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Summary:

An exec at jobs marketplace Zaarly pens an uncompromising post admitting he’s been converted to remote work skepticism and arguing that for demanding, idea-hungry startups at least co-located teams are definitely the way to go. Is he on to something?

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Technology is certainly enabling the ability to work from anywhere, and both the media and a certain segment of freedom (or surf) loving business people have jumped on the trend, boosting remote work as the way of the future. In all this cheering for new ways of working it can be hard to remember that there are still dissenters – and that their case is far from totally crazy.

One such remote work doubter just proclaimed his skepticism loudly on VentureBeat. In the post, Shane Mac, the director of product at local jobs marketplace Zaarly, announces that he has been converted from his earlier belief in remote work and argues strongly for co-located teams for startups. He offers seven reasons for his change of heart, ranging from the logistical (remote communication slows down the speed of decision making and takes extra work) to the more nebulous, including:

Hallway conversations are priceless. You can’t create true serendipity over instant message. It’s crazy to think that one discussion can make, break or change the path of a company, but sometimes, those “accidental conversations” do turn into some magical idea, approach or direction.

Passion in person is contagious. I’d argue that it’s almost impossible to convey passion accurately to someone at a remote location. If you think back to times when you’ve been convinced to do something, it usually results from face-to-face interaction. It’s harder to influence and create change through the digital highway. Also, in-person passion helps to create a social pressure that makes people work better. If the person next to you is working late, it’s much easier to ignore if you can’t physically see staying in the office longer.

Company culture is key. Culture binds a company early on, so maintaining that culture in multiple locations requires extra effort and even a separate “culture team” — members of management who ensure that the culture is universal across the company…. it’s hard to live and breathe something if you aren’t actually breathing the same air.

Also, in a gripe that may be of particular interest to the many companies peddling online meeting platforms, Mac isn’t buying the effectiveness of the virtual whiteboard. “I haven’t once seen a collaboration session for a critical decision happen successfully from sending files back and forth,” he writes. When it comes to whiteboards, the real deal, he feels, is key.

None of Mac’s issues with remote work are completely out of left field – even the most ardent of location independents suspect from time to time that they’re less bonded to their team and less able to generate and act on serendipitous ideas or encounters when they’re at a distance. And it’s easy to see how these concerns would be most relevant in a start-up atmosphere. After all, the autonomy and life-work balance that remote work can bring are mostly of benefit to those that are trying to maintain a career that won’t drive them crazy over the long haul, rather than founders in the startup scene where it’s pretty much par for the course to work like a lunatic short-term in hopes of an eventual payoff and easing up of your schedule.

So perhaps the truth about remote work isn’t that it’s a binary yes-no choice, but rather a sliding scale with workers you’ve never met a world away on one end and teams that fall asleep under their desks together on the other. One side offers an engaged but not obsessive worldwide pool of talent and the ability to sustain a career without driving yourself batty with office politics, repetition and horrid commutes, the other a short-term burst of productivity in a hothouse of ideas with a high potentiality for interpersonal conflict, burnout and stunted personal lives if you try to keep it up for too long. Viewed that way, varying degrees of remote work make sense for different teams, with the only true mistake being misjudging exactly what sort of structure your team needs.

What’s you reaction to Mac’s take down of remote work for start-ups – amen, absolute disagreement or something in the middle?

Image courtesy of Flickr user vlauria.

  1. i completely agree with Shane Mac. I have faced it, for startups remote working doesn’t work. The best is to have your own office, you can rent one, or if you can’t, find a co-working place.

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  2. Can’t say that I agree: remote work is possible if you do it right, meaning discipline, rigour and process, proper communications, video connectivity (ideally always on)…

    I do agree in co-location of cooperatively aligned work groups and teams but trust me: if complex programmes worth 100s of Millions (dollars or pounds) can be delivered by a consortium of multiple companies participating in diverse projects across sectors, controlled by different management layers, working and coordinated across different time zones…

    … if that happens, and it does, then tell me why three (or thirteen) blokes hacking away can’t be controlled and managed?

    The simple answer is the willingness and discipline to be controlled and managed is all that is needed.

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  3. I disagree completely: I have directed successful complex programmes delivered by multi-company consortia (cross-sector, cross-time zone).

    It requires rigour, discipline, governance and a strong communications ethos but it is not rocket science, especially for a small team.

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  4. I’ve found that working as a part of a remote team (whether managing projects or as one of the group) can be even more effective than the office environment, when the team is up to scratch and the tools are right.

    The tools are only beginning to catch up to the needs of a remote global workforce, though — it’s essential to enable not just communication but transparency, which leads to both accountability and productivity. (The company I work for has been working on revolutionizing such remote work management tools – see http://www.transparentbusiness.com .)

    Far-flung teams may not share a water cooler, but workers in any *effective* work environment can develop team spirit – and innovation is better when workers are happy.

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  5. Can’t say that I agree completely; perhaps, it depends on the frequency of those online meetings and breaking the barriers between the cultural divide that makes a remote work setup a whopping success ( or fail ). In my case, I don’t really find it much of a challenge, other than having to face issues with time zones which is quite minimal.

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  6. I agree…Depends on the nature of the people talking, exchanging and communicating. If your style is rigor, structure, and planning then these meetings wouldn’t happen very likely.

    It goes back to the team personality and their respective drive and passion.

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