Remote work could help us solving the climate crisis and on top of that make our work places more inclusive, better places to work. In this article I’ll outline some arguments for remote work and why some of the challenges with it might actually indicate issues that have nothing to do with remote work at all.
When the Corona crisis started unfolding, my employer sent us home. Initially it was thought as a temporary measure but the “all remote” policy has not been loosened much since then.
This has been early in March and ever since I‘m doing my work from home. Initially, I had my own doubts for sure, but I came to realize what benefits the remote work entails and nowadays I couldn’t be much happier with the new situation. On the other hand it‘s clear that not everyone shares my feelings about remote work. Even in my direct surroundings there are people, who struggle with the situation more than I ever did. Some desperately miss hanging out with their fellow workers and the personal interaction at the work place. Some struggle with the missing structure that is inherent to the practice of going to the office in the morning and going home when the work day is done. Unsurprisingly some of those people took the chance when the company allowed a small fraction of the work force to return to the campus even though this included strict regulations. Overall, however, the experience has been a good one for the people at my work place.
That‘s anything but ordinary, given that I am working for the IT subsidiary of the global wholesaler Metro — a company group that our CEO once described as a flotilla to symbolize how challenging reacting to and keeping up with change is for such a large company. It goes without saying that our teams faced a lot of challenges and in some parts still do, just like any other company that didn’t grow up with that mode of working.
All in all the business world seems to be way more open to remote work as it used to be.
And as it seems, more and more companies see advantages in and start embracing remote work.
Because as unwelcome the current pandemic is and what pain and suffering it undoubtedly brought to our world, it also gave many of us a chance to experience first hand what is nowadays possible with all the technology we’ve got and the human ability to adapt to change. And what I would consider even more important: it gave executives a chance to reinforce trust in their employees. The reason being that some of the executives in the world used to dismiss the idea of letting their staff work remotely for the sole reason that they feared productivity losses. Surprisingly for them that horror scenario did not become true – quite the opposite. The word is on the street that some companies even saw increases in productivity!
That apparently made people think.
More and more companies consider working remotely the “new normal” as they call it — or at least an important part of it. And while I wouldn’t want to call it a sustainable change yet, there is a clear trend emerging that I very much enjoy to observe.
Every change comes with challenges and voices raising concerns.
On the other hand there are always critical voices.
One is the founder of a german „Digital Business Consultancy” who outlined in a German blog post that he considers the hype — and he went as far as calling it a hysteria —about working from home troublesome. In his opinion remote work erodes the company culture, induces health risks and puts the individual career in large companies at risk. The trend to remote work is going to be the biggest management mistake of the year, he concludes.
I consider this conclusion a bit exaggerated or at least too focused on the problem space, but of course a transition to remote work from a more presence-centered company culture includes challenges worth exploring. It might however be that exploring and tackling some of these challenges in an open minded, solution-oriented way could leave us with better companies and maybe even with a better society. Namely, increasing the amount of remote work could help solve some major obstacles of our time — like the climate crisis.
But let’s look at some challenges first.
Any serious exploration of chances associated with remote work deserves thinking about possible health risks associated with it.
That’s a question of reason after all.
We all heard about zoom fatigue by now, i.e. exhaustion of many due to to the large density of video calls, but symptoms like stress, feelings of loneliness, anxieties and feeling overwhelmed can be observed in some people. It seems evident enough that psychologists framed a name for it: home office syndrome. These are obviously risks that companies should take serious and account for in their organizational setup. They should ask themselves for example, what they could do to make working remotely more comfortable for their staff and how to organize work to avoid things such as zoom fatigue and most importantly: how they can support employees struggling with such symptoms. And given that there are also strategies that individuals and teams can exercise they should help their employees get to know and learn about these strategies.
On the other hand there are potential advantages that could in fact be a psychological relieve.
The daily commuting for example is associated with similar strains as working remotely is. And it almost inevitably steels time from the people, which they otherwise could spent in their social life. Without the commuting, they would have the chance to spend more time with family and friends. And time for this is spare anyway, given that work makes up for most of our days. For parents there is the chance to spend more time observing their kids growing up. Given the fact that commuting into the larger cities has been continuously rising in the last years and the distances become longer and longer, there is big potential for improvement.
And by the way — it seems way to early to make universally valid statements about the factual degree of the problems.
After all we are not just experiencing a trend to more remote work, but are still in the middle of a pandemic. This pandemic — despite all relaxations of the rules in recent months — brings it owns constraints for our social life and incurs a psychological toll on its own. For example due to concerns such as: How much at risk are my relatives and I myself? Which long term consequences could that illness have? Will we ever find a vaccine or do we have to live with the virus? And of course more mundane questions such as: will I be able to visit the “Die Ärzte” concert in December that I was looking forward to so much?
On top of that comes that for most companies and their employees the situation came out of the sudden rather than being a a well prepared move to a remote work situation.
Insofar I consider the current observations limited in significance to predict the future. Ultimately it’s hard to say whether the so called home office syndrome in each individual case is really due to working remotely or due to Covid-19.
Besides the before mentioned psychological risks, there are also risks to the physical health of remote workers.
For example not everybody might have space for an ergonomic workplace in their homes and even if — only a few companies are likely to pay their share for it. And considering that people do not even have to move out of their home for doing their work they might also get even less physical exercise than before. There is a variety of strategies to tackle these risks, starting with the employer taking responsibility for the physical health of their employees not only in the office but also in a remote setup. That may start with granting budgets for ergonomic equipment at home and doing compensation offers for physical health like subsidizing memberships in a gym or other offers focussing on physical health. And for people who can’t work from home due to space constraints, it might be worth evaluating the options of co-working spaces, provide guidance in finding those that are well-equipped enough to provide a healthy work space and providing a budget to employees for using those. These options certainly involve an investment but that should be feasible, considering that many companies can realize cost savings when a significant fraction of their stuff is working from home, and is justified to ensure a healthy work force. Of course one can easily come up with other ideas — if one spends enough time thinking about it.
My employer for example just started offering online fitness courses in which (to my understanding) exercises are shown that can be done from home and which can help in preventing health issues.
And it’s worth noting that some of these risks are not entirely specific to working remotely. A lack of physical exercise for example is a common problem of office workers anyway, which is why some companies are already offering benefits such as grants for gym memberships and alike.
Career when working from home
Less obvious things become when we think about making a career in a large company as a remote worker.
One argument goes like this: since promotions depend not only on performance but also on soft skills, those people had better chances if they have the chance to meet their boss at the coffee machine from time to time. It’s also being said that remote work harms networking opportunities in general.
That argument is making me grin and frown at the same time. And yes, that looks exactly as stupid as it sounds.
The problem with that argument is that it’s not specific to remote work at all. It’s a problem on its own that questions several things about the organization structure, about communication patterns, about fairness in staff decisions and ultimately about how decisions are taken in the company in general: out of a gut feeling or based on facts?
There is too much to say about it, so I won’t go into details here, but to get the thought process started here are some questions to think about:
- Does a staff decision process that is based on random encounters in the kitchen make up for good staff decisions?
- Does such a strategy ensure fairness in the promotion process, i.e. are people considered (and evaluated for the actual needed skills) for which this kind of socializing is just not their cup of tea?
- Do other important processes in your company depend on being incidentally at the right time and place?
It’s important to think about such questions and make your staffing decisions as unbiased as possible, because applying gut feeling alone will lead to miscasts for sure and from all we know, miscasts (especially in management and executive positions) are among the highest scoring reasons that make people emotionally detached from their job or leave. These questions — as well as others that could come up when thinking about it further — could also point towards other problems your organization might have. So we should take this serious as it could hurt your company, totally independent from remote work.
How often do you actually walk by the CEO of a larger company in the coffee kitchen?
Regarding the networking opportunities, it leaves the question if the representatives of the companies are well enough equipped for the challenges of the information age in a globalized world.
It seems that while we introduced many new tools in our companies tool belt, many people in the companies are still far from being able making use those tools effectively. The pity is that especially in a large company some of those tools can offer you a visibility into important things — like what your employees are capable of — and participation opportunities in a way that would never be possible in a coffee kitchen. And not only that: they can be used to improve transparency and collaboration beyond team borders.
Networking, even independent from individuals career, and effectively communicating across networks is way too important to rely solely on synchronous communication strategies for it!
Working from home — does it erode the company culture?
In a company that transitions from a presence-centric work mode to a more remote-inclusive environment it’s inevitable that some things will change and in fact have to change.
One of the first things that come to mind when thinking about culture are personal relationships at work, team building and alike. This is certainly a challenge and requires some thought: by the organization at whole, the teams and even the individual. But it’s certainly not an unbearable, insurmountable hindrance to remote work, given that there are companies in the world that are working fully remote like Gitlab, Buffer and Automattic, the company behind Wordpress. It’s also worth to mention that there are precedents where work and collaboration happened by and between people spread around the whole globe — in some cases long before remote work became a topic in the company landscape.
Think about the open source projects that develop software many of us rely upon these days.
I think one of the keys to tackle this challenge is remembering that social contact between employees does not need to happen in the office or during work. Another key is to make use of the tools we got: a video call to spend some time with each other and just talk about random stuff can go a long way and already help some people. And it makes sense to look at it from at least two perspectives: what strategies we can employ in general and which limitations we have to consider in times of the Covid crisis.
Activities like onboarding new team members inevitable have to change when some or all of your work force is working remotely, but I leave it up to the reader to decide for themselves whether what’s necessary for this to work out (like improving written documentation, improving transparency, making process rules explicit and communicate more consciously) would change the companies for the better or the worse. And to be fair: onboarding is an area that is in desperate need for improvement in many companies.
More concerning for me is the possible blurring of lines between work and private life. “Remote workers struggle with unplugging”, the state of remote work report by Buffer stated already back in 2019, and I guess a lot of us made that experience on our own. But there also seem to be some companies where not only employees struggle with balancing their own needs, but where companies set high and unjustified expectations. I heard about companies, where employees are expected to spend the time they won (by less commuting) into work for the company. That’s ridiculous and we can do better than this. In a similar vein it’s concerning me that in some companies meetings became clocked so narrow that there is no time for a break in between. Just because we can — now that we do not have to change the room. Or that so many meetings became video calls now instead of thinking about viable alternatives, although an interesting article by The Startup suggests that these companies are just at a different “level” of remote work: a level where people try to recreate the office online instead of adapting to the medium or even better evolving to asynchronous communication.
Of course there is another thing to consider: the fact that for some jobs working remotely is just not possible.
It’s true that this could be a challenge for some companies and that some people in the work force could understandably perceive that as injustice and be unhappy about it. But for one I am sure that people can differentiate between “I’m not allowed to” and “In my job that isn’t possible” and second it’s possible that these people could benefit, too, just in a different way. Just think about how their commuting would be affected, if overall there were less people commuting.
It should also be noted that as a remote company, you have the chance to hire people from almost everywhere: a good chance to improve the diversity in your company which ultimately could pay dividends in your company culture and outcomes.
To make a long story short, I’d argue that building a more remote-inclusive work place is whats needed for lot of the challenges and this could result in a change of company culture (“culture follows structure”) but does that change necessarily have to be an erosion of the company culture?
That is really up to us.
Should all people go into the home office now and forever?
Ultimately the question is: should all people start working remotely in the future after the crisis?
Tough question, my friend, but yes: maybe.
We’ve seen in the past that inclusion of people working remotely is hard and in consequence many of us during the Corona crisis experienced that working remotely is a whole lot easier when everyone is working from remote. But I don’t want to strongly advocate for an “all remote” setup despite the fact that there are strong arguments that going for a hybrid concept is even more hard. What we should aim for, though, is increasing the amount of remote work in the future. For this, some effort should be taken to at least make remote work possible for a large part of the work force and ensure it’s attractive enough that people make use of it.
An incentive that I see for doing so is that it could be a building block for the solutions we need for managing some of the larger obstacles of our time.
Think about the climate crisis that we face globally and the traffic system overload we face in many cities and around. Isn’t it entirely clear that more people working remotely would significantly lower the amount of commuting traffic and that this would certainly have a positive affect on both of these problems?
In fact the traffic in Germany during the corona crisis at times decreased by up to 58%. And of course everyone knows that traffic takes the third place in CO2 emissions. So far, the strategy to deal with the climate effects of traffic partially were to lower the emissions, invest in electric cars and perspectively in future technological developments. However, that won’t make the traffic become entirely climate neutral — and some problems are not even bothered by the kind of technology we use, as long as too many people have to commute for the wrong reasons. Be it the shortage of parking space, noise in the city or space for bicycle lanes and the security of bikers in general. A reduction in the commuting traffic could contribute to the solution for many problems.
Probably the more relevant question is which way to go.
My take on that is: if you are starting a new company and the kind of work you are doing has no dependencies on specific localities at all, try going for an all remote concept. Otherwise I’m a friend of “remote first, office optional” because it gives people a choice and is inclusive for people who are not comfortable with working remotely. But I think it is in any way favorable over giving the office environment priority, because it sets the right focus. If you focus on being a good place to work at remotely first, you will have to do the necessary work to make it an inclusive work place for remote workers. If remote work is seen as a second-class citizen, your company structure and culture will probably always reflect that in the one or other way. Some of the issues mentioned above are actually a sign of that, like dependencies on office grapevine, kitchen conversations and problems with onboarding. They may suggest deeply rooted issues in your organization, like a lack of documentation or explicitness, that may already be a problem for your contractors or the remaining staff, when they only occasionally work from home.
Admittedly remote work might not be the best fit for everyone.
But looking at the challenges and assuming that they are a hindrance to remote work without any further reflection will probably not do it. You may miss an opportunity to improve your company, to make it a more inclusive work place, find the people your company needs and miss an opportunity to contribute to solutions for larger problems.
Of course the trend to remote work is going to bring change for the working world — but is that really a bad thing?
This post is loosely based on a blog post that has originally been published in German in my blog www.chaosverbesserer.de.