September 21, 2010

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Tips from remote workers

I attended a networking event for IBM Other Than Traditional Office employees (OTTO, for short) – people who work from home, client sites, mobility centers, and other places. It was held in Second Life Enterprise to take advantage of the Center for Advanced Learning’s speed-networking tools: a system for assigning conversational groups, sound-isolated tables so that you could talk without interfering with other tables, and a screen for information.

Here’s what I learned from the eight people I got to talk to:

  • It’s not even the new normal, it’s the old normal. Many people have been telecommuting for a long time (like 15 years!). I was talking to someone who’d worked on the Selectric typewriter. He said that when he first went remote, people were initially hesitant about whether he’d be available enough. Now it’s generally accepted, and his manager has even told him that he’s easier to contact than people who work in the office. Another person I talked to told me that she’d been encouraged to work from home after she was getting too many interruptions at work. I told them how people compare virtual conversations with watercooler chats and how my norm isn’t the watercooler, it’s online. We live in a pocket of the future – isn’t that amazing?
  • We’re mobile almost by default. Most people I talked to worked from home because they were working with a global team, although some started as the only remote person for an otherwise co-located team. When your team is all over the world, there’s no need to go in to a particular office.
  • Invest in tools. People told me how their wireless keyboards and mice helped them minimize the tangle of cables on their desk. They told me about having a separate business line, with phones that had good features. I shared how much I liked having a headset for my phone – I use a wired headset with a wireless phone (Panasonic KX TGA740). We talked about having second monitors and big monitors, and I shared how useful I find a second laptop.
  • Invest in practices. Lots of people told me about the need for discipline because working at home makes it easier for work to take over other parts of your life. One person suggested blocking off time for exercise on your calendar, a tip he picked up while shadowing an executive. Another told me about the schedule he keeps: an early start at 7 or 8 to get his main work in before the rest of his team interrupted him through instant messaging, with an early end to the day as well. Other people told me about early and late teleconference calls to accommodate different timezones, and how they made sure to set aside time during the day to take care of personal tasks.
  • Diversity is awesome. One of the people I talked to casually mentioned that this was her second career, which she entered after her kids grew up. I was talking to another person about tools and practices for remote workers (headsets!), and he mentioned he’d gotten a wireless one that works really well, which helps because he’s in a wheelchair. I talked to people who really appreciated the ability to flexibly manage their schedule around taking kids to school. IBM rocks.
  • Thinking about the platform: A minor hack to make it easier to limit chats to an area: use channels to message a bot that repeats the message only to people within the same group? Also, I really like the system they’ve built for assigning people into groups that maximize the number of new people you meet. A straightforward improvement would be to build a teleporting tool that uses that information to send you directly to the table for your group, although it might take a little finagling to figure out which chairs haven’t yet been occupied. You could then embed that script into a “kiosk”-type object in the main area as well as the individual timers in the discussion pods. When moving to a new group, then, people could click on the timer to be moved to the right position. (What if the previous round of people are still sitting in the pods?) Perhaps people can be teleported near the pod. The current system of standing up and walking to the right pod works fine, though, so this is really only if you’ve got a lot of avatars – which is unlikely given the load on each grid segment. So it would be cool to have these tweaks, but it’s not necessary at this scale.

All the questions in the post-networking group chat were about the platform. I’ve been to a number of IBM events in SecondLife, and I think it can be a great way to connect. Looking forward to seeing other groups take advantage of this!