Can you keep your focus when you work from home?
As any mathematician will try and convince you, numbers are dead sexy. The tech world seems to agree — slapping a new version number on your product is a tried and tested marketing strategy, except when it backfires (Cough cough, AT&T).
So it’s little wonder that Industry 4.0 and Work 4.0 are now being touted as the Next Big Things. The latter’s not just touted — it’s thrashed out in a lengthy white paper, and one very important component is the growth and evolution of remote working.
Commuter says no
It wasn’t even that long ago that remote working was a bit of a rarity, a perk that was enjoyed by senior members of staff or, at the other end of the scale, contractors — much to the chagrin of the poor beleaguered souls who endured the joys of public transport every day.
But even the definition of the office itself is evolving from the grey building where you struggle through the working day’s miasma of other people’s gossip, opinions and farts to a kind of central digital hub that people connect into. It’s no longer a case of Nathan from finance working from home because his hamster’s sick — for some companies, entire teams work remotely.
The collaboration game
Queen Mary University did just that with one of their key IT teams. “We had building works reducing the amount of available workspaces,” said Stuart, who was heading up the support of the Linux estate. “We realised that our Linux team didn’t actually need to be onsite. All of their work was done remotely anyway, and they weren’t customer facing.”
With collaborative working and communication tools already in day-to-day use, maintaining engagement wasn’t a problem. “In fact, it actually improved their visibility. It used to be a joke that nobody knew what they looked like. Once we formalised the move to remote with daily catch-ups on Slack, we found that we were getting more done and faster — it broke down the ivory tower mentality.”
Many companies find the opposite happening, however. Full-time remote working is a very different undertaking to the odd day here and there, and it’s easy for workers to feel disengaged. The daily interactions with colleagues and friends are an important aspect of enjoying a job. Take that away, and the benefits of remote working can become burdens.
The loneliness of the long-distance worker
Some businesses are doing their best to create virtual ‘water coolers’ so that remote staff can catch up with their colleagues instead of wandering around in their dressing gowns and flirting with Alexa or befriending cutlery. Being able to access files and documents and witness progress in real time is important, but so is being able to digitally ‘touch base’ with colleagues.
The problem of isolation can have bigger implications. Economy Energy’s entire support team is remote and, whilst they had the tools to collaborate and communicate, there was an overarching sense of invisibility. “There were no promotions in our department!” said Deryn, who worked at Economy. “You’d see ‘state of play’ emails coming round with pats on the backs for people who’d been promoted, but it never happened in our area. We were invisible.”
Economy Energy is not alone in this respect. Other workers in other companies have felt the same frustrations and as a result, jumped ship. This brings in the risk that without a proper engagement strategy in place, a business can lose talented workers and not even realise what it's lost.
Another frustration that Deryn felt was the lack of any sort of conflict resolution. Because remote workers are human beings too, conflicts will arise but the lack of face-to-face contact means that these can escalate into flurries of block capitals. Instead of getting around a table and sorting out the differences with a mediator, the result can often resemble the flame wars of the 1990s.
Heads in the clouds
These challenges are magnified when the entire company works remotely. Zapier started as a handful of people working remotely via Slack and GitHub. “It wasn’t like a grand plan,” said co-founder Brian Helmig, who now works with a 100% remote development team. “It was more emergent based on pressures of what we wanted. It just happened.”
One of the challenges for Zapier has been recruitment (and they’re not alone in that aspect). “It’s completely remote so we don’t have people come in for an in-person interview. We hire people, and we’ve never met them before.” It works for Zapier, but it can be a challenge for the candidates — and explaining the ethos to other people who have only worked in traditional co-located jobs. “They’re like “Are you insane? That’s crazy! I can’t believe you trust someone you’ve never even sat down with.”
There’s no firm consensus on remote working. It’ll work better for a development studio than for a rock band (although legend has Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters beaming his parts in from a different country during one of their many feuds). But even companies in the same sector might see different benefits from remote working depending on exactly how they embrace it.
Or they might not see any at all. “We love being a remote team!” said one fully remote company, when we contacted them. “Unfortunately, we are heads down in a big project at the moment and will be unable to participate…”
Distance smishtance. Don’t be a stranger.