The remote migrant

August 2014

Cottage by the seaNeil Taggart MBCS, CITP, from the BCS Internet Specialist group, leads a team of developers and support engineers, based all around the world (America, Africa, China, Malaysia and the UK), who build and deploy business execution software.

Neil explains why it doesn’t matter where they live or work in this ever shrinking, but digitally expanding world and predicts a global cottage industry boom.

More and more businesses are being born on the internet. In the early days of the internet, geography was still important to small online businesses because they were usually just leveraging an offline presence online to increase their geographical scope.

A widget seller would create a website to promote their product, then upgrade this website to an online catalogue and plug it into a payment solution provider. Some would simply set up a stall on eBay.

Increasingly, though, pure internet players are popping up and growing. The mobile app ecosystems are the most obvious example: app stores provide global reach to small-scale developers, allowing them to gain massive audiences and compete with established global players. However, it’s not just about business models; it’s also about ways of working.

With the advent of cloud computing, small and medium businesses can exploit the robustness and power of data centres without the costly overheads in metal and manpower.

The increases in consumer bandwidth have made peer-to-peer virtual conferencing trivial: it no longer requires specialist kit and expensive dedicated bandwidth. For the software industry this has effectively virtualised the workplace: who cares where your developers are as long as they are productive, accessible and can collaborate?

My team uses online collaboration tools to allocate and update work. This is not some experimental hobby: it is our livelihood, supporting a global team of consultants and thousands of end users. Features and bugs are prioritised, and effort is tracked through discussion and determining whether something is done or not. My team drive hard to work their hours per week, but I don’t track what hours they work.

My guy in Manchester likes to take his dogs for a walk in the afternoon and his daughter to swimming lessons twice a week. Aside from two core hours a day when everyone is expected to be available, they work their own hours, based on what their lives or our clients dictate. And they adapt to share the load, handing off work as time zones dictate.

Discussions are all virtual, sometimes video, often screen-shared. Remote working feels odd initially; it requires us to adapt to a different type of communication, for example, balancing participants on a call: if you need someone, add them to the call, and if you’re no longer needed, excuse yourself to keep the channel clear.

Also it is important to treat calls as interactions rather than calls: on some smaller calls (two to three participants) we stay connected as we work: snippets of dialogue interrupt the silence, but it can feel like a quiet, industrious office. 

After a while we realised that physical presence, while important, is not required as long as you sustain a constant effort to keep in touch - at least a team member a day, and the team weekly - and keep interested in each other: ask about the family and the hobbies. I occasionally video chat with my guy in London’s five year old if he gets home from school while we are on a call. The distance forces stronger engagement, and that’s no bad thing at all once you see the benefits.

Such working practices are arguably an easy adaptation for software developers, who are immersed in the virtual. But what about typical business people? With smartphones and touchscreens, software is pervading all areas of our lives. Non-technology people increasingly use software to communicate, particularly via social networks. And it’s only going to get easier, as apps provoke and provide more and richer ways to connect.

Mentality shift

However, it is not simply about bringing social tools into the enterprise. It’s about challenging the structure of the enterprise itself. The biggest inhibitor is the shift in work mentality. Workers need to lose the nine to five mindset, communicate well and accept adaptability: my team occasionally work extra hours, but they also get downtime, often at social times of day, as long as they don’t leave any team members or clients high and dry.

Managers need to trust their workers, plan in sprints, focus on things that need to be done week by week, rather than day by day, and learn to use time zones advantageously.

So what do such working practices mean at scale, across borders? They mean that my office is wherever it needs to be. It means that I work whatever hours I need to in order to accomplish my mission.

It means that I, as a British-Barbadian, can work for a multi-national business from my small remote Caribbean island, leading a multi-cultural team across the world. In the near future, it will mean that more such opportunities will be open to people like me in small, remote parts of the world, where our location has traditionally inhibited our ability to gain experience and contribute globally.

As we connect more, and learn more, we build our own global businesses, not through colonisation and conquest but through remote collaboration and cooperation, working with people we like, whose cause and values we appreciate, not just because they are nearby. There are significant opportunities here for individuals as well as businesses.

Imagine that you know where your skills could add most value, anywhere in the world at any given time. How would you go about exploiting that opportunity? You might move or travel to that location, but what if you didn’t have to? Would you have the tools to do that work remotely? Probably.

Would you have the skills and attitude to do that work remotely? Probably not - without practice, at least. Now, apply that thought exercise to every team or role in your organisation. The ‘global village’ has long been hampered by the digital divide. Yet, as online education gains credibility and organisations gain online capabilities, teams can become less geography-dependent.

There is currently a gap between our technological and economic capability to connect in many rich ways, and our propensity to conduct business effectively using such methods at all levels in our organisations. This gap is closing rapidly as more digital natives join the workforce, and it is up to leaders in all organisations and even countries, big and small, to ensure that it closes in a way that benefits the company (and country) culture and values, as well as the career ecosystems that sustain them.

Image: Stockbyte/57339805

Comments (3)

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  • 1
    Wayne wrote on 28th Aug 2014

    Hi,

    Interesting article you have. How do you cope with internet connectivity issues with calls dropping out every now and then? Bad screen sharing experience? Are there tools you can recommend?

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  • 2
    Martin Wheatman wrote on 28th Aug 2014

    So where do I sign up? I live in rural Lancashire and am "under-employed", but most of the positions I get contacted over are in London, the south east, or on the continent: remote working would be ideal for me. I still get the impression that the manager who influences the workforce make up - whose central concern is the whereabouts of company IP - requires "bums on seats". Does the necessary trust come from a permanent relationship with an 'employer', or are you really able to fix bugs and add features for many 'clients'? Am I just pushing at an open door?

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  • 3
    Neil T wrote on 29th Aug 2014

    Wayne: the best way to cope with poor internet connectivity is to have a backup medium. By that I mean somewhere online where content is accessible. So we use VisualStudio Online for Agile development, and OneNote for notes/pics etc. So if we have to resort to old telephones, we all have either online or synced access to the content we are discussing.

    Martin: the root of it is trust. Remote working takes a lot of self-discipline and flexibility. If I need to phone my guy in Kuala Lumpur and its 11pm there, I still expect him to answer the phone. That said, if it's just to answer a trivial question that could have waited a day, I'm abusing the trust. I think most managers would rather not have to invest time in building and maintaining the trust balance. My situation is very much built out of necessity, but I have found it to be quite sustainable, with the right people.

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