Remote work and study should have been the norm, not the exception.
From direct experience of being both employee (as well as student), and employer working remotely, it’s clear that remote structures of working and studying will be the future of most social entities, whether we are open to them or not.
I used Google Apps Script, along with Google Spreadsheets and hundreds of Google Forms (which were all created automatically by Google Apps Script), to immediately present the students’ grades in a Google Sheet. This allowed them to know how they were progressing in real-time during the semester.
They never had to ask me what they had to do, how they were doing, or what grade they would receive at the end of the semester. Even with regards to written productions, there was never a doubt, because Google Docs allows you to quickly grade every space, letter, and comma, (along with having version history), and as a result, parents never came to complain about it either.
As for theory, I created a 200 slide presentation that I would update constantly and immediately when students had questions or doubts, integrating videos, text, gifs, or anything else that would clarify points that were confusing to them.
This system became efficient enough that the school allowed me, for a brief time, to coordinate the five-person English faculty remotely, having monthly meetings with professors which principally consisted in them giving me feedback to better the system I had created. I didn’t need to ask them how the students were, because I already had a daily report on them from the Google Sheet.
Within a year, the students had shown a solid 25% increase in overall assimilation of the material, and even though it was very demanding on them, they appreciated that I was, even with working remotely, constantly attending them, giving feedback, and resolving problems.
The professors even enjoyed the experience because I never asked them “what are you doing” or had to play “big brother” (similar to these unfortunate companies which seem to think that this is necessary, and urgently need some HR advice if they don’t want to lose their employees in the long run as a result), because I knew what my professors were doing indirectly with the work the students did, with how the professors corrected them (which I would see in real-time within Google Docs).
Both students and professors were satisfied and happy because I set clear objectives and followed up on everything. We didn’t need to have meetings more than once a month, and those were just to see what I (as the employer) could do for the teachers, not what they needed to do for me.
In general, people for the most part want to work, and are even happy doing so, if we create the right atmosphere (as well as offer the right incentives), and that responsibility resides on the shoulders of the employer, not the employee.
A while later, I was hired by a tech promotion company which dealt with G Suite and multiple online business and education solutions. My boss was about 300 miles from me and I only saw him approximately once or twice a year. All meetings were (and still are) online.
But even then, they weren’t really necessary, because I have been in constant contact with them every day, by chat principally, reporting proactively on what I was doing and what projects I was developing. They didn’t need to monitor my progress because they could see, with frequent “mini-reports”, what I was doing, and how I was advancing.
It was indifferent to them when I worked, or how, or where, because they saw progression. I didn’t need to see their faces or be physically next to them. They didn’t need any of that, because they made the very prudent decision to hire someone who was naturally proactive, and that has saved them thousands of headaches and hours of revision.
Even with more passive employees, there are basic principles which, when followed, allow a company to “be remote” in nature, and to even enjoy it.
So the question is, what allows us to create the “right atmosphere” for an employee (or student), or what allows us to work remotely or learn at a distance and take advantage of it?
Clear objectives. When someone doesn’t know where they are going, augments frustration exponentially. Having clear-cut objectives (what needs to be done and how long it should take) gives a sense of tranquility and purpose, which is much, much more important than physically being next to someone on a psychological level.
Having a sense of purpose is by far the most important thing that someone looks for, and that translates into concrete goals on a daily basis. Knowing what needs to be turned in (whether that be study or work related), in a long-term project, allows for everyone to plan and project their time accordingly.
Someone can’t tell you just a week ahead what needs to be done, but rather, there needs to be a yearly program or at least a semester one, which gives clear indications of what should be achieved during that entire time. That, in turn, is subdivided into smaller goals, which are, in turn, programmed.
Clear instructions. How to achieve our goals is also crucial, both in business and in study. We want to know how to get from A to B. In study, that implies having precise, clear tutorials and explanations. I have never heard of people complaining that they were not able to be physically present at a TED talk because the talks in general are clear and precise, which retains attention.
I would have given the world to have had a collection of TED talks for my masters courses instead of having been in a room, for hours on end, and not being able to “fast forward” (or repeat) what the presenters were saying. Well-made videos are hundreds of times better than listening to someone ramble on for hours in a physical place. A video forces the presenter to get to the point, structure the ideas, and prepare the information ahead of time, and the listener to offer better questions and learn faster.
Sadly, those things are many times lacking in a classroom or work environment. How many times do employees complain about meetings? How many jokes have been made about how poorly managed they are? This is because the ones in charge weren’t prepared, and did not have clear objectives. We naturally have an aversion to that.
Again, the ironic thing is that we would rather work remotely and have clear precise goals and procedures, i.e., how to do something, than be in a meeting, physically beside someone else in a social atmosphere, but be tortured for an hour or more with someone running on about something that could have been summarized within three paragraphs in an email.
If we know how to do our job well, it gives us a great sense of satisfaction. If I learn how to do a certain math problem or how program something correctly, I feel fulfilled. I want to listen to someone (in class) to learn, not to socialize. If I get distracted in class (or work) from socializing, I don’t achieve the goal of learning. Being social is in second place in these circumstances. It’s not eliminated, but it’s not the priority.
Right now, in fact, you are reading this story, without “seeing”, “hearing”, or “being next to” me, but you might be reflecting on certain things, and thankful for doing so, and in which case, again, the learning element transcends the social one.
Clear progression. “Progression” here means “doing or making something better” or “arriving at something more”. We hate monotony. We cringe at the “same old, same old”. Boredom actually is intimately related to “a monotonous repetition without bettering or achieving something more”.
A lot of people fear that robots (or AI) will take our jobs away, when we should be pushing automation forward to take away more monotonous jobs, because while many fear the bot and complain about being replaced, they also complain because they feel like they “are getting nowhere”, or “not achieving their potential”, or that their boss “doesn’t appreciate their talent”.
How many hours are lost when employees attempt to watch Netflix, social networks, or… “something else”, at work? Why would they do this? What is the point of even having them come into work if productivity will suffer. In this case, we might be indirectly promoting dishonesty when we try and have people do monotonous jobs while at work, and this will sooner or later eventually erode a company from the inside out.
We simply weren’t designed to be stagnant mechanical machines. We want to achieve more. The use of robots (or AI) reminds us of this. Moving an object from one place to another is something a bot can do, or copying and pasting info in a spreadsheet can be left to AI.
We, on the other hand, transcend that by using our creative capability, precisely by devising the bot to move and paste things. The more we use our creativity, the more we break free from monotony. There is a direct proportion.
Creativity is augmented by learning, another direct proportion. When I found out that code could organize (copy and paste) my grades, I then could dedicate more time to helping my students (something creative). I had to learn to code and that did not require a physical classroom environment. It only required the desire to learn, and the rest was on the internet.
Universities (the physical space) were previously needed because the internet did not exist. The world’s knowledge was found there (with books and professors). Now we have the internet and YouTube, and universities have become a commodity (as well as places where we can go to realize projects, like developing a COVID vaccine), but are no longer needed for listening to an actual instructor.
I had to make an effort, to go beyond my comfort zone, to overcome myself, to learn to do something I didn’t know before, and all that pushed me, allowed me to break free of time constraints and monotony at the same time.
I want more AI to assume theses roles because this will push me to study more and be more human at the same time.
So, if a person (whether they are studying or working) sees concrete progression, once again, they feel they are realizing themselves, which in turn produces happiness. They don’t need to travel to a physical place to find this.
No one just wants to learn two words in English, they want to speak the language. We don’t want to copy and paste, we want to expand a business. If someone feels like they are part of a team, and not a robot, an employee will have a similar work ethic as that of an employer.
Again, the irony. People don’t want robots, but at the same time, they don’t want to be treated like robots. If that’s the case, we need to stop immitating a robot and be more creative, so as to be more human.
If a business or educational entity pushes me to be more human, that is more important to me than being physically next to my companions. A business that allows me to learn and improve myself while I work will always be a more humane business than one that doesn’t, yet thinks it is, by forcing employees to go to an office for work.
Businesses, in a sense, can become “the new school”, and employees who are instructed adequately to do their job well, while simultaneously being able to learn new talents, will be much more grateful, and thus, more loyal (not always, but to a higher degree) to that business.
When the human aspect is put first, whether that be on a remote or local level, the employee or student will almost always want to correspond by working more efficiently.
Reachable goals with clear evidence. Everyone hates a boss who thinks we live in the world of Harry Potter, where with a flick of a wand, an overnight report is done. Goals have to be reachable, and again, it falls on the one in charge to think and analyze about what can be reached realistically in a certain time.
The best rule of thumb is, if you, as the one in charge, could not do it, don’t ask your employees to. Otherwise, you’ll simply cause resentment. On the other hand, if you can do it, show your employees first, then you can demand it.
Both students and employees are normally 80% more open to doing something in a more intense and professional manner if they have seen their professors or bosses do it first (even if they complain about it, they’ll still do it).
As well, everything mentioned above has to become real, tangible, and concrete. No student wants to hear that they “may” have passed. Either you passed, or you didn’t. We hate it when things are vague.
This goes hand in hand with the next point, constant feedback and accompaniment. We want to know when we are doing something correctly during the process, not just at the end. Both students and employees want to know they are going in the right direction constantly, so it’s not a one-time event.
The amount of motivation one has to finish something (unless you have a more independent psychology), usually affects the outcome, and many times, on a human level, that motivation comes more from someone else than the goal itself.
Case in point, gyms. A lot of people go to a gym, not so much to exercise (which they could easily have done at home with the right equipment), but to be motivated to exercise. The atmosphere does almost all the work. (“If they can do it, so can I”, “I need to get stronger because they are looking at me”…)
Both students and employees, if they receive feedback and motivation from the ones above them, usually feel appreciated more and work better because of it. Unlike a gym, which is focused on the physical part of us, work and study focus on the mental aspect, which again, do not require physical elements.
This I saw first-hand when working with my students remotely. The more feedback I gave, and the more “you can do it, you have the talent” I told them in writing or by videochat, the more they were motivated to do better. This was also seen by a professor who recently did a study with his students on this.
None of this requires, or will require, that employees be in the same physical space. For that reason Facebook, Google, Twitter, and plenty of other companies are all allowing their employees to work from home, because if you have these principles set, there is no need to return to an office.
So, what about human interaction? We need that, yes, but not when we are solving a math problem or programming. We want that, and thus coffee shops and bars will never go away, but we have to be careful about mixing the two. People are deficient in a very esencial area: we can’t do two things at the same time (we think we can, but we don’t). Either a student is listening to their professor, or they are listening to their friends in class. It’s not both.
Before we were in isolation, I asked junior high and high school students why they were motivated to go to school. The answer: to see their friends. This was confirmed just by watching a class. They didn’t pay attention to the professor. They were doing everything else but. Their priority was not to learn, but to socialize. (Quite a few Netflix series also underline that point.) Sadly, in many businesses, that ends up being the case as well. Socializing is put above work and study.
The thing is, we can socialize in other places and times, and it can rightly be the priority (coffee shops, bars, sports, clubs, etc.) instead of trying to force that on two things that require a higher grade of concentration to have that priority as well.
I’m not saying that the social element is not there, or that it should be suppressed. On the contrary, teamwork requires it, but it still remains in second place, and when students respond in the most natural manner that the main reason for going to school is not to learn… how efficient does it become then?
In reality, students already know that what they get in class, 90% of that they can find online, so why pay attention in class, why even go?
If we just accepted this, we would redesign, in a creative manner, the education system, as well as our work economy. If we wanted to learn and work, we would do it with or without a classroom or office, and we would leave the socializing for other times.
We would leave offices and universities (the physical areas) for developing high intensity projects (like finding a COVID cure, where working closely with others in a confined physical space, to speed up the project, like a group of ants, is extremely beneficial), and the education part, we would leave online and remotely, where it wants to be, and where we were already unconsciously, on a social level, pushing it to be anyway.
What about video conferencing? If the goal was to socialize, it would be grossly insufficient, but if the goal is to learn and work together, then yes, it achieves its goal. When it doesn’t, it’s because of human deficiency (lack of options, lack of fluidity, etc.), but these are things that we can fix with technology. If it becomes frustrating to use, it’s simply because businesses still haven’t made it a priority to fix, but not that it can’t be used.
On the other hand, when someone mentions that for work it couldn’t come close to taking a plane (tons of time lost there and damage to the environment) and seeing the other personally, I know that this is because of a lack of habit, again from personal experience.
When Kindle became a thing, I knew two people close to me who said that it would be impossible for them to use, not because of using new tech, but because for them, “it took away a richness, the smell of the book, the feel of paper…” and other such romantics, but after nagging them hundreds of times, they began to use it, and, magically it seems, now they use it willingly.
The Kindle didn’t smell like anything, and it is definitely less “romantic”, but it fulfills a purpose, which is to read and not to have to carry around millions of books. They ended up using the Kindle because the end was to read, not to smell something. (Books were never made for the sake of smelling them…)
The same goes here. If I want a true, human interaction, I will go see a person, personally, for the end of socializing, but if the end is to be in accord about something, I don’t need a coffee shop for that, just videoconferencing, and if I “can’t” it’s not because the instrument doesn’t let me, it’s because I don’t have the habit yet to use it correctly.
In relation to this, I also find it highly ironic that the same person who tells me that videoconferencing is insufficient, may also end up being the same person I find in the coffee shop one day staring at their cell phone when their loved one is right next to them, waiting to have human interaction. If human interaction was the priority there, why the isolation, and why the apparent social contradiction?
Finally, let’s consider other benefits from working and studying remotely. For example, less transport means less pollution. There is less of an environmental impact. Who doesn’t want that?
Less time wasted in traffic. How many hours of creative human life are lost in those circumstances? Thousands? Millions? How much money could have been made if it wasn’t lost to traffic? Not only that, how much time is recovered to have more human interaction? If a Dad is in traffic, he’s not with his kids.
Many complain that we are now working more hours from home than when we were at the office, but that is based on free decision and lack of habit. That isn’t the fault of working remotely. I should, mathematically, have more time to spend with my family if I am not somewhere else, not less. If I programmed my day, there wouldn’t be this imbalance.
In the end, sometimes, we just lack good, old-fashioned discipline. It’s my choice to either watch Netflix and TikTok for hours on end, or use them exclusively to rest after working hard during the day. It’s my choice to work 16 hours instead of eight or nine. It is also ultimately my choice to study and become more creative, or complain about a monotonous job that drives me mad. These things are in my hands, and no one else’s.
The beautiful thing about people is that they are free and creative, and they can develop a system that respects who they are, so as to enrich themselves. Hopefully this COVID experience lets us see that more clearly.