What It's Like to Work Remotely

Flexible, Hybrid Work Emerges - No Return to 9 to 5

Companies from Twitter to Facebook to Github have gone remote and plan to stay that way. According to a recent survey, around 45% of organizations in the United States now offer remote work. I am not sure how many firms are thinking about keeping at least some of their workforce remote, but I am sure it is most. Employees, too, enjoy working remotely. Over 51% said no amount of money would get them to go back to the office. Most assume that they will be regularly working remotely and are in the process of ironing out the kinks and issues that have arisen from working remotely.

Obviously, some are uncertain about their future and whether or not they will be able to thrive, have a career, and stay emotionally connected by working remotely. Others love the flexibility and freedom from the hierarchy. Still, others struggle with childcare and the confusion of having to work with large families, small children, and limited space.

Mary’s Story

Here is a portrait of how Mary and her family have adapted to this new way of working.

Mary is a software development engineer and manager who works for a large tech company in Silicon Valley. Before the pandemic, she drove to the office from her home 14 miles away. This generally took her about 45 minutes because of heavy traffic and congestion. To avoid some of that, she would often leave home around 6:30 am, getting in her office around 7:00 am. She normally left work between 5 and 6 pm to get home for dinner and time with her children before their bedtime.

In a recent chat with Mary, she shared how her life has changed. She now wakes up at 7:00 am unless she has a video conference or a phone call earlier. She has a leisurely breakfast with her spouse and 2 children before they start their virtual school day.

Unless it is her turn to help the children with school, she retires to her small office carved out of part of the master bedroom. She logs in to Microsoft Teams for a morning coordination meeting with her team of four. She and the team have agreed to meet each day for 30 minutes, but also have agreed to be flexible and if someone needs to miss a meeting he or she can catch up later by checking in with Slack. They set the time to meet each day accommodating team members’ families and schedules.

Her husband, Colin, a marketing expert, is also working from home and has set up his office in the dining area. They both take turns helping their children who are studying from home. Working remotely has required some adjustments in lifestyle, for sure, but they have gained time by not commuting and have enjoyed a more in-depth family life. Colin has taken on the role of mentoring the children as his work is more flexible than Mary’s.

Sometimes one of them is working later at night to complete their work, but over the past six months, they have refined their work meeting times and agendas and are far more focused than they were prior to the pandemic. For both of them, performance is assessed now by accomplishing goals and communicating well, rather than by the time they spend.

Mary’s team is getting more done faster - in fact, they have already completed most of the KPIs they had targeted for December. Each of her team easily collaborates with teammates or other colleagues via Teams and Slack. Although Mary is their formal leader, she finds herself doing a lot less leading and more coaching and coordinating.

They have more time with their family and are getting more sleep than before. And nobody misses the commute. While they do miss getting together with colleagues, they realize that even after the pandemic there will be little need for daily contact. They would like to go to the office maybe once or twice a week for a few hours to see each other, share a meal, and collaborate on work when needed. The 9 - 5 day seems archaic - they set their own times for work - scheduled around family activities - except for agreed on check-in times and meetings.

Infrastructure Upgrades

Mary and her husband’s technology stack is very basic: laptops, large monitor, headset, high-speed Internet connection, mobile phone, Teams, Slack, and sometimes Zoom. There have been occasional Internet hiccups and other glitches, but nothing significant. Both if their organizations have upgraded the IT infrastructure adding more security and higher bandwidth.

Most organizations have made adjustments to their internet and intranet access, They have given more people access to the VPN and increased bandwidth. It is increasingly easy to access people and information remotely from anywhere. To underline this, Apple, Samsung, and other phone providers have introduced 5G phones which will bring Internet speeds to the mobile world. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already placed almsot 900 satellites into space to create a high-speed internet service that should be available soon bringing the internet to almost all parts of the globe..

Employers have had to help their remote workers upgrade their infrastructure by purchasing monitors, computers, specialized microphones or headsets, and maybe even a green screen backdrops for video calls. They may also have had to upgrade Internet service levels or purchase new routers. Some workers may be using their mobile phones for video conferences which have led to upgrades as well. But these costs are much less for the organization than are office space and all the associated amenities.

Dealing With Lifestyle Adjustments

Most workers with families and working spouses are very used to the morning routine of getting ourselves and our children ready for school, making lunches, heading out for the commute, and so on. We now have to create a new set of routines and develop new habits. And of course, there are challenges and issues partly because of the Coronavirus and partly because of having to often work in cramped spaces. Once the pandemic is controlled, shared workspaces, coffee shops, and many other places will offer an alternate place to work, think, or create. When schools reopen, there will be less need to mentor children, as well.

Careers and Promotion

Amazingly these issues may become less important as employees find satisfaction by working remotely with less pressure to play politics and please the higher-ups. Promotions will happen based on performance, communication skills, and teamwork. Online learning, virtual apprenticeships, and other ways of learning will replace the formal training and classes that many employees already dislike.

As we become more used to working remotely, it will be hard to even imagine the time when we commuted to huge office buildings, sat in cubicles, and spent unproductive hours in meetings.

Those Who Cannot Work Remotely

About 32% of workers cannot work remotely because they are needed to physically perform a task. These include manufacturing workers, restaurant employees, drivers, cleaners, actors, singers, musicians, farmers, and retail associates. Once the pandemic is controlled, these jobs will be safe again. For now, many organizations have reduced staff levels, installed shields and partitions to protect workers, and have distributed protective equipment. Some have begun to look for ways that the work can be done remotely or with fewer people. Retail is installing more self-checkouts. Hotels are installing self-check-in and out. Self-driving cars and buses are becoming a reality. Robotic assembly of components and packing of boxes is already underway. As more work is automated or augmented with technology, there will be fewer people working in unsafe or dangerous environments. This will require upskilling and retraining millions of people, but it is a challenge that will enrich workers and provide a better and safer lifestyle.

We will always need people to work directly with other people in some capacity. I believe that over time people will be able to make a choice about whether to work remotely or in-person. The pandemic will eventually be controlled and it will be safe to be around others opening up more opportunities. The most likely scenario is that a hybrid lifestyle will emerge as the new normal with each of us at times working remotely and at other times working physically close with others


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Related Links

Tech Companies Rethinking Workspace

Google’s Hybrid Work Model

Millions Cannot Work Remotely

State of Remote Work Survey