To remote work, or not to remote work, that is - and has been for some time - the question. We think however, that some more meaningful reflection on what it could offer, and how it has been conceptualised, has long been missing. Remote work is far more than a 'quick fix', its a significant step toward a more flexible and inclusive future, even for those of us who love the office.
Remote working has never been more in the spotlight than it has been over the past twelve months. And, as is so often the case, when such a harsh light is cast upon something, the results are not always particularly flattering, and its imperfections are there for everyone to see. Despite all the talk of a “new normal”, most people’s thinking was, and still is, that this huge shift towards working from home constitutes little more than a temporary, subpar, measure.
Atop countless memes and viral videos (pun intended), there has also been much serious debate and discussion surrounding whether 2020 was in fact a sea change with regard to working practices. Far too often however, these discussions are myopic at best. Unwanted though it was, the situation that many businesses found themselves in gave them an opportunity. Some will no doubt take it, but there is a real fear that others, disorientated by this new and unyielding focus, will do no more than retreat back to their old ways. Pretending, usually to their detriment, that nothing has happened; that nothing has changed.
But when do things in life not change? That question is even more pertinent in business. We have all been subject to enough corporate spiel to know that to stand still is the equivalent of going backwards. Yes, as humans if we don’t actually fear change, we are certainly wary of it, especially big changes that are imposed on us unexpectedly. Businesses are no different of course, but it is almost always those businesses that are best at adapting to changes that thrive.
One issue that remote or home working has is that, in many people’s minds, it is almost inextricably linked with lockdown and the enforced working from home measures. It is seen as a necessary solution during COVID, and is as such now regarded in terms scarcely more involved than “yeah we tried it, it was OK, not great.” But surely in almost every other aspect of business, that result would be followed up by a determined drive to actively look at the aspects that did not work well and see what could be done to change them so that they did work. When companies started to provide mobile phones to their workforce, if the reception was flaky in the canteen or near Geoff’s desk, they didn’t abandon the project and go back to only using landline.
Remote working has of course been with us for years, but it has something of an image problem. It was seen as the preserve of freelancers or digital nomads, conjuring up idyllic scenes of people sat on the beach or a balcony with a laptop screen rendered practically useless by the glare. Companies that championed it were eyed with suspicion, accused of being Google wannabes, but without the budgets or space to install workplace slides or trampolines. In “traditional workplaces”, it was something someone did while they were waiting for the new fridge to be delivered, the boiler to be repaired or when childcare went awry.
Clearly, there was already a certain level of reticence before huge swathes of the workforce were forced to work from home. When, unsurprisingly that did not always go smoothly – incidentally, often as a result of other inhibiting factors, as opposed to the nature of the remote work per se– the easy option was a collective shrug of the shoulders, and an “I told you so”, before ditching things altogether.
Surely it would be better to look at where the current technology - or perhaps more accurately, the ways in which the current technology are being utilised – is falling down. What aspects of the whole experience are not perfect, what would an ideal system look like and provide? That is the way every other development and advancement in technology and working practices has worked. Things evolve organically. Not only are we more comfortable with that, it also gives us, or the early adopters anyway, the chance to see what works, what doesn’t and smooth out any wrinkles.
But we can go even further. We should be looking at the current situation as an opportunity, not a threat. We should be identifying the areas that people have concerns with, with regards to the transition to remote working – and hybrid working, the new buzzword that has entered the fray – and look at what can be done using technology to not just make it the same as we had before, but to make it better. I imagine no one is suggesting everything was perfect before, so as opposed to simply replicating what we had all gotten used to, now is our chance to actively improve,particularly with accessibility and well-being in mind. Indeed, as we explored previously, the amount of contact between those working full-time with work colleagues and bosses would regularly exceed the amount of contact with many other family members or friends.
Interestingly, one of the main areas of contention regarding remote working is the lack of real human interaction, along with the issue around the perceived erosion of team dynamics and leadership. These are not totally unfounded concerns, and they do bring up the thorny topics of leadership, motivation, responsibility and self-discipline. Notwithstanding, and as we have already seen, allowing ourselves to better balance all aspects of our lives, generally, only aids our work - especially when we consider how, if we collectively commit to building better solutions, there are certainly ways around transitional difficulties and adjustment issues.
In the meantime, it is in all of our interests to start discussing these issues in an open and frank way. The workplace as we know it – or knew it – is going to change whether we like it or not. Surely it is better to embrace those changes and try to mould them to everyone’s benefit, than to rail against them? Especially when such impassioned responses seem to stem from the assumption that uniformity is necessary. Either we do go back to the office, or we stay home. The bottom line, for now at least, is that it would do everyone some good to keep our options open. After all, Remote work, perhaps above all else, offers people the flexibility to choose.
Tevent Labs Ltd is a London-based startup founded in July, 2020. Since then, the team has grown from 2 co-founders to a remote team of 16, with over £1M in funding to date from established investors and executives from silicon valley tech firms like Medallia and Salesforce. We're building a better distributed future by building intuitive and enjoyable tools that bring groups together.