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September 2008
October 2008

2008-09-27 »

Newsflash! Telecommuting actually works... sort of

I've long been an opponent of having workers outside the office, at least as far as programmers are concerned. This was for the most practical reason of all: I tried it. It didn't work.

Let's be a little more specific. A few years ago, I was managing the development team at NITI, a company that I founded while in university. (It was later acquired by IBM.) One of the developers wanted to go live in Europe for a while, but asked to keep working for us while he did. Okay, I thought, that sounds reasonable. He's a hard worker, he gets stuff done, and I'm a lousy supervisor anyway. Working from Europe won't be much different from working at a desk across the room, if most of our communication is through email or the bug tracking system anyhow.

It didn't work. Not because he did anything bad or didn't get any work done; he got work done just fine. It didn't work because it didn't work the way people -- I, he, and everyone else at the company -- naively expected it to work.

Working from home is inherently demotivating. Not just because you don't have a boss breathing down your neck. Admittedly, some people do need that, and to those people I say: Stop reading now. You're not cut out for this. Get an office job, or suffer the consequences.

No, motivation comes from more than just an overzealous manager. It comes from feeling the need to be at a particular place at a particular time; the need to get dressed and shower before you start work; the need to show your co-workers that you're not a slacker; the need to brag about your latest brilliant accomplishment over a game of foosball. In short, it comes from peer pressure (which I like to call mutual motivation). Even if your peers don't really care, which ours mostly didn't, the feeling of peer pressure is all the motivation most people need, and it's great.

The view from the other side is just as bad. Even peers who normally wouldn't care what you're doing can't help but wonder. "Oh, he's off gallavanting in Europe - how much work can he possibly be doing?" Or maybe they see some code you checked in, and it looks superficially like crap, and you're not there to explain it, so they're free to assume that it is crap. Suffice it to say, things go downhill fast.

Now, in this particular case, we were able to keep things in order. You could say I was sensitive to being sensitive to these things, so I made sure to keep perspective. Eventually it didn't work out because he didn't like Europe as much as he thought he would, so he came back to the office.

NITI R&D as a whole had a grander version of the same problem: all the developers were working remotely, in the sense that the R&D office was run independently in a different city than the head office. The result? People at head office always felt like we were off gallavanting in Montreal; how much work could we possibly be doing? And whenever a bug, no matter how difficult, wasn't solved right away, it was because we weren't accessible, or because our flex hours were too flexible, or because some of the developers were just lazy, or whatever. This was all basically imaginary, but you can see why they'd think that; we thought the same about them.

Meanwhile, the truth was that we didn't have the daily exposure to customers that we would have if we were in the head office, and that did have a huge negative impact on our ability to respond. We responded really fast to a lot of things, but there was no way to focus on what was really important to people at head office, because we weren't right there to observe it for ourselves.

But that's another story. What I want you to see is how it just didn't work. Nowadays, there's no more Montreal R&D office; head office shut it down, and I supported the decision to do it.

That's the bad news. Here's the good news: I was dumb enough to try it again, but differently this time. This time, it does work. I think I know why.

At Versabanq I wanted to hire some of my former NITI co-workers to do development work for me. After all, I've worked with them, I know them, and they know what I want. The only problem is, being based on Ontario, we had no particular reason to open an office in Montreal. And I didn't want to make the same mistake as last time, with the same predictable outcome.

What I did instead is help them work together to form The Navarra Group, an independent software contracting company. In other words, I'm not only a Navarra co-founder, but I'm also a client :)

How to make telecommuting work

The first problem with telecommuting is the name. You're not commuting. Commuting implies going to an office, and telecommuting implies pretending to go to an office. Telecommuting doesn't work, because you can't be there without being there. It's a contradiction in terms. Just forget it.

Instead, you have to clarify what you really want. What I really wanted was: a bunch of programming work done according to my specifications with at least the same level of quality and reliability I would get from hiring full-time employees, without having to manage a bunch of full-time employees. What they really wanted was: to do really good work for a fair price in a fun social environment.

Here are some things we had to watch out for:

  1. Don't charge an hourly rate. I know, everybody always charges an hourly rate for oursourcing. Let it go. Hourly rates are the source of most jealousy around remote workers. After all, how do you really know that their 40 hours of work is as good as my 40 hours of work? What if they're only working five hours a week and slacking off the rest of the time? The only answer that works is: who cares? We're not paying them by the hour. We're paying for output, and we agreed that the output they're producing, by the agreed-upon deadline, is worth the amount we're paying them. End of story. Most salaried employees will be glad you're not holding them to such standards.
  2. Don't pretend you're part of the office culture. You're not. That part of your life is over. All those cautionary tales about remote workers missing out on promotions, not having their work recognized, missing out on the chat around the water cooler, not being invited to parties? All true. If you want those things, go work at the office. If you think that you'll get promotions and raises just because your boss will recognize the quality of your work in absentia, you're doomed. As a remote worker, you are an outsider. That's what "remote" means. And yet...
  3. Don't pretend you don't need a work-related social environment. Programmers are introverts, right? They don't need people, right? Well, there are a few anecdotal programmers out there who can survive 24 hours a day in their basement. Trust me, you're not one of them. If you try it yourself, you will go stark, raving bananas. It might take a few months, but you will. You will need to feel like your work is a part of something, or it will feel like a black hole. But if you're not part of the social environment back at the office, then what are you a part of? Well...
  4. Create a social environment out of other remote workers like you. The reason you don't fit in at a normal employer is that all the employees aren't like you. You're different. But as a contractor, you're not different from other people doing the same thing as you. Like you, they're not interested in sucking up to someone to get a promotion, but they have the same needs you do: a social working environment, a reason to get dressed in the morning, someone to brag to, someone to play foosball with.

It's early yet. Right now, the social environment at Navarra consists of weekly meetings, daily irc, working together at different members' homes, and random social gatherings in Montreal. Eventually, perhaps Navarra will get a real office, so people have a place that isn't home where they can go to work. Or maybe they'll rent some space at a coworking facility with some like-minded individuals.

It's not all perfect yet, but it feels to me like it's on the right track. People aren't 100% motivated to work all the time, but as a client, I don't have to pay for that; I'm just paying the flat rate. Which means that, far from being something to feel guilty about, slacking off for a day without answering to anyone is an awesome job perk.

And the best part? No matter how stupid your client gets, they can't ruin your working environment. It's not theirs anymore.

I'm CEO at Tailscale, where we make network problems disappear.

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