Remote work is one of the terms that did not only have a strong impact on the year 2020, but will also continue to shape the future of our working lives. I am very much convinced about that. Of course, you can’t operate the checkout in the supermarket from your home office, and cars will still be produced on factory floors, at least for the foreseeable future. In general, there are several industries where remote work will not play any or just a very small role. But there are a lot of others, where work models and collaboration have already changed significantly during the last twelve months. And it will continue to change also in the long term. There are quite a few companies that still had big plans for new office buildings at the beginning of 2020 but they are now even considering moving to a smaller office or subleasing office space. This is not meant here in terms of downsizing, which unfortunately can probably also be a reason in some cases. I am rather talking about companies where flexible working models have already been implemented. This basically means that employees now mostly work from home, and there are only flexible workspaces and conference rooms in a downsized office where people only meet as needed for face-to-face meetings and workshops.
Remote work always existed
Remote work models are not really brand new. I had already written about this in my article “Remote management – what’s new?” in January 2021. In the software industry, development teams have been spread around the globe for many years already. In journalism, this is a common model, as well as in online marketing and call centers. In international sales, employees have been working in home offices before the term remote work even existed. It usually makes little sense for most companies to move into an office on day one when they enter a new market. For many companies, sales employees who work from home are the only feasible solution anyway, also in the long term. In a country like the U.S., for example, a central sales office does not make much sense if the sales reps should ideally be as close to the customer as possible. Agents in the insurance industry already had their office in the basement or under the roof long before email, the internet or even the fax machine existed. So why do we have this big discussion now?
What are the concerns?
When it comes to remote work, you often hear concerns which start with “we lose” or “we don’t know”. Unfortunately, one concern mentioned very often is about remote work causing the loss of control over the employees. That is actually a pretty scary statement. But there are also worries about the loss of communication, the loss of the company culture and team spirit, and about facing big challenges to retain good employees. Many companies simply don’t know yet how to organize virtual meetings and workshops, how to replace ad-hoc face-to-face discussions and, above all, how to train and integrate new employees properly. In addition, the necessary technologies and work tools, as well as the legal framework, are often unknown. But where do all these concerns come from? On the management side, they are unfortunately still driven by micromanagement, control compulsion and animosity to technology. On the employee side, it tends to be lack of independence, lack of self-management and lack of experience.
Advantages of Remote Work
Those who have concerns always like to see the glass half-empty. But as usual, you can also focus on the advantages and thus see the glass rather half full. I would like to give a few examples here. In software development, employees typically work quite independently most of the time. This means that the employee can individually organize his or her working hours much more flexible in the home office. Some software developers have told me that they are able to work much more focused and hence be more productive from home compared to sitting in a in an open-plan office. I have met single mothers who have achieved a much better life balance by adopting a flexible work model and working from home. And, by the way, this doesn’t just apply to single moms. If you’re looking for new employees, you usually have to find them in the local area or persuade them to relocate. Is that really still up-to-date? I am convinced, and I already know of many examples here, that it is much easier to find good employees if you offer them a flexible working model so that they don’t have to call a moving company and force their children to change school. The positive impact which remote work has on rush-hour traffic could be seen very well already during the first wave of the Corona pandemic in Q2/2020. During times, where climate change is a big topic, this is certainly also quite relevant.
Addressing the concerns
Many of the previously mentioned concerns are easy to dispel. However, if you really want to have your employees under control all the time, you should immediately forget about remote work and continue to operate a management style that certainly involves a far bigger risk than allow people to work from home. Of course, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting. For that, you should continue to make arrangements for joint office days. In most cases, however, a video call will certainly do the trick. Today, there are already countless tools for this, as well as for collaboration on documents and virtual whiteboards. But here the following rule always should apply: cameras on! Even the much-cited “informal conversations at the coffee machine” can be realized virtually. You just have to be open to be pinged in a chat with the question: “Do you have ten minutes?”. Also, why not use the old-fashioned phone again from time to time? With the cell phone in your hand, you can walk a few meters instead of spending hours only sitting in a chair. In general, you shouldn’t forget to take breaks. It’s so easy to click from one virtual meeting to another. However, this doesn’t necessarily make sense. It definitely helps to mentally close one topic before preparing for the next one. Finally, you also won’t create or maintain a corporate culture just by having a fancy office building and offer free coffee. It requires strong leaders who live this culture every single day and in everything they do. This also works over distance and, by the way, applies just as much to team spirit and employee loyalty.
The world is not black and white here either
Of course, remote work is not ideal for everyone. If the kitchen table at home must serve as the home office, or the colleagues in the company are the only social contacts, it’s important to have alternatives. Teams need to meet regularly in person as well. Anyone who has some experience with all-day online workshops knows what I’m talking about. The solution is to offer flexible solutions. Those who would like to work only in the office should be able to do so. Others who would like to work from home, because it saves them two hours in the car every day or helps them to better organize their private lives, should have that option. There should be a number of flexible workplaces in the office, because it sometimes might makes sense for the “home workers” to work in the office for a day. I am convinced that flexible working models will become the standard in many industries and people will even ask themselves in the future why they had to spend valuable time every day in traffic jams or crowded subways. For a few, remote work still may remain a curse, for many others it will be a blessing.