Afraid of The Invisible Man (or the Remote IT Worker)?

Whenever I travel extensively and am naturally engaged in a remote working relationship with my colleagues from head office, I experience first-hand the chief tenet of our firm’s value proposition to clients: that with a little know-how just about anybody can tap into and benefit from a remote workforce. Whether you’re already part of a distributed IT organization with geographically dispersed teams, or you wish to engage remote workers in order to source or supplement skills that are locally scarce or unavailable, or whether you’re in the market to save money with offshoring, a number of key Do’s and Don’ts apply.

Although there are different engagement models when it comes to working remotely (e.g., managing a remote individual or stand-alone team vs. managing that individual or team as part of a larger and by definition even more distributed team), and hence different best-practice prescriptions exist for how to maximize the chances of a successful engagement, I will share a list of common success factors that make up what I call the “Parity Principle.”

For the sake of argument, our Parity Principle says that in order to make working with a remote person (located say in Buenos Aires, Argentina) as effective as working with someone in the proverbial cubicle next door, there is additional requisite behavioral activity that, when conducted properly, creates efficiency that, over time, offsets the “cost” of the behavioral change required in the first place. While there is in fact a scientific basis for measuring changes in management behavior and concomitant productivity levels, I will give you a commonsensical intuition for what this principle is all about.

Imagine you’re an IT manager and you’ve just called up your local recruiter to help fill an open, say highly specialized and three-month position with a local consultant. The contractor now reports for duty on Monday morning, and is presumably given a desk to work and shown a tour of the facilities, while you collect your thoughts on how best to familiarize, indoctrinate, and instruct your newest team member in order to make him or her as productive as possible on the task at hand. Communication with the consultant on the first day, for the first week, or for that matter for the entire three-month duration, can be spontaneous, on an as-needed basis in order to answer any questions or resolve any issues. And then there is always the iconic water cooler around which co-workers congregate for informal team discussions, and where even a slight gesture or expression of frustration can be more meaningful than a red-flagged item on the project’s Gantt chart. And lastly, you keep regular taps on your consultant using the most effectual management technique known since Peter Ferdinand Drucker left his native Vienna: managing by walking around (in other words, a quick stroll to the cubicle, a quick status check, a look at the screen, and you’re in the know again).

Now compare and contrast the situation with a remote IT worker. All the management activities are the same, but in general everything takes a little more preparation, a little more formality (watch out water cooler, here comes the water wiki!), and a little more follow-up. The Parity Principle now asserts that all that “little more” that is required to manage in a distributed work environment will accrue to the overall benefit of the project and the team (tangible results through a slight perhaps but measurable increase in standardization, formalization, and day-to-day discipline). A short-list of the most common success factors then looks like the following:

  • Planning (on behalf of the local manager);
  • Communication;
  • Collaboration tools;
  • Proactivity (on behalf of the remote IT worker);
  • Governance processes for a distributed IT environment.

In my next blog I will discuss these key factors in detail and within the offshore context. Of course, the world of work is rife with anecdotes of how, for example, communication with the “invisible worker” can be especially challenging when not only bridging geographic but in addition cultural distances. (An old favorite comes to mind that chronicles the travails of a German radio operator at high seas fielding the desperate plea for help of a sinking American vessel; listening in anguish to the repeated “Help, we are sinking” calls, he finally musters the courage to respond in English: “Yes, I hear you, but what are you sinking about?”)