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Staying Connected When Working Remote



Working remote can give you freedom and independence as you can work when and where you want. But working alone and being distant from the people that you work with can result in loneliness and it can make you feel disconnected.

Pilar Orti talked about keeping the human connection at the No Pants Festival 2015. InfoQ interviewed Orti about the advantages and disadvantages of remote working, changes in the mindset for working remote, staying connected while working remote and creating trust when working in remote teams.

InfoQ: What do you think makes people choose to work remotely?

Orti: There are different kinds of people working remotely and the reasons for choosing to do so are different. Some people work full time for a company and others are freelancers or run their own business.
Those working in corporations usually ask to work remotely to reduce commuting hours, or spend more time with their family. Freelancers or people running a small business are usually looking for autonomy, for the ability to set their own schedule and to be able to work from any location. They are also usually looking for a way of integrating work into their life and not having to build their life around work.

Then there are those who don’t have a choice but to work remotely. Those who are setting up a business and would like to have an office but can’t afford one and those people who are working for businesses that don’t have an office.

InfoQ: What kind of advantages do people expect to get from working remotely?

Orti: Being free to set your own schedule and work from any location are the two big expectations. For people who have been commuting to go to work, spending hours in a car or public transport, one of the main advantages of working remotely is certainly to reduce travelling time.

On top of that, people expect more freedom and even to be able to concentrate on the work for large chunks of time, which is sometimes difficult to do in an office. Some also see this as a way of having a better work-life balance or to be able to do the work at a time when you can be your most productive.

InfoQ: From your experience, do people actually get these advantages?

Orti: Remote work can be romanticised, in the same way as being your own boss has been romanticised for ages. Some people who think they’ll enjoy working from home find that they can’t work there because there are too many distractions or because family members interrupt them or expect them to look after the home.

Sometimes the autonomy people are looking for does not quite manifest itself as clients or employers still expect a traditional schedule or even worse, 24-hour availability.

However, now more than ever, it’s possible to find all the advantages you look for when working remotely. Whereas ten years ago, working remotely meant working from home, mobile devices now mean that you can be location independent (and this does not mean necessarily being on a beach) but a co-working space, a coffee shop, a library, a train… For people who are used to freelancing or running their own business, remote work can give them what they’re looking for.

For those making the shift from working in an office, it’s important to consider the changes in mindset you and your colleagues/clients/employers will need to make, as well as looking at all the practical aspects like a good set up at home and setting boundaries around your availability.

InfoQ: What do you see as the main disadvantages of remote working? Any suggestions on how to deal with them?

Orti: All the advantages can be turned into disadvantages: no travel time might mean no separation between your leisure/home space and your workspace; no interruptions might mean loneliness and being out of touch; being able to work from anywhere means that work might turn into an addiction or a burden etc

The one piece of advice I would give is that you define your ideal scenario – and ideal still means realistic and achievable considering your own circumstances. If you feel like your clients bombard you with emails, set some boundaries. If you feel like you have no control over your schedule, create a timetable and switch off your wifi during periods of rest. If you find yourself stuck in one location, find other places where you can work or take “creative thinking” time off while doing a physical activity.

InfoQ: You mentioned that a change in mindset is needed for remote working to work. Can you elaborate on this?

Orti: I think here I’m specifically referring to those people who work from home. The change in mindset is not that important for independent workers like freelancers, or people who have been working with freelancers often – they know that just because you’re not working with a client or in an office, you might still be doing work. However, in those organisations or teams where only some people work from home, there might still be a tendency to feel like “they’re not at work today” or that they’re not available. Similarly, those in the office might forget that there are people not physically present who still need to (and can be) involved in office conversations.

I could talk of an even wider example of this. Back in March there was talk of there being a “housing crisis” in the UK. At no point was there any discussion or conversation around the fact that businesses and people need to be encouraged to work more flexibly and remotely, so that not everyone feels like they need to live near a city. It also doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing approach. There is no reason why people can’t work from home a few days a month and still have their main base at the office.

InfoQ: Can you give some suggestions on how to deal with cross cultural aspects in remote teams?

Orti: I think there are two different scenarios to consider here: when you are dealing with a team who is based in another country and when you are working with individuals who are dispersed throughout the globe.

In the first case, team members all based in a country different to yours might share some characteristics in their approach to work, their meal schedules, etc (note that I said “might”). In that case, having a conversation with them to bring to light some of these differences is helpful. Beware of making assumptions though, it’s always best to get the information directly from the team members.
Once these broad commonalities have been brought to light, then you need to remember that the team is still made up of individuals. Which brings me to the second scenario I mentioned, that where people are dispersed throughout the globe. In that case, I would once more, find out any obvious differences through conversation, and then get to know them as individuals. There will be things you have in common and things you don’t, but this is bound to happen regardless of nationality.
The flip side of this is, of course, don’t assume that people who are live in your same country are going to be just like you. These assumptions are just as dangerous as stereotyping people from another country.

I would however add that the one thing to look out for if you’re working across countries is the use of language. If some of your people have difficulties with the language you all share, they might feel inhibited to contribute to conversations, both in video conferences and in writing. In this case, it’s best to encourage everyone to double check meaning and be doubly aware when people seem uninterested or shy.

InfoQ: People that work remotely often like the independence that it brings. But, being social beings, they also want to stay in contact with the people that they work with, collaborate and communicate with them and support other people and feel supported themselves. How can you work with people remotely while remaining independent?

Orti: I think it’s important to think about what kind of independence we enjoy. In some jobs, while we can set our own schedules, we are heavily dependent on others doing their work, for us to do ours. In this case, we’ll need to have clear, open communication channels so that we all know where we are at with our work. If we don’t have this information available all the time, we won’t be able to set our own schedule.

People whose work is tightly linked to that of other team members, will probably communicate more than those who have tasks that can easily be completed independently.

The danger is that if you can merrily do your work on your own, you will not have the need to talk to anyone else and then you will feel unsupported and miss a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself. (Although we have to remember that this might not be the case for everyone, as some people might be meeting this need outside of their work.)

If you miss the kinds of interactions that go on in a co-located space, then it’s worth identifying exactly what it is that would make you happier or help you. Is it the chit chat? Is it practical help? Is it knowing how your work fits into the bigger picture? Is it just talking to someone when you have a problem? Is it helping others when they have a problem? Or is it all of the above? They will all need different solutions.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of how people stay connected with their co-workers while working remotely? Are there any tools people can use to stay connected while working remotely?

Orti: I have to say that the main way in which people stay connected is still email – everyone knows how to use it and now you can pick it up from anywhere. It’s often used in the same way as you would use a chat or leave a phone message – you expect an instant reply.

However, teams are starting to use a wide range of tools to tackle some of the disadvantages of being remote I mentioned before, like the lack of visibility (how do you know who’s available and working right now), informal communication (so important in building trust) and tracking the status of projects.

Slack seems to be very popular at the moment, as a substitute of the physical office, at it can provide a Hub for conversations and files; keeping Skype open with an updated status is an easy way of signaling your availability and that you don’t mind being contacted; regular meetings using Google Hangouts are also popular and Google Apps is still popular for working on documents together.

Large corporations are now also using collaboration tools to enable communication between people in different locations, even if they’re not working remotely. Yammer has become increasingly popular as a work of encouraging people not in the same departments or locations of working together.

I recently worked on a project where we used a closed Facebook group to communicate. Really simple.

InfoQ: What are your thoughts on creating trust when working in remote teams?

Orti: Traditionally, building trust is not something that is addressed in the co-located space. It’s something that happens over time and that builds (or breaks down) organically. I think in virtual teams there is one element of your personality that will make a difference as to how much you trust your co-workers, and that is your own propensity to trust.
If you work with someone who trusts people from the start until they let you down (like me!), then there might not be a need to focus on building trust, just to make sure it’s not broken. If however, you’re working with people who take longer to trust you, you will have to deliberately build that trust. This is done in the same way as you build trust in any relationship: by being respectful, by being open and transparent, fulfilling your promises, etc

This trust is built through communication and achieving results, so you need to make sure that team members are often in touch and delivering.

InfoQ: If I want to setup a team of remote workers, is there any advice that you can give me?

Orti: First decide whether you really need a team or if you just need/want a group of people to work for you. If you just have people working for you carrying out independent tasks, then you don’t need to create a team.

If you do want a group of people who need to work together in some way to achieve the best results and to feel part of something larger than themselves, then you will need to give careful thought to what kind of people you want on the team and whether they will be able to get on with each other. Above all, you’ll need to think about your own preferences and whether these are going to help in bringing a group of remote workers together. If some of your preferences (like the fact that you are hooked on email) are going to affect communication, then you need to find ways of solving that or change your own habits.

At an early stage of forming your team, define your communication processes and find a place to store documents or information that everyone in your team might need to access. Schedule regular chats, both as a team and one-one, and make sure they are not cancelled during busy periods. Do move them, but make sure that their importance is not underestimated. If time zones are an issue, then make sure you have an online collaboration space where people can have asynchronous conversations.

Don’t get distracted with the technology, keep it simple and make sure that you spend time with your team members introducing them to new tools.

While you build your team, you will be the main point of contact for everyone but eventually you will need to make sure that the connections between members becomes so strong that you don’t need to be involved in all the conversations. And this is painful, so be ready! (Or it might be your nirvana if you are a hands-off person, of course!) Also, don’t forget that you will need to role-model any of the behaviours you want to see in your team.

Above all, review and change, review and change and make sure your journey is an enjoyable one.

About the Interviewee

Pilar Orti helps virtual teams strengthen their communication through Virtual, not Distant, a branch of her company Unusual Connections. She also hosts the podcast 21st Century Work Life where she talks about the changing world of work and working remotely. Pilar is also a voiceover artist and writer. She is based in London.

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Community comments

  • Skype, e-mail, and Aikido

    by Gers Trentedeux,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Hi, I've been working remotely since 2000 and continuously for the past 9 years. I'm based in France, with colleagues in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg (same time zone). Keeping Skype connected and my work phone on during normal office hours and systematically disconnecting outside this time range guarantees that the people I work with can contact me during work and leave me alone the rest of the time.
    Real-time communication happens on Skype, asynchronous communication is done by e-mail, while we use SharePoint for file sharing.
    Finally, being alone in my office allows me to concentrate. Whenever I need social interaction I can chat via Skype or go to my bi-weekly aikido class.
    For me, the advantages of telecommuting greatly outweigh any disadvantages.

  • Re: Skype, e-mail, and Aikido

    by Pilar Orti,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Hi Gers, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing the details of what's making telecommuting work for you.

    It sounds like you have a simple set up that's working out for you - a great reminder for me, as I tend to overcomplicate things.

    I like that you bring up your aikido class - not having to spend time travelling into and away from an office means we have more time to pursue things that make us happy.
    I hope it all continues to work out for you.

  • R-HUB HD video conferencing server

    by Jashua Thompson,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    In todays advanced technological world, one can effectively stay connected remotely using tools like webex, R-HUB web video conferencing servers etc. They work well.

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