Remote Working and Digital Nomads vs On Site and Co-location

Posted By Debbie on March 1, 2018

At least once a week, there’s an article in my LinkedIn feed about remote working or not. And co-location appears to also be spelled collocation and colocation. Pick your fave.

Which is better and why? Depends on what your business is and who the potentially remote worker is. I’ve been a remote worker for most of my adult life. I’ve freelanced, contracted, and even had remote full time jobs plus some on-site jobs.

Pros of Remote Work

Hire the best talent. If you are open to remote workers, you can pull from a much larger talent pool than who lives at a reasonable commuting distance from your office. This is really the most important reason to allow for remote work. You want the best people, the best fit, and some of those people may not live in your area.

Some digital nomads are not looking for the highest pay. Some remote workers know that getting to live and work where you want might require a trade off. Some live in places that are cheaper to live in than where you have your offices. While some will demand market pay for where you are located, some may be more flexible, allowing your company to save money.

You’ll also save on what your office costs to run. I saw an article (from I think Cisco) showing how much money they saved by having employees who work from home full time. You don’t need a desk which means perhaps they can get a small office space or use their office space differently. That may lead to fewer people eating free snacks, smaller spaces to heat or cool, fewer telephones and equipment to buy, etc…

Cons of Remote Work

Time zone challenges. Depending upon where your remote workers live, employers often imagine that dealing with another time zone is going to mess up work days and project flows. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can require a remote worker to be available at certain times.

In 2017, I spent a good part of the year working remotely in Italy. When it was 9am in California, I got on my computer, attended meetings, signed into chat, sent emails, etc… And when it was 5pm in California, I signed off (and went to sleep). And that’s a somewhat extreme example since Italy is 9 hours ahead of California. But a dedicated worker and organized processes can make time zones work.

You want to micromanage people. Are you the type of manager who likes to walk around and see what people are doing? Gosh, you just won’t be able to do that if someone isn’t coming into the office. You can still set up 1:1s to review work. The best solution is to hire people you trust to get the work done. Then you wouldn’t need to micromanage them.

How will we make sure that remote workers are really working and not going to the park with babies and puppies? Not every worker is great at time management or some of the skills you need for efficient remote working. As the employer, you can set the rules. When I worked remotely for Macy’s, the rule for anybody working remotely or just from home that day was that you must be on email, in live chat, and available all day except lunch. If you are playing with kids or puppies, or going out, mark that time as PTO.

You’re going to know. Word will get back to you that so-and-so isn’t on live chat, doesn’t answer emails, and couldn’t be found. You’ll know who is abusing WFH days or remote working.

Your software dev methodology requires everybody on site. I’ve worked in that environment. I’ve heard from Lean or Agile evangelists that everybody MUST be in the same room. Heck, find a war room, lock them all in, and that’s how they’re going to do it! Now that I type it, it doesn’t sound that good.

One thing that was interesting was that while on those projects, there was nearly always someone who wasn’t local. Our product manager is in rural Ohio. Or we have a developer in Brazil. Or we’ll use our outsourced Android team in the Ukraine.

If you still believe you require everybody on site, the question would be why. What might happen during the day that these people must sit next to each other? OK but how much of those in the moment things can be handled with tools we have now? Live chat (like Slack or Skype). A phone call. A video call. A screen share. If the team knows that you are on Slack ALL day and ready to open a video/screen sharing call in GoToMeeting at any moment, then people have those tools open and ready. And then when it’s, “Hey, Deb, I found something in your wireframes I’m not sure about,” I can jump into the best shared tool and go through it live with you.

So when you imagine that people must sit next to each other, can they virtually sit next to each other?

We have a culture where we walk over to someone and get an answer right away. I was once hired by a Boston company while I lived in SF. Most of the workers were in one Boston-area office. I learned that when a product manager had a question about my UX designs, he walked into the UX department, found ANYBODY, and had them comment on or change my designs.

That’s a definitely problem but the problem isn’t my location. The problem is Product not respecting me enough to come to me with their questions or issues. That would mean even if I worked in that office but were out, a PM could wander in and have someone change my designs while I’m out sick or on vacation. That’s a process and communication problem that needs fixing.

And he could have met me in live chat or another collaboration tool and received an immediate answer.

Our workplace is pretty social. Remote workers will miss out on that. That’s true. Some workers love being in a workplace to see humans. And some are more introverted and might thrive in a more isolated location. Not everybody is dying to be at the water cooler.

I find for myself, while I like being at workplaces, I feel like I get more done and am happier at home. I feel social enough catching up with some co-workers over typed chat and some random video calls. While my outgoing personality makes people think I’m an extrovert, by definition, I’m an introvert. I’d rather be in my home office putting on Duran Duran’s Rio for the 400th time this month.

We don’t understand how people are going to be part of meetings when they’re far away. When I worked for that Boston company, I often got emails inviting me to meetings. It listed a meeting room and no dial in number. This company was not set up for remote workers.

The only meetings I found really didn’t work dialing in were the types of brainstorming meetings where things are being written on a white board or tiny post it notes. Those are hard to be a part of from far away, even if someone is pointing a webcam at the notes. I can listen in but it will be hard for me to keep up with the activity in the room. But outside of a situation like that, I can be a full part of any meeting, listening or presenting.

So, remote or not?

Many companies are afraid of remote but I believe if they have had a bad time with it, it can be boiled down to:

  • People. Some are fantastic at remote work (like me if I may say so myself) and some take a while to get comfy with it. Choose people with experience being digital nomads. And support and advise those who are newer to it (or messing it up).
    Don’t let a few bad apples ruin it for everybody.
  • Process. Make sure you have processes in place so that people don’t wander into the department, pick anybody, and work with them when it’s a remote worker’s project. All workers must be expected to respect whoever has been assigned to the project and turn to them. Invite remote people to the correct meetings and make sure they have a way to dial in or join.
  • Tools. Give all employees and contractors the tools that they need to succeed. Get everybody on Slack or some sort of chat (please don’t use Microsoft Teams, it’s just awful). Give everybody dial-in accounts for collaborative conference call systems and video chat.
  • Social time and bonding with co-workers are harder for remote workers. The Boston company I worked for tried very hard with that. They tried to fly remote people in at least twice a year to visit on-site for a week each time. And when we had our annual UX department bonding day out, they flew us in (which could overlap with one of the those week-long visits). Try to budget to include remote workers and help them bond with their workmates.

Need some help building or improving a remote team? Need a consultant to work on your policies for WFH or digital nomads? We do that. Get in touch and let us solve your problems.