I hate the term “remote workers.” I like the fact that we can work remotely, but the word itself implies a separation of distance, as if I were on a lost island or trekking across the Central Asian Steppe. When I am working remotely, I am often just at home, in the same city as my office and team. I might even be in the same building, but hiding on the first floor in order to pump out a few slides before a meeting. The one thing that is constant, no matter where I am, is that I am connected to my company and teams and I am getting work done.
Remote working has gotten the boost of a generation thanks to the perfect storm of connected tools and covid-19. Slack, Teams, and Zoom are now commonplace. Employees that could work from home did, oftentimes in extreme conditions such as handling kids (no school or childcare) or caring for sick family members (or themselves). The pandemic created a sort of stress test for businesses around the world, and most of them came out quite well.
Now we are facing the gradual return to office life, just as the cases of covid-19 continue to rise sharply around the world. The most old-school managers are itching to get people back to the office even though most have to admit that the heroic effort of their workforces over the past three months has proven that working from home does not mean slacking off. The idea of going back to the old ways is foolish at best and dangerous at worst, and losing the ground that we have gained in terms of distributing teams would represent a huge lost opportunity.
That’s just how it is
When you look at modern day work from a high level, you can see how much of its structure is completely arbitrary. The 5-day work week is a holdover from earlier times. The notion of a weekend is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. Combining people in offices made sense before technology when people had to pass around paper and be present in meetings in order to be brought up to speed.
Now that technology has proven itself to be able to provide collaborative platforms and connectivity with teams, shouldn’t we be thinking about how to shed these arbitrary constraints to imagine what work would look like if we sat down and picked it apart?
Why not four longer days and three days off? Why work 9 to 5 or 10 to 7? Why not work from 6am to 2pm if you’re a morning person? Or from 2 to 10pm if you’re an evening person? Detractors would say that if people are all working at different times, it would be too hard to get a hold of people: how can you call an all-hands meeting if only half of your employees are working at a given time?
Multinational companies provide the answer: people working in different time zones have to adapt to be able to talk to each other. That’s the reality of the world, not the exception. In any case, now that people have Skype, Zoom, Teams and other apps on their phones, 4G pretty much everywhere in the developed world, everyone should be able to connect to important meetings.
The fact is that important meetings are rare. The vast majority of time spent during work is actually doing work, work that can be (and often already is) done late at night or early in the morning. There is no need to align people working together at the same time as long as they can obtain information from each other on an as-needed basis.
Bespoke working style
Instead of forcing people to fit into a corporate mold, we should be finding ways to let people tailor work to themselves. Why jam people into a crowded subway (especially with a vicious respiratory virus circulating) so that they can be at work at 9:30AM? Why not let them work at home until the end of the morning so they can come in at their leisure? Or not come it if there is nothing that necessitates their physical presence?
We are often very stressed out by our professional lives. This is normal. Companies pack more and more responsability onto individuals until they can no longer support the weight before bringing in additional people. If an employee has the margin to assume additional responsabilities, the company is not maximizing the value of their salary costs.
We must accept that fact. But we can make the stress easier to deal with if we remove some of the constricting factors around how we work. The commute is the most obvious target for disruption. Packing people together at arbitrary times of the day no longer makes sense in a world that is still being ravaged by the coronavirus. Government requirements to stagger arrival and depature times should provide an opening through which we must push for permanent change. Even if we require people to come to work, spreading out rush hour will reduce commuting times for everyone. Eliminating commutes on certain days for certain people will reduce them even more. This is pure time gained, both individually and collectively.
Some people say they enjoy their commutes, they read books on the subway or listen to the radio in their cars. But this is just a soft case of Stockholm Syndrome. Reading a book in your armchair at home is lightyears better than hanging on to a metal pole while people shuffle in and out around you and you constantly lose your page. Being alone for a time in your car might be comfortable, but the stress caused by traffic jams is probably shaving months off of your life.
Commutes also limit the physical geographic area where we can work. If you have to do an hour and a half one way each morning and each evening, that means three hours a day to go to work. It’s inhumane. But doing it only a few times per week is much more manageable, so the connected workforce is one where employees can access jobs in a wider area, increasing the possibility of finding a good fit. Business can also recruit from a larger geographic area, increasing the chances of finding top talent.
Then there are the advantages of being home during the day: you can receive deliveries, go running during your lunchbreak, clean up the mass of toys that lay like landmines across your living room. You can also eat much healthier (and cheaper) because you are less tempted by the burger place down the street from your office or the bag of pain au chocolats that a fellow employee brought. When you are done working you close your computer and can start cooking, play with the kids, go to a ceramics class. You regain a huge amount of control.
My favorite thing to do is to find a spot at a nice café, sit down somewhere relatively calm where the sound of ambient electro merges with fingers typing on Macbooks. This type of environment is very productive for me because I get the feeling of working as if I were writing my next critically-acclaimed novel. I order tea and look around at the other people working on their projects – and no one bothers me.
Because that’s the other side of this story, the trend towards open spaces means that as soon as you are at your desk trying to get work done, everyone sees that you are there. They drop by to chat and check on where we are with certain subjects. Once or twice a day is fine, but as the line forms of people looking to talk to you, you can kiss your worktime goodbye, and the result of that is having to open up your computer that evening to get the work done.
So to sum up, businesses use arbitrary systems to place employees in unproductive environments for the sake of control. This control is no longer needed thanks to the technology at our fingertips. And it is no longer theoretical, we did the stress test and now we are on the other side.
We can either go back to the way things were before, or make the collective decision to progress towards a better future.