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Remote Work Stole Our Foundation

I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal remote work setup lately, and also about the organizational setup that my tech teams are using to work together.

When most of us still worked in collocated office spaces, there were many organizational features that we didn’t even realize were there and that we took for granted.

And it doesn’t matter that the pandemic started more than a year ago. It’s never too late to reflect on what can still be improved, and apply changes for the better.

I distilled it down to the following features.

1. The synchronization of time and location

People are in the same physical space and have overlapping working hours.

2. The unexpected and lucky transmission of information

People are sharing information via tribal channels, during breaks and informal encounters.

3. The availability and interruptibility of colleagues

Anyone can just walk to anyone and pull them into a quick conversation or whiteboarding session instantly.

4. The feeling of bonding and belonging

Proximity, which implies sharing the same space and interacting in person, is key to the kind of relationship building that will make a group of people bond and feel like they belong together. This can only happen when spending large amounts of time together, in both formal and informal settings.

5. Interpersonal recognition and appreciation

Once you’ve bonded with a group of colleagues, they give you smiles and they tell you “thank you” when you help them with something. These little moments of appreciation might seem like nothing, but they’re a great part of what is fueling personal reward in many of us.

6. Getting a sense of how your people are doing

In a collocated office environment, as a manager, it’s easy to get a sense for what is the current mood in your teams. All you have to do is look around and scan for people’s faces and you can know almost instantly if something is not going right.

But when working remotely, you no longer have this option to “sense the floor,” and detecting conflicts, burnouts, and other issues can take a long time, sometimes so long that when you finally become aware of them, they’re no longer fixable and all you can do is clean up the mess.

How to address those features in an all-remote setup

With the pandemic forcing many of us into an all-remote setup, the nice features of the collocated office environment have been lost.

Now, I’m not saying that office work is better than remote work, and neither am I saying the opposite. They are different and have pros and cons. My point here is that when working remotely, simply adding video calls over the old collocated office processes isn’t going to cut it.

The features of collocated work form an invisible foundation that make creative and collaborative work possible.

Most teams don’t even realize that when they switched to an all-remote setup, they lost their organizational foundation, and that their work processes which relied on it are slowly but surely collapsing.

The only hope for tech teams to be effective in a remote setup is to replace the features of collocated work with remote equivalents and build a new foundation.

That’s why I figured it’s so crucial that I spend time reflecting on how to keep adapting myself and my organization to a remote-first mindset.

GitLab’s course How to Manage a Remote Team has been an excellent source of inspiration for me. You should take this course even if you’re not a manager.

My goal with my process of reflection is to make sure my tech teams are as effective as possible while enabling people to enjoy their work and sustain in the long run without risking burnout.

I’ve prepared an adaptation plan for my organization which I’ll be sharing very soon in another article.

In the meantime, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the topic. What foundational aspects of collocated office environments do you think needs to taken care of in an all-remote setup? Drop a comment below!

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Published inLeadership and Management

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