Esther Schindler wrote a thought-provoking column on CIO.com last week, Business Social Networking Geography: Does It Matter Where My Contacts Are?
Although the Internet is global, and you may do business with people anywhere in the world, most people tend to look for people-networks close to home. Or do they? Should they? If the point of social networking is to connect with other people, ought it to matter where we are?
At Freelock, we have a handful of remote clients, but upwards of 90% of our clients are local. I founded the business on the assumption that people want to know who they're doing business with, be able to see them face to face, and grow to trust them over time. Nothing breaks the ice like talking about a project in person, over a coffee or better yet, a margarita.
Good or bad, business gets done through personal relationships. How many deals have been cemented on the golf course? It's a lot harder to say no in person, than it is with a quick dismissive email. So much communication happens non-verbally, through body language, tone of voice, and other channels that just aren't available online. A video conference is a poor substitute for a face-to-face meeting.
I've gotten quite a bit of help from IRC. We have a private company jabber server so when we're not in the same room, we can still have the feel of a team. We've had people helping us out from Bellingham, 120 miles north. The Internet enables some amazing things, and I definitely think it's possible to work effectively at a distance. Many professions, including writing and coding, can be done quite effectively by individuals working by themselves, anywhere in the world.
But you can't directly diagnose a connectivity issue in an office in Bellevue when you're in India, or replace a hard drive. You can't assemble a car from the other side of the world. And even for creative types who can work effectively on their own, relationships and trust only truly get cemented by meeting their editors, testers, or project managers in person.
Another founding principle of my business is that it's much easier to ensure quality by having people work in person. If team members can do impromptu code reviews of each other's work, quality goes up. The solitary developer working late at night may bang his head for hours against a problem that a colleague could solve in a 5 minute conversation. Having a team of people with complementary talents and different strengths working in one place leads to better results.
Once you've established that level of trust, remote work becomes more effective. You know when somebody's cracking a joke, and it doesn't sound so strange. You're more likely to ask a quick question in a chat when you can preface it with a comment about an outside shared interest.
Yes, location matters. It's not everything, and the Internet makes it possible to work together from a distance--but it still matters.