Telecommuting has made the news a lot in recent years. Technology has enabled this growing trend, and more and more companies are taking advantage of it. Well, this has certainly been the year, working from home (or WFH, as I recently learned is a widely utilised acronym) is hardly a new concept.
Yet, we have encountered an unprecedented time when many who did not have the option to telecommute previously are now mandated to partake. This experience has elicited an array of reactions and results across the nation and the globe.
COVID-19 struck fast and hard when the whole world was unprepared for it. From social distancing, working from home (WFH) and panic buying, life took a sudden turn for the worse. As the new normal takes a foothold, mental health has become a bigger national concern as more people are forced to remain isolated away from loved ones and support systems.
New studies are popping up to show the benefits and concerns of social distancing and remote working. These studies run the gamut from fears and vulnerabilities to a rise in virtual meetings that might be the future of work.
A very serious lesson in a pre-COVID-19 environment, I recently met a Family Office who invested heavily in a small company 3 years ago, when discussing some of the family’s portfolio, we came to discuss a particular company to find that the leadership was mismanaged, money and investment was wasted and the remote working development operations manipulated the code of operations, business ethics and this conduct and set of practices caused an unprecedented situation has resulted in the ownership and operations now managed by the Family Office.
Although remote workers can save the company money in terms of renting out office space, they can also be risky for the firm, especially if they use personal electronic devices for official correspondence. As a company, you must ensure that you have security measures to handle the remote staff.
There are risks that the company faces when working with a remote team. The security of the client information and the firm’s servers are a huge concern. Unlike an office setting where the IT department can easily control the access of information because all the machines are in one building, it is difficult to monitor the security of data with remote workers because they use different devices to access company data.
The main reason most employers are not in favour of home-working is that they don’t trust their workforce, according to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. “They’ll never say that, but that’s what it’s about. Managers want people in the office because they want to see their little empires there in front of them,” he says. “It’s totally about trust, and the incompetence of managers who don’t know how to manage people remotely.”
Telecommuting – one of the new terms for working remotely – seems to be the perfect arrangement for workers in dozens of industries. And, for the most part, it is. Companies that encourage and support remote work often report higher levels of employee retention and engagement, reduced turnover, higher employee satisfaction, increased productivity and autonomy, and lots of other benefits.
I wrote a blog in March 2015, Is Telecommuting to be Considered or Banned? The essence of the blog I discussed Yahoo’s decision to ban its staff from “remote” working. After years of many predicting working from home as the future for everybody.
When a memo from HR dropped into the inbox of Yahoo staff banning them from working from home it prompted anger from many of its recipients. ‘Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” the memo said. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.’
The move to get staff back into the office is thought to have been driven by the then-new chief executive Marissa Mayer, who herself returned to work weeks after giving birth. COVID-19 and employers decision to increase remote working may seize on the opportunity of allowing telecommuting to cut down on the amount of office space they need or to channel the time employees would otherwise spend commuting into business-productive work, but these real opportunities of purposeful discussions will have a real effect on strategy to execution.
In May, 2017, IBM made the decision to call its remote workers back to the office. This was a huge surprise to many, given that IBM has long been a staunch supporter of remote work environments for its employees. The official reason was that the company believed greater productivity can occur when teams of workers are physically together “shoulder to shoulder.” This move was followed by a number of other enterprises making the same decision – Aetna and Bank of America being just two examples.
Impressive, right? Why then, in March of this year, did IBM pull thousands of its workers back into the workplace? Was it the desperate move of a company whose profits had fallen, as some pundits suggest? Or might it be the result of something else – something that has triggered companies like Yahoo, Aetna and Best Buy to also pull back their work-from-home policies, and corporations like Apple and Google to pass on the concept of telecommuting in the first place?
Consider, for instance, the increasing emphasis on collaboration and the corresponding realisation that any collaborative effort is highly dependent upon well-developed personal relationships among participants. While remote workers might be highly efficient with individual efforts, nothing builds collaborative relationships better than being physically present.
In face-to-face encounters, our brains process the continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building trust and professional intimacy. Face-to-face interaction is information-rich.
We interpret what people say to us only partially from the words they use. We get most of the message (and all of the emotional nuance behind the words) from vocal cues, facial expressions, and physical movements. And we rely on nonverbal feedback – the instantaneous responses of others – to help us gauge how well our ideas are being accepted.
So potent is the nonverbal link between individuals that, when we are in genuine rapport with someone, we subconsciously match our body positions, movements, and even our breathing rhythms with theirs. Most interesting, the brain’s ”mirror neurons” mimic not just other people’s behaviours, but their feelings as well. (A reaction referred to as “emotional contagion.”)
But companies are not the only ones dealing with issues of a remote workforce, many of whom are a part of the new gig economy. Remote workers themselves face challenges that can hinder their productivity and job satisfaction.
Here are some challenges you may be facing that can negatively impact your work life and productivity.
1. The feeling of being disconnected
Even though there are great tools now for video chat and conferencing, there is still a “disconnect” when a remote worker sees his team members physically together at the office, while he is physically removed.
The ability to focus on the task at hand is critical for remote workers. And yet they often feel a need to respond quickly and immediately to any messages they receive from the “home office.” These can come via chat or email, and so the worker finds himself constantly checking to see if messages are coming in or responding to an alert of a message. Each of these interruptions means taking focus away from a task, engaging in responses and then attempting to get that focus back once again.
3. You never really “leave” work
When people work in offices, they leave at the end of the day. Sure, they may take some work home with them on occasion, but they physically remove themselves from their workplace. Gig workers do not do this – their workspace is right there, 24-hours a day. This leads to the ongoing temptation to skip that after-dinner walk or kid’s sports game in favor of moving back into that office space and trying to get more accomplished.
Working remotely is somewhat a lonely proposition. Some people, particularly introverts, love this arrangement. Others, not so much. And the problem is that continuous isolation can lead to mental health issues and even increased mortality. Only you know whether you can be happy and productive in a remote work environment, and you may have to actually try it out for a period of time before you do have the answer for yourself.
5. Risk to long-term career growth
As a remote worker, you will not have a lot of visibility within the company. If you are looking for an ultimate C-level position, then your choice to work remotely is the wrong one. You need to be physically present to gain the visibility you need for those major promotions.
Final thought, if relationships are the key to innovation and collaboration, trust is at its heart. When it comes to developing trust, there’s no substitution for getting people face to face.
Building trust is a multi-sensory process, and it’s only when people are physically together that are they able to use all their senses. At my seminars on collaborative leadership, audience members tell me about the challenges and frustrations of trying to get their virtual teams to bond. Although it can be done, various studies confirm that it is more difficult to build trust in virtual teams, harder for informal leaders to emerge, tougher to create genuine dialogue, and easier for misunderstandings to escalate.
Whether working from their homes or globally dispersed, remote workers are part of business reality today. But in our world of video meetings and teleconferences, the value of face-to-face encounters can often get overlooked.
As Oliver Markus Malloy, Inside The Mind of an Introvert once said:
“Being a self-employed means you work 12 hours a day for yourself so you don’t have to work 8 hours a day for someone else.”