The hidden history of remote working

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Sep 20 2016 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

It is high time to admit what most people already feel in their gut: the way we work remotely today was never planned. Forget think tanks, Gartner studies and futurists gracing the pages of Fast Company. It has morphed into - whatever the heck it is we’re doing - through trial and error, wild-ass guesses and people finding ways to cling to jobs they might otherwise have left.

If you’re feeling bewildered by how your organization got to this pass, and how you’re supposed to create good work by productive, collaborative people under these circumstances, you’re not alone.

What’s changed? Everything and not much, but it feels overwhelming, which is why it is important to remember two things. First, if you feel blindsided and overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Nobody else saw this coming either. And second, it’s not too late to tack stock of where you are now and begin working more deliberately.

The most famous cautionary tale about all of this is probably Yahoo. The world lost its collective mind when Marisa Mayer declared the end of telecommuting and insisted people actually come in to work. While this was an over-reaction to a situation, it was instructive. Here was a fast-growing, technologically competent (quit laughing, Google snobs, it’s true) and forward-looking organization that changed faster than its internal functions could keep up.

So what brought on such a desperate act?

First, Yahoo’s performance management hadn’t keep up with the number of people who weren’t coming into the office. Managers didn’t have a coherent, consistent method of working with their people.

That meant that hiring decisions weren’t being made on the needs of the team or for cultural fit.

Their IT infrastructure couldn’t keep up with the pace of change, so not only were more people working outside of the network than on it, but connections were slow, frustrating and inefficient. This drove even MORE people to work outside the security and integrity of the network.

Finally, people got very task-oriented and the feeling of a “Yahoo Culture” went away. Everyone was doing their own thing, with the result being disengagement, turnover and lost productivity.

Whether Yahoo’s response was the absolutely correct one will be debated for years. The important thing was that they began asking the right questions. The fact that they did it publicly in view of the world made it was far more news-worthy and traumatic than it needed to be.

In fact, Yahoo asked the same questions that every company should be asking when it comes to helping their people work effectively over time, space and dimension:

  • What work needs to be done? Is there work that can only be accomplished in a physical place? Why?
  • What technology do we need to not only accomplish our tasks, but to build good human working relationships? This includes synchronous tools like webcams, phones, webmeeting platforms and instant messaging, as well as whatever new tech gets rolled out this week. It also includes asynchronous tools like file sharing, email, and internal social media tools so that people can communicate even when they can’t be online together.
  • What efforts have been made to consciously create a corporate culture? Is messaging the same throughout the organization? Does every part of the company make an effort to include and embrace everyone, whether they commute to headquarters or not?
  • Does the technology encourage true collaboration? Have teams expressed explicit guidelines around which tools to use when? How are they doing?
  • Do the HR and performance management practices recognize the new reality of the workplace? Do managers have a consistent way to review performance, offer career paths, and treat everyone equally (not the same, equally) no matter their working location, or have individuals been left to figure it out for themselves?
  • Are there “rules of engagement” for how team members communicate with each other, collaborate as well as possible under the circumstances, and proactively build working relationships, or is it every person for themselves?

It's not too late to get a grip on how you work successfully in a mobile, virtual and connected world. It is far past the time to think you’ll get around to it someday.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments for more than 20 years. In 2016, he merged with The Kevin Eikenberry Group, to create The Remote Leadership Institute, and now serves as Master Trainer and Coach to the Kevin Eikenberry Group. Wayne is also is the author of more than 15 books, including The Long-Distance Teammate and The Long-Distance Team.