Remote working is more different than you think – understand it now to make sure your team is ready
Working from home looks like it is here to stay. Teams across the world are adapting to a new normal. But remote work is not just about installing a piece of software, or getting a webcam.
It requires fundamentally different ways of communicating, collaborating and cooperating. At a human level it requires significant adaptation.
Organisations who get this will be best placed to meet the challenges they will have to face.
This piece shares some of Stripe Partners’ expertise in understanding how remote work gets done – expertise that has driven organisational change, and software and hardware development for some of the world’s largest businesses.
Remote work has always been the poor cousin of the ‘real thing’. Yet changes in the labour market, the rise of self-employment and corporate initiatives to lower costs have all boosted it in recent years. Lower cost enabling technologies have made it possible for more organisations.
Yet ironically many of the companies that produce the underlying infrastructures and applications that make remote work possible see remote work as an exception, rather than the rule. And it’s highly probable that most organisations are completely ill-equipped to be thrown into a remote-first mode of operation.
Lenin’s quip, that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen" seems spot on. A shift that has been a long time coming has suddenly become an enforced reality.
But how ready are the many people and organisations for whom this revolution is a rude awakening?
In 2019, we undertook a major study of remote working with 4 global businesses, three of whom were either 100% remote, sanctioned or encouraged remote working. One allowed remote working as an exception.
The work took us into the bedrooms, kitchen counters, home offices and other hideaways of workers across the US and UK. And in other studies last year we explored asynchronous collaboration, and the (accidental) adoption of a new consumer video calling device in small businesses working remotely.
In short, we have studied many organisations, teams and workers who’ve embraced and adapted to remote work. In different ways all had mastered it either through harnessing technology (and managing its many inadequacies), but more significantly, through adapting their behaviour and developing coping strategies.
These people had ‘solved for’ remote working. There’s plenty that they can teach about the challenges and solutions of remote working.
On the shoulders of giants
Our work, as is often the case, leaned heavily on the existing social science literature. Remote work research can be traced back to the 1973 oil embargo, with the coining (by Jack Nilles) of the idea of ‘telecommuting’. Rising transportation costs led workers to swap cars with telephones. By the 1980s commentators took a more optimistic – some might say utopian – view. Alvin Toffler’s 1980 The Third Wave spoke of the greater freedoms that the home office as ‘electric cottage’ would provide.
Yet, as digital technologies expanded and remote working became normalised, researchers began to push back on these tech-utopian visions. They exposed the hidden work of remote working, highlighting employee isolation and invisibility. Their co-located colleagues, one researcher noted, are almost oblivious to their situation, and mixed in their responses, viewing them with “occasional awe, envy and jealousy” (Pratt, 1974).
These office-bound workers, like many who right now are entering a period of enforced remoteness, had no idea what long term remote working looks or feels like, and what adaptations it requires. That’s still the case.
Remote work is no walk in the park.
But we can draw valuable lessons from experienced remote employees as we settle into our home offices, or kitchen tables over the coming weeks.
Remote work involves boundary work
Office work and life is characterised by spatial, social and temporal structures.
Office-based work entails certain spaces
….where a given group of people
….will be on certain hours and certain days
Remote workers have to grapple with the absence of these three structures. Adjusting to these is critical to ensuring that remote work is socially and emotionally rewarding, and productive.
We found the remote workers responded in one of two ways: they either Mitigate or Embrace.
“I just get more done at home, but sometimes I work too much. There’s nobody saying ‘Okay, we’re leaving the office now, shut it down’. There are some days I just continue working into the night. I’m trying to find that balance”
Mitigators make up for the lack of outside structures by imposing and managing their own structures onto their work day. They try to recreate the 9-5 office at home.
In Omaha, Pam started her day by walking round the block at the start of the day to ‘fake’ her commute. On the south coast of England, Paul simply shut the door on his tiny work space when he was in there, and firmly closed the door behind him at the end of the day.
And while Miami-based Rebecca, new to the remote working gig, struggled to assert some temporal boundaries so was trying to make 5pm ‘gym time’, Evan defined his work day through the social interactions afford by the school drop off and pick off. His day was bookended by his kids.
Embracers adopt a rather different approach to managing once clear boundaries. They welcome the porous lines between home and work. In Philadelphia, Karen used the time her son was at soccer to finish up her day’s work and join the last conference call of the day from her car.
In LA, Mary juggled spin classes, childcare and grocery shopping while splicing in work with colleagues across four time zones. She welcomed the flexibility that her remote working life afforded her to do these things.
And her colleague in Nashville – with whom she often spoke on late night calls – counter-balanced these late shifts with daytime gym sessions and coffee with neighbours.
Overall, we found a strong tendency for mitigation as people tried to draw distinction between their work and home lives. Embracing the lack of spatial, temporal and social structures that remote working involves is hard. Reasserting or imposing structure is simpler.
Yet whatever the overall approach people take all remote workers face four key tensions and recognising these – and working at an organisational and team level to mitigate them – will be crucial in the current context of remote.
Remote workers can benefit from greater autonomy. But that comes with less acknowledgement and awareness of what they are doing and delivering.
How to solve for this?
It’s hard to over-communicate as a remote team or org – make sure the weekly update emails get sent, and communication channels are open and intensified
Ensure that what people are doing is recognised and visible
Use functions such as ‘hands up’ in meetings to make sure you can get into a conversation
Set up and keep to one-to-ones. (We found that over half of the meetings we observed in one study were 1-on-1 meetings)
Utilise tools which re-create a sense of co-presence: being part of a google doc which is being co-edited can create a deeper feeling of working together than physical proximity
2. Social Interactions
Office life is deeply social and remote workers can avoid unwanted or unnecessary interactions. But they quickly missed the informal, fluid and serendipitous interactions office life affords. Remote working at a time of social distancing will put additional strains on remote workers.
How to solve for this?
Recreate office rituals – Weekly stand ups, Tuesday fika, Friday drinks online – mimic the offline, online
Pick your communication / chat environments – we use Slack – and ensure people are clear which channels are ‘live’
Pick up the phone. Make yourself available to chat and check in
Ask people how they’re doing and not just about work
Whether it’s emoji, gifs or Snapchat filters on Zoom, use tools with social and emotional affordances that help to convey tone and mood
Ensure project teams have a clear plan for when and how they will communicate
Remote workers often report they appreciate the lack of distraction that working at home affords. But many tasks are harder to get done without physical co-presence and the spaces and props of the office.
How to solve for this?
Get some fresh air, take a walk or ensure you’re not glued to your chair. Take screen breaks
To keep your momentum throughout the day, organise your schedule wisely, alternating between hard thinking and operational tasks
Find ways to set up work rhythms; the Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique which breaks down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks
4. Work set up
Remote workers don’t always have dedicated workstations. They often suffer from the absence of stable, fast broadband.
How to solve for this?
Make sure everyone has the cables, keyboard and peripherals they need at home
Get 4 or 5G modems for those unable to access decent broadband at home
Encourage people to take some time to optimise their work set up
Switch up the environment – not everything has to be done at a desk
Time to adjust
Remote work is the exception not the rule for most organisations. Around 3% of the US workforces worked from home at least half the time in 2015, while in the UK the ONS (2014) classed 14% of the population as ‘home workers’. What many people are about to be thrown into is more profound than the odd Friday working from home.
When collaborating remotely the process and expectations for how people are going to work together need to be made more explicit. Both remote and collocated workers can benefit from training on this.
— Barbara Larson, Professor of Management at Northeastern University
For most there will be significant adjustments to be made. It’s too early to tell what ‘life as normal’ will look like when the Coronavirus pandemic subsides. It’s possible that remote working will become more normalised or we’ll all be rushing back to the office glad it’s over. Either way, as history’s largest experiment in remote working gets underway there will be valuable lessons learned for work wherever it happens.
Good luck with it. We’d love to know how your organisation and team gets on. Please let us know.
// Simon Roberts
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Global Workplace Analytics & FlexJobs, 2017. 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce. [Based on US Bureau of Labour Statistics]
Nippert-Eng, C. (1996). Home and work: Negotiating boundaries through everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Professor of Management at Northeastern University
Office for National Statistics, 2014. Labour Force Survey.
Pratt, J.H. (1984). ‘Home teleworking: a study of its pioneers’. Technological Forecasting and Social Change. 25 (1-14).
Toffler, A. (1980). The Third Wave. Bantam Books: New York, NY.