Coworking with Ourselves

28 October 2009

My company has gone to lengths to ensure that employees can work from anywhere in the world (provided they have an internet connection).  Since I live 70 miles (80 – 150 minutes, depending on traffic) from my home office, I have taken to working remotely.  For a couple years, I probably went into the office an average of once every two months.

In many ways, this is fantastic: I save between 160 and 300 minutes per day (!), no frustrations with traffic jams, fewer distractions, being home to help out with the kids if necessary, etc.

I’ve become quite the advocate for telecommuting and for the idea that distributed workforces can be every bit as productive as co-located ones.

Recently, however, I’ve started realizing that some of the criticism of telecommuting is quite justified, particularly the idea that distributed teams don’t share ideas often enough.  In my experience, we actually do share ideas quite frequently – but only with those with whom we work the most – our direct peers, reports, and superiors.  Usually, that means people who basically do the same thing you do.  In other words, even though as a company we try to have a fairly flat org structure and no silos, we create invisible silos outside of which we rarely, if ever, venture – not because there’s an actual organizational barrier there, but because we literally just don’t see other people.   While you can easily bump into a guy from another team at the water cooler, you rarely “bump” into some one over IM.

In one way, this is good: fewer distractions from your immediate work – more productivity.  In another way it sucks: less innovation, less cross-pollination between teams.  I am beginning to think that telecommuting tends to increase immediate productivity and decrease innovation.  By “innovation,” I mean those new processes, tools, products, resolved pain points, or ways of thinking that materialize when someone from your sales group (who happens to sit next to someone from your database group) says “I’ve been thinking, what if we knew which feature our customers care more about: feature x or feature y” and your database guy says “you know, I could tell you which customers use each and how often in about five minutes.”  That is exactly the kind of conversation and quick opportunity that rarely happen when teams are distributed.

Many people would blame this on several things: a) the sales guy would have to realize that someone else in the company might be able to provide this info (how you could make everyone in your company aware of every piece of information that someone else in the might be able to generate is beyond me), b) inertia: the sales guy has to think “yeah, this is worth disturbing someone with an IM or a phone call” or “yeah, this is worth writing out in long hand in an email and hoping for a response,” etc.

When the team is co-located, these issues tend to disappear – the sales guy doesn’t need to realize that the problem is solvable to mention it to the person sitting next to him.  Regarding inertia, people who are physically sitting next to each other tend to just volunteer issues like that for the sake of conversation – it’s practically encouraged to break the silence.

There are lots of companies trying to solve these issues with various social tools for the enterprise, such as Yammer.  These tools, in my opinion, are good, but nothing beats physical co-location.

To try to combat this, I’ve been making an effort to go into the office at least once a week.  In addition, since a lot of my colleagues telecommute quite a bit, I’ve been trying to organize work-ins where once or twice a month, everyone from the office tries to be in the office on the same day.  A shocking idea, I know, but you have to understand that we’ve all realized the benefits of working remotely and do so quite regularly – we’ve got it down.

In essence, we’re coworking with ourselves, which ends up being quite interesting.  We have noticed the usual benefits associated with coworking – a lot of cross pollination of ideas, more “soft” understanding of what’s going on in other departments and teams, quick opportunities seized just because two people were sitting next to each other, etc.

So why don’t we just all work in the office all the time?  Because I don’t there would be much marginal benefit.  So far, it seems that the benefits we accrue in one day would be the same as those accrued over an entire week – except with the added cost of going into the office every day.  There’s just something about being in the office being novel that keeps us from falling into the rut where we all sit at our desks and focus (read, “ignore all inputs not directly associated with the task at hand”).  By setting aside a day every week or two, we force ourselves to really focus on spontaneous collaboration while we are together – something we would be able to do if we were always together.

I am eager to see how this experiment plays out.  Comments are very welcome if anyone especially if anyone has had similar experiences or is conducting similar experiments.

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