Create an All-Star Tech Team: Welcome Remote Workers - InformationWeek
IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
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Jessica Davis
Jessica Davis
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Create an All-Star Tech Team: Welcome Remote Workers

Want to recruit the best talent to your team, or the best talent that is willing to relocate? Expert John O'Duinn says you can upgrade your team by opening the door to remote workers, and he offers best practices on how to work with distributed teams.

When you have a job opening on your team, you want to hire the best person for the job -- the right technical skills, a good rapport with the rest of the team, and the soft skills that are so important, a strong work ethic. Then it would be good if everyone liked that person, too.

But we don't always get what we want. More jobs have been created recently, and while that's good news for workers, it also likely means an even tighter labor market ahead for employers looking to hire. Sometimes it may feel like the minimum job requirement is a person who has a pulse.

It doesn’t have to be that way. More diverse workplaces mean that new pools of candidates are considered for important jobs. And another way to open up new pools of candidates and successfully recruit great talent is to let employees work remotely.

"Do you want to hire the exactly 'best' person for the job, or do you want to hire the best person who is willing to relocate?" asks John O'Duinn, a computer industry engineer and leadership and management expert. "That's a huge difference. Why do I care about people coming to an office anyway if the first thing they do is get on a video call with someone at a different office?"

In addition to his years as an engineer and technology company leader, O'Duinn has also become an expert on leading and working well with remote teams of workers. (If you are looking for a job that lets you work remotely, O'Duinn has created this list of job boards for remote jobs).

He's even in the process of writing a new book on the topic called Distributed Teams, in addition to his new job at CivicActions, which he says is a fully distributed company with no office, and is hiring right now.

O'Duinn's experience has been hard won over decades. For instance, as part of Mozilla's team for several years starting in 2007, O'Duinn worked with people in 14 different cities across 4 non-adjacent time zones. O'Duinn has also worked for Oracle, Hortonworks, IBM, and The United States Digital Service under the Obama administration.

For that government job, O'Duinn wasn't able to work remotely. He was required to commute and work in the local office, so he flew to Washington DC at the beginning of every work week, and then back home to San Francisco every Friday for 10 months from April 2016 through January 2017. The commute may have been brutal by normal commute standards, but O'Duinn said "the work was incredibly important and personally meaningful..literally the most meaningful job of my career," and so he did it. After the job ended O'Duinn said he felt like a "slow moving fragile thing, just because I didn't get a chance to move. I had huge accumulated jet lag…I didn't realize how tired I was." Ten hours a week in an airplane seat, traveling across three time zones, had left him with no time to exercise. At the end of the gig he took six weeks off and napped on a daily basis.

(Image: mohamed_hassan/Pixabay)

(Image: mohamed_hassan/Pixabay)

Not everyone's commute is that brutal, but companies and organizations can enable a more diverse and healthier workforce if they allow people to work remotely, at least some of the time.

For instance, consider how difficult it is for a blind person, or someone who is confined to a wheelchair, to commute into an office every day by taking a bus for an hour each way. The commute itself is stressful and exhausting. Will that individual also be able to give their best to the work if they are already tired from just the commute?

Or consider parents of young children who need to remain within a 10-minute drive to their children's schools in case of emergency. If remote work is allowed, you gain access to a whole other talent pool of potentially highly-skilled employees, according to O'Duinn.

That doesn't mean you can just hire remote workers and expect everything to work just the same as it would if everyone were together in a local office. It can be challenging to work with people who aren't in the same physical location or even in the same time zone.

It's important to create processes and systems that allow remote workers to do their best work and to also feel connected to the other people in the organization. One of the things that O'Duinn has experimented with for his teams is a monthly non-work related get-to-know-you video Skype (or other video conferencing) meeting. This meeting would bring together a manageable number of people -- maybe 8 or 10 -- from different parts of the organization to just hang out together. Depending on your time zone, this would be a coffee meeting, or happy hour, or lunch.

O'Duinn is a big advocate of video calls. He says that most meetings go about 10 minutes faster if they are video meetings because people are able to see the social clues that they miss on audio-only calls.

For instance, in an hour-long meeting at the end the speaker asks if anyone has any question. "Pause, pause, pause, pause. Everyone gets off mute. Then everyone talks at the same time. You miss all the non-verbal communication," O'Duinn said. Video calls help add those non-verbal cues back in.

Planning meetings, or not planning meetings, plays a big role in the success of a manager working with a remote team, O'Duinn said.

"Time zones are real," he said. "If your manager is inviting everyone to a meeting on short notice, and they are in different time zones, who knows what else they are doing."

Of course, not all meetings are even necessary, O'Duinn said. For instance, you may spend 30 minutes doing "calendar haggling" over a date and time, but what if you put the same amount of time into emailing about the problem you are trying to solve? Could you handle the problem without holding a meeting?

O'Duinn's book, Distributed Teams, will be coming out in the next few months, and about a third if it will be about the societal, generational, environmental, and diversity impacts of remote working; a third of it will be about practical nuts and bolts of remote working including lists of tools and best practices; and a third of it will focus on more advanced topics such as how to deal with conflict, promotions, interviewing, and hiring and firing people remotely.

You can also hear all about these topics when O'Duinn presents at Interop ITX 2018. He will present two different sessions at the event, Distributed Teams as a Competitive Advantage and Technology Complexity & High Stakes.

[Check out the entire schedule for the Interop ITX 2018 IT Leadership and Professional Development track.]

Jessica Davis has spent a career covering the intersection of business and technology at titles including IDG's Infoworld, Ziff Davis Enterprise's eWeek and Channel Insider, and Penton Technology's MSPmentor. She's passionate about the practical use of business intelligence, ... View Full Bio
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