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Working 9 to 5, it’s no way to make a (remote) living

Why you can’t just cut and paste the office to a remote working model ...

A lot of companies have asked their employees to work remotely over the past few months as COVID-19 makes its world tour. 

Tech giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Spotify have all extended their work from home policies, some until the end of the year.

Whereas these tech big boys, and other smaller tech companies, already had a remote working policy in place, for lots of folks it has been a whole new ball game.

You can’t simply cut and paste the office work model to a home setting – and definitely not during a lockdown.

Distance working has been marketed as a panacea to a modern day, stressful life.

I have been working for myself - and remotely from all my clients - for the best part of 12 years. 

When I set up my business and my daughter was just about walking, I remember seeing a poster advertising the part of the country I was living in as an ideal location for remote workers.  In the advertisement, there was a lady in the lotus position, surrounded by baby toys and a view of the rolling countryside stretching out behind her.

I remember thinking, “that is in no way representative of anything I know” albeit in the less eloquent manner of a tired, new mum.

It took me some time to make it all work – and I am my own boss.

So, it’s not surprising if you are finding this transition hard, as an employee or an employer. In normal times, that would have been the case. The current situation has made it even more difficult for many reasons. 

Remote working is a strategic choice

I chose to work remotely to not be a prisoner to the system. Sounds dramatic, but it’s true. I was pregnant at the time, so there may have been a heavy surge of hormones involved too.  I didn’t see getting home at 7.30pm and raising a child as compatible for me.

That’s not a judgement call on the many women who do that. This is just my story. I was in a niche area of marketing where, in my opinion, lots of the (interesting) work was outsourced and I decided to try my luck at positioning myself on the other side of the fence, jumping into the void of incertitude and freedom.

For more and more companies, remote working models allow them to recruit the right talent, wherever that talent lives. It saves money on office costs and it allows for agile ways of working that have a positive impact on our planet.

Either way, it is a strategic choice on the part of the company or the individual, and as such the business model is built on the objectives that encouraged that choice.

Moving to remote working models has not been a choice over the past few months. It has been borne out of necessity.

Working from home and remote working are actually two different things

Sorry to muddy the waters but lately we do seem to be “mixing our paintbrushes”, as they say in French.

"Working from home" is generally a temporary situation, or at least not the entirety of your working week. You have one or two days where you work from home. They can be fixed or variable.  It can be sporadic amounts of time - for one reason or another - when you are not in the office.

Remote working is a permanent set-up and actually an entirely different approach to getting things done.

Think about distance learning like the gears on a car - working from home is 1 and full-on, successful remote working is 5.

It would seem to be that we entered lockdown on 1 and as time went on, we moved quickly to 5.  That’s like going from zero to however much in a short space of time.  You can probably tell my car knowledge is weak, but I have unfortunately embarked on a motoring analogy so need to follow it through.

As lockdown eases in some places, but social distancing makes going back to the workplace a challenge, we are going to have to maintain this cruising speed, unsure of how we got there.  

It’s less about the technology and more about how you use it

Technology is the backbone of remote working.

During lockdown, video conferencing has been adopted like never before and platforms like Zoom have actually done well in what have been difficult times for most companies.

As time has progressed however, numerous are those with Zoom fatigue.  When you work remotely, you communicate in different ways and you collaborate digitally.  Companies who build a remote working strategy integrate these systems from the offset.  Many companies in the current climate are having to learn as they go and have been moving all in person discussions on to video platforms.

You don’t work remotely like you work in an office. The way you hold meetings, as well as the length and purpose of these meetings all changes.  You communicate in more regular, short bursts over communication platforms like Slack or Whatsapp. 

Forget the old ways of structuring work

Remote workers generally do not have set hours. It's about delivering what you have to deliver when you have to deliver it. You generally work when you are in the zone and you often articulate your work around your personal life and vice versa.  This where technology is very handy.

Some people simply need more structure than that.

For employers it demands a high level of trust and employee assessment based on outputs. It also involves letting go of the desire to control the process.

My doctor wanted to sign me off work when I was pregnant as I shouldn’t drive long distances. I had quite a long commute to work every day and so I offered my then manager to let me work from home. He agreed (reluctantly) and then proceeded to tell me every week right up until I went off on my maternity leave that I was doing an excellent job BUT he needed to see how I was doing it.

It still makes me laugh to this day.

All that to say that remote working doesn’t suit every personality type, be it employers or employees. Square pegs and rounds holes. We are back to it being a choice.

This has been remote working, but not as we know it

So, if remote working is a choice, why do many people choose it?

Coming back to the yoga lady on the poster, it is not necessarily about becoming a zen master, but I do think people choose remote working to create more work-life balance.  If employers choose it, it is so that they recruit the employees they want. They want them to be happy and more creative and productive thanks to that balance.

Work-life balance doesn’t generally involve working from home whilst having to simultaneously home school your children and shout over your partner who, like you, is also on a 2hr Zoom call.

And this has been a lot of people’s reality for the past couple of weeks, with the added back drop of potentially not knowing the sustainability of your livelihood.

For other people pre-COVID-19 work-life balance simply resembled being OUT of the house 8 hours a day. Lots of us have had to unfortunately experience this at some point in our lives.

The flipside to remote working (and this applies if you don't have a partner, children or other family members at home) is that it is often solitary. The clue is in the name. There is another swathe of the population that have spent these last weeks very much on their own and would have welcomed a distraction.

The headspace found in the isolation of remote working is counter balanced by organising your time, so you fit in the social/ fun/ sporty/ things dreams are made of (delete where necessary) more easily.

This hasn't been easy in lockdown.  Confined to a 1km radius of your home with all but supermarkets closed has made it pretty much impossible.

In fact, at furthest end of the distance working spectrum is nomadic working. This means you can pick up, travel and work from anyway, as long as you have WIFI connection. It is about moving from place to place ... not sat looking at the same four walls, in the same house, in the same town.

When my daughter was at her dad’s, I actually took to working at my breakfast bar during lockdown, rather than my office. It just meant I got to see signs of life as people walked past my house.  Life got even quieter when the postman reduced his round to just 3 days a week.

Humans are social animals

Even introverts need some form of social interaction.  I don’t have the science to hand, but my own experience does confirm this.  I am more than happy in my own company, but the last few weeks have been weird.  I have remote worked for 12 years and felt lonely for the first time over the past 2 months.

Companies that build their business model from scratch based on remote working models generally include ways for their staff to have non work-related social interaction via chat threads, sharing of common interests or annual physical meets that bring everyone together.

With the immediate switch to remote working, gone were the chats over morning coffee, the cigarette breaks and lunches in the canteen.  People used to an office-based existence have missed this, and understandably so. Particularly, when their personal life has meant they have not been able to socialise either.

Work relationships are a form of human relationship and are not founded solely on outputs, but also getting to know each other as people.

Patience and empathy

So, there in a few ways is why the last few months have been a baptism of fire for employees and managers alike, as people try to recreate the office at home.

That’s not to say we can’t get to where we need to go. And it’s not all doom and gloom.

Zoom has conversely also allowed people to enter an even more personal sphere of our colleagues’ lives; meet their kids and their pets, discover their taste in home decoration.  Distance has created a different form of proximity.

The last few months have also demonstrated that frustration and uncertainty can pave the way – over time - for more patience and empathy.  We are all in this together, just dealing with it in our own way and according to our own set of circumstances. And maybe we are starting to see that.

If developing patience and empathy are by-products of this virus, then maybe COVID-19 is not such a bad thing after all. As long as it doesn’t hang around forever of course.