Sunday, December 7, 2008

Thoughts on Working Remotely

I've done quite a bit of thinking this weekend about remote work arrangements, and specifically how to evaluate whether tasks can be (effectively) done remotely. My thought is that tasks that can be most successfully done remotely have three qualities:
  • They can be done asynchronously; they do not require multiple peoples' attention at the same time.
  • They are not urgent; they do not require immediate attention.
  • They do not require access to specialized equipment.
Asynchronous tasks can be done without involving two or more people at the same time. Unfortunately, some activities simply cannot be done asynchronously. At Deere, we have monthly in-person performance-review meetings. Part of the value that these meetings provide is the opportunity to sit down with your supervisor and discuss goals (both career-related and within the current position) and to converse about job progress. Could this be done via email? Perhaps. Could this be done effectively over email? Likely not.

Likewise, tasks which require someone's immediate attention are difficult to do remotely, whereas tasks which do not require immediate attention can allow for more flexibility. For examples, let's turn to the medical profession. A doctor at a hospital might have a rather inflexible schedule. When he hears "Level 1 trauma. ETA 6 minutes by air." come over the loudspeaker, he has very little time to prepare and must respond immediately. Next week is not an option. Conversely, a primary care physician can schedule appointments with some flexibility. As an example, let's suppose I need to have a physical examination for work, before the end of next February. The doctor has quite a bit of latitude in scheduling me; in this case he is quite flexible. How flexible work is determines whether a person can work on a schedule different from his colleagues'.

Finally, many jobs require specialized equipment which could inhibit the ability to perform a role from a remote location. A physicist measuring the electrical properties of crystals would probably need highly specialized equipment, which could not easily be transported to a remote location. An astronomer, however, might be able to remotely access the computer she uses to control a radio telescope and could do her job just as easily from her office as she could from a beach in Australia.

That said, when identifying activities which can be done remotely, one must ask the following questions:
  • Do I need to collaborate with others in real-time? How often must this happen? Can this be done effectively via technology such as videoconferencing?
  • Am I required to respond quickly to critical issues? How timely must my responses be? Can I be available via cell phone or blackberry to respond to these issues?
  • Do I require specialized equipment to do my job? Is there a way that I can access this specialized equipment remotely?

I'd be interested to hear what readers think about this. I'd like to find a good way to evaluate activities, based on these dimensions, to see if they can be done remotely.

1 comment:

Liz said...

I've done a lot of remote work and also took a class on Computer Supported Cooperative Work this semester. While I think the points you've raised are the foundation of the issue, in some ways those are only the tip of the iceberg.

A few other questions I would add to delve into the working with others part would be:

What is the duration of this working arrangement?

Is there an opportunity to meet in person and build rapport and understanding of one another's styles and needs, establish common ground, etc.?

If communication (real time or not) will need to take place remotely to support this work, what mediums are available and what are the trade-offs of each?

Anyhow, there is a wealth of information on these topics if you look up CSCW. I'd be happy to send you some academic papers if you're interested.

Thanks for the distraction from my take home final!