What the past months have taught us about remote work

Remote can be really difficult

Some companies, such as Basecamp or GitLab, are really good at working remotely. Their founders might have written extensively on that topic. Such companies prioritised a remote work culture from the very beginning; it’s reflected in their hiring, management, and communication practices. They might even have been founded as a remote company from the very start.

During the pandemic, many businesses tried to shift to remote work on a very short, emergency timescale. They had neither the culture nor the experience of firms such as GitLab and never were, nor intended to be, a remote-first firm. Lots of companies can find it difficult to adapt to a new environment or culture. That’s absolutely normal. It also means that the push to remote work cannot be driven by a sudden profit or pandemic-driven impulse. Instead, it must be a slow, deliberate consideration that takes the whole company’s culture into account.

It’s (mostly) not about the tech

We are used to hearing slogans such as “there’s an app for that” or reading marketing materials by companies such as Slack. They try to convince us that, with the right tech, remote work could be simple and frictionless. Reality is much more complicated.

Technology must not become a solution looking for a problem. When you pick your remote work tools, you must think about what your organisation’s goals, challenges, and culture are, what your working styles are like, and then pick tools that fit it. Organisations that are unsuccessful at remote work might select software tools, naively thinking that they might replace the effort that goes into improving communication or management structures. Never forget: technology is easy, humans are hard.

The text “technology is easy, humans are hard,” spotted on a public mural at the UNLOCK Conference in 2019

Many sectors, tech included, are prolonging their remote programmes

Twitter will allow its all its employees to work remotely, indefinitely. Some companies, including those outside of the tech sector, are likely to be more and more open towards remote work as well. While the pandemic might have caused this shift in the short term, companies might be motivated by lower office costs, relocation expenses, recruitment, and retention benefits in the long run.

At the start of the pandemic, disabled persons who were initially denied work from home arrangements pointed out that, the moment an issue that affected a majority of employees arose, the shift to remote became a no-brainer. Prior to the pandemic, people were often denied remote work requests, even if they were filed for very justified reasons.

So why did companies take so long before allowing their employees to work remotely? One explanation might be that businesses are pretty risk-averse in general. As one old adage in the IT sector goes, nobody was ever fired for buying IBM. The private sector has a reputation for big bets and bold innovation, but that’s often grounded in mythology rather than reality. Most managers and shareholders are risk averse, as we all are. They rarely engage in truly ambitious corporate experiments until a moment such as a pandemic forces an experiment unto them.

It can also be pretty difficult to manage a mixed team consisting of remote and non-remote workers. Those who can meet with their managers over coffee or in the kitchen have a much greater chance at spontaneous, idea-generating meetings and at pay rises and promotions. Not only this, but remote work requires completely different communication styles as well, which can make it difficult for remote and non-remote teams to communicate effectively. There’s a reason why Yahoo! Axed remote work when it started to encounter management difficulties: doing so removed an element of complexity from their corporate equation. Companies such as Apple and Google have long proudly exhibited their office complexes, describing them as spaces that can boost creativity and spontaneous discussions.

Currently, it looks like companies will be open to more flexible working arrangements in the years to come. But don’t expect most of them to shift to a fully-remote system, either.

Here’s a couple of companies strongly embracing a shift to remote work even in a post-covid era. Notably, most of them are tech firms:

Twitter: Some employees will be allowed to work remotely ‘forever’, according to reports published in May 2020. The company is also preparing for others to return to their offices, if they would like to (source)

PSA: The French car manufacturer aims to keep non-production staff in the office for 1–1,5 days every week, with the rest of time spent remotely (source)

Facebook: The social network will recruit more remote employees, especially in areas where it has no offices, while allowing more of its existing staff to switch to fully-remote (source)

Coinbase: The digital currency exchange will be moving towards a remote-first configuration in the months to come (source)

Fujitsu: The hardware giant aims to halve its office space in Japan, giving employees much more choice over where and how they would like to work (source)

Siemens: Employees will be allowed to work remotely 2–3 days a week (source)

Author: Lukasz Krol, Digital Projects Coordinator at College of Europe.

Featured Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash




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