I’m not entirely sure what is my routine anymore. Since I don’t commute to work anymore, I find myself snoozing my alarms a little bit more often than usual. In the past, 5 minutes after waking up, I would’ve been slathering myself with soap under the shower. These days, I wake up just in time for the meeting in the morning (thank God we aren’t doing video calls) — sometimes I would opt not to show up and simply be “online” on Slack.
Around lunchtime, I’d either get on Foodpanda or whip something real quick (usually a sad excuse for nutrition). Sometimes this gets delayed because of a meeting that went longer than usual, or when I don’t feel like leaving my office chair.
Did I mention that I’m using this ramshackle mesh chair that can barely swivel? I wanted to buy this gaming chair that was made locally, but I think it’s way too rigid for my scoliosis-afflicted spine. My backbone probably squealed in delight when I started adding ergonomic chairs into my basket, but I’m still not too sure. What if we return to the office? Won’t I be wasting my money if I’m going to sit in the office again?
For the past three months, I scrolled Pinterest to find “home office setups” and usually found myself in awe of Scandinavian design-inspired setups. Multiple monitors, laptop stands, mechanical keyboards… it’d be a dream to work like that. I imagined the possibilities. Since I’m a mediocre productivity freak, I’d think having more monitors would help me “see” more. That means more efficiency, I guess.
It’s nighttime, and I’m finally on my bed. I’m exhausted, and my buttocks went numb a few times. I lay on my bed, only to hear my phone vibrate. I flip over, hoping that it’s someone asking me out for a late-night supper.
Unfortunately, it’s just a Slack message telling me to update my progress tomorrow at the daily meeting.
Since the world plunged into a colossal adaptation cycle after the coronavirus pandemic, remote work enthusiasts finally had their heyday. It’s not just the “savvy” young startups — incumbents that used to reject the notion of having their employees work wherever they want are now telling employees “please stay at home”. That’s even for the most “conservative” of companies.
Today, we’re witnessing companies going permanently remote, upheaving the entire commercial real estate space. Giants like BP, Square, Twitter, and other household names are embracing sweet serenity and bombardments of Zoom calls. “Conservative” companies like Japanese tech group Fujitsu shifted away from traditional corporate culture by telling their 80,000 employees to work from home permanently.
Rejoice, for the dream of working at home is finally fulfilled.
Or is it? As many remote workers can attest, work from home simply isn’t for everyone. Navigating remote work culture has been one of the most challenging management problems by far for the white-collar workers, all while trying to ensure that they can hit their business goals with everyone working offsite.
The peak productivity levels that many companies heralded is now waning off. Remote workers are becoming sluggish, projects take longer, and training is tougher. Onboarding employees isn’t as straightforward as before. You might not even know that your company just hired six new interns without that monthly all-hands meeting over Hangouts.
You might not even know that your company just hired six new interns without that monthly all-hands meeting over Hangouts.
Working physically has its cons but so does remote work. Fortunately, most of these cons can be countered to an extent with an apt management approach.
Stop Micromanaging Me, Seriously
I get it, we’re going Agile or using some kind of Kanban management theory. Sure, but I don’t need you breathing down my neck about what I’ve done yesterday and what I’m going to do today. I’m on track — if I need help, I’ll ask, and you’d probably realise when you do your check-ins (if you do it in the first place).
Unfortunately, standup meetings are often abused or poorly conducted. Standup meetings aren’t about asking for work progress, it’s about synchronisation, not some obsolete project management status meeting. That ruins the whole idea of asynchronous work. You don’t want the backend engineer to talk about some SQL problem he’s solving today when the UX designer is thinking how this is relevant to the three user tests he planned for the afternoon — that’s a waste of time.
Ask about blockers: is there anything that’s hindering your work? What missing information do you need to help you move faster? If there is, who can help you?
When executed correctly, standup meetings have value for the whole team to inspect the overall progress towards the company goals. If not, it’s just thirty minutes of everyone staring blankly into the Google Meets screen till it’s their turn to speak.
Wait, we hired three new guys?
Seriously, I didn’t even know till you added them on Slack — but their profiles are empty, and there’s a number in their username! Who are these people? Why are they here? I suppose I’ll wait for another month before the next all-hands meeting for the company-wide announcement of injecting fresh blood.
Many SaaS startups are born for this reason, like Notion, Fibery, and Coda to help remote work companies document as many things as they can to help employees understand, well, the company. Unfortunately, it’s tedious, monotonous work, and many would instead root themselves in Scrum and yelling about how it’s not agile to “document”. Your newly-hired backend engineer intern would love to know why you’re categorising your data this way, though.
Companies need to have a knowledge hub or a single source of truth when everyone is distributed. It’s simply inefficient to Slack a colleague about something you don’t know, then realising that the colleague only answered half your question and directed the rest to another colleague. Communication is great, but why not let people do their jobs even quicker by cutting down unnecessary ones?
It’s 7.30 p.m., give me a break.
I get it, you’re a workaholic, and you want to complete your tasks. I too am the same, especially when I’m starting to blur the lines between my resting and workspace. At the very least, could you leave me alone after the stipulated working hours? Microsoft found that the company saw a 52% increase in online chats between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., and it’s everyone’s fault.
Pre-remote-work-revolution, there have been countless of articles condemning colleagues who send after-work emails and text messages. Simply put, don’t do it. Even if it’s more accessible now, when someone indicates they are away on Slack, you can bet that they want to be away. Due to the power gradient (and the fear of losing their jobs during a labour market downturn), employees are more likely to reply you than to tell you “please stop texting me, it’s after working hours”.
By talking about work or continuing topics after office hours, managers are essentially elongating working hours even if the laptop is closed. Psychologically, the employee is made to think about work despite wanting to take a break till tomorrow. That’s intrusive, and there are even legal restrictions and laws to ban this. Before sending that text message, why not put it in the Eisenhower’s matrix for a second?
Remote work may seem like a holy grail for some, but the challenges that it poses for managers is a huge one. A recent study by Microsoft found that working remotely actually made people more stressed out than if they were in the office, especially with meeting fatigue. With the management being more stressed out than the employees, sometimes it takes a little more empathy from everyone in the team.
As a remote worker, I understand the challenges that my superiors face. It’s not easy to navigate this for some generations that didn’t grasp the concept way before today’s health crisis. However, with the abundance of research materials, experiments from other companies, and a plethora of scientific studies, there’s no better time to enhance the remote working experience today.
For sure, there are times where I wished that I could go back to pantry conversations, talking over instant coffee and chocolate cookies. There’s that connection, and remote work can be isolating if there isn’t a meeting or a semblance of communication within the day. Reduced non-verbal cues and the limitation of video call tiling also forces us to interact more carefully, which means not connecting with your colleagues.
There’s a never-ending list of cons of remote work.
What can managers do at this point? Ask. Listen to your employees. Talk to them. Read them and find out what they might like. Stop integrating useless plugins and bots on Slack and start thinking of the big picture. Then, maybe, you’d realise that messaging your engineer at 10.30 p.m. isn’t such a great idea after all.
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