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3 Lessons From Inc.'s Virtual Experiment: Ready to Work Remotely?

Some companies work virtually by design, and some have remote working thrust upon them. One of the best examples I've read about lately was in the latest issue of Inc. Magazine. For a month, the entire company "went virtual". What they learned is typical of companies that move from a traditional office or work environment.

Now, let me first say I congratulate them for even conducting the experiment in the first place. They had two things going for them that make moving to a decentralized approach particularly difficult. The first was their famously beautiful office space. A showpiece of an office (especially in a place like Manhattan) is an important part of a corporate culture. The other is that they're an old, established company owned by a bigger, more established. company. I am sure there are those who anticipated some kind of "Lord of the Flies" moment with the Editor's head hoisted on a stick while surrounded by naked, dancing writers suddenly drunk with a freedom they couldn't handle. (For many companies, this fear is often realized at the annual Holiday Party, so it's not completely unfounded).

So what did they discover? Here are some things you and your company will want to take under advisement.

  • There are fewer "over the shoulder" moments. In a collaborative environment like a magazine, where instant feedback from peers is critical, people had to get comfortable with time delays and slower responses.Can you wait a few hours for input from your peers or do you really need it right away? Really?
  • Connection speed does matter. By the very nature of the magazine business, files are often huge and can take a while to download. What usually appears at the push of a button on your office LAN can take 10 minutes to download at Starbucks. Don't underestimate the frustration this causes. For many remote workers the ugliest letters in the English alphabet are V P N (Virtual Private Network). Which leads to one factor that almost always surprises established companies...
  • IT needs to lighten up. On the surface, it would seem like this move to an online world is a challenge made for IT. After all, we communicate through technology and that is the domain of your IT folks. One discovery at Inc., and it's born out almost everywhere I look, is that people prefer, adopt and use consumer-grade technology more enthusiastically than big, enterprise-wide systems. Tools like Skype and Google Docs are often quickly adopted by individual workers, while the security and control issues it raises can give your network people heart palpitations. Take a long hard look at what you really need and check your assumptions.
At the end of the month, some people preferred the new work environment and some couldn't scurry back to the cozy environs of the office fast enough. That may be the most important lesson they -- or any company can learn -- there's no perfect solution, and the right answer may be a mix of both ways of working. The important thing is to ask the right questions and find the answers that are right for the way you really work.

You can take their tongue-in-cheek preparedness quiz here. picture by flickr user elclinto CC2.0