I think a lot about remote work these days because our remote staff is growing and it’s critical that I do as much as I can to ensure our remote team members are integrated and engaged.
I also enjoy staying current on social and tech trends and remote work is trending big. According to Global Workplace Analytics, remote workers grew as an employee sector by 6.5% between 2013 and 2014, while the employee population as a whole only grew by 1.8%. Work-at-home among the non-self-employed has grown by 103% since 2005 and 6.5% in 2014 alone.
Why We All Need to Think About Remote Work
Those numbers reflect some well known technology advancements and social shifts. Better connectivity at home and collaborative software tools enable more and more people to complete the tasks in their home or a coffee shop that once required a centralized business office.
And, as Baby Boomers shift their attention to a professional “third act” and modify their schedules at their existing workplace, they and their tech-immersed Millennial counterparts discover logical and often soul-renewing reasons to blend their professional and personal life via remote work.
Localism and Community
As a society we often forget there wasn’t much need for clocks or watches before factories. In our pre-industrial, home-based agrarian society, people really did wake up when the rooster crowed, because they grew their own food and that usually included chickens.
Pre-electricity people didn’t always go to bed at some arbitrary “time.” They went to bed soon after dark to save money on candles and to be physically and mentally prepared for the next day.
Manufactured goods and centralized factories and their business offices made clocks and watches necessary, because everyone needed to know when to show up at the same time for their work. This forever changed how humans think about time.
But, even more profoundly, factory and office work took people away from their homes, families and neighbors. Families were split up. Women eventually followed their husbands to the factories and offices, just not the same ones.
And, instead of learning and contributing, the youngest and oldest family members began to be displaced into their own forms of professional “day care.” Neighbors became strangers. We all started buying our food and goods from strangers. Many family members became strangers
Back to the Future
Working at home, remote from centralized industrial-era offices, reverses many of these trends and provides flexibility for younger and older family members to also remain at home.
And, as modern citizen-consumers desire fresh food and locally produced goods, as they desire stronger and deeper relationships with their family and local neighbors, they will seek out forms of work that fulfill those desires.
Creative, collaborative, net-enabled work is a powerful gateway for these pent-up social changes that are much larger than the subject of remote work.
These larger social trends of re-membering dis-membered families and communities, combined with enormous commute-associated energy savings and the reduction of corporate real estate expenses, will most likely drive remote work beyond what even its biggest fans and experts predict.
I’m confident business people will always watch a clock. That won’t be reversed any time soon. More of us will merely watch it from our living room and the coffee shop than from the factory floor or cubicle farm.
Understanding Requires Empathy
But, even if you don’t think these powerful trends are relevant to you, it’s still smart to think about remote work. It’s smart because even if you don’t work remote today, chances are good you will in the future. And, chances are better than good you’ll work with or manage remote workers if you don’t already.
It’s tough working remote. Remote workers can be easily forgotten, made to feel they’re not part of the team, and blamed for normal communication disconnects we all experience, even when it’s not their fault.
But, there are some things managers and owners can do to get ahead of those normal challenges and blunt them before they even start.
As an empathy exercise, force yourself to do your job at home for an extended period of time. If you haven’t already, acquire the software and other tools needed to replicate the core office essentials in your home.
Doing this might seem obvious or redundant at first. But, how long have you been cut off from your co-workers and still been expected to be productive? How long have you been forced to rely only on the tools you have at home? Maybe a couple of weeks?
Vacations don’t count in context of this exercise. Try doing it for six months. Try doing it when you’re totally alone in your home without the distraction of family or work friends. When the isolation causes you to question your value and the intelligence of your co-workers, you’ll begin to understand how remote workers feel most of the time.
If you currently supervise remote workers, when is the last time you had a lengthy video call with them to talk about their personal life? Not the overly personal things, just the normal stuff you talk about with your onsite co-workers daily if not hourly.
It might seem awkward to connect via Skype for 20 minutes just to “shoot the breeze”, but anything worthwhile requires practice and unless you get in the habit of chatting with remote workers just like your onsite work friends, you’ll always risk disengagement and productivity outages.
The most important point to remember is that remote workers are people. They’re not an email inbox or a quick Google hangout or Skype session, or someone we only think about when we need something or when there’s a problem. Remote workers need extra effort and attention so they’re just as engaged and as integrated as any other worker in the organization.