Remote work is on the rise
Since 2005, among the non-self-employed population, the ability to regularly work from home has grown by 103%, according to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com. And according to Gallup, the percentage of the working population that works remotely at least on occasion is now at 37%, up from 9% in 1995.
The data on remote working isn't well standardized. Some include self-employed, some don't. Some include anyone who works remotely at least one day per week during regular hours while others include anyone who works remotely at least once per year, regardless of hour. The one thing all of these studies agree on, within the US and globally, remote working is on the rise.
Remote work is beneficial
Remote working has been shown to increase employee engagement and productivity. This is, perhaps, counter-intuitive. As agilists, we've long promoted co-located standing teams. How can it be that teams with remote workers are showing more productivity?
We believe there to be a couple of factors here.
First, is that the rapidly growing trend in entirely open workspaces is creating cafeteria style environments where collaboration and communication is actually stifled.
Being in a team room is like eating dinner at home. It is private and safe. Everyone can hear everyone else. All conversation is material to you and the group. You can talk about anything. Being in an open office is like eating in a cafeteria or bar. It is public and you're exposed. You can't hear everyone on your team and you can hear a lot of people you don't want or need to hear. You can talk about a lot of things, but you're likely to keep the deep and meaningful stuff for when you feel more safe - like the next time you're at dinner in the privacy of your home. So remote working, free of this noise and disruptions can actually increase individual productivity. Of course, individual productivity is not actually what we're after, is it?
Second is that the statistics include folks who work from home on occasion. Teams that provide the flexibility to work remote once per week are able to maximize the benefits of having everyone in the same location while simultaneously offering days where members can skip the commute, take care of personal errands more easily, and just get "heads down into something".
In our opinion and based on our experience with a number of teams in a number of organizations, we suggest one of two formats for remote workers.
Good remote working structures
Co-located with remote options
In this structure, the team is co-located. Ideally everyone involved with the team is in a team room where they are free from the distractions of other teams. People have the flexibility to work remotely once or twice per week. Perhaps there are even "remote days" where the entire team works remote and agrees that aside from stand-up, this is a meeting free day. Everyone is in the same timezone. The team has a shared space where they spend the majority of their time. High communication, high collaboration, and opportunities to concentrate in isolation. This is a great recipe for an agile team.
In this structure, the entire team is remote; all of the time. There are no members of the core team who work from the office on a regular basis. This might be the inverse of our model above where the team comes into the office one day per week (the same day) or, more likely, comes into the office for an entire week once per quarter.
Poor remote working structure
Unfortunately, the most frequently seen remote working structure is also the structure we believe to be the worst of all options.
We frequently see teams where one or more of the members are remote the majority of the time. This is a specialist who was hired even though they live in another state or a once fulltime on-site team member who had to relocate for personal reasons and was kept on the team. While absolutely in support of hiring the best you can find and being flexible in order to keep good talent, we do not recommend this particular structure.
The path of least resistance
Fundamentally, it comes down to the path of least resistance. Communication is like water; it flows along the path of least resistance.
When a team is co-located, the path of least resistance is most often face to face communication. This is not only the highest bandwidth form of communication, it is also the highest fidelity. The effort is absolutely minimal; inhale and speak. Feedback is in realtime cutting the loop to effectively zero.
When a team is entirely distributed, they will find an alternative path. This might be email, a wiki, or an electronic card wall. More likely, it will be some form of instant messaging such as IRC, HipChat, or Slack. The effort is only slightly higher; switch to application, find room, type. Feedback may or may not be in realtime, depending on who is available at the moment. The bandwidth and fidelity are reduced while the feedback loop is extended. This is less effective than face to face communication, but is not without its merits and can work well for teams.
The problem is when some members are co-located on sight and some are remote. Now, the path of least resistance for some of the team members is face to face, while for others it is instant messaging. And this is where the challenge arises. Once you have alternate mediums for your primary means of communication across the team, someone is going to be left out. Someone is going to consistently feel like they are not "in the loop" with the rest of the team. This creates tension and often leads to the remote workers feeling ostracized as they are relegated to tasks that require less collaboration in order to compensate for their lack of availability.
There are benefits to providing workers the ability to work remotely on occasion, or even on a regular basis. As you're considering how to structure teams with remote workers, look to create structures that span as few timezones as possible. Also consider the path of least resistance for communication. Either the entire team is co-located with an option to be work remote on occasion, or the entire team is remote with the option to work co-located on occasion. Avoid structures where some of the team members are consistently co-located and others are consistently remote; even structures where the team is split into two or more locations with no "remote" workers.