An interesting discussion recently has prompted me to jot down my thoughts on working remotely. My current role (GSK) is the first entirely remote role I've undertaken, and although only having been there 9 months, I've got some early experience that I thought pertinent to share.
Why have I not worked remotely in the past?
As a engineering lead for a number of years, working in companies where remote work is not culturally the norm, there's just never really been the opportunity. I'd couple that with a personal preference - I like people, I like the water cooler moments, I like the banter in the office and as Bruce Daisley in his book highlights in his book 'The Joy of Work', these are the things that beget performance in teams. The special glue that holds teams together. Being a sole person working remotely in a team like this is going to be tough for anyone, and the North East (UK) tech market hasn't traditionally been great for supporting remote work.
Why do companies not do more remote working?
From conversations I've had with a number of people, and from researching remote work via online articles and books (e.g. Remote by Jason Fried) I find it boils down to fear. It's often a disguised fear, and it may be veiled by comments like 'it's just not part of the culture' or 'we value collaboration in teams very highly, so we need people to be in the office'. The underlying, unspoken in all of this is 'bums on seats'. Having a visible workforce means you can worry less about them slacking off at home and watching box sets of Stranger Things instead of working - they're bound to be more productive at work right?
Is remote work more or less productive?
It's both, and it's neither - this is very much an 'it depends'. That 'depends' is very much a construct of the culture and makeup of the company that is supporting it.
I find that my current role is very well suited to remote working, so I find that for the most part it's highly productive. In a global company, I'm as likely to be on a call with someone in our Navy Yard (Philadelphia) site as I am with someone in our main head office (Brentford, London). Those things are a challenge anywhere unless you're co-locating or have a budget big enough to travel for meetings, though I can't imagine a meeting so valuable that flying to america for it would be a workable solution! Our team is both co-located in an office in Central London and distributed remotely (I have team members in Scotland, Ireland, and in various parts of the UK). We have a healthy 'work from home' culture for those people who are co-located in the london office too.
This generates a strong 'remote first' culture - something paramount to success. If one person is remote on a call, everyone is remote. The worst experience of someone in a meeting needs to be shared and elevated. Simple things, but they all make remote far easier.
What can help if a company is afraid of remote work?
There are many great books on topics around this - Dominica De Grandis in her book Making work Visible isn't strictly focussing on remote work when she talks about all the various types of work that help us lose productivity, though ultimately, they all highlight that visibility is key. Results Only Work Environments (ROWE) have some fascinating findings here - they defer to autonomy and trust, but reward results.
Companies who don't have this as part of the culture but are perhaps investigating should look at the ROWE model - how do we keep visibility of results and outcomes? This is a good approach even for co-location. Bums on seats is rarely a good measure of performance for a company, and once you start to think about your teams outcomes and results, it becomes better and more directed to work with them - whether or not they are remote.
If a company is thinking of experimenting with remote work or indeed fully flexible work, do so wholesale - offering it to a small subset of the org isn't going to get you best outcomes. Focus on measuring the experiment, encourage all workers to take part (even those who aren't keen on remote work), and really go all in to see what the costs and benefits are of doing it. If you want to go whole hog, get devices to measure staff - their stress levels, their movement, etc. - you will find you get an incredible amount of data from both in-office and home workers that can inform you.
My thoughts on remote working for 9 months?
I often miss office work and the joy that comes from being based in the same room as people and sharing moments. I'm lucky in that I often have meetings in London, so I can be found down there generally once or twice a month - I always extend the stay a day or so to work effectively with the team in the office too.
The over-compensation that I and the team have placed on culture and connection means that for the most part the potential for isolation and disconnection that can occur in remote work are minimised or removed.
Tooling plays a huge part in this - bad tooling for video, for chat, and for collaboration really will ruin the experience. I'll call out the tooling our team uses primarily because it's so significant in the creation of the right environment. We use zoom for video, slack for chat, and tools such as trello (work tracking), quip (document co-creation), miro (whiteboarding, mind mapping, etc.), 15five (pulse, 1:1s, OKRs) and each of these enriches the experience and minimises the divide between co-location and remote in some small way.
Is remote work the future? No.
Is a model where remote and flexible working are first class citizens and companies working flexibly to maximise their pool of talent and don't limit themselves to location for hiring while simultaneously realising that measuring results and outcomes is the only way to really evaluate a teams' effectiveness the future? Absolutely
Once you have visibility and a good culture of sharing and collaboration, coupled with effective measurement of outcomes and results, the location of that person really isn't an issue.