Why you should co-locate, not isolate

Finding the balance between remote and co-located work

Karin Dames
Mar 20 · 9 min read

The past week has been a crazy one. All my social interactions were cancelled, my WhatsApp inbox was spammed with fear-based conversations of what-to-do and how to isolate ourselves, and everywhere I looked I saw and heard the wicked “C”-word.

I haven’t isolated myself at all. I have in fact gone out and engaged with people intentionally to fully experience the impact of the pandemic on business owners and the economy.

And even though I’m not isolating myself, I feel isolated. Surrounded with empty streets and closed shops. I don’t like what I see and I think of the impact that this 21 day lock-down will have and who will be impacted most.

I remember an exploratory design thinking workshop with the theme of “the robots are coming”. I’m sad that we waited for the robots to arrive before we took adequate action to shelter those most impacted by it a bit more. Because realistically, if you are not in some way or another in the technology industry, you’re bound to be hard hit by this pandemic.

The robots are here. Enabled by this pandemic.

The robots are here

I love technology and automation and what robots can do for us. I’ve never seen it as a bad thing that the robots will be taking over jobs of people who hate it in any case. But I am against full-time remote work. I see it as a sign of dysfunction. When people don’t actually want to spend time with their colleagues in the office, there’s a big problem.

I’m a rehabilitated digital nomad.

A few (more like 10) years ago I too yearned for the promise of working remotely. I soon however realized it’s not so great as it looks from the outside and that’s why I wrote 3 Reasons Why Remote Work Sucks. I didn’t really want to work remotely. I wanted to get away from the control and red tape and rules. I wanted to get away from the managers who made decisions that impacted me without consulting me or even understanding my (our) challenges.

It took me a few years to figure out why I really like to work with people in a co-located environment rather than remotely. Here’s my journey. First the obstacles you might encounter, followed by some solutions and benefits:

Technology is an amplifier. If you’re a ‘healthy’ team with healthy team dynamics, remote work can be brilliant and empowering. It’s, however, an advanced tool for more mature (responsible) teams. I don’t know about a lot of teams that is advanced enough for remote work. Jumping into remote work without the necessary preparation will amplify your problems much faster than what it solves it.

Remote obstacle #1 — visibility

There was never really the honeymoon period I expected to feel when I started working remotely. At first, I felt immense pressure to show results and look busy online for that odd chance that my boss or team will check in on me when I walk away from my screen for just a few minutes — which always seemed to happen.

What can I say. Murphy is a bitch...

I ended up working more than what I did when I was co-located and spent way more time in front of the screen than before.

In a co-located workplace I could easily be there and do nothing, maybe chatting to a colleague over coffee. Sometimes productively, sometimes less productive, but nevertheless, it was my physical presence that put my managers and teams at ease. Simply being visible made everyone feel safe.

Yet, remotely I was expected to not only be there, but be behind my computer screen and busy typing for all the hours I was expected to work. If you use automated time logging tools you’ll be familiar with this problem and understand that being productive or busy does not necessarily mean that you are typing on your computer.

The moment I was spending time scribbling on a notepad or thinking (about work), but not actively busy, I would receive a ping from my boss just to check in. It sucked.

I felt exhausted at the end of the day and I was less productive than normal, having no space to think or restore.

Remote obstacle #2 — lack of focus

Being aware of this problem I was curious whether it’s a me-only issue or more general. I started observing other people’s behaviors. I noticed how much time was wasted chatting to look busy, but not being productive.

Where in a co-located office I can switch off and focus for a while, in a remote setting it’s much harder with the constant interruptions that causes you to have to multitask and switch between chat and work.

For anyone who’s not familiar with the cost of task-switching, it’s probably the biggest enemy of productivity. Each time you switch it takes on average 15–20 minutes to re-focus on your productive work. In a remote setting, you need to be more responsive to be visible, which means more switching.

The success of remote work depends largely on the level of responsibility and honesty of the team and when a team is new to remote work, most probably they are going to make the most of their newly found freedom from control and do much less.

I’ve experienced responsible team members, but I’ve also had to deal with people working double jobs, hoping you won’t notice (but I always do because my superpower is seeing the invisible), or simply not pulling their weight hoping they can talk their way around it by using vague and confusing language like ‘busy’, ‘stuff’, etc.

Remote obstacle #3 — loneliness

Once I solved these problems, I became aware of the intense loneliness I felt. Doing deep retrospect, and talking to a lot of people, I realized that the number one reason — even higher than getting paid — for people to join a workplace is to satisfy the need for social connection. I heard so many stories of how people stuck out horrible jobs and bosses just because they like their peers. People work for the money, but they stay for the relationships. When there’s no more space to cultivate the relationships, you risk losing good employees.

I missed the water cooler conversations and even the meetings that I had in a co-located work environment.

Remote obstacle #4 — getting answers

Loneliness under control and mechanisms in place to connect in person with people, the third, and very frustrating, obstacle that arose was getting answers.

In a co-located environment when I had a question I would write it in my notebook and when I saw the person I needed to speak to was available, I would walk up to them and ask my question. And got answers.

If we didn’t get answers, we would either call in another set of skills for a different perspective; or brainstorm it in front of a white board until we did. Getting answers was only ever an issue when it involved decision making from the top.

Getting answers when working remotely is by far more challenging. It’s just too easy to ignore a question when it’s not convenient or comfortable to answer. In co-located offices healthy conflict is welcomed, in a dysfunctional remote setting, it’s avoided at all cost. No conflict, no growth.

And no alignment.

Remote obstacle #5 — alignment

Probably the biggest issue of all with remote work is the difficulty in aligning people remotely. Remotely it takes exponentially more time and effort to align a team than in a co-located environment.

In a co-located environment this happens organically, re-enforced and optimized by tools such as a daily stand-up.

In a more mature or agile workplace, there’s little to no need for daily stand-ups as the team’s practiced daily communication enough in order for it to happen organically, not scheduled or planned by a team lead or Scrum Master.

In a remote setting, having group conversations is extremely challenging as even the best tech makes it hard for more than two people to have a flowing conversation. That means you have to have one-on-one conversations with everyone in the team, as well as a team session to synthesize. Remote conversations are better than nothing, but far worse than in-person conversations.

With an entire team working remotely, the team lead or manager will spend most of their time checking in with people, leaving no to little time to focus on strategy, planning and other tasks for future focused growth.

So what to do?

How do you limit your risk of infection (if you believe you might get infected that is) and be productive at the same time?

Small is beautiful

As with all things, there’s a positive side to all the disadvantages and obstacles as a result of this pandemic.

Small teams

Small, cross functional teams are one of the foundational and most basic practices of an agile team. Read more about Why Teams Should be Small and Why Teams Should be Cross-Functional.

Co-locate, but in smaller teams. Break down the large group into 3–8 people (ideally not more than 5), ensuring that you have all the skills in the team to do the work.

Balance Co-locate and Remote

Pendulums go to the extreme right, then extreme left, and finally find balance somewhere in the middle. The same is true with co-locate and remote work.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Remote work isn’t all bad. There are definitely benefits to working remotely. It’s only bad when you rely on it as sole way of working.

I feel the same about co-locate work, as it leaves little room for individuality, restore and rest, and thus creativity. The key is to find that sweet spot between co-located and remote work.

Limit the number of hours or days co-locating rather than throwing it out totally.

Be very clear on goals and objectives

Remote work is only more productive when you know exactly what’s expected from you. Explicitly communicate goals and objectives to the team, in person, as well as in writing.

A very good practice and good advice in any situation, just like washing your hands. It shouldn’t really take a pandemic to point this out.

Know when to work remote and when to co-locate

There are certain types of work and certain phases in a project that is more conducive and productive to work remotely than others. Usually, at the start and end of a project you need to collaborate more.

When things are fuzzy you need to spend more time together than once you know what to do and how your work impacts and relates to others’. At the end of the project, you need to make sure all the loose ends are tied together, and is not a time to work remotely.

When, however, you are clear on your goals, the team is established and roles clarified, it’s often more productive to work remotely.

The same applies to the type of work. For administrative, repetitive work, it’s often more productive to work remotely. When, however, you are exploring unknown territory — either in terms of the tools or technology or the requirements — it’s better to co-locate. As a rule of thumb, when there’s a lot of questions, get together. When there’s few questions, go remote.

An ideal work week contains more co-located days than remote days, with at least a daily check-in when remote.

Keep calm and keep co-locating

In times of volatility, the most useful skill you can have to to stay calm. So don’t run away from all the other human beings around you and self-isolate, rather, keep calm and mindfully co-locate in smaller, more focused and shorter work sessions.

Slow down. Plan. And come up with a remote working strategy that fits your team, your project and your organization.

There’s no one-size-fits-all and remote 100% is risky. Very risky.

Karin Dames

Written by

A cup of fresh ideas for old problems. Integrating technology, agile, gamification & lean to make workplaces more human, productive & fun. www.funficient.com

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