What a year of remote working taught me

Spoiler alert: It’s not all long weekends and margaritas on the beach.

Photo credit: Rachel Cherry

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of listening to an Ogilvy podcast with Humanyze’s Ben Waber talking about the pro’s and con’s of remote working. As someone who is a bit of a workspace geek and also works remotely the majority of the time myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the podcast. Still, the conversation did raise a few questions and concerns based on my personal and professional experience, and sparked me to share them here.

To give a bit of context, I work in a slightly unconventional strategic design collective where I deliver and manage innovation-focused workspaces. While our HQ is in Hackney in East London I’m often on-site at projects across the city, as well as in Dubai and Tokyo. With a partner in Mexico and family in Denmark, I end up spending very few days at HQ. Or, 14 days over the last year, to be exact.

So here’s what I learned.

Individual productivity can come at the cost of team performance.

Over the year, I’ve become a genuine task ninja. The turn-around on tasks has reduced significantly as the everyday distractions of the office have disappeared. For relatively simple tasks, this is fine. But for the majority, which require some kind of collaborative input, the lack of ability to quickly run something by my colleagues has ultimately led to a much longer turn-around overall. At Project 00 we often work with a straw man principle, which means sharing early stage work for rapid feedback and doing multiple iterations before we settle on a final proposal (basically a type of prototyping). But because I wasn’t able to get these micro-inputs throughout the process, I found myself sharing almost finished pieces of work, which then had to be rebuilt from scratch. Ultimately this led to lower overall productivity across several projects.

It’s not enough to explore new ideas. You need to engage with your team for real impact.

I borrow here from MIT professor Alex Pentland’s terminology of exploring, meaning going out to learn new things, and then engaging with your team to socialise or disseminate this knowledge amongst members. Working remotely has helped me to close down my email and start exploring new ideas more freely. Having the freedom to scroll through Medium and Twitter for interesting articles, or to have exploratory calls with interesting people in the field, without the immediate social pressure of feeling like you have to “look productive” has allowed me to accelerate my learning and absorption of new ideas tremendously. The challenge, of course, is not being able to engage properly with my team and share this new learning with them. While I have played around with several digital platforms and virtual meeting formats, as well as the tried and tested research summaries and slide decks, none of these have been able to compete with the effectiveness of face-to-face workshops.

When the going gets tough, “virtual” just doesn’t cut it.

Working with partners across the globe is generally a real treat which allows me to constantly learn and explore new things. But sometimes partnerships go through rough patches, and when they do, virtual technology simply cannot replace face-to-face contact. In fact, at times it’s only made it worse. Of course this is the case with all types of collaboration, and not just when working remotely, but when you rely on this manner of working every day, it’s important to be aware of the possible pitfalls and design your working style around it.

Most new ideas are still incubated in the office.

Currently the majority of my colleagues, like myself, work remotely most of the time. Hence we use Slack liberally, sending thousands of messages per month, and an abundance of video conferencing tools. Yet all these tools mainly help us to share and react to information, rather than proactively and serendipitously engage in conversations that lead to new ideas and collaborations. While I’ve been extolling the virtues of “the watercooler effect” for the majority of my career, it was not until it was missing from my life that I realised just how big a difference it made. Now I see new team formations, projects, and yes, decisions, pop up on Slack that I increasingly realise have been incubated in the office, most probably because someone was in the kitchen making coffee and asked the infamous question: “So what are you up to?”.

A question of recognition.

On average I interact and work with around 10–15 of my colleagues every day. This includes managing five people at an incubator space across town from our HQ. Most of these interactions go unnoticed by people at HQ, as they are either virtual or simply take place in a different location. Whilst I know that this not out of ill intent, the fact that my peers and Directors often don’t recognise the hard or good times can at times be discouraging, and like most people I’m not naturally comfortable with having to draw special attention to these. As a consequence I’ve been very fascinated by the emerging array of digital recognition tools like YouEarnedIt and Kudos. Though I’m keenly aware of the downsides this type of gamification of work culture can have, I also think that we need to fundamentally rethink how people’s work is being “seen” and recognised at a time where 31% of remote workers work remotely 80–100% of the time.

What Ben Waber had to say about all of this.

In the podcast Waber talks about the importance of informal interactions on organisational performance and highlights how, although people might personally prefer working remotely, this has detrimental effect at a larger level as remote workers don’t contribute to new idea generation and peer support to the same extent as more anchored workers. Waber acknowledges some of the benefits of remote working as the ability to explore new ideas and do focus work, and has a sweet spot for approximately 1 day per week of remote working. Although he doesn’t provide any specific data or examples, he claims that once you push past one day of remote working “it’s not gonna kill ya… but you really start to see detriments”.

So what, then, is the answer?

My past year of working remotely has been an interesting learning experience, and getting my head out of the “daily grind” has allowed me to explore some pretty cool ideas which are slowly forming into a new, exciting venture. But overall I would probably agree with Ben Waber’s assessment that the process could have been somewhat accelerated, had I been able to spend more time in the office. Hence I’m curious to explore what a more optimal working pattern could look like. Unfortunately, due to the nature of my job, it’s probably quite unrealistic that I could work 4 days per week from our HQ. This seems to be the case for an increasing number of people — for instance, according to a recent Gallup study, 24% of employees in the US now work remotely 2 or more days per week . So what, then, can one do to mitigate the disadvantages of remote working? Share your comments below or get in touch for a virtual or real-life coffee at tim@superwork.me

Creating awesome, playful workspaces with the LEGO Group that help people be and do their best at work. @infostructure00 alumni

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