The distributed work revolution

These difficult times have resulted in a mass exodus from our work places and an exponential increase in home working. Prior to the outbreak Office for National Statistics data  shows that only 8.7 million have ever worked from home in their current job, this is less than 30% of the workforce. The OFS fortnightly survey indicates that since the outbreak 46% of businesses have said that they have encouraged their staff to work from home in line with the government’s guidelines

For many this has been an abrupt and initially unwanted experience. As Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumble puts it in this Guardian article: “This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold”.

But for me it has felt a little like a flash back. I spent 8 years as a remote worker working and learned to love its quirks and embrace its benefits.

Ramblings of a Remote worker

My change in situation happened back in 2007 when looking after my young children whilst commuting to work became difficult and time consuming. The research department I was working in at the University of Bath was pretty forward thinking place and allowed me to start working from home provided I came on to site for important meetings. This approach meant that as a department we could recruit the best from round the country. I ended taking on a support role for our remote workers – at the time the biggest challenge was making sure that off site workers were not disadvantaged in relation to onsite workers – and it was at this point that my line manager recommended I start writing a blog to share my experiences. My blog was called Ramblings of a Remote Worker and by the time I closed it down in 2015 I had published 378 posts, which included 59 guest posts, had 914 comments and been linked to by over 2 thousand websites.

A tag cloud of the topics covered on my Remote worker blog

A tag cloud of the topics covered on my Remote worker blog

Even early on the blog took on a life of its own and I ended up being seen as a small-scale expert on the trials and tribulations of remote working (you can see my related presentations and publications, my Pinterest board, and my Slideshare). I’m not sure I was an expert just that not many people were blogging about it at the time. In 2009 I was lucky enough to win the remote worker of the year award and came home with a new laptop and a ticket for a weekend away at Cleveden house.

After leaving the University of Bath I moved to working for an completely distributed organisation. When I started at Open Knowledge (now Open Knowledge Foundation) we had a co-working hub office in London,. This was physical location at which to meet up, financial pressures at the time meant we stopped using it. Open Knowledge had hubs of people in particular locations (London, Cambridge, Berlin) but we comprised of employees from all around the world. This brought new challenges: how do you work remotely globally? What about time differences? Cultural differences? We would all meet each other twice a year for a week of intense face-to-face time. For many of us who had chosen to work as a part of a distributed team this physical experience was useful but also incredibly draining – you get good at working a certain way.

Working from home changed the way I worked. It turned me in to an open practitioner, someone who knows how to build community and work collaboratively. These things don’t come easy when you are far away from people and initially there is a tendency to over compensate and be a little needy. After a while you find your rhythm and settle on a balance of getting work done and networking with others.

Me back in 2009 as a remote worker

Me back in 2009 as a remote worker

Why Covid-19 is causing home working fatigue

At the RAU most have risen to the remote working challenge and our IT department (from Service desk and systems analysts, to business analysts and us the Learning techs) have done a impressive job of supporting people. Our one-year Office 365 implementation plan has been squashed in to three weeks and staff are living and breathing tools they hadn’t even heard of a month ago.

Since I closed my blog in 2015 the world has moved on. The tools have changed (it is all Zoom and MS Teams right now), hardware has improved (I now have three screens!) and modern culture has shifted ( vlogging, streaming services, phygital experiences, mobile as default – see my recent post on Digifest and Gen Z). However some of the challenges remain the same.

While we are struggling though people are getting incredibly tired. This Twitter thread unpicks some of the reasons why online calls are so draining. Of course we musn’t forget that this exhaustion is exacerbated by our global stress level.

tweet

This drain is something that our academics will want to keep in mind for when they start online teaching. Despite their love of Facetime and mobile apps most students have not had to learn like this before.

My suggestions for us as an institution going forward are that we:

  1. Try and have less catch up meetings and use asynchronous tools like chat to keep in touch.
  2. Turn off video on calls. When training people my advice is that if you want to you can turn video on at the start at the call and wave at people, this can be particularly useful if you don’t know people, after that it isn’t needed. In fact with the broadband issues that most of us are facing it is preferable to not have video on.
  3. Only attend meetings we really need to be at, for example if we are key in the decision making, or are taking minutes. People can share updates so we feel informed but there is nothing worse then sitting there for an hour having to listen to other people talk and not participating. Some communication forums (like an all-staff meeting) might be the exception, and of course there are regulatory reasons why some people must attend but the general rule is if I am surplus to requirements then set me free.
  4. Are clear on the purpose of a meeting or catch up. If a meeting is informal then keep it informal and don’t make people attend unless they want to. There is definitely room for water cooler spaces and we need to build these in but at the moment people are so paranoid that people can’t see them working that they are actually making it difficult for themselves to work.

When your staff work from home you become an output driven organisation, rather than one where people clock watch. It is a big mindset shift and requires trust from employers and commitment from staff.

Missing each other

People often asked me why I ended up returning to a physical workplace after so long of working at home. The tipping point for me was reading an article (and I apologise for not being able to find the source) that said that once you had worked at home for 10 years you became institutionalised, or actually the opposite of institutionalised, in that you couldn’t return to the constraints of onsite working. I started to worry that this was true and I would spend the rest of my days without a ‘work home’. The time seemed right to move back to a physical location, my children were getting older and my home working set up had changed (my parents had moved in with us and so there were a lot more day-to-day distractions).

There are two main reasons I often cite for why I moved back. The first is the blurred boundaries between work and home – I became fed up with them. I would be hanging the washing out in my lunch break and finishing projects at midnight. I craved some clear lines between the work me and the home me. People used to joke about the concept of ‘working from home’, the air quote implying that people who work from home are skiving. I’ve never worked as hard as I did when I was a remote worker. It galvanized me. When you work from home you can’t hide behind office hours. It is like the difference between measuring physical attendance and engagement. I think many of those who viewed working from home as easy will be laughing on the other side of their faces now. Good home workers are dedicated, efficient and motivated. They are effectively ‘work grown ups’.

The second reason for why I moved back is the Christmas party. After a few Christmas parties on Google hangouts you start to yearn for a face-to-face party. Today people laugh at my enthusiasm for the Christmas party, but you always appreciate things more when you’ve been without. I’m sure now people will understand what I mean. As Keir Starmer said in his labour party leader acceptance speech on Saturday “Coronavirus has brought normal life to a halt. Our cities, our towns and our villages are silent, our roads deserted. Public life has all but come to a standstill and we’re missing each other.” I missed people then. And we all miss people now.

Remote working is a little like riding a bike. I feel that I have managed to get back on pretty quickly. The last few weeks have brought on a real sense of déjà vu and it has been interesting, and at times difficult, to watch people go through the learning experience of remote working that I recognise so well. The challenges aren’t always easy but our staff are doing a grand job and I think the skills they are learning (both digital and cultural) will really enhance our institution and create an empathetic and dedicated work force.

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