Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Telecommuting For Startups

A lot of people like the idea of telecommuting. Working at home in your pajamas with the TV on in the background sure beats the heck out of working in a sea of cubicles. Or does it?

In 2008 I recruited a software engineer - let's call him Bob - in California to work remotely for a startup in New York. Within 30 days of taking the job, Bob quit (right before he was about to get fired).

I'll never REALLY know the true reason Bob couldn't cut it, but I know that telecommuting wasn't going to work for him. Bob's previous job had been working onsite at a large financial company with sprawling offices and large teams. At home Bob lived with his wife and their toddler child. He existed in two ecosystems, one at work and the other at home.

From the very first day working for the startup, Bob was being set up for failure. Working from 3000 miles away via email and phone, Bob was never able to integrate with the New York team's intimate in-person environment. The New York team's pace was fast and iterative, a far departure from Bob's previous experience of working monolithic projects with glacial momentum. At home his professional and personal life collided as he tried working in a house with a young child that acted, well, like a young child. Nothing Bob tried allowed him to overcome the difficult situation and within a month he was looking for work.

Telecommuting is not a good option for small, fast paced teams of generalists that already rely on face to face communication to complete their work. There is no substitute for being able to tap a colleague on the shoulder when you have a question or being able to draw a diagram on a white board to illustrate a point. Bob may have been able to enjoy and keep his job had he been able to integrate with his co-workers.

Telecommuting for a startup can be done successfully. Matt Mullenweg's startup, Automattic (the makers of WordPress), has numerous employees and no brick and mortar home office. Automattic has committed 100% to the concept of a virtual office. All of their employees are able to work in a setting conducive to programming.

Bob could have been successful as a startup telecommuter under the following conditions. First, Bob needed his own office away from the house. Second, he needed to join a team that was committed to his development as a telecommuter; the New York startup wasn't able to nurture Bob, but a company like Auttomatic and its virtual office culture would have given Bob a chance to succeed on his own. Lastly, Bob needed to make a strong personal commitment to making it work, from self-managing with no one to look over his shoulder to the realities of no in-person contact with his colleagues.

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