Remote working: why does it have to be either or?

When I opted out in 2009 to start working on a PhD, I also started working from home. My university department and colleagues were literally on the other side of the planet, because instead of enrolling at a university closer to home, I of course chose one that was pretty much as far away as you can get. I like to joke about that because it sounds so crazy, but actually it made a lot of sense, and in hindsight I clearly see what a wise choice it was for me in many ways. 

But the point is that I went from a job in consulting where I was expected to be at the office every day, to setting up a home office and always working there. For me personally it was wonderful. I like working at home. I like being alone, I find it easier to concentrate and I don’t get distracted by laundry or unmade beds or other non-job-related things that need fixing. Besides, my kids were quite young at the time and things tended to be so intense after school and daycare, that the quiet of my work day was pure bliss. 

However, in 2009, when I opted out, working from home, or any other place than the office, was not a widespread practice. To be honest, although some organizations have had a remote working policy and made it possible for employees at least some of the time, more organizations haven’t. Face time has been considered essential – you know, if you don’t see your employees how do you know that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing? (For those of you who haven’t realized this yet, seeing them is no guarantee. If they aren’t doing what they are expected to do the problem has little to do with them being there physically or not.)

It wasn’t until this past year when people were forced to stay at home, that many organizations that previously had been reluctant, had to try remote working in earnest. And surprise surprise, they realized that not only was it possible, for some it was better than working in the office. But many have also realized, that having people work in different physical places, puts new expectations on managers and work routines. You cannot lead people in the same way you would if you were all in the same location. This is the reason that the lockdown remote working experience of 2020 has generally been most draining and stressful for managers. They haven’t been able to just fall back on familiar routines.

But this is all fine and good. It is lightbulb moments like these that lead to changed behavior and new practices. However, one thing continues to baffle me. Just as many have previously held that their employees need to be physically present at all times for things to work, now I see debates about how always working remotely really can be a strain and difficult in many ways. I get the feeling it might be a defensive reaction of sorts to all the hype we’ve seen around remote working during the past few months? I mean, it turns a lot of the assumptions we’ve had about working life for a long time on their head. 

But who says working remotely has to mean never coming in to the office at all? Why would it have to be a question of either or? 

Even when employees are presented with the option to work remotely, some will want to continue going to the office every day. A study has shown that few people are like me, and most people prefer a combination of the two. And I think that makes perfect sense. It allows people to come in and meet colleagues, have face-to-face discussions, have in-person meetings…. But it also allows people to work from home or somewhere else when they need to and gain more control over where, when and how they work. My own research has shown that this is something people find extremely important, mainly because it increases quality of life. Simply put, it just makes life easier. 

So yes, having to work remotely all the time is not necessarily a good thing. We have seen that during the pandemic. Although many have reported that they are more productive, they have also reported that they feel tired and miss their colleagues. But that does not mean that we should forget working remotely altogether. Allowing people to have a combination – the best of both worlds – is very doable, as is allowing them to decide what they want their mix to look like. 

And yes, it involves a change of management routines.

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