If you asked me, I would have said that telecommuting has been around since the 1990s. When I looked it up it seems like it has been around since my pre-school days in the 1970s which seems a little odd to me since when I was a little kid every single working parent on my street drove to work each day and home computers were at least a decade away. Nonetheless, we can all agree that the idea and the technology to allow workers to work from remote locations – notably from home – has been around for several decades.
This commentary has been in the works for several months. It started with my friend Elizabeth who is in the middle of a multi-year project to redesign her organization’s office space and remote work capability. Elizabeth started the project because her organization was running out of office space and relocating was going to be extremely costly (and because she is a progressive thinker looking ahead of the curve). At the same time, the commutes to downtown Toronto keep getting worse and it is getting harder to recruit capable staff to an otherwise great organization and terrific career opportunities. In some sense she got very lucky that most of the hard work was already done when COVID-19 rolled around.
For many workers, work is on hold right now. For many others though, work is continuing, largely from home offices around the world. Webcams and headsets are in short supply as businesses build home offices for workers that previously left home each day to go to the office. For some this is a welcome chance to prove to employers the feasibility of working from home permanently, for others it’s a necessary inconvenience to ‘get the job done’ and for yet others – like me – it is a worst case scenario (more on that later).
The Good Stuff
Ok – there are at least three things that are good about telecommuting. First, the commute is a click of a button – or two or three layers of passwords at most. Second, flexibility – you can break away from work for a short break to run an errand when traffic is light and pay back the time when you would normally be stuck in traffic. I like to walk my dog during the daylight and exercise doesn’t have to be jammed in at peak hours at the gym. Third, if you aren’t mandated to have a webcam turned on all the time then there is no fight with HR over dress code.
The Necessary Stuff
Before everyone gets on the bandwagon – setting up for success working from home needs careful planning. A quiet place to work, a good chair, a lock timer on the fridge. Coming into focus in this crisis is the need for good internet at home as we do more video conferencing. You get the picture. Companies are going to need rules on who pays for the stuff and what happens to that stuff when workers move on.
But to me this isn’t the interesting discussion. It’s a discussion about people and how we work together.
In the past, some managers have objected that they won’t be able to manage from a distance and they won’t be able to be sure work is getting done if they can’t look over the shoulder of workers. There are two answers to this. First, did managers really look over the shoulder of staff all day to watch them work? Not likely – the reality has always been that a manager needs to be able to assess a worker’s performance by their output. Second, if a manager can’t adapt then maybe they aren’t someone that should be managing in the 21st century.
Sure, there will be some bumps in the road – some managers not giving enough trust – some giving too much trust. But I am sure we will train or find managers to work in this increasingly virtual world. As I watch the three post-secondary students at my house navigate this lockdown with surprising ease, I am sure we have an abundance of future leaders that will thrive in this world. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised as younger generations have grown up with ‘social media’ at their fingertips and connecting virtually is wrapped in their DNA.
This is the one aspect that worries me most. Knowing my struggles with isolation – unable to focus and missing human contact, I am sure that this life is not for everyone. Working from home a couple afternoons a week was great – but full-time…yuck. But how many will self-identify as needing an office and what will we do when companies no longer want to pay for office space for occasional visitors? These workers are going to need structure – so plan for that.
On the other side is the worker that can’t walk away from work. When I first started ASI, my office was an empty bedroom in the house (no kids back then). Every day became a blur of work and home and a less understanding spouse might have shown me how to get out of the house one last time (and if she is being honest these last three weeks with me at home has been tough on her too – Joe Nunes 24/7 is not something too many people can take).
When Jason first started at ASI, I had to remind him that just because I was working at 10pm, it didn’t mean he should be as well. I warned him that he better be sure he takes care of his marriage. It’s 13.5 years later and Jason, still married, is almost always home for dinner and is almost always logged on sometime after 10pm. I wouldn’t know exactly what time because at this age it’s past my bedtime. It is clear to everyone that remote work is something that has given Jason the flexibility to manage his work-life balance and we are the winners for keeping him on the team all these years.
In the end, employers will need to tailor the ‘come-to-the-office’ and ‘work-from-home’ continuum to match different employee temperaments and flexibility needs. The one-size-fits-all cubicle farm of my youth will increasingly be an arrangement of the past.
You can write all the rules you want and you can provide managers and workers all the training you can find or design – but for telework to be successful it has to become part of a larger culture where everyone can trust each other to carry their weight without having to punch a clock. We will need to move from a world where you come to work and do what you are told, to a world where everyone knows how they create value for their organization and the work they need to do to help fulfill the company mission.
Interestingly, our employment laws still focus on time as the key input rather than creating results, which is counter to the movement to independence. The 40-hour work week has stunted our growth and we can only hope that at some point our governments will let people contract with employers an exchange of wages for results. Regardless of the official rules and whether employment contracts are in writing, the new deal for workers will be much more about this exchange of ‘total contribution’ in exchange for ‘total rewards’.
Regardless of my worries that not everyone is ready for this world and the fact that remote work isn’t the right answer for me, teleworking has taken a big step forward in the past few months and I don’t expect that we are going to step backwards after we are all allowed to meet back at the office. Get ready people. In the meantime, don’t worry about me. I have started a list of people who want to buy me a beer when this is over – Alan offered first, Clark second. Let me know if I should add your name to the list.