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How do you solve a problem like remote working?

The great experiment

A collateral consequence of COVID-19 has been the biggest experiment in remote working in human history.

The responses have been interesting. Some people have struggled with remote working and can't wait for things to return to 'normal'. That is, to return to their offices or other places of work. Others have thrived and are openly hoping they never have to.

Remote working before COVID-19

But the reality is less either/or than that.

The movement towards flexible working has been growing for some time. For example, in the UK in 2018, of the employed population:

  • 7.2% reported working mainly from home.
  • 30% reported having worked from home sometimes.

And many people working from an office or from home spent varying amounts of time travelling to and visiting client or supplier sites.

The COVID-19 remote working experience

COVID-19 has brought this growing trend into sharp relief. Many more people have been forced to work from home. And at the same time, those trips to other sites have largely been suspended.

Many have struggled to make this transition. There are a number of reasons for this.
  • The transition was sudden and unplanned. People struggled to acquire, set up and learn to use the technology required for remote work.
  • Many processes are unsuitable for remote work. In general, organisations which had invested in digitising processes found the transition easier.
  • Parents with young children struggled to make the transition to remote working on top of the already difficult transition to remote schooling.
  • Not all homes are suitable for remote work. Conducting your video calls from a well-appointed study is one thing. Doing so from a kitchen table where your children are also trying to do their homework is quite another.
  • The change comes on top of a number of other stresses. For example, people may be concerned about the health of their friends and family. On top of their work lives, their social lives have also been disrupted.
  • Newly remote workers have complained of 'Zoom* fatigue'. That is, the sense that a day spent in video-conference meetings feels more tiring than a day in physical meetings. There are many theories about what could cause this. Some of them relate to the other issues described above rather than to the nature of the meetings themselves.
(* I have used Zoom throughout this post as a shorthand for all video-conference and other remote working solutions. I've done so based on its current popularity. The same could be said of Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Hangouts, Slack, and a host of other similar solutions.)

Some of these struggles will be temporary. Children will return to school. Other stresses will subside. People will get used to the technology. Processes will improve.

And we know from the long-term remote workers that things like Zoom fatigue are neither permanent nor unavoidable.

We're not all the same after all

An important lesson we have learned from this process is that we are not all the same. Of course, we've always known this. But we've never experienced it as far as remote working is concerned at this scale.

We don't all respond the same way to the challenges and opportunities of remote work. If we adjust for the other impacts of COVID-19 we must conclude that whilst some people perform better in an office environment, others perform better in a more remote environment.

Those that perform better in a remote environment feel more productive, less stressed and more engaged.

But in the past, we've been too focussed on assuming everyone should have the same kind of office environment. We've not made allowances for these differences.

It is tempting to make simplistic assumptions. Such as that remote work suits introverts while in-office work suits extroverts. There may be some truth to that. But humans are complex. Some extroverts seem to be able to satisfy their need for social interaction over Zoom. Other introverts find Zoom to be a poor substitute for physical proximity. More research will be required.

Either way, more choice must be a good thing. Historically, the world has been stacked in favour of those better suited to in-office work. Those who perform better in remote working situations have been forced to:
  1. Endure the personal cost of working in an in-office environment in which they were less productive,
  2. Restrict themselves to the smaller number of careers and employers where remote work has been more widely accepted.
The COVID-19 remote work experiment opens up the possibility of a better world for work. One in which more people can offer their best regardless of their predisposition for in-office or remote working.

The best of both worlds

To exploit this choice we need to stop thinking of office work 'as it was' versus remote work 'as it was'. We need to build new work practices which combine and improve on the best of both.

For example, we've been able to roll out video conferencing to people working from their homes. We need to provide the same facilities for people returning to their offices at their desks. This may increase the bandwidth demands for office buildings. However, failing to do so will reinforce the historical artificial separations between in-office and remote workers.

The advantages of office environments are well understood. For example:
  • Serendipitous conversations around the proverbial water cooler.
  • Quick conversations as you pass each other in the corridor.
  • Greater awareness of peoples' dispositions. When it's OK to interrupt them and when it's better to wait.
  • The creation of social bonds with people even when you're not formally meeting with them.
  • Those shared cups of coffee or drinks after work.
  • Increased non-verbal communications through body language.
  • The role of the commute as a buffer zone between work and home life.

However, there are equally many benefits of remote working. For example:
  • Fewer interruptions.
  • Better work-life-balance as a result of less time spent commuting.
  • Less time and money wasted by travelling between meetings.
  • The ability to hire the best person for the job; not just the best person for the job who just happens to live near your office or is willing to relocate.
  • Greater opportunities for people with certain types of disabilities.
  • A reduced environmental footprint.
We should not simply trade off one set of advantages against the other. We should look for new and innovative practices which deliver different combinations of both. And we should think of remote and in-office work as existing on a continuum, rather than as alternatives.

A chance to fix some long-standing problems

In my experience, most organisation recognise that they have a 'toxic' meeting culture. That typically translates to some or all of:

  • Too many meetings.
  • Poorly structured or absent agendas.
  • Inadequate preparation.
  • Too many and/or the wrong attendees.
  • Poorly chaired meetings.
  • Meetings dominated by the most senior and/or loudest voices rather than those best able to contribute.
  • No clear outcomes.

'Board effectiveness reviews' have improved the meetings at the tops of some organisations. But these improvements have not permeated most organisations.

Simply moving existing bad meeting practices onto Zoom was doomed to failure. We need new approaches. Some interesting ideas have been put forward:

We need to explore, adopt and adapt these to the new, more flexible organisations we create.

Reframing the question

Instead of asking

  • Should we return to the office or stay at home once restrictions are lifted?
we should rather be asking
  • What have we learned about our operations and working practices during this crisis?
  • How do we move forward in more effective and resilient ways?
The answers to these questions may be different for each organisation. But they will have far-reaching consequences.

I've heard many people say "I wouldn't want to be in commercial real estate right now". Will future organisations still want as many flagship head-offices in prestigious locations? Will those that do still want them to house as many of their workers?

We can start to imagine a world in which:
  • more people work from home some or all of the time;
  • those who want or need to go to an office work from shared regional hubs closer to where they live;
  • hot-desking becomes more prevalent as location becomes more fluid;
  • businesses with high-street presences revitalise those by letting them double up as remote work locations. (I understand banks are looking at this as an option for the flagging branch networks.)
Transportation and hospitality will likewise be impacted if business travel declines. This could be because there is less need for business travel and because the current pandemic has made people more afraid to do so. And a range of other businesses, such as inner-city sandwich shops, will be impacted.

But for most organisations, the opportunities for change will far outweigh the challenges in terms of:
  • improved effectiveness,
  • improved resilience,
  • reduced costs, and
  • increased diversity.

Opportunity amidst disaster

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a human tragedy. The cost in human lives and the impact on families and frontline workers have been immense.

But the second-order disruption creates an opportunity to build a better world. For how we work as well as in other spheres of life. Let's seize that opportunity with both hands.

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