As the response to the Coronavirus pandemic moves up a gear, we are about to learn something wholly new about the way we collectively organise our working lives. This is the shift to remote working. For sure, this has been around as a popular, but minority, practice for quite a while. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2019 about 16% of the US work force (or 26 million people) worked at home or remotely for some or all their time. They also pointed out that these people tended to be older, well educated, full time and not unionised. The implication is that they tend to be people working in the knowledge economy.
There are a couple of truisms about remote working that are widely accepted. Firstly, it isn’t everyone’s preferred style of working and many people actively dislike the very thought of it. But if it works for you, it tends to work very well indeed. Secondly, it comes at a price. Many researchers have confirmed its potential benefits, like work-life balance, autonomy, motivation, higher productivity, lower stress and cost savings. So, for some time it came to be seen as a “win-win” and an inexorable trend. It was held back only by entrenched conservatism and “type x” managers – those who tend to believe that productively will collapse without their relentless and personal supervision.
But in many cases the same researchers noted that however pronounced those benefits are, it still damages relationships with co-workers. It can lead to feelings of isolation, neglect, anxiety and even paranoia. If you are working remotely you will miss out on information occasionally and your work relationships will suffer without the lubricating influence of social proximity. You can call it the Tyranny of Distance.
The sudden and massive shift to remote working that we are beginning to see is completely unprecedented. Most of the preparations for it will have been hastily made in the last few days. Few managers reading this would seriously go about changing fundamental aspects of their organisational culture in the way they are now obliged to switch to remote learning. And it will be a cultural change. It will require many people to adapt rapidly. It will force managers to really think about how they supervise peoples’ work, manage their inclusion and motivation and monitor their health, safety and well-being. Staff will be required to think carefully and plan how they go about being productive, communicative, mindful and protective of their energy and commitment.
Fortunately, there is quite a lot of guidance out there on how to do this well. There is also, predictably, a lot of lightweight, homespun wisdom masquerading as professional discourse.
We recommend Tsedal Neeley’s article “15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered”. You can access it here.
Tsedal writes for the Harvard Business Review and she is a leading authority in this field. Her article is also short, practical and to-the-point.
If you have the appetite for something a little more academic in style, we suggest you read Alan Felstead’s and Golo Henseke’s paper on “Assessing the Growth of Remote Working and its Consequences for Effort, Well-being and Work-life Balance”. The title says it on the tin. It is accessible here.
Some writers have begun to look ahead. What effect will this have had in, say, a year’s time?
It’s possible that it will be a game-changer; proof positive that remote working is the way ahead, and a way that offers cost savings with at least no overall loss of productivity. We can anticipate organisations coming out of this tunnel and saying “we have proved a new way of working. Just how far back should we now re-wind”?
And there’s a resilience dimension. Visualise an organisation that has just had its denial-of-site continuity risks almost entirely taken away. It might begin to look as if a disaggregated organisation is a more inherently resilient one. That would be a positive outcome and it is a theme to which we will return.