Remote working is working at Google, what about for you?

Technical challenges and wildly different timezones are challenges, but remote working and collaboration can work, says Google.
10 April 2019

Google faces its third major lawsuit of the year. Source: AFP

Considering the almost global coverage of the internet, it’s no surprise that Google, as a company, has to adopt a set of working practices that allow collaborative processes involving staff from different buildings— often on distant continents.

A recent blog post from Veronica Gilrane, manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab, gives us non-Googlers a small insight into everyday activities at the internet giant, plus a few pointers for companies out there wishing to adopt remote working for some or all employees.

According to Gilrane, at Google, 48 percent of meetings involve Googlers from two or more buildings, and 30 percent include at least two timezones. In a “distributed work” environment, timezone differences are a constant bugbear, and although the company prefers it that participants in meetings don’t have to “stay too far into their evening” or may “have to get up earlier than usual to join video chats”, that’s the reality for any company with a multinational presence.

Bonding, and the building of personal connections via video link is, of course, difficult as many will have experienced first hand— a fact touched on by Gilrane. Much of the subtlety of human interactions goes on at a subconscious level, with micro-changes in facial expressions being lost by video compression algorithms.

Add to that the constant pain that Google itself acknowledges, that of “glitchy video or faulty sound,” and sometimes the creation and maintenance of employee bonds across different offices can be difficult. It’s certainly easier to drop by a colleague’s desk and chat about their weekend than it is to juggle timezones and colleagues’ availability.

The company itself has effectively endorsed the standard trope of the ridiculousness of much video conferencing (regardless of platform). Its own attempt at the technology, Google Hangouts is to be retired, soon to join the ranks of the deceased so marvelously cataloged at the Google Graveyard. Although rumors of the service’s death are exaggerated, according to a statement from the company that says, “in March 2017, we announced plans to evolve classic Hangouts to focus on two experiences […]: Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet. Both Chat and Meet are available today for G Suite customers and will be made available for consumer users, too.” (That’s paying G-Suite customers, BTW).

Whatever the technical issues with video and audio conferencing technologies, even on its own platforms, timezones and remote collaborators do have advantages. Gilrane makes an excellent point, in that remote workers can, if they desire, turn the timezone differences to their advantage. Certain people class themselves as ‘night owls’, others ‘early birds’; that lends itself to a preference for traditionally antisocial working hours (especially in the other camp’s eyes), which chimes nicely with cross-timezone chats and meetings.

She notes that “teams who work virtually find ways to prioritize a steady work-life balance by prioritizing important rituals like a healthy night’s sleep and exercise just as non-distributed team members do.”

If we place on one side, therefore, the accepted limits of remote working’s everyday practicalities, what are the effects on business? Should employers run scared from any proposals for remote-, or home-working? Can bosses expect poor levels of collaboration between employees on different continents, or at opposite sides of a country?

According to Google, which surveyed 5,000+ Googlers, there’s no drop in results’ quality: “We were happy to find no difference in the effectiveness, performance ratings, or promotions for individuals and teams whose work requires collaboration with colleagues around the world versus Googlers who spend most of their day to day working with colleagues in the same office,” said Gilrane.

And although some of the Google People Innovation Lab (PiLab) team’s recommendations (available in a playbook) fall well into the “blindingly obvious” section of astute advice, there are a couple of notable findings.

Firstly, as mentioned above, ascertaining what the favored hours are for each team member may well give rise to obvious schedules for inter-team collaborations, meetings, heads-up sessions or even virtual socializing.

Secondly, although video conferencing and audio connections are useful (albeit nowhere as ideal as advertised by comms companies, and certainly involving fewer beautiful people), sometimes it’s just easier– and on occasion, a whole lot more efficient – to be face-to-face, despite the cost of travel to in-person meetings.

And when the opportunities come about for serendipitous encounters– trade shows and expos spring to mind– these should be seized upon as opportunities for virtual collaborators to become ‘in-the-flesh’ co-workers.

As reported on these pages, AI is now being deployed by some employers to examine indicators like file access, email contents and online activity patterns to categorize workers as “collaborative”, “influencers” or “change-makers”. Metrics from that type of app’s use should be able to confirm that remote workers are fully engaged with the business’s activities. (Presumably, the same tools can be used to identify ‘shirkers who might be fired’, too.)

Gilrane herself has learned a lot from the survey of Google staff members. She now meets once a week for 30 minutes with no specific agenda over video chat with remote colleagues. That should be just enough time for everyone’s microphones, speakers and webcams to start working before it’s time to move on.