Why remote work is probably not for you
Business, teamwork

Why remote work is probably not for you

There’s a lot of talk about remote working these days. There’s entire job boards dedicated to it. Companies like Automattic, the creators of WordPress, as well as Basecamp, have touted it’s value, as well as ourselves, making it a core part of how we wanted to run the business. But it’s not for everyone – and that’s totally okay.

It’s not the future of work

When it comes to remote work, a quick scroll through LinkedIn will highlight people proclaiming, it’s the future. That it’s the only way forward, and that 10 years from now, everyone will be working from home. This simply isn’t true, but the good news is it also doesn’t have to be. Remote work isn’t some kind of innovation like e-mail, where it’s value will simply sweep through industries as time passes. It’s more like an operating framework that works really well, but only in the right kind of conditions.

How urban planning creates desire for remote work

The reason most people believe it’s the future, is it solves a few big frustrations that resonate deeply with all of us. These frustrations come mostly from mistakes we’ve made in urban planning and office design. The two big issues with workplaces today, are firstly, we typically work far away from where we live, so it can take hours getting to the office. This phenomenon, known as urban sprawl is increasing as cities opt for cheaper, low-rise dwellings with larger block sizes. The problem with this is that although we might get a bigger home with a yard for a cheaper price, services like public transportation become more expensive to deploy, because they need to cover more land area, and our economic centres don’t move. This all leads to a situation where, unless we are financially blessed, many are forced to drive to a workplace that is often, very far away.

Japan tried to tackle this problem in 1989, where it proposed to erect Sky City, a single tower that would solve the urban sprawl problem, and manage people in a more vertical fashion. When it was first proposed it would have been the worlds tallest building, that is until 2019, when the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia will become the worlds first building over 1 kilometre tall.

Most of us can relate to the frustrations of the commute to work. It’s time away from family and huge amounts of wasted human capital and energy. From a climate impact perspective, think of how many trains, cars and busses could be pulled off the road, if everyone just worked from home. The impact alone on Co2 emissions would be enormous.

Finding quiet places

The second reason people relate to the advantages of remote work is offices are where work isn’t happening anymore. We’ve all been in jobs where you come into the office, and spend the next 6 hours in unproductive meetings, getting interrupted by people, with constant distractions. If only you could be left alone, you could do some real work.

Perhaps the best sign of this problem is ‘break-out-areas.’ We’ve all seen the pods and booths that frame the modern office space. It’s interesting to think there are architecture meetings where you might hear,

“So this is the open plan area, where everyone will do their work. And over here, is where everyone will run away to, so they can actually do some work.”

The McDonalds break-out room in Chicago. Photo from Officesnapshots.com

There is a growing understanding that open-plan offices have been one of the biggest mistakes in commercial architectural planning. A quick glance at how many people use headphones in open plan offices is less about a rise in music enthusiasm, but more a sign that people are trying everything they can to focus on the task at hand.

We all empathise with these reasons deeply. It’s appealing to think that remote work can (and will) solve some of these problems. But it is misguided to think that it is a great solution for all teams.

But that’s okay.

Remote work doesn’t have to be the future to have a huge impact on workplaces around the world. Everyone should offer it, but not everyone should do it. This is why at OHNO we refer to our remote work policy as guilt-free remote working. If you want to take it up. Great, go for it. But if not, that’s fine too.

It’s not eye colour – it’s hair style.

Don’t think of remote working as a finite characteristic of people.

Steve is not well-suited to remote work. He might be now. But next week, that might change. When it comes to productivity, your environment and circumstances, can wildly change over time.

There are lots of cases where remote working is great one day, then bad the next.

Sometimes staff might need to re-locate for family reasons. This is important to think about. Perhaps they need to care for a sick relative. Having them work near their loved one is probably not going to impact productivity greatly, but will mean a great deal to them and their family.

But what happens when the loved one is better? They might like working from the office. That’s okay too. But it’s important to reflect on why you should try remote working in the first place.

Why adopt remote working at all?

So why even try remote working? Here are perhaps some of the best reasons to give it a go.

It gets you closer to your objectives than an in-person arrangement would.

If you can demonstrate that getting closer to your objectives is more likely with a remote arrangement, then it might be worth a go. This could be for any reason. Maybe hiring a specific person in the Ukraine will help you reach your sales targets more than hiring in Sydney?

Maybe a specific team is so highly sought-after, when their in the office, they’re constantly interrupted by the executive team who want their input on all manner of things. It could be any reason at all. But if the team feels they might get closer to their goals with some quiet time, then it might be worth giving it a shot. You might have a break out room, which is a kind of remote working. But usually when teams start working from home to focus on something important, it’s a sign the office dynamic could be holding your team back.

It lifts engagement, while maintaining performance.

Sometimes staff have personal reasons for wanting to stay at home. Maybe they just like where they live. Maybe they love having their cat sit on their lap all day. There might be a range of reasons, but by offering remote work for these kinds of people, they’ll thank-you for the luxury, and tend to repay you with their engagement, assuming all other engagement factors are constant.

But it’s important to note that sitting at home and under-performing is not what you want either. It’s important to reflect on this, and be honest with yourself. Do you really thrive working remotely? Or do you really just like being in your pijamas?

There was a great experiment done at a place called the Hawthorne Electrical company that discovered that when people are being watched and observed, their performance increases. This is now known as the Hawthorne Effect (or Observer Effect). Some people feel the social pressure of a workplace, and use that to make them want to be seen as productive, which then tends to make them more productive than they would be if they were just sitting at home.

It’s obviously great people like working from home, but are they as productive? This can come down to a range of factors, so it’s important to have some way of knowing if a team is performing or struggling. Using OKRs is a great way to track progress towards objectives, while staying clear of micro-managing a team, and worrying about where they are.

It makes you more productive.

Productivity is probably the best reason to consider remote working. The upsides can be so large, for now, at least until most of the world catches on, it can be a real competitive advantage, especially when you are starting out and can’t offer the salaries the larger companies can.

If nothing else, most people commute a huge amount of time every day to work, so if you would rather have those 2 hours back to work instead, it might lead to productivity gains. Not having to sit in traffic will tend to make you happier, and happier people are by far more productive.

If nothing else, reducing distractions will increase your productivity. That’s why focus is such an important value for us at OHNO. We recognised that workplaces are dangerously too distracting to deliver the kind of result we wanted. So we spend a great deal of time working out how to build a distraction free environment for everyone who works on the product.

But home life can be distracting too. You can sit there watching Joe Rogan on the TV while you code, or maybe your 2 year old is tugging at your pants all day. There might be a range of reasons why working from home is even more distracting. So it’s important to keep tabs on this.

Not feeling it anymore? That’s okay. We have good news.

If you’ve been remote working for a while, but you’re starting to find

  • You’re getting too distracted
  • You’re missing the daily interactions with team members
  • Or you just feel you want to be around more people.

Realise it’s okay. Maybe it’s time to change things up.

It’s fine to want to work from the office. Don’t feel like you’ve failed at remote working somehow. Sometimes you might just realise you’re not bonding with your team as frequently as you should. All remote teams should attempt to get people together frequently – at least once a quarter.

If you want to go back, maybe try going back 1 day a week and seeing how that changes motivation. Most teams I have come across who are reaching a point where they feel remote work is not for them, are actually just missing people – but any people will do. They don’t want to be around other people from their company, because it re-introduces the distractions. But they do want some human interaction during their day. And that seems to be the part that’s missing.

It’s important not to confuse remote working with human isolation. No people-first culture would ever consider solitary confinement a path to greater engagement and increased productivity. You need humans in your day, so your remote-working arrangement needs to factor that in.

Aside from just getting out of the house to get a coffee and chatting to the barista, the best solution here is a co-working space. It gives you the daily human interaction, creates a kind of office culture, but removes the distractions that relate to the work itself. This way, you can develop a culture of working with others, without having to work with others.

Having your cake, and eating it too.

Remote teams can be hard if you’ve never worked with them before. One thing to keep an eye on is how engaged those teams are, and what problems they are facing each week. OHNO helps you discover all these issues by asking 1 question, roughly once a week, and displaying it in a way that is useful.

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