Why Does it Take the Threat of a Pandemic to Support Remote Working?
There has been a lot of talk over the last week of how COVID-19 might be the pivotal moment for remote working to really take off. China, Silicon Valley, Japan and even Italy are all adopting remote working at various degrees to limit the spreading of the virus. There is such excitement around remote work that brands like Zoom have seen their stock value climb up.
While I really hope people are right and we will see remote working remain relevant once the threat is removed, I cannot help but be skeptical because we have been here before!
First, there was SARS in 2003, but the technology back then was nowhere near what can be delivered today, both in terms of sound and video clarity as well as latency. Then there was the economic crisis of 2008-2009, when companies like HP, Cisco and Polycom were heavily marketing telepresence as a way lower air travel cost. Intra-company business travel is often the largest controllable expense for most organizations. Video conferencing was an effective way to keep communications going and manage operations while reducing costs. However, at the time, technology had improved, but most solutions were still not economical enough for broad adoption. Remember that 2009 was less than two years after the iPhone and before smartphones made their way into enterprises beyond the C-suite.
On paper, now is the time! The experience has improved so much that videoconference is something people actually want to do. Companies like Zoom and BlueJeans have lowered friction and saw the popularity of their solutions grow thanks to individuals buying into it rather than management, making it a must. Well established brands such as Cisco WebEx and Poly reinvented themselves, focusing on better all-around hardware and solutions that cater to collaboration as a whole. Millennials are the generation that has embraced digital collaboration like never before with Slack and Microsoft Teams. Gen Z pushed it a step further, embracing video at its fullest. So why am I skeptical?
Video Conferencing and Remote Working Are Not The Same
It seems like a silly point to make, but doing a few video calls does not make you a remote worker. We need to make a distinction between turning some face to face meetings into virtual ones and allowing your workforce to regularly work from places other than the company office. The first requires technology; the latter requires a considerable cultural change that really empowers people to continue to contribute and be part of the day to day process.
Ultimately, three words are at the root cause of my skepticism: regulation, trust and people.
When you are considering remote working, many regulations kick in. Some might be company-driven, like making sure that your employee has a proper space dedicated to work with a desk or table and a suitable chair, a reliable internet connection and overall a place that is conducive to getting work done. After all, we all saw that BBC interview with the kid barging in the background!
In other cases, though, regulations go beyond the company you work for and involve government decisions. In Italy, for instance, there is a specific law that governs remote working or smart working. Due to the current emergency, corporations are asking to allow remote working without setting in place all the paperwork that is usually required. Italy is among the countries in Europe that have adopted remote working the least with only 4.8% of people working from home. The Netherlands and Sweden lead the way with 36% and 35% of the workforce working remotely.
I am sure Italy has other reasons other than regulations that hold back remote working, culture and technology adoptions come to mind. Still, laws that consider liability, overtime compensation, security all play a role and add to the complexity of deciding in favor of remote working.
Trust and People
I put these two together because they are profoundly interconnected.
On the one hand, you have trust issues of managers who need to feel they are in control of their own employees. One would think that in 2020, productivity should be measured in output and not in hours. In other words, it really should be all about what you deliver, not how. If you are not embracing this philosophy, you should at least feel reassured that technology gives you so many ways to keep an eye on your workers that their physical presence in the office is no longer necessary to do that.
Managers are not the only ones with trust issues, though. Remote workers can, at times, feel isolated and be concerned about being “out of sight out of mind” when decisions are made, meaningful work is allocated and, of course, when work is recognized for promotions or incentives.
Trust issues are human but also a clear sign that remote-working needs to be implemented with some degree of formality. It requires processes that foster inclusivity by communicating frequently and allowing every member of the team to have a voice, which means being mindful of time zones. Creating a routine and set expectations for response time also helps to minimize the pressure of always wanting to be present to avoid raising trust issues only to end up creating the potential for burn out. On the employee side, there must be boundaries both in space, by creating an appropriate workspace within the home or remote location, as well as time, by avoiding spreading work over what should be personal time like late in the evening or at the weekend.
Remote Working As A Business Asset
Ultimately, remote working should be seen as a business asset at any time, not just when we are under the threat of a pandemic. Aside from providing cost reduction on travel, it does offer many other advantages like decreasing the need for office space that in some areas can be extremely expensive as well as reducing the need to provide services such as childcare. On the employee side, we could register lower stress levels from not having to commute, which results in more time with the family and potentially lower childcare costs.
What remote working should not be seen as is a benefit or a luxury. Modern employees expect some level of flexibility, although there are, of course, roles where such flexibility can be offered in terms of flexible hours rather than location. Furthermore, positioning remote working as a benefit or a luxury comes loaded with perceived implications that not being in the office makes your actual work easier, better, or a lighter load, which of course it is not the case.
Remote working is smart-working, so I really hope that the current circumstances will help companies see that their business cannot just survive during a pandemic threat but could flourish under normal conditions. The key is to plan for it in the same way we would any work transformation.