Far and Away: Benefits of the Distributed Workforce

By Sue Potter, MS | November 28, 2017
Research Associate, ETR

I’m with the “away team.” For the last several years, I’ve been part of ETR’s Distributed Workforce. Roughly one in five staff are located away from our organization’s main offices in Scotts Valley, Oakland and Sacramento, California. You’ll find us in other regions of California and in other states across the country. I live in Boston.

It hasn’t always been easy being one of the remote staff. But we’re an organization that believes in continuous improvement. Many of the problems are getting solved. Technologies are definitely improving. I’d like to share some of the things in this arrangement that have worked well for me, as well as some of the challenges.

Full disclosure: I’m also a data geek. So…I’ve drawn this up as a spreadsheet!

Connections and Relationships

Pro/Con

Issue

Why/More details

Con

Not getting to see my colleagues very often. I once went almost 2 years without seeing a single coworker in person.

I miss random/unplanned interactions throughout the day—the "water cooler" conversations. Those interactions allow for connections on a more personal level. They’re also great for professional brainstorming and idea sharing.

Pro

ETR has started an annual
in-person all-staff retreat.

Our 2017 retreat was fantastic! Not only did I visit with "old" colleagues, I got to meet new staff in person. Plus, we learned more about all the roles different staff play in helping ETR succeed. What a great way to foster a stronger sense of community among staff.

Specific to telecommuting, at our first annual retreat, the "R-team" (remote) had its own day-long meeting during which we brainstormed strategies that can help us feel more connected. We looked at steps that we could take personally as well as those the agency could take. While there is still work to do, I have been impressed with what the Leadership has done this far

Meetings

Pro/Con

Issue

Why/More details

Con

Not being able to hear colleagues  in agency/department calls.

This is most noticeable during larger meetings when local staff are in the main meeting room and while telecommuters are calling in. It is often difficult to hear "audience" comments and questions. Meeting leaders sometimes forget to repeat questions. Some have quiet voices themselves. As a telecommuter, there are only so many times you feel comfortable reminding people to speak up, repeat questions and stand closer to the mic.

Con (with a small related Pro)

Hearing what is going on in the background at other telecommuters' homes because they forgot to mute themselves when not speaking.

This can be frustrating at moments (e.g., loud sirens, road noise if in a car). But it can also provide comic relief depending on what you hear (e.g., a kitty cat meowing, a giggling child).

Con

Not being able to see visual cues during conference calls.

This may be less of an issue for younger generations who grew up using electronic forms of communication. But for we "older" generations (Gen-X and Boomers), visual cues are part of the communication process. I benefit from visual cues in meetings, so it has taken some adjustment on my part to give this up.

Pro

ETR has invested in technology allowing for easier communication among a distributed workforce, including the visual component.

Not only can we see faces and share computer screens with colleagues, but we can do so with clients as well. I believe this fosters better rapport. We currently don't use the webcams much with clients, but I can see this changing as we move forward. Given that I often work with very technical data topics, sharing a screen to illustrate what I am saying is immensely helpful.

Convenience and Flexibility

Pro/Con

Issue

Why/More details

Pro

The (lack of) commute!

Enough said. Not only do I not have to worry about driving during inclement weather or in heavy traffic, but by driving less, I’m helping to protect the environment. I can go a week without using my car, and I fill my tank up every 3-4 weeks, on average.

Con

The isolation.

I have been known to "think aloud" (talk to myself or my computer) when I am working out a data issue, but now it happens much more often. These days I tell myself I am talking to my cats. To minimize the sense of isolation I often work a few hours at a café or library just to get out of the house.

Pro

Working in my pajamas!

I can work in my comfy pajamas and no one ever needs to know. The one caveat is putting on a nice shirt if we are using webcams during a meeting.

Con

Working in my pajamas!

I rarely have a chance to "dress up." The pro far outweighs the con, but the irony does crack me up.

Pro

Having a more flexible schedule.

Sometimes errands are just easier to do during the work week. Working from home makes it much easier because usually my errands are local. Since I am on the east coast and 3 hours ahead of my west coast colleagues, if needed, I’ll schedule personal appointments between 8:30-10:30 am. I can work later that day and still be in sync with my colleagues.

Pro

Being able to live where I like.

My family lives on the east coast (NY suburbs). Living in CA made it more challenging to get back for holidays, and more importantly, to help out if the older generation had a medical issue. Being closer allows me to visit with my family much more often (including my niece and nephew), and allows for a much quicker and less expensive trip in case of emergencies.

Also, while I think CA is beautiful, I am an east coast girl at heart (northeast, really). I love the change of seasons (even shoveling snow on a winter morning). I am a bit more direct/blunt than many west coasters (very much a northeast style). And we have better beer in New England—though I know that point is hotly debated. Simply put, this region feels like home to me. The fact that I can live here and still be part of the ETR team (whose work I have always valued and respected) is a wonderful thing.

It’s About the People

Pro/Con

Issue

Why/More details

Pro, Pro, Pro, Pro, Pro!!

The people at ETR

Over the last year, it seems like there has been a concerted effort by everyone to overcome the downsides of a distributed workforce while embracing the advantages. It has made a positive difference in my telecommuting experience. ETR is becoming a 21st century workplace in the best way possible. The caring, enthusiasm and high-quality work from our staff continues; we just have new ways of communicating it. Along those lines, because of the growing technological infrastructure, I think it will be easier to recruit new, talented employees who want to work at ETR but live somewhere beyond the Bay Area/Silicon Valley region.

 

I’d love to hear more your own experiences. How has the world of distributed workforces affected you? While it’s been popular with tech companies, it’s somewhat newer for non-profits and research organizations. What are some of the benefits and challenges for the home team when you’re dealing with remote colleagues?

We’ll have another post soon that looks at this from an organizational perspective, considering the benefits and challenges for an organization that embraces a distributed workforce.

 

Sue Potter, MS, is a Research Associate with ETR. She serves as project coordinator, analyst and/or data manager on various projects evaluating school-based health promotion programs in areas such as teen pregnancy, fitness, nutrition and comprehensive health education. She can be reached at suep@etr.org.

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