Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Remote Taxonomy Work

Taxonomy design and development work can be done remotely. In fact, I’ve been doing taxonomy work remotely for the majority of my 24 years in the field, both as an employee and an independent consultant/contractor/freelancer. Now that information, knowledge, and content professionals are currently all working from home, this would be a good time to share observations on the needs of taxonomy work.

Depending on the nature of the taxonomy work (maintenance, revision, or a new taxonomy project), it can either easily be done completely remotely or mostly remotely with ideally some in-person time.

A staff taxonomist who is responsible for updating and maintaining a taxonomy, if experienced and requiring no training, can easily work 100% remotely. My first role in taxonomy (a controlled vocabulary editor for what was then Information Access Company, before it was merged into Gale) allowed me to go fully remote back in 1998 when I relocated across the country to be near family. I rejoined that group a decade later, and when I left again last July, the majority of the vocabulary editors were working remotely (partly due to an office closure). As experienced professionals, we could all work rather independently, and while contact in the office is nice, it was certainly not required. We edited the controlled vocabularies in a multi-user web-based taxonomy management tool, each of us with different areas of responsibility. Our team meetings were on Zoom, and we were encouraged to use video, so we stayed well connected with our remote teammates.

Developing a new taxonomy, either in-house or as a consultant, does benefit from some in-person time, but this can be for only small part of the time, so the taxonomist can be remote and travel occasionally. I had worked full-time remotely as a taxonomy consultant for a consulting company, Project Performance Corporation, based in McLean, VA, from of my home in Massachusetts. There was not really any need to be in the office, and I only went there for a few days of my initial orientation. For a consulting company, what is more important is some time on the client sites: interviewing stakeholders, leading group interactive workshops and discussions, presenting recommendations and getting input, and perhaps leading taxonomy testing. Client visits would average 3 days/nights every 2-3 months, with perhaps a total of 3 visits for a multi-month project. It was on these client visits when I got to see my teammates on the same project. This work-from-home with occasional onsite client visits was the same pattern when I contracted to other consultancies.

In another job, where I was responsible for the SharePoint taxonomy, I worked most days in the office, but my manager and teammates were in another office of the company across the country, so I was remote in another way.

In my own independent consulting, the larger projects also involve a couple of onsite visits, whether into my local city, Boston, across the country, or even to Europe, as was the case for a recent client. However, I have also taken on small projects with small budgets (i.e. no travel budget), especially for taxonomy review and revision projects, that have easily been done 100% remotely. If necessary, I have interviewed stakeholders remotely and led taxonomy testing activities remotely. Under current circumstances, even larger consulting projects can and will involve such work being done completely remotely. While not as ideal, it is certainly feasible. A good rapport with the client is important.
In between the roles of employee and consultant is that of contractors, who are full-time but temporary. The nature of much taxonomy work, as short-term intensive projects, lends itself to contracting. Contracting is traditionally done fully onsite, but for the experienced taxonomist it can also be done remotely, and I have done this, too. The option for remote work is important, because taxonomy design and development is such a specialized skill that a hiring company often cannot find a qualified and available taxonomist locally and does not want to pay for regular (i.e., weekly) travel and accommodations.

Matching qualified taxonomists to jobs in the right location has always been an issue, even for regular full-time work. As it becomes apparent that experienced taxonomists can do their jobs completely remotely, hopefully more employers will seek out taxonomist talent regardless of location and let even newly hired taxonomists work completely from home. Nevertheless, when travel is safe again, the occasional in-person office visit would be welcome.