Face It, Remote Working Is Not for All

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Choreograph

For the first time since the Great Depression, Australians are waiting in long queues to sign on for unemployment benefits as around two million lose their jobs.

Meanwhile, around 1.2 million Australian workers—many of them Government employees—will soon work from home, discovering the scalability and utility of a host of online collaboration and messaging solutions.

The shutdown has exposed divides in the workforce, which most had never considered.

If your workplace is, by necessity, somewhere that people need to visit to transact—such as a gym, café or clothing boutique—then you are on the wrong side of the divide.

And if you work in a sector like travel and tourism, the demands of the lockdown and “self-isolation” have made what you do almost instantly redundant.

New reality kicks in

Beyond that, almost every private business which relies on consumer demand will be impacted because there will be fewer consumers with jobs.

So, those businesses will probably shed employees, who then won’t have as much money to spend on helping the wider economy recover.

Meanwhile, bizarre as it seems, supermarkets are working around the clock and are having to institute controls to keep the crowds at bay.

Even sacked workers from airline Qantas are being offered jobs to tide them over by major grocery chain Woolworths.

Like health workers, people stacking supermarket shelves are suddenly essential workers, and are probably more exposed to the chance of getting COVID-19 than many others.

In these strange times, sports shops have experienced a run of crowds as people buy gym equipment before all gyms close down.

Will our pandemic behavior stick?

Just as the length of the pandemic is, from the vantage point of today, impossible to know, so it is difficult to assess the long-term impact on the nature and structure of work.

One thing we know is that unemployment will rise sharply and then take some time to go down. Australia’s unemployment rate, for example, was at 5.1% in February and is tipped to rise to as high as 12% very quickly.

When the dust settles, will any of the patterns which have come to the fore during the crisis remain?

Will it signal another point in the decline of physical retail stores, and all the jobs that go with face-to-face selling, because people will stick with buying online?

Will the work from home revolution be permanent because people will become so effective and satisfied working from home that they no longer feel the need to go into an office?

In pondering this one, the answer is as much psychological and cultural as it is technical or economic.

Can an effective team culture which is a major asset to an organization survive intact if the percentage of people working remotely increases?

Can people continue to be as effective, and as disciplined and focused on their work if they continue to work remotely after the crisis is over?

Dave Cook, a Ph.D. researcher in anthropology at University College London did some research on this and says that if people don't approach remote working in the right way “they risk making their work lives worse.”

It comes down to discipline

Cook spent the last four years following 50 “digital nomads” who moved from country to country working online in jobs such as computer coding, graphic design, journalism and online marketing.

He observed an initial honeymoon period followed by disillusion for around 25% of the group who found the experience too isolating and demotivating.

Co-working spaces helped alleviate this because it created a sense of community, even if everybody was working on their own projects.

Cook acknowledges pros and cons in the remote working equation, and also that people are different and will respond differently.

In favor, he says, is the cutting of commutes, the increase in quality time with family and advantages in work life balance. For employers, there are cost advantages in terms of premises.

But the big downside is the lack of social interaction and community, which can be a significant contributor to productivity.

Discipline, and largely digital discipline, he says, is the secret ingredient in succeeding in remote working.

The employer can set this, through deadlines or meeting times, but the bulk of this is self-discipline.

Arguments with your alter self

One colossal problem of digital indiscipline is that it exacerbates the issue of being on tap 24/7.

Why do you have to complete that work task right now, when what you are really doing is catching up on friends’ social media posts?

Combining a lack of discipline with the 24/7 work cycle can undermine motivation and productivity and ultimately destroy the whole idea of work-life balance because the lines between the two become so blurred as to be non-existent.

How this resolves itself post pandemic holds the key to the future of how many of us work, and there are no immediate answers.

Workers who are loving working at home right now might just be in the honeymoon period, and by the time this is all over they may be desperate to get back to the office and welcome the commute they previously hated. Others will have made a more permanent adjustment.

So, the challenge for organizations is to accommodate both responses in the post pandemic workplace.

As for the 50 “digital nomads” in Cooks’ research, some of them gave up the lifestyle after a few months. And remember, they weren’t working in the time of a pandemic shut down.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Choreograph