How can remote working be as good as co-location?

We don’t think it can.

First, let’s define terms. For our purposes here, we are using these terms to mean:

Team: a team works together to produce a common product as a shared outcome. Just because they report to  the same manager doesn’t make them a team – often they’re more a guild/chapter of people who do the same job, working independently.

Remote working: working in physically separated places on a permanent basis, with physical meetings being less than monthly or not at all.

Working from home: working in physically separated places regularly or occasionally, for only a part of the working week, or for only some weeks of a month.

Co-located work: working with the rest of the team in the same physical building.

Good: remote working might be more satisfying for the individual, but we define “good” in terms of the productivity of the team. This includes the throughput and quality of the product, and the efficiency and effectiveness of the team.

Murals: we use this word to mean any representation of work on a wall: kanban, obeya, strategy, A3…

Given that definition of remote working, we at Teal Unicorn feel that it can’t possibly be as good for a team as co-located working (which may include options for working from home when appropriate for the task).

Therefore, we find it puzzling that many people are champions of remote working. We genuinely want to understand how that can be the case.

We offer these reasons for why we doubt it is as good: (We got some of these from Dr Richard Claydon in a comment on LinkedIn which I cant find again)

  1. The Lizard Brain.   We are animals. We build trust by sharing air and food. There is no substitute for physically meeting each other.
  2. Social bonding. We list this over and above the Lizard Brain. At a conscious level, there are real benefits in spending time with people out of work, even if it is only over lunch, or at a farewell coffee and cake, or a cigarette in the carpark, to get to know them better as an individual, as a human.
  3. Serendipity. The power of co-location comes as much from the accidental benefits as the obvious ones. There is a reason why people converge on cities: face time, to be near potential. The revelation over the water-cooler, the essential information overheard in the open plan space, the plan on a wall…
  4. Information radiators. Digital representations of work are never as good as analogue physical ones, especially when problem solving. A room full of whiteboards, post-its, charts, murals, and written notes is vastly more informationally dense than a confusing mass of windows on a screen.  It’s hard enough to work out who is talking on a call, let alone what they are pointing at.
  5. Transparency. It is seldom deliberate, but people always filter what they communicate according to their own internal perceptive lens and cognitive biases. The narrower the communication channels, the more distorted the picture. You get a different view of what somebody is doing when you interact in a common space than when you talk in a video call once a day.

So what is happening that creates champions of remote working?  We think it is these effects:

  1. It is “good enough”. The job gets done, without the realisation that the work is sub-optimal compared to co-location.  The personal benefits obscure the limitations.
  2. Some supporters are not actually working in a team: they’re not collaborating much, or they’re doing independent jobs.
  3. IT is pioneering remote working, especially software development and support. IT tends to attract introverts more than most sectors.  More IT techs will be happy with remote working than average.

To accept that remote working can be optimal for a team with a shared outcome means accepting that humans can collaborate without regular human contact, with the complexity of relationships constrained by digital communication channels.  So far we can’t accept that, though we are listening.  Enlighten us.