I’m a software engineer at TurboVote, but I live more than 1,600 miles from the TurboVote HQ. It’s in Brooklyn, and I’m in Denver. So when I need to ask Seth, Paul, Katy, or Sam a question, I look over at their desk and ask. Wait, what?

We have a simple but effective way of keeping me connected to the rest of the team: I have a FaceTime session constantly running between my laptop and an iPad in the Brooklyn office. We call it “Wes’ window.”

Photo of Wes on the iPad

That's me on the right

Working remotely is often glamorized as “on the beach with a laptop” but those of us who do it every day know that’s a bit of a fantasy. The reality is that working remotely comes with its own challenges and if not done correctly, can make an otherwise great employee-employer relationship go south. One of the biggest pitfalls (especially when all but one employee are in the same office) is making a remote worker feel out of the loop because all the non-critical communication and team-building happens exclusively among those who work in the same office.

One solution often espoused is to increase intentional communication with your remote workers. That’s certainly a good thing, but is also time-consuming, and one of the first to-do’s to slip off the list when things get busy. And aren’t they always?

The great thing about the iPad window is that its benefits are passive. No one needs to do anything to keep me in the loop. Everyone goes about their day and treats me like I’m there in the room. I laugh at Sam’s stories about running a marathon dressed as a hamburger (it’s true), and I cringe at Paul’s bad puns.

Of course, this cannot replace conference calls or Google Hangouts for planning, nor email and IM for day-to-day coordinating. But for all the little benefits that come from sitting in the same room as your colleagues, it’s a huge help and not nearly as awkward as I was afraid it might be before we tried it.

The idea originally came from Seth after he read an article about a Google founder who sent a robot avatar of himself to speak at a conference. When he suggested we do something similar for me, I thought he was crazy. But it actually works pretty well.

It also has some unexpected benefits. For instance, it’s amazing how motivating it is just to hear the background noise of an office while working from home. Maybe someone should sell telecommuters looped recordings of busy offices–the equivalent of a white noise machine for an unmotivated remote worker.

It’s not a perfect solution (I’d rather no one needed to answer the call to establish the link, for example), but it does go a long way towards solving a tricky problem that affects all distributed teams. It’s relatively cheap–especially compared to other corporate video conference systems–and the only setup it requires is placing and answering a FaceTime call (and sometimes repeating that process when the WiFi is being flaky).

Besides the benefits it gives me, making this work also presents a big opportunity for TurboVote. Having a distributed team of software engineers allows us to cast a wider net when recruiting, and only hire the very best, regardless of where they live. That is huge.

Just like TurboVote’s work to improve the registration and voting process, this is an example of using technology to make things easier. Plus it’s really geeky and we love that.

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