Life in the Pond: Moaning Middle Managers

Last week I read a great post on Rands In Repose entitled The Pond. Although it sounds like it should be about life as an amphibian it is actually about management response to remote working. (It starts off with this allegory of the pond as being the place where all your staff swim and communications being ripples across the pond. Hence when someone leaves the pond to work off-site they are missing out on the “unintentional, tweaked, quiet information that is transferred throughout the Pond and doesn’t leave the Pond“).

This initially reminded me of all the tacit/explicit knowledge stuff I did on my MSc Information Management course – you know, corporate intelligence, dispersed knowledge etc. Then I realised that the retention of tacit company information is a whole different ball game. The ripples Rands is on about is plain old communication and in my world, and in most other forward-thinking organisations the pond no longer has any edges. To put it another way…where I work we are all in the pond, whether we physically sit inside the institutional building or not.

Rands (I know this isn’t his real name but for the sake of convenience..) then goes on to write a pretty substantial piece on “how to augment the remote employee’s absence from the Pond.

It’s a really useful post, primarily because it gives us quite a bit of insight into how many a middle manager views remote workers. As Rands puts it:

My belief is that without deliberate attention, the remote employee slowly becomes irrelevant to the organization. Through no fault of their own, they can be gradually pushed to the edge of what’s important. And when you’re at the edge, you’re an organizational shudder from falling over it. Failure happens at the edges.

If I was a remote worker in that company I’d be seriously worried!

However it isn’t all bad. Rands makes the sensible suggestion that before allowing someone to become a remote worker managers ask themselves 4 questions:

1. Do they have the personality?
2. Do they have the right job?
3. Does the culture support it?
4. Do you have a remote friction detection and resolution policy?

Not everyone can work remotely and these are questions that need to be asked so I admire his honesty here. He makes some interesting observations that on the whole I agree with:

The ability to work remotely is not entirely a function of seniority; it’s also genetic. There are those who do it better solo. Their standard operating procedure is to simply get it done. Seniority can improve personal efficiency and the quality of the finished product, but I’ve discovered innate reliability at all levels of experience. There are people who simply do what they say they’re going to do.

Can’t argue with that.

Most of his conclusions centre upon the need for a remote worker to be an effective communicator. If you’ve been a remote worker for a while you’ll know it’s what makes it work. For me communication has always been at the core of what I do.

When talking about whether an organisation has the culture to support remote workers Rands doesn’t hold back. He talks about the way other workers view remote workers: “discrimination always boils down [to] a single, fundamental tension: remote creates productivity friction.” He gives the example of dealing with an ineffective remote worker which can take a lot of time, possibly more time than dealing with someone sat in the next room. As Rands points out, manyof the issues boil down to the organisation and if it can support the knowledge flow a remote worker requires. As I’ve mentioned many a time – the tools (Web 2.0 and all that) are there. The culture might not have caught up yet.

Rands concludes:

You, as the manager of people, are responsible for making the remote call regarding a person, putting them in the right job, and making sure the culture supports remote people. But the responsibility of delivering while remote is squarely on the remote employee. Yes, a remote employee answers to himself. At four in the afternoon when they run into an impossible problem, it’s almost entirely up to them to develop their plan of attack.

Working remotely isn’t a privilege; it’s work. And it’s the same work we’re all doing back at the mothership… fully clothed… in the Pond.

I’d have to guess that most remote employees know that they ultimately answer to themselves and tend to be resourceful workers as a result. Rands sounds like he’s dumping the majority of the responsibility onto a remote workers’ backs, it’s a wonder they can barely walk. I’d agree that remote working isn’t a privilege, but nor is it a punishment. It has countless benefits for the employee and the organisation alike and it’s these aspects that need to be built upon.

In the past I’ve referred to many an article that states that remote working will be the death of the middle manager or at the very least requires a serious change in management practice.

This reluctance by managers to move with the times may hold us back for now but if there is one thing the recession has shown us that businesses and people need to be adaptable and ready for change. Maybe it’s time some middle managers stopped trying to control the boundaries of their little ponds and realised that there is a whole sea of possibilities out there, of which remote working is very much part.


7 thoughts on “Life in the Pond: Moaning Middle Managers

  1. Hi Marieke

    Really great post with lots of echoes for me. I certainly feel myself the danger of missing out on the “unintentional, tweaked, quiet information that is transferred throughout the Pond and doesn’t leave the Pond”, and I do feel it happens not infrequently. I suspect that just recently I missed out on the possibility of being involved in something that I’d liked to have because I may not have been passing the right person in the corridor at the right time. I’ve been trying harder to go some way to “[take] the time to do a complete circumnavigation of the Pond”, as I can see more and more how important this is. I’m not sure I can say I make it round the whole of UKOLN when I’m there, but I do see it as really important to physically get on site, and I’m trying to up my frequency on this one. I also always try to get some folk out to the pub when I’m down as well. One may joke about that, but for sure for me it’s essential for “creating ripples in the pond”.

    It’s also interesting to see Rand’s honesty about what might be called prejudices, albeit that he reigns most of them back in as the post reads on. The quote “There should be absolutely no consideration of a person’s location on the planet Earth when considering the work you need of them” seems clear enough.

    I think the key is, as you say, “the need for a remote worker to be an effective communicator”. For me this is essential and I think we remoters have to work quite a bit harder than on-site employees in this regard. Having said that, I imagine some would say they have to work pretty hard at this even if they’re on site, so I may be wrong here. Remote working ticks many boxes for me. For starters it allows me to work for UKOLN based in Bath without my having to geographically move there, which isn’t an option at present. Remote working definitely has its tough aspects, and for me it’s really about making sure I get out and about so I don’t miss out on too much of the “pond” intelligence.

    One thing that did surprise me is the assumption (if I read correctly) that remoters are more expensive than on site employees. I would suspect given savings on estate costs for starters, this is by no means the case, and I had presumed part of the attraction of employing remote working is that it can save on and organisation’s costs if anything.

  2. Thanks Adrian,

    I think I used to feel that “I missed out on the possibility of being involved in something that I’d liked to have because I may not have been passing the right person in the corridor at the right time.”

    These days I feel I’m missing out on more if I don’t check Twitter that often. Though I’d agree that getting into the office every now and then makes a big difference.

    I really liked Rand’s honesty and I think he’d make a fair boss, but I get the feeling there are a lot more managers out there who hold a huge number of prejudices about certain types of worker without being so up front about it.

    By the way I’ve recently read the Blink book you recommended at the Remote worker day. It was the first time I’d come across Warren Harding Errors. Interesting stuff.


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  4. “Back in the day” I was a remote worker for a software company, and part of my “being in the pond” was a daily phone call to my supervisor.

    Nowadays its being on Skype when I’m virtually “in the office”, plus a bit of tweeting and blogging. (Of course, I’m not wholly or even primarily a distance online worker these days, more “blended” I suppose)

    In that regard, nothing much has changed – remote working requires actively maintaining a presence and sending out some “ripples”. This seems to be the usual sort of basic rule you engage in as a remote or semi-remote worker. So I’d agree with the article in that regard

    What is different now is that workers who are effective in managing their online presence, can move the center of the pond towards them – its the ones who are always available in the physical institution, but have no effective online presence, that can end up being viewed as being on the “edge” from a client’s perspective. And that does change the rules.


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  6. I don’t like to be a pesimist … but, given the (potential) risk of a Swine Flu Pandemic (and, eventually, some others, in the near or far future), The Pond would need to be restructured.

    It seems now like an advantage for a Company to have remote workers, and to be prepaired for that kind of World Issues. 🙂

  7. Oh dear.

    I have a vision of us all working at home and having our food delivered by people in white ‘radiation’ suits travelling in special buggys. The streets will be empty and only those who keep our networks running will be given passes to go outside.

    Sounds like a movie in the making. I’ll keep working on it!

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