Remote and productive

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This forced social and labor experiment we’re going through is changing the canon of the workplace as we know it.

We’ve all been taught to leave work at the doorstep. Yet, nowadays, work gets done in makeshift offices based in living rooms, kitchens and even pantries, embedded in our homes’ routines, smells and leisure-prone furniture.

And it seems to be working. Companies everywhere are meeting deadlines and delivering their products and services from the insulated, private homes of their workforce instead of their office spaces.

Though many take home offices as a temporary arrangement, companies are looking into the outcome of this “experiment” and considering the reshaping of their office life by including remote work as a feature in their future workflow.

And working from home may not be the most important change in the workplace to come out of the current circumstances.

The reason for an office space

There are many good reasons for having a physical, common office space: it is a work-focused environment, that fosters collaboration and effective communication between workers and management.

It is also equipped with the necessary tools to get work done: computers, office supplies, desks, phones, internet connection, etc. Many tech companies and startups even created playground areas designed to keep their employees more engaged with the workplace, more creative and productive.

Ultimately, the company office is a space specifically designed for work.

Office life can be challenging for employees, though. Long and exhausting commutes to and from work, negative office dynamics and the distractions created by simply having people in the same room can reduce productivity and thus impair the purpose of office space.

Remote work can bypass some of these challenges. Thanks to all the amazing technology we have at our disposal it is not a matter of feasibility but of mindset, although it is definitely not for everyone nor for every company.

What is remote work?

Remote work is being put to the test on a large scale. There was already an army of laborers churning out work from their households. Most were freelancers – by definition, loosely connected workers standing outside the day-to-day routine of office life.

Mass remote work, with the entire office staff distributed across different locations, was a reality promoted by few companies, mostly operating in digital-related areas. Until the day it became mandatory for all businesses.

But what is “remote work”, anyway?

It is “one of the most significant shifts in work culture“, a trend that has been growing in the last few years.

Remote work means more than working outside the traditional office environment. It is an organizational arrangement between companies and employees that doesn’t require them to use the companies facilities to carry out their professional activity.

The difference between the incidental work-from-home situation and real remote work lies on how the home working space is optimized: is it specifically designed for work, ie, a place apart from the domestic sphere? 

This clarification is important because it implies an effective evaluation of the working conditions of the remote worker, and of the underlying personal commitment to have a work dedicated space with all the necessary tools to develop a professional activity, making the need to work someplace else useless.

Pros e cons of remote work

The advantages and issues of remote work are already well researched and documented. As stated before, working remotely is not for everyone and may not suit many companies’ needs.

Here are some upsides and downsides to consider before engaging in remote mode:

The good:

  • More flexibility – balancing work and personal life becomes easier. Remote workers don’t have to join the masses commuting in public transportation and traffic jams from home to the office and back everyday, having more time to get their children ready for school or to pick them up later in the middle of the afternoon. Remote workers can set their own schedule: some people prefer to start their day way earlier than the 9 to 5 cycle, others are more productive in the nighttime.
  • Productivity – as long goals are met and meetings are well planned and scheduled, remote workers can get more done in one afternoon than in a whole day at the office. In fact, research shows the average British office worker accomplishes only 3 hours of productive work per day. In a well-managed home office, distractions are kept to a minimum, with social interactions with co-workers being limited to work-related actions. Personal time management can also optimize results, by choosing mental peak hours to tackle assignments.
  • Health benefits – remote workers can avoid vending machines and fast-food restaurants during a busy day and replace them with healthier home-cooked meals. Being apart from the general population also reduces the risk of contagion by the common viruses or by the exceptional ones. The most committed will find time for physical exercise, whether at home or at the gym, which can fulfill their social quota for the day. 
  • Money saver (for workers and companies) – companies can reduce expenses with large office spaces, which are increasingly more expensive to buy and maintain. Workers can avoid transportation expenses and save thousands of hours in exhausting commuting time, with a plus: no commuting is an environmentally friendly option that will help decrease CO2 emissions.

The bad:

  • Isolation – being isolated in the confinement of an home office can be damaging for remote workers, no matter how productivity-oriented it may be. Being removed from a communal office space can diminish the sense of belonging since remote team members have fewer chances to work alongside their colleagues and establish trust relationships with them and their superiors. Offices are also sociable places which can be quite appealing for some workers, since many thrive in busy, crowded environments.
  • Out of sight, out of mind – it is easy for a remote worker to stay out of the loop and of the team dynamics. This can reduce the visibility of the work made outside the common office space, and also the value of the contribution of the remote worker to the company, making him somewhat forgettable when it comes to promotions and thus damage career prospects. An isolated worker can also decrease productivity if not well followed by management and other team members.
  • Security – companies invest a lot of money in physical and cybersecurity. Traditional households do not have a state of art security systems nor the services of security guards to protect their assets. A laptop can be stolen in a common break-in and, in theory, a domestic network can be hacked far more easily than one located at an office building, safeguarded with special countermeasures.

The flexible hours, the personal time management as opposed to an imposed schedule, the cut in expenses and the adoption of healthy habits can reduce stress, make employees more productive and, ultimately, happier. And happy employees tend to work better and stay longer in the service of their employers.

The risks are relevant but manageable with proper following and by establishing consistent communication and security protocols.

How to manage remote workers

The biggest challenge lies on the employers side. How to forfeit the controlled, work-focused, physical office environment and engage with a geographically scattered, virtual array of home offices, while maintaining (or potentially improving) productivity and keep workers accountable?

There are many questions and issues to address but the most important are related to psychological and conceptual factors: how much control should a company have over their employees? Can they commit to work from a domestic environment? What will be the psychological effects of displaced work in teams and individual workers?

There are many guides on how to establish a home office, yet few on how to manage remote teams.

Here are some fundamental ideas to keep scattered team members in sync with the company’s goals and with each other.

  • Communication – communicating often with employees, individually or in team briefings is key. A daily check in by phone or any other digital communication tool will do. Keeping interventions simple and to the point will make them more effective.
  • Micromanagement – Micromanaging from afar must be avoided at all costs. Bombarding employees with constant updates or suggestions will get nothing done. They were hired to do a job, so they must be trusted to do so. Which leads us to the next point.
  • Balancing goals and expectations – when located in different spaces, people read situations differently. The hive mind of the common office is lost, so some decisions may not be clear for everyone. The assigned tasks must have an impact in the overall project, and everyone should know why they are doing what they’re doing to keep them motivated and accountable. The goals must be clear and clarity comes from good communication. Synchronous or asynchronous, everyone should be on the same page.
  • Comfort zone – remote workers must be allowed to find their sweet spot and self manage work. Time in the office doesn’t translate to productivity. The focus should be on results, not on the hours spent to achieve them.
  • Promote good habits – motivating workers to good remote work practices is very important, from keeping a daily routine to avoid long hours, or to simply get dressed for work, even if they’re not expected to leave the house. Incentives to healthy habits can also improve the quality of life of remote workers and the long term results they’ll provide to the company. 

When the current restrictions are over, real live social gatherings are an option so everyone gets to socialize and foster camaraderie.       

Companies were already using digital team management and collaborative platforms, along with online communication tools, so the technological leap to embrace remote work is insignificant in most cases. The in-house tools used at the office will be the same available at the home office.

Setting up a remote management workflow from scratch is not that difficult, since there are many free and premium tools available, at considerably lower prices than office floors.

Future trends in work

The normalization of remote work may be one of the many impactful consequences coming out of the current situation and in its aftermath, with changes in the workplace logistics going beyond displaced office locations.

Some harsh truths may come to the surface. Office and travel budgets may be re-evaluated, productivity standards may be put to new light, and overall employee security and wellbeing will find a new place in companies priority list.

Work flexibility is also under discussion, with the chance of a four-day workweek becoming an increasingly attractive option in modern day societies. In an uncertain – but surely competitive – near future, companies and their managers must be aware of all the options technology offers and satisfy society’s demand for a better work/life balance. Better work leads to happier workers. Happier workers make better companies.

Work will never be the same again, and that may be a good thing. The real question is:

Are we ready to embrace the change?