Remote work: In any multinational, someone is always remote

Sun Microsystems office sign in Bangalore, in Kannada and English

There is and always has been an element of remote work in every multinational corporation (even small ones). When a company is globally distributed, its employees are rarely or never all in the same place at the same time.

People learn to deal with this. It means strange hours sometimes, and in the past meant  travel (though that is now difficult). Remote collaboration can always be done better, and we all have more to learn and invent about this way of working, but many businesses have for decades been working effectively with far-flung colleagues (some of my Sun Microsystems colleagues spoke about managing globally distributed teams at GHC 2009). Somehow, teams do manage to thrive and innovate across international borders. 

Most of the people now claiming that employees are more effective and innovative when they’re in offices have direct personal experience working with colleagues globally, which makes their attitude all the more baffling. Here are a few questions for those folks:

Are you now saying that your colleagues overseas (or in other national offices) are not and never have been considered fully contributing team members because they’re not at HQ every day? That they cannot hope to innovate on the same level if they’re not constantly in “the room where it happens,” even if they’ve been working with you that way for YEARS?

You might want to rethink that.

Being physically in an office together does not necessarily or automatically make a team productive. Teams that are inherently dysfunctional don’t work better together just because they look at each other all day. Team productivity and innovation must be designed for, worked on, and supported, and this work needs to be done regardless of location (ideally, it is fostered by managers).

tbh, it feels as if some execs just want everyone in SOME office, under theoretical management scrutiny, 40 hours a week. Those execs are blowing a lot of smoke about the value of “hallway meetings” and “mentoring” and “employee growth” and “productivity,” but there is little or no evidence that chance meetings boost innovation

Open plan offices have been the fad in Silicon Valley in recent years, with managers and execs wanting them (because they could then squeeze more desks into the same floorspace? call me cynical if you must), and most employees – especially anyone needing to concentrate on their work – hating them. Many such offices were bizarrely silent because most people wore noise-cancelling headphones all day, which also served as a signal to colleagues that they did not wish to be disturbed. Collaboration was still happening, over Slack and other shared online spaces. So… what exactly was the point of those bodies being in an office?

It’s true that facetime is important for human relationships, but it’s not needed daily, weekly, or even monthly. Teams can do a lot of connecting and innovating in a few well-structured get-togethers per year. Some companies and teams that have always been distributed have been doing this from the beginning – perhaps we could learn from them?


Further reading:

Open-plan office noise increases stress and worsens mood

photo: Sun Microsystems’ Bangalore office, 2008

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