
Some coworkers who tried to get some telecommuting days before got slightly angry at management for a few days, but not that much, as they liked me staying and understood why management dit it.
I think it worked because I was just not bluffing, and after more than 1 year working there, they fully trusted me. It would have never happened if I had asked for telecommuting at day 1.
As a remote worker this is very true. I actually took a trip down to the main office this week (first time in two years since I was hired on), and the amount of insight I gained from wandering the office, talking to managers and just interacting with people on the smoking patio (I've learned this is always the easiest place to get a pulse on what is going on in the company, smokers don't like sitting around with a group of people sucking down nicotine in dead silence, there's always conversation going on). I easily found 10 new projects we could put on the backlog, and that's being conservative.
Actually, after talking with my director about it I think I'm going to start taking trips down there a little more frequently - even so we do have fairly good communication over email, phone and IM to a couple of teams within the company we work closely with, and it has lead to some projects we otherwise wouldn't have done (rolled out Salesforce to a subset of users who were dying without a proper CRM trying to keep track of all of the people we need to contact at our clients when things go awry), but it's still a lot more limited than what I got done in a week of talking with people.
I could not agree more: I once bumped into someone in the bathroom on a different floor that I had met briefly years before during a re-org meet-and-greet. In a few moments of catching up, I found out he had worked on an in-house project that was essentially the same category as the products I was on a team to evaluate.
We didn't end up resurrecting his project, but his insight into the ultimate selection and experience with the rollout was extremely valuable.
A similar thing for a casual acquaintance who told me in passing about his private work in app development, and I was able to put him in touch with someone on our app team (it was a big company with a lot of silos).
I ended up later working remotely for a few months with the same company, and lost the serendipity of accidental human interaction when all my communication was low-bandwidth, narrowly focused, topic-at-hand meetings and communication.
I can sympathize with others complaining about the high cost of interruptions, but for the way I work and think, non-directed conversation is invaluable.
As for the large chunk of "insight and productivity coming from informal conversations" - that depends on the company culture and "weight distribution" of the technical and industry knowledge among team members.
I've work remotely for a couple of fortune 50 companies as well as small (like 5 ppl small) startups and the only time this sort of thing was an issue was when I was literally the only remote employee on the team, but my technical/industry strength outweighed the concern so they were almost forced to keep me in the loop to provide insight from my end.
Sad, very sad
"informal conversations" move it to Slack (or your preferred communicator). Yes, people will still talk in the watercooler, but that will reflect there.
There is some need for "there time", of course, but not as much as people think
That said, I'm extremely flexible with informal WFH arrangements, as long as it doesn't impact individual productivity & team effectiveness.
Lots of people talk about how an open environment, where there is violent, perpetual collaboration thrust upon you, is supposedly good for information sharing, keeping people on the same page, allowing everyone visibility into many other teams.
It's just complete bullshit. I'm sorry to describe it in such terms but there is no other way to put it. It does not ever, not at any time, offer valuable information exchange that would not be equally as effective with deliberate communication -- even deliberate in-person communication like a planned meeting or a planned conversation about a dedicated topic.
I've never seen or heard of any situation where the pan-everything violently un-turn-off-able stream of never ending "collaboration" helps anyone.
What it does do is allow the people who are in charge of schedules -- generally managers whose status in the firm dictates that they are entitled to interrupt others or restructure work priorities in an ad hoc manner without conforming to any policy about it or even having to give any justification for it -- the opportunity to do whatever they want in terms of interrupting and redirecting people.
I've come to believe that this kind of schedule flailing is just a device by which managers (a) try to make it look like they're doing a lot of work because gee whiz look how I had to whip everybody's schedules all around and tell them about That Thing That Just Happened or That Thing Some Business Person Needs Somewhere OMGzzz -- or (b) it assuages their personal insecurity that they aren't relevant enough to the specifics of the workflow beneath them; like, if there was really an efficient meritocracy then the high-performing subordinates would get paid more, like the way basketball players get paid more than the coach generally even when it's a good coach doing a good job. Since business offers less efficient opportunities for rent-seeking and more chances to obfuscate, the manager can use ad hoc interruptions and reprioritizations as a sort of performative gasp for justifying how important they are and how they are deserving of higher compensation.
I do agree with you about remote working being a limit to upward mobility -- mostly because of the sort of status effects I described above. You have to be physically present in an office because it's a display of fealty. You roll over and expose your belly to the bosses every time you smile, nod, and laugh at their completely pointless vocal interruptions that could have been handled asynchronously over chat or email. That fealty is what gets you promoted, and it's way harder to signal fealty when you work remotely. Taking selfies of you laying on your back on the floor at home with your belly exposed is probably not a good substitute.
Are you saying that you would never allow workers to telecommute even if they lived in the area? Or are you saying that you wouldn't allow for 100% remote positions in which the employee is not capable of easily making it into the office if needed? I think there is a difference between "telecommuting" and "remote working".
For example, there's a difference between, "I struggle when I am not in the ad-hoc conversations" and "Everyone will have the same experience."