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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Five Nonobvious Remote Work Techniques

Very interesting piece in Queue and the Communications of the ACM, Nov 2020,  pp 108-110.  Take the problem beyond the technical and to the collaboratively social.    From experiences at Stack Overflow.  Well Worth the read.

Five Nonobvious Remote Work Techniques   001:10 .1145/3410627

Emulating the efficiency of in-person conversations   By Thomas A. Limoncelli   This article reveals five nonobvious techniques that make remote work successful at Stack Overflow.

Remote work has been part of the engineering culture at Stack Overflow since the company began. Eighty percent of the engineering department works remotely. This enables the company to hire top engineers from around the world, not just from the New York City area. (Forty percent of the company worked remotely prior to the COVID-19 lockdown; 100 percent during the lockdown.) Even employees who do not work remotely must work in ways that are remote-friendly.

For some companies, working remotely was a new thing when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns began. At first the problems were technical: IT departments had to ramp up VPN (virtual private network) capacity, human resources and infosec departments had to adjust policies, and everyone struggled with microphones, cameras, and videoconferencing software.

Once those technical issues are resolved, the social issues become more apparent. How do you strike up a conversation as you used to do in the office? How do you know when it is appropriate to reach out to someone? How do you prevent loneliness and isolation?

Here are my top five favorite techniques Stack Overflow uses to make remote work successful on a social level.

Tip #1: If Anyone is Remote, We're All Remote

Meetings should be either 100 percent in-person, or 100 percent remote; no mixed meetings.

Ever been in a conference room with a bunch of people plus one person participating by phone or videoconference? It never works. The one remote participant can't hear the conversation, can't see what everyone else is seeing, and so on. He or she can't authentically participate.

At Stack Overflow we recognized this years ago and adopted a rule: If one person is remote, we're all remote. This means everyone who is physically present leaves the conference room, goes back to their desks, and we conduct the meeting using desktop videoconferencing.

During the COVID-19 lockdown your entire company may be remote, but this is a good policy to adopt when you return to the office.

This may not be an option for companies with open floor plans, however, where participants videoconferencing from their desks may disturb their neighbors. How can you make mixed meetings work? Where I've observed them working well required two ingredients: First, the conference-room design was meticulously refined and adjusted over time (this is rarer—and more expensive—than you would think); second, and the biggest determinant, was the degree to which all those in the meeting were aware of the remote participants. It requires a learned skill of being vigilant for clues that someone is having difficulty in participating and then taking corrective action. Everyone, not just the facilitator, needs to be mindful of this. ... "

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