July 8, 2022
Summary: This post focuses on the logic of employers requiring employees to be in the office in instances where the employee doesn’t work with any people in that office. The employees are asked to trade remote work in one environment (home) to go to work in an employer’s office. In either case, there is no one to physically collaborate with. Employers have a hard time making the argument against remote work in this situation.
Last month I blogged about the current state of remote work and how many employees want to work remotely while many employers like Elon Musk want employees back in the office.
Something that I didn’t mention in that post is that employers have set up a situation where they have to allow remote work. They can’t make an argument against it. Conversely, employees have a pretty strong argument for remote work.
Let me explain.
I had lunch with a colleague of mine from a major fast-food company headquartered in Chicago. He told me he is back to working in the office two days a week. This means he commutes on the train 50 minutes each way, twice a day.
Interestingly, he doesn’t work with anyone at his company headquarters. He is responsible for a team that is distributed around the globe and he is the only member from the US.
Sure he might bump into a colleague at the coffee machine (they do have free coffee). Or he might overhear a conversation that adds to his knowledge. But it won’t be about his current team or initiative. It won’t be those osmotic communications that Alistair Cockburn described in his excellent book.
What is the point of going in to work at the company’s office if you don’t interact with anyone there? You may as well stay home.
The root of this issue is the decision to staff a team with people from around the globe. The thinking goes like this – “The work is important. Let’s get our best people on it.”
Then you pull together that winning team with people from all over the globe. Never mind that the team rarely ever works together. Instead, they are all doing their part remotely. In some cases, half of the team is asleep while the other half works.
The argument for staffing a team like this is that we have just the right people on the team. There is also the factor that we can staff the team with lower-cost people that live outside the United States. That is a Human Resources and staffing policy that is probably similar to what you have at your company.
One of the first agile coaches I ever worked with was Alex Deborin. I recall a conversation with Alex from back in 2010 about forming agile teams. We were ramping up a program of 8 agile teams with representatives from around the globe. I remember talking about how we planned to align the teams by functionality and expertise. We didn’t consider co-location as a factor.
Alex wisely recommended that we build teams that could be co-located. In other words, try to create whole agile teams capable of end-to-end delivery based on where people were sitting. Rather than having the “perfect” mix of people, distributed around the globe, it would be better to create teams that can be co-located and work together. We could use cross-training to bridge the skill gap.
You see Alex knew that the location of team members and the ability to communicate quickly and richly was more important than having a distributed team with all the right skills.
Most employers today don’t think like Alex. They ignored location when staffing their teams. Instead, they staff teams based on keeping everyone busy or lowering the cost of people. They treated the team location and distribution as if it doesn’t matter.
Perhaps those organizations believe that modern communication tools will bridge the gap. Location does matter and tools don’t help, as the Allen Curve showed in my previous post on this topic.
By ignoring location, companies have created a situation like that of my lunch buddy. They really can’t make the argument against remote work. Why should people show up at the office if they don’t work with the people in that office?