Many people (and particularly technology companies) have written about the ways technology will change the nature of work. In particular, there has been a great deal of discussion about the impact of remote work on problems like traffic congestion, corporate overheads, carbon emissions and so on. But this emphasis on the positive impact technology will have on our working lives fails to take into account one key thing…
Human beings are inherently social creatures. Even the ones who aren’t!!
And it also fails to take account of the fact that context matters when it comes to work.
Communication between co-workers – both work-related and that of a more social nature – is significantly impeded by physical separation. This is particularly the case for people who are less extroverted. I know I personally prefer to see whether someone is actually busy before I interrupt them. Something that is very hard to do when you cannot see that person!
Meetings can be conducted using remote technology – video conferences and the like – but this again works better for short ‘touching base’ type meetings, than it does for project establishment, longer meetings, or meetings with sensitive and/or controversial content and subject matter.
Don’t get me wrong, the advances in technology to support remote working are fantastic and long overdue. But in my opinion, these will not lead to large scale remote working arrangements. What they will do is create options for people.
There are absolutely situations where – with the right support and infrastructure – working from home (or for that matter, from anywhere in the world!) is hugely advantageous.
Especially for work that requires deep thinking and fewer interruptions. Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” goes into the types of work that are ideal – and why the ability to focus intently on one thing is necessary for success.
But the future still has work places that need to create, sustain and support employees to be engaged and deliver their best work for the times they are expected to do so, in a more immediately collaborative environment.
There are also significant downsides to technologies that enable remote work.
The 24/7 ‘always-on’ mindset, to which there is an increasingly large push-back, especially for employees below executive level, who don’t enjoy the same salaries and perks that might create an expectation of being constantly available.
There is an increased risk and likelihood of miscommunication and misunderstandings when remote technologies are relied upon too heavily. We have all fallen fowl at some point to the barbed/pointed email (either inadvertently sending it – or receiving it) that actually wasn’t, but could be interpreted that way due to being hastily drafted and lacking human tone and connection.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not anti-technology – there will always be positive uses to which these new tech solutions can be deployed. But it is my view that the greatest advances in the nature of the workplace – and the consequential improvements to employee satisfaction and well-being (and ultimately profitability) will come from hard and radical changes to the nature of work (focused on those types of work that humans can do better than machines AND the way work is organised.
Democratic, flat, employee-led workplaces are largely still in the experimental stages, but show huge potential to significantly advance what we currently know and think of as “work”.
But this is hard.
Human beings in general, have an overwhelming tendency to laziness. Or if you want to put a positive spin on it – an overwhelming desire to find the quickest and most direct path between two points, even if it results in a lower quality outcome.
This tendency is what ultimately will prevent ‘pure’ remote work emerging as the dominant mode and what makes these new and emerging ways of organising work so difficult to get off the ground.
What are your experiences of remote work? Or managing remotely working employees?
Have you ever worked for (or with) a company that employed a non-hierarchical or democratic structure?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.