Aspirations, blessings and curses of working remotely
By Dimis Michaelides
One of the most significant ways the Covid pandemic impacted work has been to get much more of it done from home. Working from home impacts organisations and lives in many different ways, sometimes very profoundly. Here we explore some of the many dimensions of working remotely (whether from home or otherwise).
History: For over a century garment-making, jewellery production and professional writing were done from home or from home-based ateliers. From its inception in this century GitLab, an international software company, had no offices. It has 1300+ employees from over 70 countries (see https://about.gitlab.com/resources/downloads/ebook-remote-playbook.pdf a “how-to” of remote collaboration). This year the tech giants all announced big and permanent changes to accommodate more work from home. Many others are doing likewise to realise huge savings and increases in efficiency.
Possibilities: Not all work can be done remotely. Production, logistics, putting out fires, stopping bar brawls, caring for the infirm and cleaning services come to mind. In future many of these will be done remotely too.
Models: Organisations can structure remote work in different ways. They can be entirely free of offices or have limited office space. They can have 0 to 100 per cent of people working remotely. People may be offered a little or lots of freedom of when to work and where to work from.
Prepare for more remote work. To get there we need a little know-how and plenty of want-to.
Place: Working remotely expands the choice of where to live and work. Premises – both office and home – acquire a new significance. 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.
Time: Can you work remotely at your own pace? Yes, if your job has tasks with reasonable deadlines you can plan for. No, if you have to service clients, bosses, colleagues, partners etc who expect you to follow their own unpredictable schedules. Potentially much work can be organised so people choose when to work, within a general schedule.
Working remotely can greatly enrich individual time-management and living-location options.
Travel: More work from home means less commuting which is time-saving, money-saving and stress-relieving. It is also great for less car (and train and bus and airplane) use and pollution.
Teams: A lot of teamwork can be accomplished well online. Physical interaction is important too. No doubt we will soon develop behaviours and technologies to capture these online as well.
Tools: Platforms for online collaboration are getting better. Virtual and Augmented Reality promise to join the bandwagon. New tools always come with the requirement that people learn how to use them.
Techniques: Lighting, audio, connectivity and a decent visual set-up contribute to good online meetings. We should not have to start every meeting with “can you hear me”?
Ways of collaborating remotely will change as people construct new tools, new ways of using them, and new ways of organising work.
Serendipity: The chance meetings that happen around coffee or the copier often come with small talk which may well spark off bigger ideas. Say goodbye to such serendipity. Say hello to a new serendipity which arises from the great opportunities of connecting online. This can be powerful too.
Behaviour: Online you will not worry about what you wear waist-down or what perfume you have. People will still notice your eyes, hairstyle, smile and tone of voice. You will always need good listening and focus.
Power: Home work is more effective when managers let go of their micromanaging instincts. On the other hand, technology makes it 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 have to choose between more empowerment or more big brother.
If your boss is a control freak, she will still be a jerk even if she is not physically watching you all the time.
Culture: The behaviours, attitudes, assumptions, values and narratives that keep an organisation together might evolve as an organisation transitions from desks to remote. The potential for more openness, empowerment and 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 organisations whose culture is slovenly or toxic anyway.
Clients: Clients can benefit in many ways, but this is not a given. There must be a coordinated effort to guide and support clients during the transition.
Competition: Working from home can confer huge competitive advantages in recruiting, new offerings, cost-savings etc. Speed and flexibility are of the essence.
Best to grab the benefits of home working the soonest.
Physicality: Home work leads to less physical human contact which is a very basic human need (see also Teams and Serendipity above). We will all have to work (Covid or not) on satisfying physical needs mostly outside the work sphere.
Pleasure: Many factors contribute to well-being at work: remuneration, benefits, career prospects, trust, social relations, learning, personal development, responsibility, empowerment, recognition, status, physical environment. Most important is enjoying the work itself. The jury is still out on whether remote is better than office on this point.
Pain: Working at home has real financial costs for employees – space, equipment, maintenance, subscriptions and more. There are non-financial costs too. Working in small cramped bedrooms is no fun.
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).
Family: The physical and psychological boundaries between family and business may have to be redrawn. Challenges of coexistence and socialisation within the family arise when adults are working online, children are learning online, payments and shopping happens online – all from the same home. Honestly, do you really want to be with your partner 24/7?
Equality: People are not equally affected by home work. People without the right equipment and skills are more negatively impacted. On a different level, the growing potential of hiring people who work remotely can pitch powerful employers against non-unionised individuals and even office workers against home workers. Issues of social justice inevitably arise.
Transformation: For the start-up life often begins with remote work. For older organisations the act of transforming structures, systems and cultures to accommodate remote working can present formidable challenges, technical and human.
Future: Could cities be on their way out as a result of more home work? What will future offices be like? Will remote working contribute positively to big issues such as climate change, scientific collaboration and world peace? Might it iron out or exacerbate existing disparities between rich and poor? Could humans become more individualistic, less sociable? Will people travel only for leisure and pleasure? Will physical interaction be just for leisure and pleasure? Hundreds more big questions will arise. Resolving these will be a matter for all – individuals, institutions and societies. Nobody has even the smallest chance of remaining unaffected.
Test the limits of how far you and your organisation can go with home work, now.