You are building a knowledge worker team, and you are now confronted with the inevitable questions. Should I allow remote work? Should I require people to be in an office? What is the best answer?

TL;DR - In my experience, the only completely wrong answer is both. The correct answer will depend on what you want out of the team. On-site workers will weather tougher storms. Remote workers can execute well defined projects more quickly.

Table of Contents

  1. Create a sense of belonging
  2. Where is your water cooler?
    1. There is no remote and onsite water cooler
  3. On-site for long term heavy lifting
  4. Remote for fast paced projects with a purpose
  5. What if I must have remote and onsite workers?
  6. More on this topic
  7. Keep the conversation going

Create a sense of belonging

Creating a high functioning team requires, among other things, cohesiveness. Your team members have to feel valued and that they belong to a team. There has been much research, and there are many books on this topic. Here are a few of my favorites.

Where is your water cooler?

In a physical office, a water cooler is any place that people congregate to talk about things outside of work. This is an essential part of team cohesion. Great managers create work spaces that cause people to co-mingle and they benefit from the serendipity that occurs. See this fantastic book on Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.

Remote workers also need a water cooler. This is likely your chat channel, or the skunk works projects on the side. Isolation is a commonly reported side effect of remote workers. Breaking that isolation can be very difficult, because you don’t have the direct interaction to detect their mood. But remote workers can have great job satisfaction through more control over work-life balance, and the ability to focus on their craft.

There is no remote and onsite water cooler

The only absolutely incorrect selection between on-site and full remote workers is both. There is no version of a water cooler that provides equal amounts of cohesion amongst remote and on-site workers. If part of your team is fully remote, and another group is in an office - even just one day a week - you have then excluded the remote workers from benefiting from that water cooler time. There is no way you can expect those remote workers to feel like they are part of a team in which they do not have full access to participate.

On-site for long term heavy lifting

Building an on-site team limits your talent pool to the local area, or those willing to relocate. This means your ramp-up time will be longer, and losing team members will have a bigger impact on your schedules. However, your team is much more likely to be create emotional cohesion than a remote team, and will be more likely to accomplish tasks that require extraordinary emotional effort.

On-site workers will bond around the physical water cooler, and build the social capital to hash out professional disagreements more easily. They will use physical cues to understand each other’s needs, and with encouragement will adapt to find success.

For stress inducing long-term problems, plan to have an on-site team.

Remote for fast paced projects with a purpose

Once you’ve learned how to recruit remote workers, you’ll be able to build a remote team very quickly. If a team member leaves, you’ll likely be able to replace them very quickly (days instead of months). Remote workers, who are personally capable of avoiding distraction, can generally far out pace workers in an office. They don’t have to deal with traffic or workplace interruptions. When normal life events happen, remote workers can easily context switch back and forth between work and everything else.

But remote workers also burn-out faster. They receive little person-to-person interaction, and therefore have fewer shared moments of joy. It’s harder for their teammates to appreciate the amount of effort a remote worker puts in - because that work is performed out-of-sight. You should expect to cycle through remote workers every 2 years or so. But don’t panic - that could be a good thing for them and your project.

In The Aliance, author Reid Hoffman provides a framework for expectation setting that works well for remote workers. He stresses the need to create a written purpose statement where both the employee and the hiring manager understand why the person is being hired, for how long, and with what authority. This framework can be applied to remote workers - so that they feel a sense of purpose, and so that other remote workers understand that purpose.

If you have a limited term project, with well defined objectives, and can plan for higher turn-over rates - then remote workers might very well be your best option.

What if I must have remote and onsite workers?

While you may not have a choice about having remote and onsite workers, you can arrange them in teams to alleviate the inevitable cohesion issues. In short, you should accept upfront that there will likely never be a sense of a true sense of belonging for the remote workers. You will need to craft your project work structure around that fact.

Provide remote workers a sense of belonging by putting them in a team, and have them directly collaborate as a group. Have them make decisions as a group. Their work products can be individually created, but their decision making should be collaborative amongst themselves.

Similarly, separate your onsite workers into a working team. Instruct them to work with the remote team in a transactional way. Use the power of assigned autonomy and assigned responsibility to provide clear domains of separation.

You will need to recognize and prepare to curb the propensity for “us vs them” thinking. Be the greatest champion of inter-team collaboration. Be forgiving of each team when they fail. Lead the teams by showing how they can be successful collaborating.

More on this topic

In a separate blog post, I’ll cover how to find and retain remote workers for your project.

Keep the conversation going

Have an opinion on this? Twitter me about it