Despite growing aversion to remote work in the tech community, with some emotional intelligence and consideration distributed teams can be just as effective and even more inclusive than traditional in-office teams.
Remote Work for Social Creatures
The latest trend in work politics, at least around the tech community that I’m a part of, is the reversal of a once-treasured practice of allowing engineers to work from home. Articles about the death of remote work are frequently appearing not just in tech journals, but in mainstream news sources like this one. A stereotype is rapidly emerging that casts remote workers as anti-social recluses, loners who can’t function as part of an effective team.
Many have had bad experiences incorporating remote workers, and it’s true that a team can’t work the same way as when gathering together in an office at the same time. This doesn’t mean that they cannot work as well, but they do need to work differently. That curveball has thrown off many a team, especially those who have blended local and remote members. Rather than making informed decisions based on what is best for their teams, offices are reacting by cutting the concept off entirely — calling remote workers back into the office and filling the cubicles once again.
Not All Remote Workers
On the surface, this may seem like the easy answer to the communication problems and missed opportunities that plague teams with remote workers. For some, however, this introduces a whole new set of problems. In reality, there are a variety of reasons why people work from home. Only some of them are by choice. Many need to work from home because of family situations, medical challenges, or a number of other things that make it difficult to commute to the office every day.
In addition, many who need to work from home are just as extroverted and social as those who come into the office, and they struggle with the inherent challenges of remote work. The stigma they face each day only serves to deepen that challenge, building a sense of shame about something they may not have even chosen.
The Conference Crisis
As you may be able to tell, I’m speaking from a place of experience. I’m a moderately extroverted person, but I choose to work from home to support my family’s special needs better than I could if I was regularly commuting. I didn’t realize the significant toll this was taking on me until I had to miss a celebrated local conference — Develop Denver — at the last moment because my wife was sick.
The situation caused the ever-present depression that I struggle with to show up in a severe way. Compounding the problem was the guilt and shame that I felt just for feeling depressed. Here we encounter another social stigma much more deeply entrenched than that against home workers — the stigma against those who suffer from depression and other psychological maladies.
A Damaging Perspective
Many of us deal with severe challenges in our day to day lives. Our society has had a tendency throughout its history to downplay those struggles and present our lives to each other in as flawless a light as we can portray. This is not a new phenomenon triggered by the prevalence of social media and easy access through mobile devices. This attitude of rugged individualism has saturated many cultures over time, and it cultivates a sense of defeat when we inevitably face challenges because it seems that we’re alone in our struggles.
The perception is often that depression, anxiety, and other psychological afflictions are failures of character. People who struggle with them are often perceived as self-centered and petty. In the meantime, we resist sharing our own challenges because we don’t want to be seen in that light.
It’s Okay to Struggle
In reality, we have no idea what the people we interact with from day to day are actually facing in their lives. My own situation is mild compared to the severe challenges that many deal with on a day to day basis, but my experience raising two children on the autism spectrum has led to severe depression and anxiety over the years — something I was completely unprepared for.
My 7-year old son also suffers from a condition called Intermittent Explosive Disorder, and he can swing in an instant from the sweet, compassionate little boy that we know into an aggressive and potentially violent fit. His extreme remorse for these episodes and the variety of other difficulties my children struggle with — along with the herculean task my incredible wife takes on to manage their care with a myriad of providers — weighs on my heart like I’d never imagined and has introduced me to a relentless world of anxiety that I never understood before.
Yet, other people are overcoming obstacles that are a whole lot more debilitating than mine. Many of you reading this article may be giving yourself a wry smile because you know I don’t understand true affliction, and hopefully I never will. It’s important to recognize suffering as a natural and unavoidable part of life, and we can’t always know what those around us are going through. There’s a lot that we can to do support those around us, though.
Embracing Emotional Intelligence
The first step is casting off the cultural aversion against sharing emotions and being honest about our issues. It’s natural to experience emotional consequences from the chaos and turmoil that inevitably finds everyone in life. It’s much more about physical brain chemistry than it is a reflection of character. In modern times we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of the relationship between the myriad of receptors in our brains and how they influence our mood and behavior. It’s clear that our brains maintain a delicate balance — and no amount of personal character, willpower, or sheer determination can right that balance when it’s too far out of place.
With some understanding of emotions and psychology in general, it’s easy to see how these struggles are a natural part of life. Armed with that knowledge, we can support each other in much better ways if we cast off the stigma and talk more openly about what we deal with in life. We don’t have to turn into an office Eeyore and cast a cloud of gloom over the team, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be honest about our personal life and share when we’re going through something troubling.
As we start to build a culture around admitting imperfection and supporting each other through struggles, this will lead to better teams, better communities, and a better industry overall. Rather than trying to overcome challenges in isolation and present an idyllic facade, we should be more comfortable acknowledging that we all face adversity and we can get through it so much better together.
With a mindset of openness and support, we can approach the conundrum of remote work with a renewed perspective. Rather than applying blanket policies and a one-size-fits-all mentality, we can weigh the tradeoffs and adopt strategies that fit the specific situation. There may be times when remote work truly is too great a roadblock for a team to overcome without a sufficient reward. I believe in many situations remote work can solve a lot of problems and still support a very effective, collaborative team structure.
One way to grow a remote-friendly culture in our teams and our communities is to cultivate a remote-first mindset. Focus on asynchronous communication, and always be considerate of others’ time and focus. Embrace tools that make asynchronous communication easier and planning more visible. Support individual autonomy and personal responsibility, removing barriers of access and authority when they are just slowing down momentum and blocking progress.
Inclusive and Effective
With some dedication and experimentation, your team can find the right workflow that works for everyone. The needs of the many shouldn’t always outweigh the needs of the few. A little extra coordination and communication can help a diverse team be even more productive than a traditional one. It can allow everyone the benefits of personal consideration and understanding, and build great harmony in teamwork that really shows in the finished product!