Telecommuting and the Importance of Face-to-Face Time by Adam Roben

Posted by Bill Cushard on April 03, 2014

by Bill Cushard (@BillCush)
transcribed a speech by Adam Roben (@aroben) at Monktoberfest 2013

future of work? telecommuting and working from home The Future of Work?

One of the beautiful things about the Internet and collaborative technologies is the ease with which it empowers people to work from anywhere in the world. It is stress-reducing to think about working from home to avoid a brutal urban commute. It is glamorous to think about working from a distant, beach-side bungalow and changing our lifestyle completely. Dare to dream. But working remotely is not without perils. The phrase, "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" comes to mind.

Telecommuting is Not New

We think of working remotely as a phenomenon of the Internet age, but the term "telecommuting" is not a new one. It was coined in 1972 by Jack Nilles of NASA. Though not new, working remotely has been a hot topic lately, culminating in one of Marissa Mayer's first decisions to eliminate remote working at Yahoo.

It is fitting and timely that Adam Roben, a developer at Github, gives his Monktoberfest 2013 talk on the importance of face-to-face time. Roben tells three stories about how he worked remotely in two different organizations without "becoming sad, angry, and a lonely person." What makes his talk interesting is to hear Roben talk of his experience working remotely at Apple, a company well-known for not having remote workers. In an age of distributed work teams, Apple has plans to put 85% of all of its employees in one building. Incredible to think that is even possible. So, when it comes to credibility on a subject, Roben has it. If someone can arrange to work remotely at an organization that discourages it, and do it successfully, I am going to listen.

After discussing how he successfully worked remotely at Apple and discovering the importance of face-to-face time, Roben continues his talk about his experiences working remotely at GitHub, which is on the opposite end of the work remotely/work in the office continuum. Imagine working remotely in a place that does not value remote work and then working remotely at a place that was designed for remote work. What could be the common denominator?

Face-to-face time.

After citing scientific studies, Roben paints a clear picture of the benefits of face-to-face time in being productive at work. He cites a quote from Charles Handy of the London Business School which makes the point beautifully, "Paradoxically, the more virtual an organization becomes, the more its people need to meet in person...[These meetings] are the necessary lubricants of virtuality."

"Paradoxically, the more virtual an organization becomes, the more its people need to meet in person...[These meetings] are the necessary lubricants of virtuality."

- Charles Handy, London Business School cited in Adam Roben's presentation slides.

Whether or not working remotely is a good thing, there is no doubt that face-to-face time is vital. It ignites relationships that have fizzled over time and helps distributed teams regain productivity that is inevitably lost over time.

Be Intentional

The most valuable lesson in this talk is not the debate about which is better, working remotely or working in the office. The most important lesson is that the decision must be a deliberate one. Think about it this way, whereas Apple and GitHub have very different businesses, one thing is certain. Each company is very successful and each, as Roben discusses in his talk, made an intentional decision about their working model: Apple to be on campus and GitHub to be distributed. Both models have strengths and weaknesses. The secret to success is to select one and do it intentionally.

What do you think about working remotely versus working in the office? In an ideal world, what would work best for you? What have your experiences been?


telecommute cartoon

Topics: Monktoberfest

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