Aug 17, 2017
In this episode, Pilar talks about the importance of thinking holistically about introducing “remote” into an organisation: how will it change a company’s culture? How will it challenge people’s identities?
It’s the summer, and things have slowed down, which I really appreciate. London is quieter, the internet is quieter, which means I have more time to think and to write. But I’ll tell you about the writing a little bit later.
Today’s episode: well, I’d like to dedicate it to people in organisations who are in charge of implementing remote working (or some other way of working that involves working away from the company’s premises) or indeed, if you are championing this kind of work in your organisation. Last year, the Work Foundation predicted that 2017, this year, would be the tipping point for 50% of the UK’s population to go “mobile”. And indeed, it’s really felt like that this year. (To hear more on the Working Anywhere report, have a listen to episode 72.) More organisations – both in the public and private sectors – are introducing “agile working” which means different things to different people, but which always integrates some sort of remote work.
So there is a lot of potential for individuals to organise their lives around their work, for getting rid of unhelpful processes and work habits that we’re used to in the collocated space that get in the way of people doing great work, of concentrating on the work that needs to be done, rather than worrying about whether people look like they’re working at their desks, all those things that we talk about on this podcast…
At the same time, I worry that this change is being introduced without understanding the profound change that it will have on people’s lives and ways of working… In some cases, the change is happening because organisations want to retain their employees by giving them more autonomy and flexibility, but in some cases, it’s being introduced to reduce the real estate bill, and for some employees, it might not be a welcome change. So, I thought I’d have a reflective episode on all of this: whatever the reason for the change, it’s worth remembering that remote work is not just supported by giving people laptops, it needs a lot more support…
So I think the first thing to consider is that introducing remote work should give employees more flexibility around where, when and how they do their work. It’s a shame to enable remote working and then restrict this freedom. And this involves seeing whether there are more options beyond 1) working at the same desk every day and 2) working from home.
It’s worth remembering that people working from home, especially if it’s for the first time, might need help and practical support. Some will love it, they will be happy to check emails on their sofa and work on the kitchen table. Others might have a dedicated room they can use as an office. But some people might just not have the space, or they might have conflicting schedules at home which means that they long to get out of the house to have some time to themselves. If the ability to do this by going to work is removed, we might be taking away something valuable to them.
So, if your reason for introducing remote work is reducing office space, then make sure your people have the necessary alternative spaces where they can get their work done.
If, on the other hand, you are introducing remote work to give your people flexibility, make sure that no-one feels like they are expected to start working away from the office – just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.
We really need to remember that not everyone wants to work from home, that not everyone CAN work from home. However, some people might be able to use alternatives, like coworking spaces, or maybe there are spaces within your organisations’ building where they feel most inspired, or where they just feel more connected to the work. There might be ways of rearranging the space you already have to create different types of spaces to accommodate more people (rather than the one fixed desk per person); there might be ways of partnering with other organisations to offer your employees spaces that are more convenient for them – think broad, think beyond fixed desk space or home, there might be more alternatives… (I talk more about this in episode 131, Office Optional)
Sometimes having people work away from the office – away from their desks – is met with resistance from managers, from colleagues, and I think this is often because we’ve lost our connection with the work; its nature; its purpose.
It might be necessary to stop and reflect on what is the work we do? What do I do at work? Why do I need to work with others? I can’t give you an answer to any of this because it will be really specific to your work and situation.
It could be that what you do at work is answer questions from visitors to your website. That type of work can be done from anywhere where you are comfortable at a computer. But you might feel like you need to be with others, for troubleshooting, for moral support, because the work itself is actually quite monotonous, or unrewarding, and being with your colleagues is what keeps you engaged. How will you make sure those people in the organisation who need that social contact continue to get it?
At an organisational level, you need to have an idea of the kind of work people do and whether it’s location-specific or schedule-specific; that will help us decide whether the work can indeed be done from anywhere and how.
In addition to this, you need to understand the environment you want to offer your people, and make sure that introducing some kind of remote set up is not going to remove what you most value.
But in order to do that, you need to be able to break down the experience your people have at work and what they need to be happy at work; not just how much more productive they’re going to be because they’re not going to have interruptions when working separately from others – if that’s the case.
Sometimes transitioning to a remote setup, or even just a more Office Optional approach can seem like turning everything upside down, but it could well be that in looking at our work, we realise that we’re already using technology in a number of ways and that we might need to preserve many of the ways in which we currently work. And then we might also see that the work we do actually can take a lot of flexibility regarding when and where, and even how we do it, even though at first it looked like there was only ONE way of doing the work, the way in which we’d been carrying it out until now. But finding this out will take time and some thinking.
It could well be that “going remote” starts to throw up questions about how the whole organisation is working. This is where the whole discussion around introducing remote work in an organisation can start to get quite broad. There might have been an emphasis on team members sitting together, on different functions being located on different floors, increasing the separation between different parts of the organisation and maybe even, without realising it, nurturing a culture of competitiveness. This might have been deliberate, or actually, it might have been a practical decision that had unforeseen consequences.
Now that we understand that tools, processes and environment can affect workplace culture, we can’t overlook that introducing “remote” can have positive and negative consequences.
Going remote could mean that you think about how to enable connections between everyone in the company, regardless of function; knowing that collaborating across functions can lead to innovation, and that to get things done in a company it often helps to know people outside of your team. Instead of thinking how you can enable people “bumping into each other” in the corridors and breakout areas, think about how you can enable this through technology.
As people get used to using technology for every day communication and to enable collaboration, why not incite people to broaden their network, beyond their team members?
On the other hand, remote can lead to isolation and even more
separation between different parts of the organisation, as
communication can become more segmented because exchanging a few
words around the coffee machine, or in the queue to get your food
becomes quite difficult. Unless you plan for it, informal exchanges
between people not working directly with each other can become less
frequent. This is something we need to think about:
how will the company work as a whole, rather than just how will people work in virtual teams?
If you want people’s networks to strengthen within your organisation, you need to plan for that.
So, on the point of reducing silos, I’ve been talking for a while here now- it might be a good point at which to introduce a new voice.
Those of you who have been listening to this podcast for a while might remember that a few episodes ago, in episode 127, Brie Reynolds joined me to talk about career progression in remote work and her own work in FlexJobs. I preparation for the interview, I downloaded the 2017 State of Telecommuting in the US Employee Workforce. As a result of doing that, I then got an email through inviting me to request an invitation to the TRaD works Forum.
With a lineup of speakers from Dell, Gallup and Harvard Business Review, I thought it would be interesting to have someone tell you a little bit more about the event – one, in case you are interested in attending, it’s an in-person, in the flesh event taking place in Washington DC at the end of September and two, I always like to share events I come across about the world of work. So here’s Mike Gutman, Director of Marketing from Flexjobs telling you a bit about the company, and a bit about the event.
I think that the focus that the event has on making remote “scalable” and something that is seen as an organisation-wide programme reinforces what I was saying earlier, so that’s another reason why I wanted to include the segment here.
So, back to introducing remote in an organisation, I’ve mentioned understanding the type of work we’re doing and its flexibility, as well as understanding the Culture of the organisation and the effect that can have on how remote is implemented, as well as the other way around of course.
And it will also work the other way round: Going remote will have an effect on culture, whether we like it or not. If the transition is planned and deliberate, we can strengthen those aspects of the current culture that are helpful; but if we leave it to chance, we could well end up with a culture of people disappearing at home behind their computers or, at the other end, we could end up with a culture of people constantly checking up on others.
In addition to culture, there is the question of individual identity. Just something like not coming into the office every day to be with colleagues can challenge someone’s identity. For example, if you are someone who prides themselves in being the person others turn to when they need cheering up and you think that your optimism and ability to help others to see things in a positive light is the main thing you bring to your team, you might have trouble adopting to a new way of working when you spend a lot less time in person together, and where connecting with others takes that little bit more effort.
Or, if you are a manager who sees themselves as approachable, and enjoys having “lightning coaching chats” in the corridor with people and always being available when people spontaneously ask if you’ve got five minutes, it might take a while to take the more deliberate approach to these conversations that is necessary in the remote space. And in the beginning, it can feel that the essence of what makes you special and valuable, that approachability, is being overlooked or even undervalued. These are all subtle consequences of starting to work in a more location-independent way, and they are usually overlooked…
Some people, some teams, even some companies will be able to adapt to a location- independent, even schedule-independent way of working quite quickly. But in other places, we might actually be asking people and teams to change how they see themselves, not just how they work. And that is hard and takes time.
So to wrap up this short episode of the 21st Century Work Life podcast,
I suppose what I’m advocating for here is a deeper approach to changing the way in which we work when going remote or mobile.., that goes beyond training people in the new technology and making sure they have the right equipment and set up. Although maybe I still need to highlight the importance of doing all that too – I run the danger of taking for granted that that will indeed be the very first step…
So let’s remember that we also need to provide the right equipment, some way of people to assess whether they are being productive in the new set up, whether they’re adapting ok, how work is affecting other parts of their lives, etc. Then keeping an eye out on culture, work satisfaction etc, especially if you have introduced new tools, as these might well change the dynamics and quality of how people communicate and collaborate… This is not something that will take a month or two to implement, it’s something that is worth introducing slowly, monitoring, evaluating, adapting, because the short-term effects might be different to the long-term effects.
It’s a change programme, so as well as looking after the tech, you’ll need to look after the people… I’m probably preaching to the converted, but I just hear more and more stories of managers, specifically managers, being told that people can now work from home, without providing them with the support necessary to make the change successfully. We’ve developed strong habits around how we do the work, about what working feels like and looks like; while some people can adapt incredibly well, for some people, it challenges the core of how they see themselves as professionals and how they view the world of work.
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