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Ramblings on Remote Employment

Twitter Birds Since the beginning of January, I work at Twitter, the online social networking and microblogging service that... oh, come on, Twitter. (Here's an example of what I like about the company.) I joined the Infrastructure Security team, further tumbling down the rabbit hole that opened up many years ago with a position as a System Administrator, which I still consider my primary profession.

The team I joined is located in San Francisco, and remaining in New York, I am one of two remote employees on the team. This isn't a new experience for me -- I have worked remotely from home for Yahoo! for several years. But throughout the years, I've formed a number of opinions (Yes! Me! Opinions! Who'd have thought?) on how a company can enable successful remote employment.

Tonight, on our internal Quora variant the following question came up:

What are some things people/teams have done to help make remote employees feel really connected to their teams here in SF and to stay in touch with what's happening?

I quickly jotted down a few thoughts, which I've been meaning to share for a while. They're far from as well-fleshed out or formalized as I'd like, but hey, I spent some time writing this response, and it doesn't apply merely to Twitter, so why not just drop it on this blog and then take it from there?

So, here's my reply:


Futurama Tubes First, thanks for asking this question this way around. All too often the burden of "making it work" is presented to lie (primarily) with the remote employee. I believe that the much more important factor influencing whether or not remote employment or participation in a team "works" does in fact lie with the "local" team. Here's why:

The remote employee is usually already highly motivated to make the arrangement work. Remote employees tend to be more senior than those not willing to enter such an agreement and thus more comfortable in taking on projects or responsibilities independently or with minimal supervision. People with experience working remotely don't need advice such as "make sure you have your personal work space" or "in the morning, get dressed, walk around the block, then start working" etc. etc. -- those may work well for some, but not for others. Every person has their own style.

On the flip side, the "local" team tends to be the majority, and as such, it is easy to forget how to enable your remote employees and how to fully integrate them into the team. (Groups or companies where the majority is geographically distributed are the exception here: everybody's in the same boat and this tends to roll well as a result.)

Locals Only Now I have been with Twitter a whopping three weeks, so I cannot comment specifically on what may or may not work well here -- I'm still in the process of figuring that out and trying to change whatever doesn't work. But I've been working remotely for several years in a previous job where I was the only remote employee on my team, and my experience from there is:

The group, and the manager, have to have deep trust in the remote employee. There is a very thin line between ensuring that your remote employee is kept in the loop and you are in sync with his or her projects, opinions, status, etc. and micro-managing the remote employee. You have to be confident that somebody who is not physically in the office and who you do not see or talk with as frequently or as casually as perhaps with your other reports will still be committed to the work and deliver as expected.

The second part is, obviously, communication. (But do note that I list this as the second part!) Having a weekly 1-1 with your remote is important; what's less important is whether or not that happens over Skype, Google Hangout, IRC, the phone, whatever. It is also important that this is not a "what are you working on; here's your next project" kind of sync, but more of a "how are things? what's happening?" kind of chat. Build a personal relationship with your remote employees, understand what their private life may look like (as far as appropriate and comfortable for those involved) and include some chit-chat.

When I was working at Yahoo!, I had a very good relationship with my managers in this regard, and our weekly 1-1s were mostly just chatting and perhaps them allowing me to ramble and rant a bit, but hardly ever a "here's your next task" kind of talk. (Discussions around projects were usually done in separate calls, sometimes with, sometimes without others.)

Hip Talk Plus The communication patterns of the team are incredibly important, too (equally obviously). It is tough to be part of a close-knit team that discusses everything face to face. On the other hand, I have experienced that if IRC is used as a primary "water-cooler" gathering place, it is easy to feel like you are part of the team. It took a while to get everybody on board, but soon people realized that the benefits of using IRC also applied to local people, as conversations could be joined in by others even if they were not physically present or if they were not present at the time.

The asynchronous nature of continuing conversations is very important when you are not just physically remote, but also in another timezone. Again, this also helps local employees when they have to attend personal business, are in a different meeting, etc. etc.

The nature of IRC (and I actually explicitly note IRC here: in the past, my experience has been that, for whatever reason, IRC seems to encourage chit-chat and banter and actual chatting much more than HipChat, Campfire, or what-have-you do; I'm not quite clear on the why just yet) also carries over into other areas: just like IRC allows asynchronous conversations (you may respond to a question an hour after it's been asked), retaining logs or notes for other communications is a great way to enable remote employees (or any employee who missed the conversation at that time).

Floating Squirrel Asynchronicity is, in general, something that is not valued sufficiently, I find. Email, much derided and ridiculed recently and pushed aside in favor of 'real-time' communications, can actually be very helpful in allowing people to sit back and consider a response. As a communications-medium, I still find it to be required and supplementary to the real-time chat medium. (I've also observed that remote employees are "better" at responding to and handling email in general.)

I've long tried to push people who organize meetings to designate a note taker before the meeting begins, and to ensure that reasonably accurate notes are sent out after the meeting. This is important not only to enable people who miss the meeting to see what's going on, but also to ensure everybody who was present (at least physically, if staring at their laptop without paying attention) agrees on what was said. Yes, that's Meetings 101. :-)

Another very important component is to have, by default, conference phone numbers for every meeting or meeting room. Web conferencing works well for passive consumption of content (such as presentations, classes, all-hands etc.), but for actual productive, interactive meetings, I find a conference call to be much more efficient. The reason that this should be enabled by default is that you want to lower the burden on the "local" team: they should not have to remember to do something special so that team mate X can join.

Having somebody skype you into the meeting is something that may work in a pinch for a small 1-3 person meeting, but with any group larger than that, the skype'd in person can only view a subset of the people (usually the ones not talking) or is distractingly passed around the room. The sound quality is also rather poor in larger groups. Maybe the future isn't here quite yet.

Banana Phone For all all-hands, classes, lectures, or other large events, make sure you have both a conference call to dial into as well as a webex/adobe connect/whatever video stream.

I'd like to stress again that while this is all really important to allow remote employees to be integrated into the company culture and/or the team, all of this applies to non-remote employees as well. That is, making your company or your team friendly to remotes means it is better for everybody. Better communication -- anybody can benefit from that.

Considering remote-employees as a special case, a one-off, is, in my opinion, a sign of lack of maturity in the company: as a company grows, it will invariably have teams working with each other across different offices, timezones, countries, continents. Making this easy is important to the success of the company; at some point, you no longer have "remote" employees, you just have employees in different locations. Allowing them to communicate efficiently is tantamount to pushing the company forward.


As I said, this is just a quick write up of some of the loose thoughts running around in my head. I feel that there is still a fair amount of education or evangelizing with companies to be done to take away their fear of hiring people remotely, and I'd be happy to talk about this and my experiences any time. If you have any comments, please do let me know!

January 31st, 2013


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