I’ve been working mostly remotely / from home for the past couple of years. I’ve worked in teams and with people whom I’ve never met in person, and yet I have a deep appreciation for them, and feel very connected with them. When I joined my current workplace, it was during the pandemic, and people keep asking how it is not to have been in the office or not to have met most of my work mates in person. I get a bit puzzled by this question, cause I never met my boss in my last work place since we were on two different continents anyway.
I have two types of experiences with distributed teams and half remote work, and they’ve taught me things that I’d like to share.
When we work in a distributed team, the types of connections you make are different. For instance, I worked on scikit-learn for quite a while before I met any of the contributors in person, and I still haven’t met all of them. This didn’t mean there was no connection or no group dynamic. There are people with whom you get along with more than others, like any other social situation. The difference is, the dynamic is based on different things compared to when you meet them in person everyday. In the distributed situation, most of what you learn and know about people is what you see through their contributions; their code you may review, the reviews they give to your code, their documentation, their communication, etc. The point here is that you’ll learn to connect with people on different things than the coffee break conversations and lunch break conversations, or their taste in clothing or movies.
Remote consulting is another place where you can end up meeting your customer or colleagues only a few days every few weeks, if you do. In that setting, I would have many conference calls and would go “on site” a few days every two or three weeks. This makes the connections you build a combination of what you had in your usual office setting, and the remote/distributed setting. However, there is a big difference here, which is that the people who do go to the office see each other much more frequently and talk about projects more frequently than the ones who are working remotely. The trick there is either to make sure to include people who are not in the office in all communication relevant to them, or to try and have pockets of work where people can work almost independently on them. In this setting, people have different types of connections with their coworkers, and to me that was totally fine.
Social Non-Work Connections
All of this means the types of connections you have with these people are probably mostly professional. Even though it happens that you may get along with somebody in the team and if you’re in the same city or area, you may decide to hang out in person, which has happened to me, but it’s not the default and most connections stay professional. Those few connections that you make outside the working hours though, are gonna be really nice.
I tend to find my social connections outside work. This is another thing you may need to learn or get used to. Like going to meetups, hikes, parties, or whatever you are into, with people who are not your work mates. In a way it’s actually quite nice and healthy. It creates a healthy separation between your work and personal hours.
However, for people who would like to create these connections with their colleagues, I’ve seen non-work related groups. Like DJs and hikers and all, and it certainly works for some folks.
In the corporate setting, leadership needs to understand what people do, see their progress and how they perform. This is needed for promotions, planning, etc. Some leads are not used to understanding what their directs are doing if they’re not in the same room or office. Leads may also not know how to connect and talk to people when they don’t have that other part of the connection which happens in the office. It’s crucial for team leads to be able to both trust, and understand and monitor what their employees are up to. By monitor, I don’t mean in a surveillance way, more like to understand what people do, and where they do it. For instance, if the employee works on GitHub, they should be fluent in browsing and understanding the activities there.
If leaders fail to understand how their employees work, they can’t help them overcome their challenges and can’t help them grow. They will also be seen as ignorant when it comes to appreciating employees’ work.
I don’t think remote work is going away. We need to learn how to work with it, and it has a lot to do with good communication. We should also think about the difference between a distributed team and remote work. If a team is really distributed, there is no central place for people to be remote from it. It changes the way you think about where to put your communication, ie. online and in a place everybody regardless of their location and timezone can read.