Toto, I don't think we're in California anymore!

A couple of months ago, Sun won a Global Innovators Award from CoreNet, an association for corporate real estate, for its iWork program. iWork is a set of technologies and practices that enable Sun employees to "effectively work anywhere, anytime, on any device." This is a big deal for employees trying to manage the work-life balance thing. Back when I worked for Apple Computer in Boston, I'd have to drive 10 minutes to the commuter rail station the next town over, spend an hour on the train to North Station, and then walk 15 minutes to the office in the Financial District. (Uphill both ways, through six feet of snow. Or so I'd tell my kids... ;\*) Add waiting times -- you don't want to miss the train -- and you're talking better than three hours a day of more or less wasted time. Sure, cell phones and iPods can help you make the most of a bad situation -- but nobody would argue with its ontological badness.

iWork is also a big deal for Sun, since you don't need to provide cushy (costly) facilities for people who are working from home. Even if they work just a couple of days per week from home, you can picture an environment where, say, 5 people only need 3 offices. You just cut your real estate needs by 40%. That's a made up statistic; the real deal is that Sun can save on the order of $100 million per year in reduced real estate costs and increased productivity. $100 million straight to the bottom line is not just a good thing; it is a beautiful thing.

There are a few things to keep in mind, though, when you're not sitting down the hall from the people you work with on a daily basis. A few of us got together this past week -- in person -- and identified three issues remote workers can face, whether remote means east coast/west coast, or home/office: any more than a few feet away, and you're at least a little remote! We also came up with ways to address these issues, to make the remote thing work better for everybody: the employee, the team, and the company.

First, there is no substitute for face-to-face relationships. You don't always have to be physically present with your boss or your co-workers, but if you're never hanging out with them, it'll wind up costing you in the long run. You have to bite the bullet and do some amount of travelling, whether that means coming to the office once a week for staff meetings, or flying to California once a quarter to hang out with your teammates. One thing I've learned from being 2,704 miles (what I get on American flying from BOS to SFO) from HQ: if you invest in a fair amount of face time up front, you can dial it down over time without negative consequence. Now, you need to turn the travel back up anytime you get a new job, a new boss, or a new team -- but once you've built good, trusting relationships with the people who are a big part of your work life, you can be almost as effective from a distance. I have (awesome) employees in New York, Washington DC, San Diego, and Bellevue WA who are living proof that this is so.

Second, "out of sight, out of mind" is human nature. And you can't change human nature. People will always tend to think of the folks they see every day before they think of the ones they don't. You can, however, put good practices in place to make work work better for everybody. These include more formal practices like building "roundtables" into your staff meeting agendas, so everybody on the team gets a chance to hear about what everybody else is working on, and scheduling regular 1:1 meetings with all your employees to work on development plans and goal setting; as well as simple things like repeating questions from the audience when you're running a meeting and you have people on the phone, and remembering to say which slide you're on when you're presenting, so the remote folks can keep up with you.

Finally, cool techno tools can solve some problems, but not all. Big and formal applications like portals and collaboration services, and simple tools like instant messaging, can help keep the whole team in touch and in sync -- but only if everybody uses them. You can't have an on-line chat if you're the only one on-line. (Alright you can, but it's weird. Trust me on this one.) Replicating the informal give-and-take of hallway conversations is the toughest thing to pull off, and perhaps tools like internal blogs can help. It's easy enough to get the latest version of a presentation or feature story -- what I really want to know is what kind of mood the boss is in today. Anon-o-blogs. You heard it here first.

If you have other tips or techniques to help make the anywhere/anytime thing work better, call a meeting! Just don't schedule it for Friday at 2 PM Pacific, if you please.


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