Managing remote workers is not the same as remotely managing workers

I once asked a manager (one who managed a remote team) what were some of the challenges in managing the team.

Boss With Remote Control And Androids

The quick answer I got back was that there were no unusual challenges, that managing a remote team is the same as managing folks in the office.

We went on with the conversation, but of course I didn’t believe the answer. There are challenges to any sort of work environment, and the challenges of working effectively with folks who you don’t actually see every day can be pretty significant.

In other words:

Managing remote workers is not the same as remotely managing workers.

It’s just not – you can’t apply the same processes, skills, and expectations to a team of virtual employees. In some ways it’s better, and in some ways it’s worse than having a team on-site.

That all depends on:

  • The team
  • The people
  • The manager
  • How the work is defined
  • and, The tools which are available to do the work

No matter what, it’s going to be different. And you’ll have to get used to it – both as a manager and as an employee.

What about the team?

The team needs to be awesome at communicating.

The people need to be social.

They need to…

  • … enjoy sharing information.
  • … and, they need to be focused on ensuring that everybody is getting what they need to work effectively.

Ev-er-y-bo-dy. Even the new guy. 🙂

You might say that all those things are also necessary when everyone is on-site, and you’d be right (sort of). But you need it all three times over when you’re not getting face-to-face interaction.

You need a great network of communicators.

What about the manager?

The manager needs to have experience doing it this way, and needs to understand what works well.

e.g., there’s a chance for folks to work very effectively without distractions when needed.

And what doesn’t work well.

e.g., a team member might work very effectively all day on a goal that was misunderstood, simply because he didn’t hear you chatting with Tommy in the other cubicle about what the new direction was for the project.

So the manager needs to tune into all the things that are:

  • Going well
  • Are not going well
  • And which things have a chance to go better than usual simply because remote work environments have certain advantages that office environments will never have.

You need great management.

What about the work?

In a typical cubicle environment, a lot of the work gets defined and communicated via hallway conversations and stuff you overheard while sitting at your desk.

Yeah, stuff also gets written down, but documents (ahem!) have a way of becoming obsolete as soon as they are written and replaced with updated ideas that never get recorded anyway other than getting written into the product. 😉

That won’t work remotely.

You need to document the work, and you need to acknowledge that the documentation is going to change not just often, but constantly. You know it’s going to but you still don’t really truly embrace that reality.

Everybody needs to be responsible (and good at) continually updating the common understanding that the group has about the work. (See “Network of communicators” above.)

And yes, these are also valuable skills for an on-site team, but it’s only when you are working remotely that you are actually forced to do these things.

Whatever habits you may have learned about project updates while working in an office might actually start to hurt you once you try to use the same habits from a remote workspace.

The work needs to be well-defined. All the time.

What about the tools?

Again, great tools are needed for workers whether they are on-site or remote…

… but…

… it’s only when everybody is remote that the issue of “tools problems” becomes so severe that it is forced to be resolved.

We’re living in a groovy time – a time when great tools are both greater than ever and more widely available than ever. 🙂

A remote team needs to know how to constantly identify the best tools to be using, and how to make them work effectively with whatever other stuff is already being used.

You need a bunch of tools nerds.

See, it’s similar but pretty different

There are lots of challenges that come up when you decide to start working flexibly as a core business process. The rewards can be absolutely awesome – both for the team and for the business, but everyone’s got to go into it with both eyes open.

Remember what it’s like to work and operate with both eyes open?

What do you think?

Have you done it?

How did it go?


And now there’s AppleScript

Just discovered AppleScript. Wow – that’s a weird language and programming environment.

Looks like it probably has lots of potential, but it’s gonna take me a while to wrap my head around.

On first impressions, it seems like an odd match for Mac OS. Doesn’t seem like a “UNIXy” sort of tool.

Looking for org-mode everywhere

Learning how to integrate Emacs org-mode across all my platforms and devices. So far, haven’t found a quite smooth enough way to edit that darned text file from cloud storage on either the Android device or via the browser. Who knew that in 2014 Emacs would be the premier client tool available for a particular use case of editing a text file anywhere?

Anyway – still working out the details and kinks, just throwing ideas up here by way of brainstorming.

Gotta say that when my instance of Visual Studio (again) locked up my work PC for ten minutes yesterday, it was a big motivation for me to continue moving down the path of finding and using tools which are not so monolithic. Yes, here I’m talking about using Emacs as an organizer and replacement for some features of Outlook and my current web-based organizational tools. But one of the great things about it is that as I spiral my learning curve around creating that solution, all the stuff I learn about Emacs along the way also gives support to my skills and knowledge to start using it to solve a boatload of other problems.

org-mode for Emacs

Lately I’ve been exploring more of the “literary” side of being a technologist.

Literary: I heard it described that way by someone else (maybe it was Steve Yegge in one of his posts about Emacs?) a few years ago. The idea is that if you move from the typical GUI work that a Windows administrator / programmer does, to using more command-line tools and keyboard shortcuts, you develop a closer relationship with things like code, text, commands, functions, keyboard shortcuts, scripts, etc… And that this creates a deeper bond in your thought process.

I wrote recently about how I’ve finally gotten to a point with Emacs where I can use it and feel pretty productive, and can use it to solve certain text manipulation problems that would be very difficult to solve another way. It’s a great tool because it’s one that you can invest time in deepening your knowledge of on an as-needed basis, and you can be sure that every minute spent doing that will payoff in either improved productivity or improved understanding of an important aspect of technology at some point in the future.

Similarly, I’ve been rounding out my knowledge of various scripting tools and (having recently bought my first Mac) getting a deeper education in the innards of Mac systems (by reading some books about the Unix innards, not just the Mac stuff on top of the Unix). And I’ve been finding increasing uses for PowerShell in my work as a Microsoft guy – so much so that I now believe anyone doing programming or administration of any sort on a Microsoft system is really holding themselves back if they don’t make a lot of use of PowerShell. Yes, it’s that useful – and in many ways does Unix better than Unix does Unix.

But back to Emacs. Now I’m learning org-mode. It’s not going to replace my use of Remember the Milk, Outlook, Evernote, Basecamp, or any of the other organizational tools I use. But having a mature and lightweight (read that: text-based) organizational system can really come in handy when you need to operate in project planning mode and all you have available is a text editor. Yes, Emacs puts a lot of nice functionality on top of that text file. But that file can also be tweaked even when you don’t have anything fancier than a basic text editor available.

It’s all part of embracing some of those nifty Unix ideas of data portability, transparency, etc… And embracing those ideas, I think, will also make me a better Windows programmer.


Expanding on Emacs

After several tries over the years that only ended in frustration, I’ve recently gotten back to using Emacs and – wow! – I finally got past that nagging sticking point, I finally feel like I can work productively in Emacs. 🙂

Still amazed by the longevity of this tool, the mere fact that it is still hanging around, has a hugely active user base, and is under active development. I think I’m at a point in my technology life where – even though I’ll continue to use the “other sorts of tools” out there for all sorts of purposes – the appeal of a simpler, more flexible, keyboard / text based tool is growing stronger.

It’ll be a few months more of shifting if I keep going in this direction. For example, I’d like to start hacking some elisp (but I don’t want to get distracted by an excursion into elisp). And I’d like to work on integrating Emacs into the other tools I use – like WordPress, C#, PowerShell, Evernote, Remember the Milk, a few others.


Turning off word-wrap in Emacs

For a few days, I was using Emacs to work on writing drafts of letters and other prose, and so having word-wrap turned on was useful. I don’t remember how exactly I turned it on. I’ve been using a combination on my PC and Mac of Gnu Emacs, ErgoEmacs, and Aquamacs and they all have different ways of trying to make these configuration changes easier. So I probably did it from one of their menus or built-in configuration screens.

But then I needed to open a large log file and I needed all the lines to show more cleanly as long lines without any wrapping.

Back to Google – it’s going to be this way for me for a while as I progress with Emacs…

Here’s my note to self for future reference: To turn word-wrap on or off, it seems like all you have to do is type “M-x” (i.e., hold down the ALT key and press “X”) and then type “toggle-truncate-lines.” This is a little easier to remember, of course, since once you start typing in your Emacs command you can hit TAB and the program will suggest some autocomplete options. But… if you don’t remember that your command needs to start with “toggl…” – well then you’ll have to Google to figure that part out (I’m sure that will be me again in a few months).

When you Google for any tips in Emacs, of course it is a bit harder than your typical Google search since everything you want to do can be done in several different ways, and all the features have complexities that may or may not apply to what you are trying to accomplish. For example, I think I kept coming across information about “line file” or something like that. And of course you’ll inevitably find somone on Stack Exchange who is happy to suggest a new eLisp macro to solve your problem!

Emacs – You’re a tough cookie!

Naggler, and a Special Percolate

I’ve been mulling over ideas for better versions of my various todo list and project management tools for a while. Much of this is inspired by something I once read in a blog post from a programmer named Steve Yegge, in which he pointed out that if you have tools which can better manage vastly complex software projects, then you will just get better at dragging around the bits of a monstrosity of a program. There’s a point where the tools make the problem worse.

Likewise for task and project tools generally. We have such a wide variety of them available, and such a wide variety of (often vaguely defined) tasks and projects which flow through our work and personal lives – having such a great selection of high-quality tools can lead people and organizations to get incredibly good at… managing tasks.

But what we were really supposed to be doing is managing our lives, or managing our businesses – the tasks and projects aren’t really what is supposed to be important, remember?

All of this has been written about a million times. And many people never experience this problem at all because they may instinctively side-step the information overload problem. (I can’t think of a single person right now who does this effectively, but maybe someone like that exists…)


In a few days I am going to do something I haven’t done in a very long time – I am going to spend one week on a sailboat, pretty much entirely disconnected from my routine life. I plan to do no reading but to do a lot of journaling in my old black marble notebook. Old-school.

I’ve read that Bill Gates does something similar each year – where he’ll go on a retreat for a week and do nothing but read books, the sort that he probably wouldn’t normally be reading in his work-a-day life.

The ideas of this and of my task-list-project-management problem are similar. In both cases, we’re looking at ways to undo the mess of information overload and re-find the things that are important.


Thus was born a quick script this weekend which I called Percolate Your Weekend. It was inspired by ideas I had read about in a little ebook during my dastardly train commute on Friday. It’s about getting more of the things you most value into the limited time you have available on the weekends.

It’s a bit of a turn-on-the-head for how I’ve approached things up until now. I’ve got such a crazy commute to work and I’m usually pretty much zonked by the time I get home, so I tend to always put off my chores, admin tasks, grudge projects, and other crap I have to do but don’t really want to do until the weekends. So that means when the weekends come I usually don’t want to make any social plans, go anywhere, and pretty much feel like the weekend is already gone before it starts.

It’s a dire outlook, but I’m working on it! 🙂

With the Percolate and related ideas, instead the weekend becomes focused on the fun stuff.

This weekend percolator is a special instance of a percolate idea that has been… percolating in my head for a long while. The essence is that it would be good to have more ways to bring the right things to the surface at the right time, but putting some kind of intelligent examination on the buckets and buckets of information in whatever personal database a person uses (For many of us, that means email. For me, things like Evernote and Google Docs also need to get factored in.)

The Grudge Projects

So what about all the other crap? I’ve still gotta get it done, I guess.

That’s where Naggler comes in – another idea I’ve been mulling over for a while. It’s about getting through the crap of the todo and project lists and helping to focus on what you really meant when you dumped all those assorted tasks into the pile. I’m going to try to work out some more ideas in code for this one during the next week or so – initially protyping in Google Apps Script since it makes it dirt-simple to focus on the data model and logic without having to worry about user interfaces, deployment, or administration for the prototype.

Both the Percolate app and the Naggler app are pretty simple, but I think they could complement each other well… Prototyping…