Remote Control: How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love Telework
For most of human history, business was conducted in person. If I were sowing your fields, tending your sheep, or building your house, you were always there to physically oversee the work, but as technology advanced, so did the ability for business to be conducted from a distance. From the postal service, to the telegraph, to the telephone, to the fax machine and straight through to email, the idea of entering contracts or placing orders while not in close proximity to the other party went from a novel idea to an industry standard. Gone are the days when an actual handshake is required to seal the deal.
Still, the concept of working remotely in the world of offices and cubicles has had a much tougher road to acceptance. In the days before the internet and computers, jobs dealing with business processes were difficult to complete and manage from a distance. Yet once again, technology provided a path. Over 20 years ago, at the end of the previous century, I worked with a company that was developing early mobile applications in the pre-smartphone era. All of our developers worked from home and gathered together occasionally for meetings or work sessions. It worked exceedingly well.
Technology has only improved since then. High speed internet access has expanded to become widely available almost everywhere. Mobile networks allow phone access. Laptops are more powerful, portable, and affordable. Collaboration software such as GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams, Skype, etc., make presentations and business meetings functional and with the moving of systems from physical, on-prem servers to cloud environments, most of the data and information needed for work is already technically remote.
So, naturally, working remotely became the industry standard, right? Well…..
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. You have a job that could be done anywhere, but you are required to put in your eight hours a day in a cubicle. You approach your manager about working remotely, only to get instant push-back. Perhaps you get someone to approve trying it out, allowing maybe one telework day a week, but your manager requires extra-detailed updates and often seems to treat you as though you are taking a vacation day. The moment there is any question about tasks being completed, the telework “privilege” is revoked.
Maybe you are in a more enlightened workplace, but I have worked at several different companies over the intervening years, and at almost all of them I have experienced something like this and so have most IT workers I have met over the years. If the technology is in place, (even improving over the years) why is more work not done remotely?
The answer to that question is a very simple one: Culture. Companies are used to employees who show up and figuratively punch a clock for their 9 hour shifts. Managers are used to being able to walk through their cubicle farm to do some active “managing”. Why are they done that way? Because they’ve always been done that way.
This approach extends to several other aspects of business as well. Organizations who have no issues with emailing a purchase order will ignore a sales presentation that is not face-to-face. Companies who will willingly sign a contract sent via fax are distrustful of consultants who are not physically on the premises. This inconsistency ultimately comes from an unfounded lack of trust; just as you can trust a conference call, or a wire transfer of funds, or the data gathered remotely from customers, because of the underlying technology, you can ALSO trust the technology to allow work to be accomplished remotely.
I have experienced the success of remote work first-hand in recent years. At Data Blueprint, I have been able to work from home and turn days that would normally be unproductive (taking leave for a doctor’s appointment, or preparing for a trip) into days where I can add value (working several hours before and after the appointment, or before I leave on that trip). I also have successfully performed data management assessments, provided data strategy guidance, and assisted in building data landscape architecture for multiple clients without having to physically travel to their facilities. By using collaboration tools, file sharing, video conferencing, and basic tools such as email and conference calls, we are still fully capable of interviewing stakeholders, reviewing documentation, and presenting findings even for clients in foreign countries.
COVID-19 makes this understanding critically important. Telework has, in the past, been viewed with distrust and concerns for productivity and effectiveness. Now circumstances are forcing the hand of companies, schools, and organizations – Social Distancing requires remote working whenever possible. The lack of trust MUST be overcome if we are to ride out this crisis successfully. So how can you do that?
1. TRUST THE TECHNOLOGY Of course, no technology is perfect but the tools and applications to support remote work are powerful, plentiful, and productive.
2. TRUST THE RESEARCH Over and over, it has been shown that employees who can telework and take care of things at home or run errands during their work day ultimately put in more hours, are more productive during those hours, and are happier and more loyal
3. FOCUS ON RESULTS It is easy for managers to track hours – did they sit at their desk for an eight hour day? However, what is truly important for any organization is not hours at a desk, but success of projects. Changing the focus from punching a clock to delivering results makes it much less important where they sit.
Ultimately, the pandemic facing us now is forcing us to change the way we work, at least for the short term. Many of these changes will be difficult, painful, and costly. However, a paradigm shift in work practices does not have to be one of those – the stage has been set for years for a different way of doing business. It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves, sit on our couches, and get to work.