I had my first professional experience of remote working in 2007 when I joined a regional business development team while working in financial services. At that time I experienced the freedoms as well as the frustrations of working remotely from the organisation’s head office. I have worked remotely in one form or another ever since. In 2020, when the international health crisis forced organisations to abandon offices and allow staff to work from home for the foreseeable future, I had a lot of sympathy for people who were obliged to gain their first experience of working away from the office against their will.
It takes time to adapt to working remotely and it is different to working in an office. This may seem obvious, especially if you have now experienced a remote working situation. But, I have observed that many people struggle to understand how it is different. Remote working is not simply working from the kitchen table with a laptop and a mobile phone. As Jason Aten explained in 2019, remote working is not the same as working from home.
An obvious difference is the lack of in-person, face-to-face contact for a sustained period. Another, more subtle difference, is the extent to which we are invisible if we are not sharing the same office space as co-workers. These differences lead to difficulties that we all experience when working remotely.
remote working is not the same as working from home, many people struggle to understand how it is different.
What Are The Difficulties?
One of the big difficulties that working remotely exposes is just how poor most office workers are when it comes to communicating with one another. The cracks in communication are often papered over in an office environment because non-verbal clues often make up for poor verbal communication. Office workers have become adept at forming informal alliances with co-workers, which are sufficient to achieve desired outcomes. Take, for example, a recent situation I experienced in which a co-worker insisted on transmitting informal messages when greater formality would have avoided numerous misunderstandings. Messages were often sent in an inappropriate register, containing multiple unexplained abbreviations and colloquialisms that, while not out of place in an SMS, led to confusion among the recipients. In a face-to-face environment I could have demonstrated my confusion through facial expression. This would have prompted the other person to ask what was wrong, opening the door to a request for clarification. In the remote working situation, I was forced to respond verbally (often on a voice call but also in writing) and it became clear that asking for clarifications after receiving every written message was only frustrating the other person and causing damage to a necessary working relationship.
In an office, if we choose to send a message via email to a co-worker who is sat only a few metres from our desk, we can easily walk over to their desk if, after several hours of waiting for a response, we have not received one. However, when working remotely, if a written communication is not responded to we struggle to replicate the act of sidling up to our co-worker’s desk. Since we are entirely reliant on electronic communication (in the form of voice calls or written messages) when working remotely, the act of ignoring an email message from a co-worker, for example, is akin to leaving them standing by our desk while we get on with whatever we are doing as they wait patiently for our attention. Ignoring an email takes on a different significance when working remotely, yet most people I have worked with over the past year struggle to realise this.
Should we decide to politely wait until a co-worker is available to receive our message before sending it, the communication challenge increases because we need some way of knowing that our co-worker is free to take our call or respond to a message in an online chat (to which we may want an instant response). Because we cannot see each other, the option of being polite to each other becomes harder (often to the point that we choose not to bother and simply bombard our co-workers with messages, even at the most inappropriate times).
Another difficulty for remote workers is arranging meetings and since online meetings have become de rigueur for remote workers this is a constant challenge. The use of a personal calendar in a professional context has never been a strength of most office workers in my experience. When we can no longer see our co-workers and we place so much reliance on online meetings for communication, their online calendar becomes a crucial ally. I have wasted several hours over the past year attempting to schedule online meetings involving people whose online calendar told me that they do nothing all day. When combined with another of the difficulties inherent in the remote working experience (lack of response to email), it becomes extremely difficult to know whether all required attendees at an online meeting will turn up. The more assiduous remote worker takes the trouble to contact recipients of a meeting invitation who have not responded before the meeting starts and will often discover that what is true of email is also true of voicemail and other forms of electronic messaging. I have attended several online meetings that have either been cancelled just after starting or have ended without a conclusion because key decision-makers did not attend.
We place so much reliance on online meetings for communication, online calendars becomes a crucial ally.
So, What Can Be Done To Make Remote Working Easier?
First of all, recognise that working remotely with success requires effort and deliberate collaboration. If you are serious about wanting your co-workers to collaborate with you then let them know when you are available. There are several ways to do this, starting with proper curation of your online calendar. Most online collaboration tools (such as Slack or Microsoft Teams) allow you to inform your co-workers of your whereabouts, essentially telling them when you are at your desk and available. If you can tell your co-workers that you are available, you can also let them know when you are unavailable. Planned absence can go into your online calendar and temporary absence can be communicated in a voicemail message, an out-of-office message in your email account or via the collaboration software your organisation uses.
Second, consider carefully how many online meetings you arrange (and how many you attend). It takes little thought to send an invitation to an online meeting to a dozen people, but with a little more thought you may realise that a 3-way phone call will suffice (freeing up the time of 9 people who need a break from online meetings). If you must arrange an online meeting, always send an agenda and communicate the purpose of the meeting and its expected outcome; let co-workers decide whether they need to be at the meeting in order for the outcome to be achieved. Schedule online meetings to end 5 to 10 minutes before the half hour or the hour to allow participants a short break before their next online meeting. Joining with your video switched on allows other participants a semblance of the face-to-face contact they crave and it will help them to read some of the non-verbal messages that they would get were you all in the same physical meeting room. Be merciful and do not plan a meeting that will last longer than an hour without scheduling a break on the hour mark.
Third, remember not everyone in the team may work in the same timezone as you. Squeezing in a meeting at quarter to five in the afternoon may be convenient for a European but less so for co-workers east of Athens. Don’t even think about messaging a co-worker from the Eastern Seaboard when you read an urgent message from your boss at half past eight in the morning (where you are) in the hope that he or she will pick it up when they start to work. Because many of us rely on our mobile devices to stay connected while working remotely and because personal mobile devices are unlikely to be switched off overnight, your American colleague will not thank you for disturbing their sleep.
When you do organise an online meeting expect some participants to be running late. Start the meeting by asking everyone how they are and allow some informal interaction before getting into the agenda. Although most participants are likely to have (or to have had) a day full of online meetings, other participants, who are working remotely, may not have spoken to a co-worker for hours, even days. They will appreciate some informal human contact before the business of the meeting begins. Even the meeting addicts may not have had the opportunity to relax with their co-workers if every other meeting is business-like from start to finish. When the latecomers arrive ask one of the other attendees to summarise what has been achieved so far. This not only gives you the chance to listen for signs that attendees have been following the discourse up to that point but it also breaks up your monologue, encouraging other meeting participants to take an active part in the meeting.
If no other good comes from the international health crisis, let us all become better at working remotely, taking responsibility for our attitude to working at a distance from our co-workers. Then we can be truly productive, demonstrate to the organisations we work for that it is sustainable to improve the work-life balance by eliminating the commute and become kinder by showing we care for the wellbeing of the people we work with.