The covid-19 pandemic seems to have given a fatal blow to the idea that we all should work from the same office. Still, it doesn’t seem like we will be working fully remotely any time soon.
When I’m not writing for this blog or simply enjoying my free time, I work as the HR Director for the Corporate Services segment in APAC for Sodexo*, based in Singapore. This is a role I started with great excitement in September 2019, and in my first few months in the job, I was constantly traveling across this vast and diverse region or meeting people in our homely APAC House office. Personal relationships are essential everywhere, but even more so in Asia, particularly when you work in HR, so meeting people in person was an important part of my job, be it in Singapore, Shanghai, Mumbai, or Ho Chi Minh City.
Then a global pandemic befell us, and the rest is a familiar if sad story for everybody: weeks of lockdown, working from home and, as I live alone, with no real social life. I spent months without hugging anyone, and the only people I spoke to in person were the cashier in the supermarket and the security guard of my building. As I already mentioned, these were challenging moments personally, but professionally it went much better than I thought.
The nature of the job changed as we moved into crisis mode and business continuity planning, but the effectiveness and engagement, both my own and that of our teams, didn’t suffer as much as I initially thought, and you could say that it even improved.
Now we are allowed, although not encouraged, to go back to the office. The Singaporean government has established some social distancing regulations, for example, the compulsory use of the mask at the office at all times, or a maximum of three days per week worked from the office, so the office is still more or less empty most days.
I still go there a couple of days per week. I enjoy working from there and meeting people face to face, having lunch, or a coffee break with them, but I also enjoy working from home: the freedom it grants me, no need to commute, and all the other benefits that go with it.
Would I want to work from the office every day again? Definitely not. Would I want to work from home every day? No way. It´s the combination of the two that I personally like.
Types of remote-working
Remote working is not new. Many people have been regularly working some days from home, and some companies have had an entirely distributed workforce for a while now.
GitLab, for example, has been all-remote from the beginning, and its 1,300 employees work from different places. Although they have their challenges, like all companies, they seem to be doing fine. They have created a thriving culture, where transparency and openness are enabling an engaged and high-performing workforce.
GitLab is a tech company, making everybody working from home easier, but not all companies will be able to imitate them, and it shouldn’t even be desirable. There is a spectrum that goes from no-remote at all to a fully distributed workforce, and most companies will probably be situated somewhere between those extremes.
In this post from 2017 – it feels so long ago, and yes, there was plenty of remote working happening already then, well before the pandemic -, the author identifies five varieties of remote working:
1. Office-based / non-remote. This one is self-explanatory.
2. Office-based with a work from home option. Many companies used to fall here, including mine. The norm was to work from the office, but people could work from home in some exceptional cases, or a few of them did so more regularly.
3. A remote team, in a single time zone. This is a genuinely remote set-up, but with all or most employees based in the same time zone, so the work is still mostly synchronous.
4. A world-wide remote team spread across many different time zones. This is a fully remote set-up, often covering most time zones and around-the-clock customer service and availability. The preferred mode of working in these cases is asynchronous, and a big part of the communication is in text.
5. A fully distributed team with nomadic team members. This is where GitLab or Automattic, the company behind WordPress, are. Employees can work from anywhere, and they often move around.
The good side of remote-working…
Pre-industrial workers were measured on their output, not presence. It all changed when people started gathering in factories, where they had to work simultaneously. They started getting paid per shifts. The watch became the new essential management tool as it measured and constrained the workers´ time and work.
It’s been years that management gurus speak about measuring people for what they achieve, their outcomes, reaching their objectives, etc. but at the end of the day, many managers still measure their teams, consciously or unconsciously, by their presence. When everybody works from home, you can only measure their work for what they produce, so this problem is more or less eliminated (admittedly, other issues may arise, like, for example, how to measure people’s effectiveness? But we can ask the same question for people working at the office. Seeing people doesn’t mean knowing what they are doing).
Another character always present in all offices is the political maneuverer. We all know that person who isn’t really effective and doesn’t get much done, but knows how to sell him or herself and ingratiate with the people who matter, so they often thrive and are promoted beyond their highest competence level, reaching levels they should never get to. These people have it more difficult to thrive in a remote setting.
Thus, we can say that one of the main advantages of a remote-only environment is that people are evaluated on their achievements and output and not on their presence or political skills, so it is in principle fairer.
Another one, of course, is the flexibility it grants to employees and the positive impact on work-life integration. People with families can juggle their schedules better, as they can organize their day in different ways, organizing their work around their personal needs and not the other way around. Employees who no longer have to commute are also saving a significant portion of their day, in some cases 2 or even 3 hours, that they can now dedicate to other things, like their passions and hobbies, doing sports, or spending more time with their loved ones.
On another note, completely distributed companies can source talent from anywhere in the world, and people can also work from anywhere, so they don’t have to move to big cities where more companies cluster. It works both ways, and it is a win-win scenario for both companies and employees.
This is already creating a significant exodus from some of the big cities in the US. Historically people have gathered in big cities for work, and this has then also created its own arts and culture scene and has spawned other ancillary industries like hospitality, etc. Big cities have big problems, like the high cost of living, pollution, and commuting times. In a world where a big part of the population can work from anywhere, it remains to be seen if big cities will remain the magnetic people-attracting poles that they used to be.
With the possibility of talent-from-anywhere, the concept of telemigration arises, explained by the economics professor Richard Baldwin as the process by which Western companies will outsource office tasks, remotely, to well-educated and cheaper talent in lower-income countries. Globalization transferred millions of manufacturing and blue-collar jobs from rich to poorer countries. Now it might be the turn for office jobs next.
… and the not so good one
All is not rosy when talking about remote working. As I explained above, I couldn’t wait to go back to the office and meet my colleagues face to face. This is just personal preference, and I might just be the weird one, but I have the feeling I’m not the only one.
Work is one of the only places where you meet the same people every day. We are social animals, so our urge to socialize is strong, and working from home isn’t as prone to casual chats and informal encounters as in the office.
There are ways to socialize remotely and replicate the watercooler/coffee machine moment at the office, but it feels somewhat contrived and doesn’t have the same spontaneity.
At Sodexo APAC, we have had to onboard some new employees during the lockdown, and their onboarding wasn’t the same as when you were working at the office and meeting colleagues you wouldn’t meet if you weren’t in the same location. Instilling them with the culture and ways of working of the company remotely becomes a bit more challenging. Then again, companies like GitLab or Doist have managed to build strong cultures and have onboarded thousands of employees entirely remotely, so it can be done, but more thought has to be put on the process.
Some people argue that remote-working reduces creativity and that great promoter of innovation: serendipity. Many of the great innovations in Silicon Valley are due to chance encounters between two or more people. It is difficult to replicate this in a remote environment.
Some managers feel they are losing some sense of control if they cannot see their team members. Managing a team remotely requires different leadership skills, but you don’t need to see people to know how they work. It is a matter of trust. Most people want to do a good job. If you trust your team members, they will pay you back with trust and good work. If you don’t, you probably won’t get the best out of them.
Whatever you do, please don’t use dodgy control methods like installing surveillance programs to spy on your employees or asking them to have their cameras on all day so you can see them. It’s not cool, it’s not how you treat people, and it will certainly backfire.
The biggest drawback of remote working is that the lines separating the professional and personal lives get blurred. People have more time than before, but they work longer hours, so the hours saved by not commuting are used to work more, not to do other leisurely nice stuff. People are now always on and find it more difficult to disconnect. You may be able to get your kids from school in the afternoon, but then you might end up working until late at night to “psychologically” compensate, as if you owed more hours to your company.
This is creating more burnout, anxiety, and stress. It is difficult to measure how much of the deterioration of the mental health we have seen in the last months is due to the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the uncertainty caused by it, and how much is due to the longer hours worked, the constant staying connected, and the increase in solitude and loneliness. It is easy to assume that some part of it is probably due to the new remote-working setting.
Will we all be working from home moving forward, or is this a temporary blip due to the pandemic? This is not the first time I say this, but I think the jury is still out. We are still in the middle of the pandemic, after all.
Companies like Twitter have offered their employees to work from home “forever”. Others like Netflix cannot wait to go back and say that working remotely is a “pure negative”. Like most things in life, there will be different reactions based on particular circumstances, like industry, job types, and company culture.
For obvious reasons, manufacturing jobs will continue clustering in factories – at least until the 3D printing revolution takes off and everybody makes their stuff at home -, and some industries, like programming or tech, are more prone than others to have their employees working remotely.
It seems the location will also influence this. As this data from The Economist shows, countries in the anglosphere seem to be more comfortable working remotely, while in Europe, more people seem to want to go back to the office.
As technology evolves, remote-working will get easier and remote-communication will feel closer to the real thing. Advances in VR, for example, will enable us to feel closer to others, even if staying very far away from each other. We will be sending our lifelike avatars or even our holograms, like in Star Wars, to replace us in virtual meetings. Teams, Slack, and the next new collaboration tool will allow more effective asynchronous work.
I believe (just my personal opinion. I may be wrong) that more companies will go fully remote, but they will still be in the minority, at least for the next decade. The big change will be that a large majority of companies will combine both office and remote work more regularly. People will work some time from home; then, they´ll go to the office to meet their team members, socialize, and have creative sessions.
This will bring a significant shift in how the companies invest in real estate, as they will reduce the office space in city centers and create smaller satellite offices or rent co-working spaces in mid-sized towns and suburbs. Offices will change, with fewer desks and more interacting spaces. They will look more like fun and colourful social spaces than drub offices.
What do you think? Are you eager to go back to the office or would you like to continue working from home? Is remote working here to stay?
For what is worth, I’ll continue happily combining the two.
* DISCLAIMER: All the opinions expressed by me in this post and all other posts in this blog are mine and mine alone. In no way do they represent the official or unofficial position of my employer, Sodexo.