In February 2020, I published this article on flexi-time and remote working. I think it is safe to say that since then, things have changed. Merely a month later, much of the developed world has embarked on the biggest ever remote working venture. The situation has changed so radically and so suddenly, that people are questioning the foundations of how we work and of how we may work in the future. I want, therefore, to consider what I wrote a month ago and reflect on how that compares to what I understand now. Then I will draw some very tentative conclusions.
I think, for the purposes of this article, it is important to only focus on the elements of the current situation that directly relate to remote working. So, for example, the current sense of uncertainty that everyone feels right now, while of great importance and interest in itself, is not relevant to what I want to talk about here. Nor, to give another example, are the economic difficulties that we are all facing — except within the broader context of the feasibility of remote working in general.
What interests me is the empirical experiment that we are currently engaged in. Like all experiments, it is showing, in an objective manner, how theory converts into practice. The difference between theory and practice is key. It unlocks a way into thinking better about how we should work in the future.
I previously presented a theory that human resources and AI could efficiently organize employees remote working and flexi-time to maximize business output. This was to be achieved by looking at various human qualities and their impact on whether an employee is best suited to either remote working or flexi-time. The qualities I previously considered were these:
This is what the actual reality of mass remote working has shown me thus far:
1. There is a clear divide between those industries that require direct interaction and those that do not. The scale of industry that requires direct interaction is also apparent. In addition to the hospitality sector it encompasses transport, education and any sector that is not heavily involved with using distributed IT systems. It may be in future that a new division opens up. In addition to the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ we may see also the ‘at homes’ and the ‘not at homes’ in terms of employment.
2. Don’t underestimate the impact of children on daily life. One reason that people may not wish to remote work at home is because children distract from that work. I could, of course, factor this in as another variable in the remote working matrix. Distractions in general will likely need to be factored in. The future may well be dominated with the issue of how to deal with distraction at work.
3. Some things are done faster face to face. A lot can be gained from quickly reading the room in an office situation. If there are ten people in a meeting room, a quick scan of the room can reveal a lot about all ten’s thoughts, feelings and general positions on a subject. This speed and clarity is greatly diminished in remote communication.
4. There are issues with some of the technology. Specifically there are questions over privacy and handling volume at scale. These are well documented elsewhere. They will likely be resolved fairly speedily, however.
5. There are great opportunities for cloud technology. Most cloud providers already provide a WebRTC service for the remote transmission of voice and video. AWS Kinesis Video Streams is an example. Providers provide telephony services built on top of these services, such as Amazon Chime. And the opportunity is there in the cloud infrastructure to place our own or open source video server technologies. The cloud, being remote and distributed, can exist in a symbiotic relationship with remote users and their needs.
6. Self-motivation in general is harder in isolation. This is a complex issue and perhaps he hardest to abstract from other issues more directly related to the current medical situation. I think, however, that there are some basic mutual re-enforcement effects that arise from working directly within a team, as opposed to working remotely.
This was accounted for in my previous article by scoring higher for self-starting individuals. I think, however, the diminishing effect may be across all groups. This is perhaps why people tend to report that they prefer a mixture of remote and local working. A short-term meet may help resolve this.
Another solution would be to gamify more processes and technologies around employee results and interactions.
7. Remote meetings allow for simultaneous public and private discussion. One of the more interesting aspects of remote meeting is that a two way chat is possible — the explicitly public one and an underlying private one. This changes the dynamic of meetings much in the same way as if everyone could suddenly secretly text each other live during a standard meeting. Things can be said publicly that can then be endorsed or rejected privately. Ideas can be spread privately which then impact on and change the course of public discussion.
8. People need more persuasion to fully engage in meetings. This is true of meetings in general but it is particularly true of online ones. It is easier to not engage and the temptation to not participate is consequently higher. People tend to need to be persuaded to put their camera on and be seen. An extended issue on this is the need to be presentable throughout the working day for any unexpected remote encounters.
9. People do not need more persuasion to actually have meetings. Another perhaps unforeseen aspect of working remotely is that the number of meetings between employees has increased. The more people are working remotely, the greater the need to communicate in general. This may well engender the most positive aspect of remote working of all — that it ironically brings people together more.
Theory and Practice: Conclusions
The main conclusions here are that this is perhaps not the time to put forward conclusions. The current work from home experiment is still in its early stages. This is a time to record some initial impressions only, and to let the rest play out for a while before firming up some more definitive conclusions. So far, these initial impressions are:
- Much of what has been learned from experience tends to argue against remote working rather than for it. It remains to be seen, however, whether we adjust to the new ways or fall back to old ones.
- Some of what has been learned in practice accords with what was suggested in theory as aspects worth measuring for measuring effectiveness in remote working. This applies, for example to self-starters as rating high on remote working and it factored in for practicality of remote working also.
- Some new issues have come to light in practice that may require new aspects to the theory. Distractions at home is one.
- There are opportunities for improving technology here.
- It seems that working remotely rapidly increases our appetite for communication, and this could transform business in new ways.