The remote work surge is short-term. If it's going to stick, misconceptions must be overcome

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed March 9, 2020
Summary:
The surge in tech companies mandating remote work raises questions - could this surge stick? Given the bias against remote work, that's not a given.

remote work

Full disclosure: I am biased against companies that are biased against remote work. Most companies that insist on office-based employees also have the worst workplace cultures I've ever seen.

When your employer thinks you need a daily office injection of their supposedly amazing "culture" every day, run from that culture like you would from bad yogurt.

Obviously, thanks to global coronavirus concerns, workplace policies are getting a fresh look. Kurt Marko did a solid job on the rise of virtual events in the wake of Covid-19, a topic I've weighed in on also, via last week's Enterprise hits and misses.

It's no surprise that tech companies which historically shunned remote work have changed their tune, for now: Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are asking Seattle-based staff to work from home because of coronavirus. Remote work startups are in demand as well.

The more provocative question is: will these policies hold up once this crisis has passed?

Will tech workers finally get more workplace flexibility? That flexibility is no small thing. It opens up talent pools (disabled workers, work-from-home parents) that many tech companies have mistakenly ignored.

Remote work - good for a crisis, but not a cure-all

Over on Buzzfeed, Alex Kantrowitz explored whether this remote shift might be for keeps:

"We'll never probably be the same," Jennifer Christie, Twitter's head of human resources, told BuzzFeed News of the company's workplace practices. "People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way. Managers who didn't think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won't go back."

Perhaps - but hold up. This is what it takes to motivate companies to give this a try? Not longstanding productivity barriers like 90 minute Silicon Valley commutes that begin at 3am, or Google/Apple buses that have to be re-routed, with 45 minutes of additional commute time, because of rocks hurled? I guess tech companies were perfectly happy putting workers through those ordeals.

Granted, we shouldn't idealize remote work as a productivity cure-all. As this MarketWatch piece points out, remote work is something of an occupational privilege to begin with. As they also noted, only 5 percent of workers in the service sector and 7.4 percent in maintenance and repair said they could work at home. The gig economy raises concerning issues as well:

The prospect of coronavirus-caused remote work is another example of how the virus may have different consequences for different workers. For example, low-wage and gig workers might have to leave their house, and possibly put themselves in harm's way, because most have no paid sick leave.

BS alert - "Remote work isn't a fit for our culture"

I think most companies considering remote work now acknowledge it's not a barrier to productivity. And, in most regions, the bandwidth and tools are good enough (though security issues must be tackled, via VPNs, etc). I'm interested in dismantling one excuse, and one excuse alone, for prohibiting long-term remote work: "It's not a fit for our culture."

I'll concede this much: there will never be a permanent replacement for face time. Our entire diginomica team is remote/virtual, but our twice-annual core team meetings are irreplaceable. 5G, virtual reality, I don't care - none of it will ever touch breaking bread with your teammates. Whatever your brand's culture, it's cemented by those face-to-face interactions. And, from a management point of view, some decisions are just too important to make on video.

But once you cement that culture in person, today's virtual tools are more than good enough to build on that foundation. Mix in video, instant message, email, phone calls - it's a good blend today, with messaging in particular solving a jugular need (though not without a jugular reaction).

Some companies allow remote work in a grudging, or exception-based way. These arrangements are fragile. Remote employees are essentially second class citizens at that point, missing out on water cooler schmoozing and office culture loyalty oaths, which in turn hurts ladder climbing. As in this recent anecdote from Buzzfeed:

With no in-person component involved, the Q&A portion of Twitter's all-hands was livelier than usual. "The number of questions that came in, the people that were responding on Slack — it just was so much more engaged," Christie said. "We've got a lot of introverts in the company. It's also a little bit of...not a level playing field. You have people in San Francisco, and then people dialing in from around the world who feel like they're not quite having the same experience. It was much more level setting."

Remote work - myths and misconceptions

Cue a flurry of posts that offer tips for working remotely (here is one of the better ones: Love in a time of Corona Virus - Tips, Tricks and Best Practices for Working Remotely). Given I have worked remotely since 2000, I have recession-tested views of my own on how to stay productive remotely - and what the pitfalls are. Some are contrarian.

When I look back on my 2015 post from diginomica, We're all remote workers - but are we effective?, I'm struck by how far the remote work tools have come. Whether it's social media dashboards, team tools like Teams, Slack, or Workplace (which we use), or cloud project management software, the tools are improving. And Zoom is so much better than the seat-of-the-pants "can you repeat what you just said?" Skype calls of old. Google Hangouts? Solid also.

One thing these "remote tips" pieces lack is hardcore advice on data security. I will address that in a future post, but: I think IT managers have progressed on this front, because they've had to. Smart phones have given them no choice. Extending security from smart phones to more industrial devices like laptops is not the hard part. Whether IT managers can secure their employees' smart phones - or web browsers - in an airtight manner is an open question.

1. Remote work puts pressure on communication skills - you'll read this everywhere, and it's absolutely true. The onus is on remote workers to pro-actively communicate everything from timeline setbacks to project concerns.

2. Written skills are put to the emoji test - voice tools are growing, but remote work still requires sophisticated written skills. Remote workers - including managers - struggle if their written tone is cold and off-putting. It's harder to anticipate and create the right tone in writing; I find that we generally run "colder" in writing than in person. You also have to know when to stop the emotional message thread or email argument and back off, allowing for a cool down, or a phone call to resolve. I've seen heated email exchanges blow up longstanding partnerships in minutes.

3. Know when a phone or video call is needed - there is a knack for knowing when you are circling the drain of confusing back-and-forth. Know when to get on the phone and cut through that noise.

4. Video - value-add, or imposition? I've seen a number of posts that insist remote video is essential, to capture non-verbal cues and simulate a face-to-face meeting. I couldn't disagree more. One of the biggest appeals of remote work, beyond the eradication of the commute, is not wasting time maintaining whatever professional appearance your employer, or clients, might expect. Video is also a frequent culprit for derailing meetings due to deteriorating bandwidth.

In general, video should be optional. It's reasonable to expect a video call from time to time - for example a new client introduction, or a Monday team kick off. In that case, label the call a "video call" and make expectations clear. Otherwise, free your people up to be "audio casual." Getting up early to take a shower because you have a video call is a ridiculous extension of office culture.

5. Remote work can scale - this article includes a field-tested letter from Lily Zheng, the Director of Microsoft China, stood out. Zheng writes: "Many of us are accustomed to quick calls or video chats with a few teammates, but large and formal meetings can also be successfully held online. With so many employees opting to work remotely, hospitals here have been gathering their staff remotely. One hospital in Dalian, for instance, has been holding large staff meetings via Teams. Keys to successful online meetings include setting a clear agenda, practicing inclusion by resolving any audio issues at the start of the meeting, and taking clear notes to share as follow-ups later."

My take

This isn't about remote work, but workstyle flexibility. Remote work isn't an all-or-nothing thing. The essential perk that helps people cope with the demands of modern work is workstyle flexibility. That same flexibility enhances your workforce talent pool.

It's not about remote work, but portable work. If you work remotely, but you're stuck at your home desk, that's not ideal either. You should be able to scoot from your office desk to a cafe, or perhaps a shared local workspace. If that means a more expensive laptop that can run your financial or design software, then your employer should invest in that - or you should. Being tied to your home desk isn't much better than being tied to your office. I said you shouldn't have to shower for a video call. I didn't say "never shower again." An out-and-about mindset makes remote work better.

Isolation is real, and coronavirus doesn't help - yes, remote work can be isolating. But that's one area where remote work has improved dramatically. I used to be stuck between home and personal office. Now, with decent wifi at cafes, and co-working space options, when I am feeling cooped up, I can work amongst people, or meet up for work sessions.

Unfortunately, coronavirus fears - or actual quarantines - can take this flexibility away, and land you firmly in your home. I experienced a form of that isolation last week, while fighting a nasty cold (thankfully, not the dreaded Covid-19). It's been an unwelcome reminder of the isolation of remote work, when you're stuck in one location.

If you wind up in that type of remote work situation, that type of isolated work should be short term, as in a crisis, illness, or quarantine. Otherwise, work portability is the engine that makes remote work fluid and fulfilling. At the least, dog walking helps.

I'm planning a fresh set of interviews on remote work, including some actual use cases of working remotely amidst this virus, so I look forward to challenging my own biases, and sharing what I learn from there.

Image credit - POV of urban millennial or hipster remote worker in startup work on laptop on sea, ocean or park lake wooden pier, by @BublikHaus from Shutterstock.com.