Friday 30 April 2021

Remote Work - The End of the Beginning?

As we head into May in the United Kingdom, COVID-19 cases and deaths have settled at around 2-2.5k and 10-40 respectively, so the planned relaxing of lockdown looks set to continue. Vaccine data from around the world makes us cautiously optimistic that the impact of catching the virus is significantly reduced, so it could be that once we re-open then we stay open. While this is very positive news, it does apply pressure to those of us who have been regularly writing about remote work, as the clock is ticking down on the "all remote all the time" approach, and interest in hearing about it will start to wane.

I've read a number of research items suggesting that people feel less productive when they work from home, in part because when they hit a problem they can't just look up and ask someone a question. Instead they either have to self-serve via Google or track someone down in chat and type out their question. While I can see the impact, it isn't the whole story. As the person who was usually on the receiving end of said questions, and answering a large amount every day, I'm often a lot more productive as I can more easily get my head down and concentrate on some deep work. I can also choose to ignore my email/chat/phone much more easily than I can ignore someone who comes and stands next to me and starts talking! Obviously helping people is a huge part of my job, so I don't expect to go off the grid for days (or even hours) at a time, but even breaking off to tell someone I'm busy and can I come back to them later disturbs my train of thought. I'd really like to see the numbers from both sides to determine the real impact!

The "Work from Anywhere" narrative is being dialled back to a hybrid approach of "Work from Anywhere  Half the Time and the Office the Other Half", which kind of ruins the anywhere aspect. If you have to go into the office 2-3 days a week, you'll need to keep living near to that office unless you really fancy commuting from the beach for several hours a day. To be fair, some companies are sticking to the fully remote option, but typically caveating with "where your role allows it", and what's the betting a lot of roles turn out not to allow it after all.

From a pure getting things done perspective, I've feel like I've always embraced working from anywhere. Prior to the pandemic I used to do a fair bit of travelling, including a few trips every year to the US. This would typically involve several hours on buses/trains/tubes, arriving at an airport three or four hours early and then sitting for ten hours on a plane. With a little planning I could churn out work wherever I found myself, writing designs or documentation when I was offline and Apex and Lightning Components when I had connectivity. 

From a leadership, collaboration, and support perspective it's less than ideal - Zoom calls and messaging tools can cover a lot of this, but sometimes there really is no substitute for a face to face meeting where you can scribble on a whiteboard. But you don't need that all day every day either, which is why I think the classic remote work approach is likely to be rolled out more going forward - employees are based at home and don't have a desk in an office, but they spend a day or two a month meeting with their colleagues in person. 

One thing is for sure, remote work isn't settled as we tentatively venture back into different houses, pubs,  and offices. In November 1942 Churchill gave a speech at the Lord Mayor's Luncheon at Mansion House where he said  :

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning

and that is where I feel we are with remote work. The beginning was the momentous turn of events that saw us pivot to "as remote as possible" with very little planning, and stick with it for over a year.  We are now coming to the end of the beginning, as offices will soon be able to reopen. When that happens we enter the middle as we try out lots of changes and tweak things as we go. The end is still some way off, which is when we all agree that we have nailed it and remote work is as efficient as it can be. And that will be the normal until the next momentous event that derails everything!

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