So there is a fallacy that remote workers (or telecommuters or people that work from home) can’t collaborate effectively. Time and time again I hear that collaboration is something that only thrives in an office environment where everyone is sitting in the same room and working. I want to clear a few things up here. I don’t believe this to be the case and I am going to explain to you why I feel this way.

First off, I want to make clear that if remote working didn’t work, open source projects wouldn’t work. Most of the people that maintain the thousands of open source projects that power most of the internet do not work in the same office or, in most cases, the same country. Hell they don’t even get paid in a lot of cases! The reason? It boils down to 2 things.

  1. Passion for the product
  2. Awesome tools that empower smart collaboration

The first point is passion. If only one person on your team is not passionate about the product or has the drive to see it succeed, its like a poison that will spoil the remote working process. Big companies have a ton of products that they just throw “resources” at (read: people). This often results in workers viewing the work as a requirement and they become drones. They work all day without any fulfillment or pride in what they do. Its this uncaring and lack of passion that companies try to combat by putting everyone in a single room and screaming “COLLABORATE!!!!”. The point here is, if people don’t want to work on it, they must be forced. In order to force them, you put them all in a single room and you use peer-pressure to keep them going. Conversely, if people want to work on something they’ll move mountains to do it even if they’re on a flaky dialup connection in Zimbabwe… this is why open source projects and companies like Chef and Cisco can successfully have remote workers around the globe and still be kicking ass and taking names!

The second major point here is awesome tools! The world of cloud based products and services has opened up an amazing door into cheap and awesome collaboration tools. Some of my favorite remote collaboration tools include:

With tools like this, remote workers can stay connected and all sit in the same virtual room to get things done and collaborate on problems together. But, again, this goes back to the first point of passion and drive. If people don’t believe in what they’re working on, they won’t be motivated to ask questions or initiate conversation about how to make what they’re doing better. This holds true in an office setting too, but the difference is that other people will overhear the light conversation (read: bitching) and be able to inject (read: force) themselves into the situation. If everyone has pride in their work and the product, this “injecting” is no longer needed because everyone is excited to openly discuss problems or concerns over an impromptu video call or hipchat or something because it will ultimately make the product better and will improve the skillset of the person too. (WIN-WIN!)

In conclusion, big companies have a passion problem and they try to fix it by smashing everyone in a big room and telling them to “get it done”. All this does is push the passionate people out of the organization (and company) because a passionate person in a room full of drones is soul-sucking and there are too many other opportunities out there right now to stay in such a terrible working environment… so they quit. This leaves the drones to carry out the work as it is written and ultimately results in a mediocre buggy product. (I have seen this time and time again). Many companies believe that this sort of working environment creates innovation, but instead, it drives the innovators out of your company to go off and innovate somewhere else.

Remember kids, Hyper-Collaboration does not equal Innovation.