For many, the idea of ‘remote’ or ‘virtual’ working is attractive. Stories abound of remote workers who seem to live a hedonistic life, with freedom to wear what they want, do what they want, and yes – just squeeze the work around living their lives in the way that they want. It seems an ideal way to grab hold of the autonomy, control and certainty that we all crave. Bye-bye office politics, hello Skype meetings in a business suit jacket with pyjama bottoms.
Remote working is increasingly a fact of life. Co-located teams in a global economy are often difficult to achieve, and the need for cross-functional teams encourages people to hot-desk, to sit with those they’re working with on some occasions, and to work from home on others. Fewer workers have one business home, a desk and an office where they are expected to spend all their working time.
What’s the real impact of this flexibility? How does the freedom to work from home stack up against office life?
Many people report an increase in productivity when they are removed from the noise and distractions of an office environment. How true this is will vary with the task in hand, and their role in the organisation. For focused tasks like writing, seclusion may be best. If your professional value lies in organising a team, supporting others to stay on task, and motivating people, then remote working will not win out.
In the same way that sleep specialists advise we need to associate where we sleep with relaxation, we need to associate the place where we work with focus. If ‘working from home’ involves trying to be productive in the place you normally associate with relaxing, it could be a challenge. If there is a separate area or office to work in, that can help.
What many tend to forget is that humans are social animals. We need to take care how much we cut ourselves off from our peers. As the SCARF model illustrates, status, relatedness and fairness are as important to us as autonomy and certainty. Remote workers need to stay involved in the team; being part of the ‘in-group’ and both able to trust and be trusted. A Gallup survey[i] found that people who felt they had friends at work were 43% more likely to report having received recognition for their work, and 37% more likely to report that someone at work encourages their development.
Technology has driven remote working by offering many ways for team members to collaborate. Instant messaging, shared file storage, web cams for face-to-face meetings – all make ‘remote’ seem an irrelevance. The big difference here is that technology is still limited and very binary. Either you’re online or you’re not. You lose that valuable balance of formal and informal communication, the incidental chatter at the water cooler that not only passes on useful information but creates social bonds and trust. Remote workers lose the shared experiences that connect them with their co-workers and create mutual understanding. The success of collaboration has much to do with the ability to step into the shoes of others and appreciate their perspective. This needs contact, and breathing the same air will always bond people in a way that virtual contact never can.
Overcoming the challenges
Remote working is here to stay. Technology offers us the chance to see each other, talk to each other, and share our document environments. We can collaborate fully from a remote position – there are no excuses. It’s not a faultless ideal however. Remote workers and their organisations need to take conscious steps to overcome the challenges of communication, collaboration and coordination. For Agile teams, whether distributed, dispersed or hybrid, the new pocket book is a great place to look for guidance.
Take a look at The Remote Work Revolution Tedx talk by writer, Kavi Guppta. He believes that remote working allows us to design work in to our lives.
Members of the Agile Business Consortium can read the ebook free, in full online here.
If you are not a member of the Consortium, the pocketbook is available in the shop or you can become a member from just £10 per year.
Original blog article written and published by Communications Specialist, Pam Ashby on 25 July 2018. Updated by Head of Content, Abi Walker on 11 April 2019.
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