Remote work for everyone?! What we stand to gain

I’ve been an online worker my entire professional life. The digital allowed me to explore opportunities that would not have been available otherwise, and it made my life borderless when it came to the places I could work in, the organisational cultures to learn from, the people to have as colleagues and befriend. But I wonder how it is like for those who only now onboard this journey, especially when I myself haven’t figured it out entirely? I’m curious what you are experiencing.

We are now looking at several trends likely to be accelerated by covid at the same time, but one change is already happening at scale: remote work.

We read about these trends and the many questions that they come with: How can we make AI and humans a joint, not an opposing force? Will we see increased digital accessibility if we will be able talk to each other in any language in real time? Will companies attract more and more global talent using the digital? But there is 1 change that stares us in the face: it is remote work.

Employees see flexible working as the new normal - that means, broadly choosing where and when you work from, to some extent. Below is data from a study by International Workplace Group, with more than 15,000 people across 80 nations. Caveat: they’re people in the business sector, not too diverse unfortunately. But guess what? It’s data from 2019, before covid19 hit!

This year in April, about 4 in 10 employees in the EU started teleworking (37%) (source). In the US in June, half of the people were working online. In countries where more people began working from home as a result of the pandemic, fewer workers lost work. What’s interesting about these major disruptions is that many people asked said that this is a lifestyle they can get used to. In the UK, only 6% would like to go back to life before Covid.

The benefits of working remotely are pretty obvious to some of us.

  • Economic: how much could we save by not owning or renting entire buildings? ‘we estimate a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year. The primary savings are the result of increased productivity, lower real estate costs, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and better disaster preparedness.’ (source). @joduinn makes a good case for distributed economic development with the help of worker’s relocation in co-working spaces - see his argument here.

  • The positive impact on the environment can be huge. The most telling number I’ve seen is 28%. In California, cars going to work make for 28% of the State’s GHG emissions (source). Imagine how our cities could begin to serve their people again and not just be pollution hubs.

  • Social gains: Here, we have yet to understand fully how it works, but many believe that remote working can create more inclusive workplaces: think about care givers or women with young children who would have more time for them. Also, some people in the co-working sector think we can bridge the rural-urban gap by setting up smaller offices in small towns or rural areas that are closer to one’s home, and inherently more community oriented.

I would argue that the choice to be made is not between: ‘‘Yes, we will work remotely’’ or ‘‘No, we will keep our office’’. For most of us, it will anyway be a mix of the two. No matter in which kind of company and work policy we are in, the question I see more important is: How we will work well…?

The devil in the details

Buffer & AngelList, two digital companies, have been studying this for the past years and just released their year report on data collected from 3500 remote workers from across the world, many of them mid level and senior professionals.


Source and report here.

The best thing about remote work is clearly flexibility. What’s more revealing is what is not working so well. People have difficulty working together, they feel lonely, or they cannot unplug, that is, disconnect from work. To the best we can, I think we need to get better at some key things in order to get the most out of online working not for the purpose of efficiency, but more to stay connected to the world around us:

1. ONLINE COLLABORATION

How do we build the culture of being online together with our colleagues? It’s not just about learning digital skills, but also about how to make ourselves understood by others, how to solve problems or manage conflicts. Or think about the social aspect: what is acceptable to do and what not? Is it OK to have my baby or my cat in front of my screen with me, or not?

One way to think about it is to ask ourselves: what can we replicate from the face to face? I have some examples here after watching @howard_rheingold’s recent talk with the Institute for the Future, where he clearly stated that the online will not replace our face to face interactions, but we can try to emulate them:

  • Lectures & Trainings: The difference from real life is that your audience is captive, so you want to: have a facilitator, upload videos ahead, keep talks to max. 20 mins and leave the rest of the time for activities where people can participate.
  • Video meetings are now the standard tool for business communication, but many leaders make the mistake of overcompensating by scheduling too many of them. I don’t know about you, but 5 meetings every day is exhausting…! Also, they should never last more than 1 hour, unless it’s a strategic meeting.
  • Teams interaction: This is the equivalent of the ‘ambient community’ feeling to keep us happy – the people we chat to when we go get our morning coffee and all the people we recognise as we go about our daily lives (@amelia’s great remark here). The opportunity here is that they can be asynchronous. We can use platforms for online conversations: if not an entirely managed one, then at least a slack or wordpress comments section could work.
  • Desk mates: can we replicate desk mates? These could be virtual co-working days, like a library study where people work together not with much interaction, but their presence in the space together helps keep each other accountable.
  • Office small talk: in Edgeryders, we have a group for discussions called Campfire - it’s chatty, people are just checking in to say how they’re doing and what are they up to in their daily life.

… and many other tricks can probably be found. We can be socially closer by being physically distant, but we need to ask ourselves: what is useful and how to begin to practice new things, instill new social norms in our community of co-workers?

2. MENTAL HEALTH

This Eurofound study of work and life during covid19 revealed that 1 out of 5 of all workers report working in their free time at least every other day; however, for those teleworking during pandemic, over 1 in 4 state that they work in their free time to meet the demands of work.

So what can we each do to do our work well AND stay healthy?

  • Autonomy <-> Self-Discipline. We have a lot more autonomy as online workers, yes, but if we are not disciplined about our ‘office hours’ and manage our focus and productivity, we will get lost in all the freedom. This is the most expensive lesson I believe. It’s also the number one worry of managers when it comes to letting their people loose.
  • Time management: if you’re time tracking as an online worker, you will probably see that what you usually do in 8 or 10 hrs at the regular office, you can probably do in 6 hours online if you are focused (ex: pomodoro technique; batch email reading and many tips out there). @matthias explained this to me early on and I’ve been grateful ever since. It also helped me understand that often I don’t need to be stuck to my screen for 8 hours full to get through the daily tasks and feel good about myself.
  • ‘Unplugging’: means disconnecting from work tasks. We all, entrepreneurs and employees, struggle with burnout constantly - one of the buzzwords for when someone is going to be unreachable and recharging their batteries is ‘Digital detox’. I highly recommend it, if you can do it every now and then, for at least 1 or 2 days in a row.

3. REGENERATION

Finally, let’s take a minute to think about the idle time and space we can discover while we don’t need to commute anymore and we learn to get better at how we work online: this new normal can free up energy and time, which is how many people found new passions these months. You know how they say people will come out of lockdown either as chefs or gardeners (or alcoholics, but I’m not counting that :-))? I can testify to that, as well as for many friends. The planet is doing it already, why shouldn’t we do it too?

If I were to choose between the septic, socially distanced office of the future and some cosy alternative, guess what I’d choose…


On the left: the office of the future by Cushman & Wakefield

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I started a garden this season and am also now a far better cook than I was. I drink a lot less though - too much anxiety about the world and I find that alcohol exacerbates rather than helps those feelings.

Here is a link to a New York Times column about remote working, that offers the following advice:

Designate time for work and nonwork

It doesn’t make sense to expect workers to be available at all hours because they’re always in their “office.” Instead, companies should reserve time for both collaborative and independent work, researchers said, and focus more on the work that gets done than on the time spent logged on. People could create rituals to mark the start and end of the workday, and companies could make clear they don’t expect messages to be answered immediately.

Judge performance, not the schedule

People have learned that they’re evaluated in part on the number of hours they spend in the office. To adapt, managers should be very clear about expectations for the work assigned and when it’s due, researchers said — then leave the “how” up to the workers and not worry about following the traditional 9-to-5 schedule.

Slash meetings

Decide which meetings you really need, and replace some with Slack conversations. Keep meetings short and small, with breaks in between, and make them optional with detailed notes for those who can’t attend.

Connect colleagues

People miss office friendships, and these often lead to better work. In addition to having video chats to catch up, co-workers have sent letters or packages in the mail or met up for socially distanced walks. Some suggest calling co-workers just to check in.

Include everyone

Remote work can lead to feeling excluded — without daily contact, people might reach out only to those they know best, and it can be harder to assert oneself on a video chat or conference call. Forming in-person relationships in the office has been shown to be helpful for expanding opportunities to women and people of color. It can also be especially helpful for workers new to a company or to the work force.

Companies can increase the frequency of meetings between mentors and mentees, researchers and executives said, and people should become more conscious about collaborating with people they don’t know well.

In many ways, companies have found, remote work can be more inclusive. A brainstorming session on Slack is easier for many people to join than an in-person meeting. Events or employee group meetings may be less intimidating to some workers when they’re held online. And networking over video chat or the phone is accessible to more people than golf retreats or after-work drinks.

It’s likely that widespread remote work will last a long time, and many people may never return to the office full time. These tips could improve working from home now and in the future.

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Yes, except all these are hard to do if you’re looking at it from the point of view of the employer or manager. There are still a lot of fears underlying the idea of letting people manage their own work :face_with_raised_eyebrow:


Image source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/how-people-and-companies-feel-about-working-remotely/

Agree. Huge challenges for management especially if you have been very hands on, micromanaging or doing a difficult training.

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Also, how does management maintain morale with their employees? people are more on their own regarding work time, but also on their own psychologically which is not at all a trivial thing in a workplace. Many working people give moral and psychic support to each other in various forms throughout a workday. Water coolers aren’t just for gossip.

And some managers help morale in non-verbal ways unrelated to something one would type or say in a Zoom call. As a manager (I spent 13 years directly supervising others) I saw that things tended to go better with the work and with crew morale when I was there. Not just because of personality, but because I could step in and solve problems, unstick jams, smooth ruffled emotions and other hands-on practices. I really do not know how I would go about it now. I would adapt like everyone else to the reality of having to be virtual. And maybe in the long run it could be just as, or almost as, effective. But it would take some time, and if I had to bet on it, I would wager that I could not be as successful with staff in those older, now inappropriate in-person ways.

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Thanks, @noemi Noemi, for sharing this interesting blog post, as a project manager ( I am not a self-employed person) I go through a lot these thoughts: 8 hours are enough? Should I work during the weekend? Should I track my working hours to avoid feeling guilty by the end of the day if I haven’t checked all my to-do list items, should I share with my colleagues when I take my launch break?
Besides, How to maintain our team productivity while I am pretty sure that they got irritated with the remote work.
What are the best practices to implement to ensure a social interaction between the team members without impacting the meeting’s productivity?
I think the tools that we used to use, such as slack/ google meet confluence show their limits since we need manuals or guidelines on how to use them efficiently.

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Uf, hard ones. I hate giving advice, so I’m going to say what I would do: I would check in more often with people, even asking hey how’s it going, and possibly give them a call to talk one on one. Sometimes if the online channels are annoying and it’s just going from planning one meeting after another, ringing them up individually might compensate. A phone call could feel more private then a digital roundtable.
The fun-productivity balance I think it’s inherent to management, not just the online work - being likeable as well as authoritative. Few people I know pull them off both… but not everyone agrees you need to be both anyway.
Are you doing things differently since the pandemic…? Have you tried something that works, or doesn’t? Things are different, so rest assured it’s not abnormal to have these challenges.

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I agree about checking in more often and I would add to that, or maybe embellish it, suggesting that similar to a one-on-one call, it be situations where people feel free to express their short term thoughts and feelings without being ‘on the record’ such as we have on this platform or in the confines of a work meeting/call. Slack, Riot, Facebook, whatever…Riot, now Element, is a good one because it is ultra-casual - stuff gets erased after a couple of weeks. The “status report” topic in this Campfire is sort of a halfway measure for that. But it doesn’t get used all that much. And I know that everyone pretty much is one the social media platforms platforms of their choice saying and reading similar things with many if not most of the people they know. But sometimes one doesn’t want their work relationships to merge with their other social life, which I think is a good thing for many people. So how to fulfill the work version of it? That is what the “water cooler” stuff is all about. Personally I would over-supply the check-in type of talk using very ‘casual’ media. Zoom is too much of a performance sometimes, it seems to me.

These days none of this is easy at all. I think everyone is stressed out in ways they - we - have perhaps never been, certainly not so much collectively. How do we cope with that and stay connected at the same time?

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Love the article Noemi, very much spot on.

I have been thinking a lot about this. For me it’s one of the big positives of this whole situation, and we can get over the obstacles.

I feel the isolation, as most of my work is done from home, even when I am at the hotel I am again quite isolated. We do have regular social activities (like upcoming BBQ this tuesday), to reinforce the relationships and deal with the isolation. That helps a great deal, share some laughs, drinks etc.

I talked with friends working at different companies about the need of managers to have much more meetings than usual and challenges of managing people from distance. I believe they will slowly change the paradigm, as they see the numbers/results. Edgeryders are well prepared for this situation but it is a new experience for great majority of people, I believe they will naturally adapt…as we do adapt fast to good things :wink: .

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Thanks @jasen_lakic!
Yep, you’re one of us know… and I bet you got good at remote working quite fast :stuck_out_tongue:

Are you doing BBQs virtually or do you meet?
And more importantly, where is your team based…?
Do you see differences between the Eastern Europeans and say, your American colleagues…? I’m wondering if there could be some cultural barriers to adopting online work.