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.
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