Remote work has existed ever since the first caveman was sent out of his cave to hunt over the next hill. And work at home or hybrid home-and-office knowledge workers have been around for a long time too, particularly in certain roles such as sales and customer service.
Now that so many companies are contemplating making their remote work situation permanent, much can be learned from organizations that have traditionally supported remote work. But it is just as important to realize that the remote work coming after COVID-19 is different. It is those differences that I am going to explore in today’s post.
Who Are Those B.C. Era Remote Workers?
Plowing ahead with remote work plans based on a B.C. (Before COVID-19) mindset risks misalignment of remote workers with the work and missing new opportunities afforded by new technology. No chart demonstrates the “newness” of the old remote work topic better than the search analytics from the Gartner.com website. Here are weekly searches on “remote work” and related terms for the past year:
If remote work existed B.C, then why was practically no one searching on it before COVID-19 hit? Because it had settled into a comfortable pattern.
It seems that B.C., there wasn’t much need for the methodologies, best practices, or strategic thinking that clients call us for. The red area on that chart can be thought of as those companies newly interested in remote work.
Remote Work in the B.C. Era
Organizations before COVID-19 (B.C.) adapted their business practices, management techniques, and technology for remote work. I’m not saying it was easy, well-planned, or intentional, but they got through it. Some did this with months or years of proper planning. Others got there by a random walk over months and years, but they eventually made it work. The common factor is the “months or years” they had to implement it.
B.C.-era remote work was often treated as a perk. When work that would normally be done in an office was offered as remote that was considered a competitive advantage to get better employees, or was sometimes compensated at a lower rate. One time when I was a programmer (this was about 25 B.C. – truly a caveman era) I was asked to do a last minute update to a system. I agreed if they would let me work from home for 2 days. Not only did I need the focus, but it was a reward for accepting this crazy project. I got it and the project was done on time.
While the B.C. era had the benefit of time and planning, the companies supporting remote work had some disadvantages as well.
First, they formed their remote work practices before current cloud technologies existed such as content collaboration tools, video conferencing, and collaborative work management. These workers are still stuck in the B.C. era if management hasn’t modernized their practices as new technology enabled new ways of working.
Second, remote work had a stigma. The culture around remote work – particularly for knowledge workers – was tainted by the “fuzzy slippers” image. If you had to ask to work remotely that may have hinted you are distracted by life outside work.
Third, remote workers were often treated as the exception rather than the rule. This made them second class citizens. When the majority of the company was in the office, remote workers were more socially distant and less connected. The folks dialed into a meeting room had trouble breaking into the conversation, couldn’t adapt their language to the vibe in the room, and weren’t part of the casual banter after it was over. But if you weren’t very promotion-minded it was a good trade-off.
Remote Work in the A.C. Era
Organizations interested in remote work after COVID-19 (A.C.) – those appearing as mountains rising from a desert in the charts on this graphic – are not at the same level of maturity as the B.C. buyers. They have different financial pressures, such as reducing the time workers spend in the office in order to space out office workers according to distancing requirements and, possibly, to reduce the square footage of office space. They have different business pressures since their balance sheets have been distorted by having their revenues squeezed or bolstered depending on their industry. They have different time pressures, being unceremoniously booted from offices with little planning. They have new regulatory guidance or requirements that didn’t exist B.C.
And at this point – 4 months into the pandemic as I write this – I sense the attitude towards remote work has changed. Many organizations report being surprised at how well they can function with workers at home. Articles from the workers’ point of view started out being positive, but I’ve sensed the sentiment shifting to the negative lately. I think the zeitgeist pendulum will stop in the moderately positive territory.
A silver lining for those planning in the A.C. era is that they have the opportunity to shape their business practices, management, and technology given the affordances of modern SaaS technologies and a globalized workforce. There has been a rush of new features added to technologies across the digital workplace spectrum, from cloud office suites to meeting solutions. Free trials have made them easy to try out.
So welcome to the A.C. era. None of us planned on being here, but those that thrive here may find a better business model awaits those who plan out their path forward on this journey into the unknown.