I’ve spent most of my professional career with some aspect of remote work. As a graduate student, I remotely observed for a good portion of my thesis. As a researcher in South Africa, most of my scientific collaborations were remote. In my previous job, our teams were split across two buildings. These were only a mile apart, but they may have well been in different states.
In my current job, I started during covid and I still spend the majority of my time talking to people not located in my office (70% of my meetings are with people not located in my office - either with people outside of NASA, at different centers, or remote workers. This doesn’t include the meetings that have to be remote because one or both of us are on travel to different locations, which has been significantly increasing in the last four months). When I look at the reality of my experiences over the past 15 years, binary arguments on working conditions are not justified.
There are some situations where working in-person makes the most sense, where working remotely makes the most sense, and when sometimes it doesn’t matter.
Is the team productive and successful? If so, then let them work in a manner best for them! Maybe that means being remote to be able to hire the best people, maybe that means in person as everyone does need to be working on the hardware, maybe that means quarterly in-person meetings so everyone is on the same page are necessary; but after agreeing on the success metrics, let the team determine the best way to accomplish them. Here’s an article from 2014 on the benefits of letting teams decide to work remotely - this isn’t anything new.
Work should be designed around what makes you most productive for the task at hand.
Here are some examples of work activities and when being in-person or remote makes a difference from my perspective:
Sharing of information in a one-directional manner (lectures, updates from a small group of people): There is no benefit to having this in person and there are significant benefits to having these as virtual - they are more inclusive, can be recorded, and more people can easily attend.
Large group discussions: These might as well be virtual as I’ve never really seen a large discussion work well in person. At best, it is a Q+A session, and at worst, you have a large number of people listening to a small group argue. These should only be in person if they are part of a larger event that is centered around smaller group activities. If it is a decision-making process, have a working group set out a path forward or collect the preferences from the group asynchronously if it is an action that doesn’t require consensus.
Small group discussions, brainstorming, or training: These are most valuable in person, but can work well virtually. In person, people are more focused, engaged, and body language can help advance the conversation. When done virtually, it is helpful if the group is familiar with each other and familiar with the equivalent collaboration tools. The primary question is if the extra overhead for in-person attendance is worth the value of the event. I think an easy rule of thumb is that travel time should not exceed 1/2 of the discussion time. If you are meeting for a day, then the total travel time should be less than 4 hours. Or plan these types of discussions for in-person work days and allow for deep work or virtual meetings on teleworking days.
Small group meeting/stand-up: In person or virtual - these can work well in either case. It helps if everyone is familiar with each other and with the tools of the job.
One-on-one meetings: Similar to small group meetings - these can be valuable in either case. If these are mostly virtual, then having one in person every once in a while can be valuable. For longer, paired co-working time, in-person can be helpful to allow for greater focus if it is worth the travel time.
One-on-one Feedback: Productively doing this either, virtually or in person, takes training and skill. Virtual takes more skill, and more effort is required in developing a supportive relationship.
Training students: From my experience, this works best in person, but I’ve done it many times virtually as well. To work well virtually requires more attention, and it still needs to be paired with frequent co-located working periods. However, virtual is more inclusive and mentors are almost always traveling or have limited availability so this needs to be a skill every mentor has and has planned into the training activities. I finished my Ph.D. while my advisor was on sabbatical for the last year, and while many people do not plan for it, it is quite common and not something new.
Networking Events: I’ve never really seen a networking event work well virtually.
Networking Social Media: I’ve made so many connections over social media and this has almost fully replaced going to events for me while I lived in South Africa. The frustrating situation is that some communities aren’t on the same network which then makes connecting difficult.
One-on-one networking: These actually work well as virtual events - it is easy to grab someone for a 30-minute call to introduce yourselves. It’s a great way to determine if you need to work together some more or if it is just useful to be aware of each or if it is good to
Building hardware: This is done in person, but it is always best to determine when and how integration happens. Many of the earlier steps can be done remotely, and then combined at the end stage. This happens to every major telescope where instruments are built in one place and then delivered to another.
Building software: This works well either virtually or in person. In either case, the tooling has to be accessible and the team has to be familiar with it. Oftentimes, this requires deep, focused work - and this should be done in an environment best for the individual. For some people, that is in the office, and for others, that is at home. Pair programming can work equally well virtually or in person and sometimes I find virtually is more helpful due to being able to the configuration of the tools. The development of ccdproc was done entirely remotely.
Customer service/sales: This very much depends on the situation, but even more of these jobs can be done remotely today. Almost all of our customer services for SALT were provided remotely - PIs would email us asking for support from around the world.
Writing: If anything, going into the office is disruptive for writing. There are often just too many interruptions. Even when I was working full-time somewhere, I’d head off to a coffee shop or library to write.
Have the right tools for the right job
You have to have the right tools and use the right tools for the job. There are plenty of tools to allow for collaborative and asynchronous work, but if only half the team is using them, it will never be as productive. In the last twenty years, a set of tools have developed that has allowed people to work and develop collaboratively.
- Chat: I’m more productive chatting with colleagues than talking to them in the hallway, but only with the colleagues that are comfortable doing that. Some people respond on chat, some by email, and some you have to call, but you need to know how to work with different people. While there are a myriad of choices, the important thing is having the entire team comfortable working in different environments.
- Collaborative writing software: Google Docs made a huge difference in how people write documents. It was a dramatic shift when it was first introduced, and I still feel that other tools are still catching up to it even though it was introduced in 2006. There still might be better tools for final proofing and formatting, and tools like Overleaf have had a similar shift in the production for writing scientific papers based on Latex.
- Version-control software platforms have made a huge difference in collaborative work. GitHub or Gitlab has enabled open development of code that wasn’t as feasible or easy before that.
For the scientific workflow, I think there are still gaps. Science platforms like Jupyterhob and data science analytic platforms have still not seen widespread adoption to the level of other collaborative tools though there are some really popular tools in certain areas like Google Earth Engine. The association of these platforms with available data and free accessibility will be a key to unlocking the full potential.
Culture and leadership matters
Managing and leading in person is the easy mode. Not to say that either of those things are easy, but they are much easier to do in person rather than remotely. As such, it is so easy for a leader to make an organization and teams work in a way that is easy for them to work rather than adapting to those teams. This is the reverse of being a servant leader.
Often time, leadership is about influencing others, and cultivating a virtual presence isn’t as easy as an in-person one. It is much easier to state your opinion than to write a white paper. It is much easier to appear to be doing something than to actually do something.
When managing teams, my view is more of an approach of a servant leader. How do I maximize the productivity and health of my team? To answer that, I have to understand how they work best and help them to achieve that state. That might mean having to spend more time engaging virtually as managing is more difficult virtually - I can’t just lean over someone’s shoulder to see if they are in the office coding. That might mean working harder to be more inclusive and avoiding biases so those that are working remotely aren’t disadvantaged by those working in person.
As a leader, my philosophy is more on how I set the vision and direction of my team. Being a role model is even more difficult remotely than in person, but leadership establishes the values of an institution. If leadership can never work remotely or never works remotely, then teams will rarely feel empowered to work remotely. Everyone understands that leaders may have different demands on them. At the same time, leadership is almost always working remotely - they are traveling to different sites, meeting off-site groups, or are so busy with meetings that leave little time for interaction with staff. Enabling virtual work provides more opportunities for listening to staff, which I’ve always felt is a key characteristic of good leaders.
While it is easier to slip into a traditional working model of in-person work, doing so will not optimize the productivity and health of the project. And one thing that I have barely touched on is how remote work and flexible work schedules are almost always more inclusive beyond just being more productive.