For the last five years, I have worked primarily from home. I also worked from home in the 1990s, attitudes and technology have changed a lot in those 25 years. Now, in response to COVID-19, working from home will be different again in the future. This article explores these past, present and future eras of remote work.
In the 1990s, I was managing a team of software developers for a company called Data Sciences in Farnborough, UK. We developed commercial applications and defence systems for the British government that had operations nearby. I moved to the town for the job and had a pleasant 15-minute walk to work.
Then Data Sciences was acquired by IBM, and I was moved to a government project in East London, a 1.5-hour train and tube journey each way. As a concession for the disruption, I was allowed to work two days a week from home.
Everyone was given a fancy new IBM laptop costing about $2,500 back then that was worth about $5,000 in today’s money. I remember the trouble my friend got into for accidentally leaving her’s on the train the second day she had it – never to be found. While an accident, I did not blame her for trying to ditch it, they weighed a ton and were very bulky.
Using dial-up modems and FTP file transfers, we could access and contribute back to centrally stored documents, code and designs. Yet it was offline work. You downloaded something, worked on it locally, then uploaded it again later. File locks and flags told you if someone else had a file locked for editing. Technically it all worked, and being IBM, we had access to all the support and equipment we needed.
Within the teams, there was trust and support. We were using agile approaches back then that would become part of DSDM in the future. It soon became obvious if someone was slacking off when they were working from home. Tasks did not get completed, progress slipped and features got missed from demos. The team worked well, collaborating via email and phone whenever necessary on their remote workdays.
Working with the client was a different matter. Physical presence was a proxy for working. When people were not in the office, there was a strong suspicion that they were not working on the project. We made a point at demo’s to talk about what was developed or fixed while remote. However, I got the feeling the client did not buy it. Lacking an online presence, not present seemed like not working.
For the last last 5 years, I have been working primarily from home. I occasionally consult with organizations onsite or conduct an in-person training course. However, 90% of my work is writing articles and blog posts for companies, along with producing training materials and books. I work from home and interact with people online.
These days it is easy to remain active and visible online. Most collaborative platforms show who is online, their status and sometimes what they have been working on. There are so many options to contact people now and some may be superior to in-person interaction.
I remember the first time people started messaging me when I was still working in a collocated team. My first reaction was “Hey, I sit 5 feet away from you, would it not be easier to just come and talk to me?” Then they explained they did not want to interrupt me; an instant message window can be ignored while we finish a thought, someone walking up to your desk is more intrusive.
Now I use chat for quick questions even in face-to-face settings if people are used to it. It allows for instant communication if convenient but does not interrupt their flow if they are mid-idea or task. Video calls, screen sharing and VOIP headsets all help with real-time collaboration too.
Until recently, remote work was universally accepted but not universally approved. For instance, I tend to add more detail when documenting my remote work for invoices than my onsite work where I might make more of a blanket statement to describe those hours. Out-of-sight can mean out-of-mind, and so we tend to try harder to clarify where the time and effort went.
A worrying trend right now as more people work from home is the panic buying of remote worker monitoring software. A recent article from Bloomberg reported that surveillance software is flying off the virtual shelves. Vendors often promote the capabilities of protecting work from home staff from making mistakes such as not protecting confidential information or using computers without the latest security updates.
However, more sinister use and lack-of-trust focussed monitoring is a self-defeating downward spiral. If an organization cannot trust their staff to work when at home, why did they hire them? Also, what makes them think they were working when in the office? People in seats mashing keys on company-approved apps is a poor measure of value contribution.
Organizations who waste effort monitoring worker behavior will have a hard time competing with leaner organizations who hire motivated workers, trust them to work, and dedicate all their energy towards building valuable products and services for their customers.
As always, the future will be different from the past. When the COVID-19 pandemic is eliminated, reduced or managed enough for it not to be the dominant conversation, things will not go back to how they used to be. There will be a new normal.
Some things will be worse. My parents and grandparent lived through World War II that brought scarcity and food rationing to the UK. As a result, they did not waste food for the rest of their lives and would cut the moldy portions off fruit and vegetables and use the rest. These practices are not common in North America that did not experience such shortages. Experience changes our behavior.
Many people will be slow to return to hugging, kissing friends and mixing in large social gatherings for quite some time. The cruise ship business that was hard hit and highly publicized will probably take longer to recover than other industries.
However, they will be many upsides and advantages too. The benefits of working from home will not go unnoticed. The productivity, cost-saving and environmental impacts of cutting out unnecessary commuting and a portion of office space will pay-forward.
Technology companies spend billions of dollars to get people to try their online products and usually only reach innovators and early-adopters. By forcing work-from-home and shelter-in-place measures technology adoption rates have likely been accelerated by 5-10 years.
Research by Neilsen point to a significant increase in online shopping, home delivery, business to consumer services that will continue due to convenience and savings due to cutting out the middle man. Remote learning and studying from home will transform schools and universities.
As a mainly remote worker, I look forward to the new normal. My work habits and challenges should be better understood. I have some aspirational hopes such as the sense of community we have seen through helping others in need persists. I also hope the internet bandwidth to my small town will finally be improved.
The future will not be the same, but I trust we will be connected more socially and technically. Attitudes will change, let’s hope its more trusting and conservation focussed. Learning and business will change; so here’s to more connection and value delivery.
1. Bloomberg: Bosses Panic Buy Spy Software to Keep Tabs on Remote Workers.