Friday, March 18, 2011

Day Camp 4 Developers: Telecommuting

About two weeks ago I took part in the second online Day Camp 4 Developers, on the topic of telecommuting. The idea behind the Day Camp events is to provide software developers with practical knowledge and advice in the area of "soft" skills, to complement their expertise with "hard" skills (i.e. actual coding). In this case five speakers gave consistently excellent web presentations (slides and audio) with different perspectives on remote working, while an IRC chatroom gave all participants a forum to discuss the issues behind the scenes.

Lorna Jane Mitchell started off by asking "Could You Telecommute?". As a teleworker herself, Lorna Jane looked at the environmental, organisational and personal factors that influence the happiness and productivity of the remote worker: for example, ensuring you have a good home working space, and set clear boundaries between work and personal life (both for yourself and for others). In particular you have to be aware of the tendency for other people to think that working from home is easy, and that your time is infinitely flexible. She also noted that there are some big differences between being part of a distributed team and being a telecommuting member of a co-located team (where you risk feeling isolated), and further differences between employees and freelancers. Particularly for lone telecommuters, it's important to build professional and social support networks that might otherwise be taken for granted in more conventional work settings.

Next self-described "entreprenerd" Ivo Jansch talked about "The Business Case For Telecommuting". Ivo's company Egeniq is built around a distributed team (essentially using remote working as an organisational model) - so in addition to benefiting individual workers, he suggested ways that telecommuting could positively impact the company's bottom line, for example enabling access to an bigger talent pool and increasing its geographical reach (if providing consultancy services). He acknowledged that this distributed model won't suit every company or industry however, and success requires (amongst other things) a results-driven culture where individuals are trusted to self-manage and have a sense of shared responsibility. Ultimately good communication between team members is paramount.

After the lunch break, Jack G. Ford gave a manager's perspective on setting up a telecommuting programme in his presentation "Can I Work From Home Tomorrow?". Jack introduced himself as an ex-coder who is now the manager for 17 developers in a more conventional environment than Ivo's, but in spite of that his key points seemed remarkably similar: beyond asking whether the company infrastructure can support remote working, the main issues are trust (both with the manager and with the team) and good communication between the manager and the individual. Jack emphasised that as a manager, when you telecommute, "I can't see you," so the telecommuter must stay connected, keep the manager informed, and must not only act professionally but be seen to do so. Although it might seem obvious, this was a fascinating insight into telecommuting from the other side of the management chain.

Ligaya Turmelle's presentation on "Managing the Work/Life Balance" emphasised the challenges of balancing work and home life, with her lists of "the good, the bad and the ugly" of remote working from a teleworker perspective. Ligaya focused especially on balancing family commitments with work commitments, and among some interesting observations (for example, no longer doing the daily commute means you lose some "me time" to yourself), I was most struck by the admission that if you love your work then it can mean sometimes that you want to go on working, and are in danger of not respecting your own ground rules. While noting that situations can differ both for individuals and companies, her advice was: clarify everyone's expectations (e.g. policies for "on-call" hours, weekends, and holidays); set up ground rules and limits (and be disciplined in adhering to them); and try to be flexible and imaginative in how you approach your work.

The final presentation was Avdi Grimm talking about "The Well-Equipped Remote Worker". Avdi is a freelance software developer who is also a "dispersed teams facilitator" and runs the Wide Teams blog. As might be expected from the title, some of the focus was on the hardware and software tools that can help with remote working, but there was just as much information on practices that can support distributed teams. Once again promoting communication is key, and using tools and practices that help team members create good working relationships (for example, utilising social media like Twitter and Facebook, and holding regular face-to-face meetings) can really contribute to this.

Looking back over all the talks, a few common themes had emerged for me:
  • Good communication (both with managers and with other team members) to build trust, keep people informed and avoid misunderstandings;
  • Clarify expectations on all sides, and establishing well-defined boundaries between work and personal life. Set ground rules to ensure that those boundaries are respected by others (your boss, your family and friends) and have the discipline to also respect them yourself;
  • Build and maintain your social and professional support networks for when there are problem times;
  • Provide yourself with a good working environment and (software and hardware) tools.
I was also able to relate some points to my own experiences: when I worked briefly as a remote member of a co-located team, I did feel a real sense of isolation; another time as a home teleworker I got the impression from some people that they assumed (not maliciously) that I only did a few hours work a day; and previous experience as part of a large organisation makes me feel that there was some truth in Ivo's comment that "co-location is over-rated", in that it doesn't automatically lead to great communication between individuals or groups.

Overall it was an excellent event and a good use of 8 hours of my Saturday - although the time difference (coincidentally another telecommuting issue) meant that it didn't finish until 10pm UK time I surprised myself by staying with it to the end. Hats off to Cal and Kathy Evans for organising the day and to the speakers for their excellent presentations. Here's waiting for the next Day Camp 4 Developers!

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