I was recently talking with a CEO who was having trouble hiring and retaining good people. He was considering opening new locations and adding a few remote workers. His thinking? More people. My thinking? More problems. Guaranteed.
No matter how many locations you add, the big decisions will likely still be made centrally at headquarters — leaving your remote teammates frustrated.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I am a strong advocate of remote work. Aha! does not have a big HQ with a few teams working remotely — we all work remotely. We are 100 percent distributed and one of the fastest-growing software companies in the U.S.
I realize that this is not the norm and may even be shocking to some people. That is because most remote folks are a splinter group with the majority of their teammates working in the same office. Sometimes the remote offshoot happens after someone moves away but still wants to continue on with the company from afar. Or, like in the case of the CEO above, the company is desperate to hire someone with a key skill and is willing to forgo the in-office requirement to make that happen.
This toe-dip into remote work might solve a short-term problem. But it often does so at the cost of the distributed employee who ends up feeling isolated from the team.
Here is why your remote co-workers feel left out:
This is the most damaging issue by far — out of sight, out of mind. No one thinks about the person who is not in the room (or even the same building) when decisions are made. Think about it: An issue arises and action needs to be taken immediately. Company leaders gather the in-office team together and share the plan. Everyone marches ahead, getting busy. But no one tells the remote folks. Either because the team simply forgot or did not want to take the time to reach out.
Slow-to-respond teammates can be frustrating for anyone, but the problem is magnified when you are working from different locations. Remote teammates cannot plan on running into someone in the hallway to get a response. So when phone calls and messages go unanswered, your remote co-workers have no other course of action but to wait. (And no one waits well.) But here is the unfair part — research shows that remote work leads to improved communication. Too bad.
With in-office people in one place (and one time zone), it can be easy to forget that timing matters. An afternoon meeting in the office can be a late evening call for the remote teammate. When the focus is still on the centralized HQ, meetings are often scheduled with no regard that teammate’s time zone, leaving them feeling frustrated, disrespected… and maybe a little sleepy.
Have you ever been in a conference room where everyone forgot about the person on speakerphone? Remote workers know this scenario well. Perhaps the in-office team is referencing something in the room that only they see — hard copies or whiteboard scribbles. Whatever the case, the centralized office team tends to only consider the technical needs of the people right in front of them, disregarding what the remote teammate needs in order to fully participate. (A video meeting line or an emailed copy of the presentation goes a long way.)
For these remote coworkers, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. A more apt cliche is, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
This is the message I want to send to anyone who is thinking about hiring remote team members — including that CEO I was talking to. Remote work is not a fad or an oddity. I believe that everyone can benefit from more control over how and where they work. To me, it is the only way to rapidly grow a team and hire the best. But we had the good fortune of building the company that way from the beginning.
So what did I suggest to that CEO? Of course, I told him to start hiring remote team members as quickly as possible. And when he asked what the risks were, I told him he would not get their best unless he consciously distributed decision-making as well.
Remote work is not what leaves people feeling left out. It is the organizational mindset that puts people on an island.
Have you ever worked remotely for a mostly centralized team?