Another Remote Work Take Or Remote Work Does Not Suck
I am sure by now you had enough about people pitching remote work and how the future will change because of what we are all experiencing due to COVID-19. I already wrote about how frustrating it is that it takes a pandemic, now an official one, to look at how far tech has come to empower remote work. I also warned about the need for companies to take seriously the cultural change that needs to occur to leverage remote work after this crisis is over.
So why am I writing about this again? I read an article earlier this week that really struck a nerve for the many generalizations that the author made on who benefits from remote work and how remote work negatively impacts creativity.
In my career, I have worked both from an office and remotely. I have done so both in the UK and in the US. My experience is my own. We are all a little different, the work we do might be different and the companies we work for are also different making each situation almost unique. So I will try my best not to succumb to generalization just to prove a different point from that expressed in the article and that is remote work does not have to suck.
Who Can Benefit From Working Remotely?
The article calls out new parents as a group that can benefit from working remotely. When I had my daughter, I was still in the UK and I was already working remotely. Those first few months were the hardest I ever had as a remote worker, so I am not sure it was quite a benefit. If you are a mother and you are breastfeeding, working from home allows demand and supply to be in the same location, which certainly simplifies things. Yet, trying to adjust to being a new parent while working all under the same roof makes boundaries much harder. As breastfeeding did not last long for me, I opted to go into the office for a few hours a week as a way to create a separation between me as a mom and me as a business person. Generally, I would say it is not feasible to work from home while looking after a child of any age unless it is for a limited amount of time, like during an illness or a bad weather day when one can temporarily rearrange calls and deadlines.
The other group the article suggests could benefit from working from home are “people with disabilities or others who aren’t well-served by a traditional office set-up.” I would think the hardest part for many in this group is commuting rather than actually being in the office. There is no question that cities could make it much easier to support people with disabilities when it comes to commuting. Often as I battled through the London underground during rush hour I wonder how visually impaired people or people using a wheelchair dealt with the number of stairs and escalators let alone the number of people.
Commuting is also tasking, of course not to the same extent, for people who do not have disabilities. The level of stress that commuting adds to our life impacts both our physical and mental health. In 2017, a study developed by VitalityHealth, the University of Cambridge, RAND Europe and Mercer, examined the impact of commuting on employee health and productivity across more than 34,000 workers across all UK industries. Commutes longer than 30 minutes appeared to have a negative effect on mental wellbeing with 33% of longer commute workers more likely to suffer from depression, 12% more likely to report multiple aspects of work-related stress, 46% more likely to get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep each night and 21% more likely to be obese.
There are other groups who I think could take advantage of working remotely and those are people who do not live in areas where work opportunities are plentiful. For some of these people moving to look for a job might mean not being able to afford a decent home or leaving behind any family support which could help with caring for their kids. It could also mean they are the ones unable to do the caring for family members, for instance.
Remote working might also result in a more diverse workforce. Companies not limiting their talent sourcing to the cities and counties where they have offices might make it easier to attract talent from different ethnicities. Take the tech sector and San Francisco as an example where, in 1970, the Black population represented around 13% of the total population and by 2018, that number was down to less than 6%. How can tech improve diversity if it is fighting against decreasing numbers of available candidates? Also, how can these companies attract diverse employees when it often means not having a community they can belong to?
Productivity and Creativity
I am not sure one could ever settle the discussion on remote work productivity and the jokes I have seen on Twitter over the past week are really not helping. There is this fantasy that working from home means you are less productive because you are easily distracted by family, roommates, pets, delivery people, the TV and apparently whatever else is in your home. While a little self-discipline is required, the distractions are only different, not necessarily less than what an open office can offer. Those who argue for higher productivity often mention the lack of commute time, which can impact how present or more relaxed one is by the time they sit at their desk but might not necessarily result in more hours spent working.
On creativity, the author is clear that working from home kills your creativity because of the lack of stimuli, he even quotes Steve Jobs about how staring at email does not help. But who stairs at email now? The reality is that with today’s technology, you can brainstorm, collaborate and connect in so many different ways and have a quality experience. Being in the office does not necessarily guarantee you are where your team members are, especially if you are working with international teams. The chances of those casual conversations by the micro-kitchen being always about work are also pretty slim. Not that my colleague Ben Bajarin and I should be used as an example, but we are rarely in the same place unless we are traveling. We both work from home and have our best brainstorming session over chat or iMessage. I am also more connected to Ben than I ever been to most of the people I saw every day at my old office.
Working Remotely Does Not Mean Being Alone
The current circumstances are, of course, very unique as we practice social distancing, but in general, working remotely does not mean being alone. The more people in the team are remote, the more the company will have a culture of inclusion and you will not feel like the odd one out. Just this past week seeing most of the people I had meetings with working from their home office rather than all being around one conference tablet and me dialing in from home made a big difference in how we all felt we belonged equally.
The more important point, though, is that remote work gives you the flexibility to include work out time, or running an errand over your lunch break, catching up with a colleague or a client over coffee, and the list goes on. Yes, the jokes about never taking your pajamas off might have some truth for the first couple of days and there are some people for whom remote work could lead to depression induced by isolation, which is no joking matter. Still, with a little proactiveness in setting up human contact and technology that improves telepresence, I think most people would find it quiet but not lonely.
So, do I think that remote work sucks? Absolutely not. Do I believe that remote work is for everybody? Of course not. If you are new to remote work and you want to see if it might be something you want to continue to do once the emergency is over, give it some thought. Evaluate the pros and cons, looks at the technology both devices and software that might help you improve the quality of your experience – this is the time to ask for what you need – and try to get into a routine.