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Remote working past a COVID-19 world

In the last 6 months, the majority of knowledge workers (and school kids and many others) have gotten their fair share – and more – of video conferencing and working remotely. Plenty of research, articles and webinars have popped up touting the benefits of remote work, and that the way we work may have permanently changed and so on. But can we draw any form of firm conclusions about the future of work post a COVID-19 world?

If you’re like me – who is used to being fairly often on the move, visiting different countries, re-uniting with colleagues and friends in global offices, attending trade shows – sitting day after day, week after week, in the same location, with video conferences being the only way to connect face-to-face (or is that a contradiction in terms?), you have probably come to the conclusion that the adjustments you have had to make due to the pandemic pretty much suck. I miss seeing my colleagues in person, I miss being in different countries, I miss seeing my family overseas, heck I even miss airplanes and airports (although just ever so slightly and not very often). While there are certain things that are much better about not traveling (i.e. seeing the kids a lot more), there are some things that are not (i.e. having to deal with the kids a lot more). 

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Being all remote is not for everyone, and in fact, in some cases the lack of physical proximity can reduce the quality of work. Speaking for the technology sector, I doubt anyone feels they need to communicate more. There is no shortage of video calls and emails, but what is lacking is informal communication. In some professions, informal communication actually increases critical formal communication. Several studies, including one by Martin Hoegl published in 2001 showed that team communications within software development drastically increased when developers were in the same building, but even more if they were on the same floor in the building. As such, the study argues heavily for physical presence. However, ways of working together has changed remarkably since 2001, and the tools we now have at hand go a long way to make up for what we lose by not physically being together.

The lack of being able to travel is also an issue where the temporal distance – the time zone difference – are great. If you have a global role today, it means getting up early and staying up late, which over the long run can be a strain. A new study published in HBR, “The Effects of Temporal Distance on Intra-Firm Communication: Evidence from Daylight Savings Time“, shows that temporal differences have a huge impact on the nature and frequency of communications (a difference often mitigated by business travel). The bigger the difference, the less communication. Of course, equating increased communication with increased results and efficiency is a fallacy. While in software development, increased communication between developers may be critical, in other roles it can be a distraction. It’s been a while since I’ve heard in a work environment that we need more meetings. But few would doubt that colleagues who at least see each other in person from time to time probably work better together. Partly because social barriers get been broken down, and relationships between colleagues gets stronger, but also that certain types of creative problem solving are just better in person. 

The traditional model of always going to the office however has hopefully sufficiently been debunked. When Marissa Mayer back in the day mandated all Yahoo! employees go to the office, I thought she was out of her mind. The logic did not make sense, and if anything has been proven in the last 6 months, working remotely works quite well for knowledge based industries and in fact can lead to employees working too much (which by the way was known long before this year).  There is no longer a reason to believe that remote work is detrimental to corporate performance. For organizations to succeed in such a setting though, it’s not enough to just hand out webcams and mandate that they are on for calls. Companies must have a conscious relationship to how they communicate and disseminate information. The tools that are used to collaborate are hugely important, and if you rely just on email and video conferences, you are doomed to fail. My current employer is on GSuite, and I have quickly become a fan of how easy it is to share and collaborate on documents, and also to easily search for documents based on the content. There are also plenty of other tools out there like Asana, Slack, Monday, etc. that allows for not only implicit knowledge to be shared, but also where you can have an outlet to capture and share tacit knowledge – the knowledge that is within a person that is often shared in meetings and interactions, but that can indeed be very hard to capture. Ensuring all forms of knowledge is captured and easily shared will be the key for companies who rely on the success of its knowledge workers to build value together. And unfortunately it is likely going to take several tools – as no single tool delivers everything needed for communications and knowledge management.

I have worked in a semi-remote fashion for nearly 20 years, so relying on digital communication tools is nothing new for me, but exclusively relying on them is, and I am far from convinced that working remotely only will in any respect represent the future of work. Either end of the spectrum is not good – there has to be a balance.  I think that a model which does allow for remote work, but occasional physical get-togethers is a model which will prevail. Whether that is at the 90/10, 50/50 or 10/90 end of the spectrum remains to be seen – and will vary not only by company, but by job role. Corporate culture, employee characteristics (years of experience, whether they are self-starters, etc) and the tools available are hugely determinant. When we get past the pandemic, corporations employing knowledge workers will be faced with the challenge of implementing a hybrid model, with balancing employee needs and desires to that of their roles, as well as ensuring the tools are in place to support it. So much has changed in the last few months, and so much will change going forward, and it surely will be interesting to observe how companies implement this the best – as doing it right could potentially change competitive dynamics in an industry. Plenty of research material on this to come I’m sure…

This article represents my own opinions, and not necessarily those of any past or present employer.

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