Future remote working will require a deep rethink of fundamental practice

An objective assessment might classify us as remote-working toddlers.

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There was no choice at first: Pandemic work-from-home is mandated at short notice and without detailed planning.

We grappled with the challenge, ultimately providing evidence that even highly-distributed software development teams could operate from the context of individual homesteads.

The remote working horse has bolted and emerged from the office stable with great gusto.

However, just because this was possible in an emergency response scenario does not mean that a full-time, highly-distributed workforce is desirable as a permanent arrangement.

Individual and company welfare might not thrive in the medium-to-long term if they stumble forward in emergency-response mode.

A great deal of design is yet to be crafted to achieve a future with sustainable remote working.

It is clear that many individuals benefit from reduced commute times, increased family time, and more flexible working hours.

For others, there are significant downsides where no home office provision is possible and where a sense of social isolation pervades.

For firms and their employees, long-term, long-distance relationships may not cut it.

The main peloton of future work may, therefore, be comprised of various hybrid working constructs.

Rather than merely coping as we do today, to be effective and sustainable, post-pandemic remote working will require a deep rethink of fundamental practice.

A particular danger exists in trying to forge some general remote working formula for all employment contexts. No two contexts are identical; the variety would soon overwhelm us if examined in detail.

So, to zoom out from the problem, it might be helpful to evolve some General Principles that can be applied in each local setting:

Be remote but local 

There are undeniable issues with full-time remoteness in a species such as ours.

People get lonely, communication skills honed for in-person dialogue are inhibited, and delayed responses can frustrate economic and productive objectives.

Besides, what kind of team never meets up? Somehow, therefore, hybrid working needs to facilitate regular in-person meet-ups.

Promote enriched knowledge-sharing

Take people out of a typical office workplace and we remove impromptu conversations over coffee, chats in the corridors, and immediate responses to essential requests.

How do we replace these missed opportunities? We must raise the volume and quality of knowledge sharing if people are primarily or partly distributed.

Perhaps periodic presentations of solutions from each individual are warranted.

Enable increased visibility of individual productivity

People will act in all the ways we know them to be capable: some will overwork, some will underwork, some will be flexible, and others intransigent.

But how exactly do we get that sense of commitment inferred from constant casual observation when co-located?

A solution can be as simple as greater individual detail on problems and solutions within existing meetings.

Attend to ergonomic and technology considerations

Ergonomics and technology affect productivity. An uncomfortable seat does not take long to convert to a spinal complaint. Those in the developer community know well the importance of this and other related provisions such as good quality monitors.

Just because a worker is no longer in the central office does not mean these considerations are no longer valid.

Design a sustainable remote working context

It is all too easy for the overly conscientious remote worker to drift into constant working. It is also known that some workers get stressed by certain online interactions.

Having one’s camera ‘ON’ in meetings delivers some noticeable engagement improvements, but not for the worker concerned about being recorded.

Other issues also arise in areas such as online meeting fatigue and asynchronous chat hyper-distraction.

It is difficult to predict if an initiative will prove sustainable, regular feedback and evaluation might be critical.

Build a culture of respect

New opportunities for disrespect are present in remote working contexts. Obvious examples are the employee slacking off at home in ways that were simply impossible in the central office, being late for — or absent from — scheduled online meetings, and the employer invasively and unnecessarily monitoring engagement. It can be a tough nut to crack, but everyone has a role in nurturing a positive culture of respect.

It is tempting to think that we are adept at remote working based on the experience of the past few years, but a more objective assessment might classify us as remote-working toddlers.

It will take some time, but with baby steps guided by well-founded principles, we can at least hope to progress from the toddler stage and move with some alacrity into fully-fledged and sustainable hybrid working.

Paul Clarke is a member of Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software and an Associate Professor at Dublin City University’s School of Computing.


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