Aspirations, Blessings and Curses of Working Remotely
One of the most significant ways the COVID pandemic impacted work has been to get much more of it done from home. Subscriptions to extra bandwidth and virtual meeting platforms skyrocketed. People’s imaginations and their capacity to make new things happen and change their work habits accelerated overnight.
Working from home impacts organizations and lives in many different ways, sometimes very profoundly. This article seeks to explore some of the many dimensions of working remotely (whether this is from home or not).
Many organizations have been working remotely for years. For over a century garment-making, jewelry production and professional writing were done from home or from home-based ateliers. So was much call center work in more recent years. Even ten years ago about 40% of IBM’s nearly 400,000 people were “telecommuters”.
From its inception GitLab, an international software company, had no offices and now it has 1300+ employees from over 70 countries (see a “how-to” of remote collaboration here).
This year the tech giants – Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft – all announced big and permanent changes to accommodate more work from home. Many others are doing likewise. This is not only COVID-related because there are huge potential increases in efficiency to be exploited.
Not all work can be done remotely today.
Production lines, logistics chains, putting out forest fires, stopping bar brawls, caring for sick or disabled people and cleaning services come to mind as location-specific, physical work. In future many of these will be done remotely, fully or in part. The possibilities will grow with the confluence of online connectedness, artificial intelligence and people’s acceptance of change.
Organizations can embrace and structure remote work in different ways. They can be entirely free of offices or have limited office space. They can have 0% or 100% of people working remotely, or anything in between, while organizing physical presence and absence in centralized or decentralized ways. They can offer hardware and software tools and facilities for people out of the office. People may be offered full freedom of choice of when to work and where to work from, or given time and place parameters.
Prepare for more not less remote work. To get there we need a little know-how and plenty of want-to.
Working remotely can greatly expand the choice of where to live and where to work. Physical premises – both office and home – acquire a new significance which can deeply change both organizational and personal life. For those who don’t like to work at home or don’t have the space, cafes or purpose-built shared office facilities might do the job.
Can you work remotely at your own pace? Yes, if your job has tasks with reasonable deadlines you can plan for and fit in your schedule. No, if you have to service clients, bosses, colleagues, partners etc, who expect you to respond to their own unpredictable schedules round the clock. Potentially much work can be done asynchronously, where people choose when to work, within a general time schedule.
Working remotely can greatly expand individual time-management and living-location options.
More work from home means less commuting which is time-saving, money-saving and stress-relieving. From a macro viewpoint, this is also great for beating rush hours, taking the overload off transport systems and an incentive for less car ownership, energy consumption and pollution.
A lot of teamwork can be very effectively accomplished online. Nonetheless, body language and physical interaction are important for teams to thrive. It is likely that we will figure out behaviors and develop technologies that allow us to capture these online sometime soon.
There are dozens of good packages for online collaboration and they are getting better. Add-ons are becoming more sophisticated and friendlier to use. Virtual and Augmented Reality are promising to join the bandwagon too. The equivalent of ZOOM will be a very different beast ten years down the road. New tools will always come with the requirement that people learn how to use them well.
Good lighting, good sound (speakers and microphone), good connections and a decent backdrop help a lot for online live meetings. How great would it be if we did not have to start every meeting with “do you see me” or “can you hear me”? And if people look good and stay on mute when not speaking? Testing your technology 10 minutes before is vital for a good meeting.
Ways of collaborating remotely will change immensely as people construct new tools, new ways of using them, and new ways of organizing work.
The chance meetings that happen when walking in person around the office and connecting over coffee are occasions for small talk which may well spark off bigger ideas too. Say goodbye to such serendipity. Say hello to a new serendipity which arises from the great opportunities of connecting online. This new serendipity can also be heartwarming and, at times, breathtaking.
As you work with others online you need not worry about what you wear waist-down and your perfume will go unnoticed. People will still notice your eyes, your hairstyle, your smile and your tone of voice. If you multi-task you might not get caught but for the serious stuff you need good listening and focus.
Home work is more effective when controlling-type managers let go of their micromanaging instincts and empower people to achieve value-adding outcomes. On the other hand, through technology it is now also easier to monitor every moment of a person’s working time. Amazon warehouse staff have often lodged virulent complaints of big brother watching. Leaders will choose between more empowerment or more big brother in their remote working systems.
If your boss is a control freak, she will still be a jerk even if she is not physically watching you all the time.
The behaviors, attitudes, assumptions, values and narratives that keep an organization together might evolve as an organization transitions from desks to remote. The potential for more openness, empowerment, freedom may or may not be seized upon by the designers of the new order.
The transition to working remotely will bring poor results to organizations whose culture is slovenly or toxic anyway.
There is no doubt that when people work from home clients can benefit in many ways, but this is not always the case. Finding these benefits and how to deliver them is a crucial leadership responsibility. Often, there has to be a co-ordinated effort to guide and support clients during the transition.
Working from home can confer huge competitive advantages in recruiting, new offerings, cost-savings etc. A company needs to do remote work as well as its competitors but beware: competitors tomorrow might not be the ones of yesterday as new entrants join with new business models. Speed and flexibility are of the essence.
Best to grab the benefits of home working the soonest.
Home work leads to the abandonment or reduction of human contact which is a very basic human need (see also Teams and Serendipity above). A fraction of the benefits of real human contact might be captured online with new technology and techniques. A major challenge will persist in post-COVID times too: how to satisfy physical needs outside the work sphere. For work, this challenge is not insurmountable.
Beyond that tired word “motivation” lie a host of elements that contribute to well-being at work: remuneration, benefits, career prospects, trust, social relations, learning, personal development, responsibility, empowerment, recognition, status, physical environment. One of the most important is enjoying the work itself. The jury is still out on whether remote is better than office on this one.
There are very clear and often very significant economies for organizations that abolish or reduce their office space. However working at home has real financial costs for employees. Space, equipment, maintenance, subscriptions and more. Employers may or may not offer a packages for these and access to cheaper services from bulk buying. There are non-financial costs too. For those who walk or cycle to work there may be no joy in less commuting. Having to work in small cramped bedrooms is no fun. Proximity to one’s boss and co-workers and proximity to one’s partner and children are simply not the same for the individual psyche.
It makes a difference to your well-being if you are doing homework (extra work you don’t like doing) or Home Work (happily working from home).
Some people will not let their work invade their home and not bring their home to the office. For others the two simply blend into each other. The physical and psychological boundaries between family and business may have to be redrawn. And challenges of coexistence and socialization within the family arise when the adults are working online, the children are learning online, all payments and most shopping happen online – all from the same home. Do you really want to be with your partner 24/7?
People are not equally affected by home work. People who do not own the right equipment and subscriptions or lack the skills for online work are more deeply affected. It is easy for people to be left out, and these are more often than not older, less healthy, less wealthy and less educated people. On a different level, the growing potential of hiring people who work remotely can pitch powerful employers against non-unionized individuals and even office workers against home workers. Unavoidable issues of social justice arise with more online employment. Legislators and administrators will have to step in to address such issues.
Remote working is quite different for start-ups than for existing institutions. For the start-up life begins with remote work. For older organizations the act of transforming structures, systems and cultures to accommodate remote working can present formidable challenges. After all, leading any change means moving from a present (actual, known) to a future (imagined, unknown) state of affairs. This involves overcoming (some) technical challenges and (many) human obstacles.
Could cities, those concentrations of people that have boosted wealth and creativity all over the world, be on their way out as a result of more home work? Might offices be owned by independent companies and distributed all over the territory to be leased out to individuals or companies? Will remote working contribute positively to big issues such as climate change, scientific collaboration, space exploration and world peace? Might it iron out or exacerbate existing disparities between rich and poor people or rich and poor countries? Could humans become more individualistic, more insular even? Will people travel only for leisure and pleasure? Will physical interaction be reserved just for leisure and pleasure? Many more questions will arise. Resolving these will be a matter for all - individuals, institutions and societies - because nobody in the world has even the smallest chance of remaining unaffected.
Test the limits of how far you and your organization can go with home work by learning and practicing how to do more of it.