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Remote Working: is there anybody there?

I’ve been remote working since about 1998.  I’ve had a desk until 2 years ago when I became an independent practitioner (aka a selfie) but I’ve largely worked from alternative offices; coffee shops; home; trains; airports; hotels; and even in the parks and open spaces.

The ubiquity of wireless connectivity has helped this but even before wifi, I could work with laptop/PDA (at the time) mobile phone and (power permitting) was productive.  Sometimes I felt more productive.

Of course those sales reps amongst us will be saying “well I’ve ALWAYS worked out of the car” so remote isn’t something totally new is it?

Fast forward to now and the #coffice revolution is upon us.  Olympics non-travelling into London; train strikes and the like all caused us to question the commute.  Working globally means time issues and travel isn’t always necessary so we may Skype in to a call with Jakarta at 4am from home (being a shirt-on talking head whilst still wearing pyjama bottoms off camera) becoming a new norm.

“Remote Working” Knowledge work can be done from anywhere.

Dave Coplin’s supremely interesting Re-imagining work RSA Animate is just one call to unravel the fixation with fixed premises, desks that are our workstation and beyond.

Of course knowledge work is a big feature of the UK PLC workforce of now but we still have factory workers; emergency services; shop assistants; care workers and more who HAVE to be in a place.  You can hardly administer a dignified bed pan procedure remotely from home can you?

So back to remote workers.  There’s an increase at foot though.  As more work becomes linked by technology, more work produced and transacted through a digital device of whatever size and category, WHERE you do the work is increasingly less important.

Pressure on the costs associated with estates & buildings is forcing a rethink.  Not just tolerated remote working, strategically activated remote working.

To many this is a great thing to some it’s a terrible destruction of teamwork and serendipitous conversations.  Marissa Meyer is famous for 2 things lately.  1. Having a creche built next to her office.  2. Sanctioning a reduction in telecommuting (which is American English for remote working)..

I personally disagree with Marissa’s course of action.  Many HR types have leaped to chastise her – and I’m one of them.  Others have said “don’t be so naive, she’s got a bunch of wasters setting up their own businesses and not working on Yahoo stuff because they can from the confines of their remote working location”.

It is – in my opinion – the single, simple most critical aspect of remote working and something that sets people off on all sorts of arguments and performance related data discovery trails.

 Marissa Meyer’s actions may be from astute analysis of logging on habits; producitivty statistics and the like.  What the Yahoo dictat says to me is “We don’t trust you to work hard for us anywhere other than inside our walls where we can see you at it”.

We still don’t know whether Marissa’s actions will bear fruits of productivity and force choices for those who are moonlighting but the trust thing leaps out from me or be one factor in the demise of a tech giant.

My burning question is this: –

Why DO people – factory production workers, nurses and retail assistants aside – have to turn up and be visible in a place to be considered “working”?

It’s like we are working under this illusion that the act of travelling; logging on; sitting with colleagues and tapping into a keyboard in full sight of everyone else is reliable as in indicator of working.  Anything you may be doing out of this line of sight is questionable.

We all know commuting can be a pain.  We all know is adds unncessary carbon emissions to the world if done by car.  We all know we get distracted in the workplace and we all know that the time we spend doesn’t always appear to be productive use of our time.  We all experience transport delays that just make it worse and we all LOVE the alternative as an exception.

There is a counter argument/stance to remote working of course.  It requires us to heat our homes; use our own broadband and electricity; computing device and software; is a bit lonely and amplifies a sense of disconnect from my colleagues.  Not to mention the temptation to watch some daytime TV, put some washing on and do that bit of DIY you’ve been putting off.  Working on your patio is the example Dave Coplin uses in his Re-imagining work piece.

How about the alternative as a rule?  Back to strategic remote working.

If we are forced into remote isn’t that as bad as forced into commute/being present?

Trust AGAIN comes into play here.  “So you want me to work from home because you are saving money.  End of.  Doesn’t mean you trust me more or think it’s more singularly productive.  It’s overheads-based accounting. Hrumph”

So it’s not as simple as one or the other this remote working is it?  It’s more about a continuum of options suiting individual, organisational and circumstantional needs.  One aspect that does intrigue me is what does a favoured remote working option do to help us with the actual physical premises thing that we call the workplace?  If we’re knocking down offices and don’t need as much space for all our people as they’re remote working, what can we do with the space we do have/need?

It brings me to the work the CIPD and British Institute of Facilities (BIFM) have joined forces on – to look at the issue of people and place.

This alliance between the People and the Place institutes is to explore the oft unasked questions about the optimum working environment – in all its myriad of dimensions.  Such dimensions includes the flow of the workplace and the social fabric of work.  How the place creates opportunities for innovation, what camaraderie exists in a people-friendly environment.  How decision making and problem solving is impacted on the surroundings we have etc.

The list is probably endless (and Marissa’s argument – I am sure – was founded on much of this on top of the doubts they had about the focus and connection telecommuters had to Yahoo’s work).

However, with pressure on the estate, with ever increasing research which proves how a conducive workplace and the flow it creates is an essential component of productive work and a healthy place for people to be there are 2 fundamentals we should be mindful of.

Trust.  If you want to make good use of your buildings and reconstitute them around a flexible way of working so as not to have 40% of your space empty for most of the week you have to start from the premise that you trust people to work when they are not under the supervisory stare of their managers and their colleagues.

Effort. With remote working it requires not necessarily more effort but different effort.  We need to keep in touch in different ways to ensure people feel socially connected to their “mothership”.  We need to make sure we don’t cancel on short keep in touch calls or hangouts.  We need to make sure people feel supported when you can’t just pop by or walk past someone clearly struggling.  And we need to make efforts to innovate the way we look at and do our work when we’re an orbiting satellite not docked at the space station.

There also needs to be a whole lot more effort into creating a place where people will want to come to because it has an energy, a vibrancy and an appeal to make coming to a place of work a treat if remote working is to become a new norm.

I’ll see you in a coffee shop soon no doubt, or you might just have a coffee shop environment in your office you’d rather not leave, so maybe I’ll see you remotely?

Remote Working

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