Anti-Patterns in Telecommuting
As a veteran telecommuter through multiple jobs in my career, I have witnessed and experienced the many joys of being a remote worker. As for the cons of telecommuting, I have more than a few horror stories I could tell. With a bit of artistic inclination and a talent for mathematics, I also have a fascination with patterns: design patterns, architectural patterns, behavioral patterns, social patterns, weather patterns–all sorts of patterns!
When I first encountered anti-patterns, I discovered a trove of wisdom I wish I had known before I had learned the hard way. Anti-patterns are recognizable repeated patterns that contribute significantly to failure. For example, the manager that keeps interrupting the employee in order to see if the employee is getting any work done is engaging in an anti-pattern that serves to prevent the employee from getting any work done!
Based on my own experiences and experiences of friends and co-workers, here are descriptions of anti-patterns related to telecommuting.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Communication between co-workers does not just happen in pre-arranged meetings. In fact, most communication tends to be impromptu and informal. Sometimes it is a chance meeting in the hallway, other times it is a spontaneous decision to go grab some food. The banter, the jokes, the anecdotes about family and pets, all of these are crucial to the formation of a supportive team. In informal situations, we tend to be more relaxed, more forthcoming, and more willing to dispute norms and authority, all of which are desirable behaviors in designers, engineers, and architects. Through these interactions we discover each other’s strengths, weaknesses, passions, and shortfalls. Once this type of understanding is reached between teammates, they begin to support each other, challenge each other, and find satisfaction in helping each other achieve higher goals.
The problem with telecommuting co-workers is how to include them in this informal interaction. You cannot encounter them in the hallway, you can’t go out to lunch with them, and yet this inclusion is absolutely necessary if the team is going to succeed.
Anti-Patterns: Forms and Variants
The typical form of this anti-pattern is to simply do things the same as any office environment without remote workers: Invite all appropriate team members to scheduled meetings, call a team member when you have a specific question, and keep emails limited only to business-specific topics. In this environment, the remote workers only interact with on-site workers in a formal manner. Your telecommuting workers become emotionally detached and apathetic, as they feel relegated to the status of second-class team members.
Another common form of this anti-pattern arises when on-site co-workers or management are predisposed to face-to-face interaction. For example, a manager that is good at talking to his team members, using body language to engage, and digressing on random interesting topics might have great difficulty adjusting this natural behavior pattern to someone that cannot be seen. Phone calls and video chat feel like they lack the human touch likely due to their non-spontaneity. That is, in fact, the root of the difficulty: spontaneity. Since interactions with remote workers are not spontaneous, these remote workers feel more like outsiders than teammates.
The most difficult variant to face is when a manager has a bias specifically against remote workers. This bias might be known, but often is subconscious. The bias could be a result of past experiences with remote workers or even as a remote worker. The bias could also be cultural, professional, or philosophical. A biased manager gives important tasks, desirable projects, and praise and promotions to local workers far more frequently than telecommuting workers. As a result, remote workers become alienated, unproductive, and angry resulting in departure, all behaviors that serve to reinforce the manager’s bias.
Break the Pattern
In order to break this anti-pattern, we need a solution that encourages and supports informal and spontaneous interaction between remote workers and local workers. Of course, face-to-face discussions will still happen and should never be discouraged, but inclusion of remote workers whenever possible should be encouraged
Telecommuting Best Practice Solution: Instant Messaging (Text Chat)
Imagine every team member uses the same instant messaging program, knows each other’s handles, and is usually logged in when working. Spontaneous communication can be as simple as clicking a name, typing a few words, and sending. Jokes, stories, gripes, and legitimate work issues can be discussed as easily via instant messaging whether you are talking to your officemate or a team member halfway around the globe.
The great advantages of instant messaging are that it is very spontaneous, that it encourages even quiet team members to communicate, and that it is free! Many companies even provide a specific program for instant messaging that ensures all the data stays on the company’s internal network.
Instant messaging detractors in my experience cite as disadvantages that they cannot type fast enough or that the constant interruptions prevent actual work from getting done. Curiously, I have found these arguments being made exclusively by the very people who are the hardest to reach by phone and the hardest to get answers from via email—that is, the ones complaining are the ones who are least available to remote workers!
There are many public instant messaging programs I have seen used successfully as a remote worker including Yahoo Instant Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Google Talk, Microsoft Messenger, Skype, and ICQ. Some companies will block these public services for various reasons, but company-internal solutions are provided in their place. Open-source solutions are available for both servers (Openfire, ejabberd) and clients (Pidgin, Adium).
(Not a) Solution: Voice Chat
The reason I do not consider voice chat to be a solution to this problem with telecommuting is because voice chat is treated the same as the telephone. Communication via voice chat is a formal situation. In fact, it is easier to ignore a voice chat request than a ringing telephone. Other difficulties I have encountered with audio-only solutions include connection quality, accents, and poor enunciation. These are compounded when multiple people are on either end since it can be difficult to distinguish voices.
To be clear, I am not saying that voice chat or telephone should never be used. For formal discussions, they are effective. Relying primarily on voice chat or telephone for all communication with remote workers can create or contribute to the “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” anti-pattern because it lacks informality and spontaneity.
(Sometimes a) Solution: Video Chat
Video chat has similar problems to audio chat, but the visual component gives users a more thorough way of communicating. For example, co-workers can observe body language and share screens. Being able to see your co-workers makes them more “real,” so they are no longer “out of sight.” However, video chat still does not encourage the informality and spontaneity that is necessary to fully break the anti-pattern. Skype is the most well known and widely used video chat program. Google Hangouts are a fascinating way to handle group video chat since a hangout allows everyone to see each other.
Solution: Group Text Chat
By group text chat, I mean text chat as mentioned before with instant messenger, but where multiple team members are involved simultaneously. Every message sent by each participant is seen by every other participant. By relying on text, difficulties with audio do not happen. With the text medium, participants can keep up with the entire conversation with only infrequent glances rather than having to focus on it constantly.
Most interestingly, putting multiple people on a long-running text chat results in a significant increase in spontaneous chatter and informal interactions. Sometimes that chatter is non-work related such as commentary on current events, family news, or sports. More often, however, such conversations are pertinent observations and questions about co-workers, design decisions, and company direction. What I have just described is the water cooler effect, and that is exactly the type of spontaneous and informal communication that is needed to break this anti-pattern.
Skype’s group text chat has an additional telecommuting best practice feature that is worth highlighting: When a chat participant logs into Skype, the history of the group chat is updated so that the participant can see all the missed messages. This even allows team members working significantly different hours to be able to contribute to and be aware of the conversations that have been going on.
When I looked for an open-source solution to Skype’s history-caching group chat, I discovered that the Openfire chat server has the same features.
In one of my previous employments, the company actually mandated that everyone use Skype and remain logged in whenever possible. One group chat included every member of the company, which was used for global announcements. Other group chats for specific offices were used the same way. Occasionally, these group chats would pick up idle chatter, so some were created specifically for such random banter. Also, different teams would have their own group chats, and whenever an issue requiring high attention and visibility arose, another group would be created just for that issue. With this arrangement current events as well as critical customer issues were all easily communicated, and I was able to learn more about the individual tastes of my local and remote co-workers. Whenever I had a question, all I had to do was ask it in the right chat for someone to answer. Every morning I would be able to catch up on the conversations I had missed during the night. My productivity was enhanced, decision processes were transparent, and I was able to build better relationships with telecommuting co-workers in different locations.
At a later job, I was one of several new team members and some of us were remote. The senior team member with the most knowledge of the codebase did not use instant messenger and did not answer the phone. Anytime one of us remote workers needed an answer from him, we found ourselves asking a local worker to go to the senior member’s cubicle and ask for us. Our manager heard many complaints about the inaccessibility of this senior member. This is a common telecommuting issue. I made a pitch to use Skype group chat to improve communication. All the new team members joined quickly. It took a month to get our manager to connect and a couple more along with many requests before the senior team member finally joined. He hated the interruptions, so he would only rarely log in. The new team members became very familiar with each other, however, and we started working around the senior team member’s recalcitrance by sharing our knowledge and answering each other’s questions.
Breaking the “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” anti-pattern and rectifying this con of telecommuting requires every team member to make an effort and be available to all co-workers. The combination of availability, informality, and spontaneity helps strengthen your bond with both remote and local colleagues
You Better Be Like Me
Fred is annoyed that he cannot find Sue one Friday afternoon at four. Fred discovers she left for a family weekend campout. In an attempt to address this problem, Fred calls a mandatory meeting at 5:30 p.m. that following Friday. As Sue is getting ready to sign off for the evening to go to her daughter’s concert, she receives the notice for that meeting—at 8:30 p.m. Fred is in the pacific time zone; Sue is in the eastern time zone.
The essence of the “You Better Be Like Me” anti-pattern occurs when one assumes or expects all co-workers to act the same as you would. This can be a problem even amongst telecommuting and co-located workers alike! For example, one may like to begin work early and leave early whereas another prefers to come in later and stay later. Lunchtime for a manager might be noon, but one team member prefers to take lunch at 1:30 p.m. A high-energy team lead schedules an 8:00 a.m. status meeting on Monday only to discover that several team members have yet to arrive, and those who are present are bleary-eyed, nursing their coffee cups, and silent.
For remote workers, this anti-pattern can undo all the advantages of telecommuting while simultaneously destroying their own quality of life. A time-zone difference of three hours could mean that a remote worker could be beginning the day just as the team members are leaving to go to lunch. A team member located in China cannot be contacted because the entire country is observing a weeklong holiday. Regular afternoon meetings in the United States are in the middle of the night in India. Daylong trainings one week can prevent remote workers from ever seeing their children as the trainings take up their entire afternoon and evening.
Forms and Variants
The primary form of this anti-pattern is the self-centered team member. This is the person who thinks 3:30 p.m. is a perfect meeting time without considering that many local co-workers will be experiencing their afternoon energy low or that remote co-workers will be sitting down to eat dinner. Such a meeting becomes a waste of everyone’s time since no one wants to be there other than the organizer.
The more insidious form of this anti-pattern is the conformist, such as Fred in the example above who expects everyone to conform to his schedule and is offended whenever someone does not. Such a person tries to force others into a preferred pattern of behavior, usually leading to resentment and passive or active rebellion.
A variant on this telecommuting issue that can occur is the “Always On Call.” Customer issues reported during off-hours result in workers being called in to work during non-working hours. This can happen to both local and remote workers, of course, but remote workers can usually get their hands on the issue quicker since they are mere seconds away from their work environment. In the worst case, workers are not paid or given any other compensation such as comp time leading to resentment and reduction in productivity from overworking.
Another variant is “All Hands On Deck” where an emergency situation is encountered and the kneejerk response is to contact every team member to investigate the issue at the same time. This becomes even more complicated if the team members are not communicating resulting in duplicate efforts and wasted time on dead-end investigation paths. The pathological case occurs when every urgent issue is treated as an emergency.
Break the Pattern
Telecommuting best practices require flexibility on the part of the remote worker, but also requires understanding and consideration from the entire team
Solution: Know Thy Co-Workers
Given that everyone is different and that those differences are what make a team flexible, each member should be aware of his colleagues’ work schedules. Sharing calendars electronically is by far the best way to do this since it allows all co-workers to see available times translated into their own time zone.
Real-time discussions should be made during all participants’ availability whenever possible. When not possible, such discussions should be coordinated well in advance for those who need to work outside of their normal hours. As a good rule, the person who calls the meeting should be the most accommodating to encourage as much participation from others as possible to minimize problems with telecommuting workers.
Discussions that do not require real-time collaboration should be shifted to asynchronous channels, such as email, voice mail, or text chats. Team members will have to be in a habit of reading and responding to such messages in a timely fashion, however, or risk getting asked to attend a meeting at an undesirable time!
Solution: Emergency Response Plan
Urgent is not an emergency! If an issue from an important customer is reported, certainly it is urgent—but that is no emergency. If a deadline is about to be missed, that is certainly important; however, it is rarely urgent and certainly not an emergency—it should have been noticed long ago and steps taken already. If your enterprise network suffers a failure in the middle of peak hours and many customers with Quality of Service contracts are calling you, then that is an emergency for your team.
The following Emergency Response Plan focuses on efficiency and effectiveness. It intentionally bucks formal and bureaucratic hierarchies since such structures are inefficient. The only goal is to resolve the emergency situation, and any scope creep should be refused.
Establish a central point of contact for the issue to manage information and customer service. This person should be a member of the development team, not management, and he or she should be aware of all team members involved and what each is investigating. Going around this person can interrupt investigations and risk timely resolutions. Note that this person does not necessarily direct the activities of the responders
Establish a communal communication between the responders and make it informal to encourage rapid and honest communication. Place the central point of contact in the communication chain and remove anyone who interferes with the investigation. Email can work in a pinch if everyone is following it closely. Google Hangouts is better, and group text chat with a recorded history is best so that the conversation is available to all
Ignore formal organizational structure and titles, and let the responder structure occur naturally. Likely the person who appears to take charge is the one with the most knowledge, which is the ideal. Ignore and call out anyone who attempts to grandstand, pull rank, or stroke ego. Someone should step in only if personalities are taking precedence over effectiveness.
The team of emergency responders should begin only with those immediately available. The responders determine who else needs to be called in on an ad-hoc basis. If it becomes clear that a responder has nothing more to contribute, remove that person from the response team or assign a supporting role to him.
Whenever someone needs a break, give it to him. Good solutions do not occur under pressure. When a team member is stressed and tired, his creativity and analytical skills deteriorate rapidly
Work the issue only until it is no longer an emergency—not until it is fixed! Whatever the solution to the emergency is, it needs to be reviewed at a later time when team members are thinking more clearly
Regardless of whether you follow these telecommuting tips or not, acknowledge everyone’s contributions, celebrate the success, and give everyone ample time to recover. If team members canceled personal plans or missed family time, find a way to more than make it up to them in a way that is important to them. Consider this: you want your emergency responders to be positive, upbeat, focused, and eager to shine. If they are making a sacrifice, they should be rewarded. If instead they receive no benefit in return, they will be more inclined to ignore the call next time
Solution: When in Rome
When extended real-time interaction is required, such as instructor-led training, team building, project planning, or group exercises, then consider bringing all workers to one location for that time period. Make an effort to overcome obstacles such as budget constraints and scheduling conflicts. For those team members who must attend remotely, this is the time to use high-end teleconferencing equipment. A quality video and audio feed should be provided to let remote workers see all local participants, and vice-versa.
To be clear, I am saying that a speakerphone is choppy low-resolution video is insufficient. You want everyone to feel like their remote colleagues are full participants, not adjuncts being asked to observe as best they can. High definition video might not be possible with laptop-integrated webcams, and it certainly takes up a good chunk of bandwidth. Making this work might require an outlay for equipment and higher throughput at either or both local and remote locations. Plan ahead; make sure this is all in place and tested before your first remote worker is on the job.
For remote workers, working the off-hours to attend these meetings might be an inconvenience; however, keep in mind that these are the same hours one would work on-site. As a remote worker, make the same schedule adjustments as if you had travelled. Let family and friends know you are virtually “travelling” for work those days. Adjust your sleep patterns to match that of your team. Make a point of grooming and dressing, and tidy up your work area.
Solution: Pay It Forward
When a co-worker has a problem, help them solve it, and in turn, that colleague will help you when you need it.
Consider this: You are working on something very important, and then you come across a stumbling block, say a block of code you don’t understand or some module you need to interact with in a particular way but you don’t know how. Given time, you know you can figure it out—but you also know that your co-worker Sam is familiar with this part of the program and five minutes with him would probably save you five hours of your time. You send Sam an instant message. Sam notices it, stops what he’s doing, chats you up for a couple minutes and peeks at the code or you share your screen to show him the problem. Ten minutes later, you have your answer! Sam gave you some pointers, and you traded a few comments or programming jokes about legacy code.
Another common problem for telecommuting workers: suddenly, a machine on-site has stopped responding to you. You think it needs to be rebooted, but you can’t just walk over and press the reset button. Someone on-site needs to do that, and you don’t even care who that is. You drop a message into the group text chat, “Hey, can someone please check x.y.z?” and seconds later one of your co-workers sends back “Checking!” Problem solved.
Your co-workers are collaborators, not distractions. These interruptions are instructive, not disruptive. Team members should be available to assist each other at all times during normal working hours. Helping lets you learn the strengths and weaknesses of your co-workers. More importantly, when the time comes for you to ask for help, your co-worker will prioritize helping you, and that is what you really want, right? If you need some focus time, then log out of instant messenger and tell people to call you on the phone if you are needed—and be sure to take such calls if they happen. In the event that you are unable to take calls, check your email and voicemail frequently, and answer them promptly. Trust that your co-workers are contacting you because they need you, and in turn, they will be there when you need them.
This is not a best practice that is restricted to telecommuting. In fact, this solution is just as applicable to local co-workers as it is remote, but it is easier for a local co-worker to walk right up to you and ask and much harder for you to ignore. Further, this particular solution is not just a solution to the anti-pattern. It is also a solution to relationships and to problems in life. When a friend asks for help, you stop what you are doing and help. In return, when you ask for help, your friend helps you in the same capacity. Even strangers will help each other when asked. We are not alone, nor are we meant to do things alone. If you hold others up when they stumble and pull them up when they fall, then you will find you are holding the world in your hands.
Located in Heathrow, FL, United States
Member since May 24, 2013
About the author
Steven is an expert Java architect and developer with extensive experience in distributed architectures, scalable solutions, and more.