#remoteness

There’s a feature doing the rounds now — built on research as best we can have it in our emerging experiments with remote-based knowledge working — that posits some really interesting factors about remote working.

I did think “do we need another post on this?” but some work this week (kicking a Hybrid solution into the long grass for a bit — I did warn them of this being unwise) and continued polarisation of this issue does get under my skin a bit.

So I didn’t know if this piece would be balanced, useful or otherwise. Turns out it’s a decent piece. Here it is (from The Atlantic)

TL:DR version is:

  1. Remote is just fine for established, trusted teams who have experience of work pre-pandemic.
  2. Remote is not so good for new colleagues, those new to the world of work and for innovation.
  3. We are developing strong ties networks, both locally to us (professional, geographically) AND digitally and far away from us (fixed or fluid pan-global team constructs, specific challenges requiring imaginative solutions and collective wisdom etc).
  4. Middle managers (created to help with new speed and opportunity out of industrial-era efficiencies) would morph into Hybrid Work Synchronizers.

It’s a pretty balanced piece and the author’s closing line is good for someone like me — a remote work proponent, advocate and someone with over 20 years of nomadic, thereby remote experience — “Solving remote work’s problems is a job worth doing.”

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-woman-talking-while-on-a-video-call-5234858/

At People and Transformational HR Ltd. we are now 3 years into our expanded state, having had 5 years of “lone wolf” me, and 2 more growing into the state we’re in gradually. We have always been convinced an office was a fallacy for us. No need. We were either with clients on their premises, in co-working spaces or events venues, or from home. We’re still dominantly from home. So bias declared, remote working is for us and most importantly it IS us.

Our 3 years of remote-first have been during several changing phases:

  • The intense business rescue (COVID response)
  • Stabilising thereafter
  • Growth in work volume, nature and team size and the necessary adaptation,
  • New products, services and operating model (and a further increase in team size)
  • To pursue a more clarified and aspirational strategy/agenda and
  • Validate ourselves on accreditations that mattered to us (Living Wage, 4-Day Working Week, Certified BCorporation, Climate Positive).

Arguably, the most significant things to ever happen to this (admittedly micro) enterprise have been all developed and delivered remotely.

  • We have seen a culture form that is the most sincere, powerful and soulful I’ve ever experienced in 30+ years in the world of work.
  • We have developed individually and collectively around core practice areas and our take on the complex problems of the business/working world.
  • We have experienced a small number people come in but leave because the way things were, weren’t for them or us. It didn’t have anything to do with remote working, it was down to self-management (our one rule) not being for them.

All of what we do has been done with the tiniest amounts of in-person connection.

We’ve turned weak ties into strong bonds. So to eschew the “new to each other and new work” we’ve onboarded people fresh from little or no working experience. 1 of whom is planning to pivot their career options to spend more time with us. 1 who has just gone on to a bigger, more meaningful role elsewhere in their chosen career path after learning and working with us for a year.

We’ve also met new people (online only) and brought them to us. 3 of whom I’m still yet to meet in person.

Whilst I’m the common denominator to most of the team, here’s a quick rundown on the state of some of our relationships.

  1. A former events management supplier in my corporate days, who I did some mentoring with during 2010. J then set up offices in Australia and the US. She returned to the UK in 2020. We weren’t constantly messaging best friends for those 10 years. Now, we’re absolutely strongly bonded and looking out for each other. All remotely with three in-person contacts in over two years.
  2. A former leadership and L&D marketer and consultant who met me fleetingly in 2012. Irregular contact through the following 7 years. K then married, became a mum. moved and moved back home again and now; a trusted leader within the enterprise and strong collaborative worker with me, my go-to. K and I have developed into an unbreakable partnership and understanding of each other. We plan to co-author, co-create and shift some big paradigms together. All built remotely with only two in-person meetups prior to COVID-19, one since and one to come soon.
  3. A former HR and Internal Comms professional I met once, in 2013, for about an hour, pregnant at the time with her first child. Who took time out to raise her family and run a child-minding business and who reconnected with me late in 2020. K and I are now operational process buddies and inseparable when it comes to efficiencies and building a caring, effective and optimised business. We’ve met twice in the 18 months we’ve worked together.
  4. A former client connection from 2014–15, who took herself away from work to start a family. Someone who, from the moment we worked together in the client setting, I knew had special qualities. But I accepted it’d be tough to make into a working collaboration within this enterprise. Until fate dealt us a possibility. And now, thriving more than ever in her career and with only one in-person meet-up together since mid-2020, C is brimming with enthusiasm about balancing motherhood and advancing her entrepreneurialism, and again, we weren’t constant messaging BFFs. Yet now, we’re intertwined with new venture possibilities.
  5. The niece of a client who had the availability to come into the team at the end of 2021. J is now off to a new role on a brilliant opportunity on a Grad Scheme. We met over a 3-day period this summer and didn’t know each other before working together. I’ll be watching this career fly into the future for J and whilst we’ve not spent more than a few hours since getting to know each other, will have a lasting connection.
  6. An overseas connection who had 12 months with me in 2013–14, took herself on her continued adventures and since 2020, has worked with me until motherhood called at the end of 2021. C and I have the most in-person time with each other in the past but will continue into the future remotely from different countries to build this business into its true future destiny. We haven’t been in the same physical space with each other since a few hours pre-pandemic 2020.

You get the picture I hope. What appears to be some “loose ties” in relationships, have become the strongest things ever. We weren’t best buddies who decided to form an enterprise.

We came together and made remote working, work.

We forged in the digital connections of our own homes and our belief in what we are doing and how we can do it. Together. Remotely.

So to the Atlantic piece. Our experiences of the main points are:

  1. We weren’t strongly established as a together team. I’d not worked with some of the team at all, and those I had, it was a while ago or in a different context. We’ve done all our establishment during the pandemic and all remotely. Yes, the majority of the team had experiences of work, but not with each other and not in this professional arena per se (HR, OD, Learning, Change).
  2. New colleagues have come into the fold, bonded and bound themselves to the mission, purpose, process, relationships and ethos. Some of us, without experience in the world of work. And adapted just fine. One has built on their experience with us, to enhance her career prospects elsewhere.
  3. We continue to develop ourselves and our connection to each other/the enterprise, and in many ways, advocate our ways as those that clients, partners, suppliers, and associates can adapt and adopt.
  4. We were always a flat organisation and have crafted the synchroniser role as a dispersed, all-in game without the need for a specific role. We openly craft our ways and build them in a togetherness fashion.

So not to deny the Atlantic article in its findings, but to show they’re not insurmountable challenges and they’re not excuses to try and snap back to proximity-based working just because early evidence says it's tough, not quite as good etc.

Overwhelmingly though is the myth that innovation only happens when in person. It simply doesn’t. Magic can be made remotely. It’s not the second-rate thing some people believe it to be. In fact, I’d go as far as to say this is the most innovation-led team I’ve ever worked with, and we do it all remotely. It is just approached and implemented in different ways to be.

Arguably it’s more inclusive too as our team is 75% working Mums, who would find it hard to travel the country, meet for strategy or innovation days and leave their children with others for too long. We overcome this because we have to but we don’t settle for anything less than standout creativity of thought, fairness in our outcome and inclusive input.

So back to the closing line of the Atlantic piece:

“Solving remote work’s problems is a job worth doing.”

We believe in that. We see the efficiencies, convenience, adaptability and strength in our remote-first way of operating.

We hear the challenges around culture, togetherness, innovation, relationship building, understanding, communication, management of process etc. But we come to the conclusion that these are things to overcome; as we have worked on all of those elements. Explicitly, deliberately and creatively.

There’s this thing called The Ikea Effect. By esteemed figures like Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely found here: https://www.hbs.edu/ris/Publication%20Files/11-091.pdf

The full title of the piece is The “IKEA Effect”: When Labor Leads to Love.

  • We’ve built this thing we call PTHR and its operating system and model. And maybe that’s how we’ve come to love “it”.
  • We’ve committed ourselves to the future of “it” and our respective spin-out ventures and products, services and impact. Maybe because we love “it”.
  • We’ve done so in the full knowledge that we’d be ultra-flexible in time on the clock and patterns of work and that it would always be remote-first. Which has helped us show love for “it”.
  • We’ve weathered some tricky things and challenges that would see some enterprises capitulate, distort or even collapse.

I — perhaps rather provocatively — wonder whether those whose business ventures aren’t making remote work are down to factors like:

  1. It’s not being built by their own people. There’s no IKEA effect.
  2. They just don’t love the place (or work) enough anyway, and their roles aren’t designed or have enough impact so people are transacting through their work. This could be a real test of their alignment with the company’s mission/purpose, culture, values, team spirit and impact on the world.
  3. They aren’t paying attention to new colleagues enough and expecting them to sequence their way into building relationships and perpetuating the thought remote will always be second-rate for them with insufficient in-person time. It can work, but it needs to be thought about and enacted differently.
  4. They aren’t being innovative about innovation/creativity. Indeed the article talks to geo-dispersed teams proving you can do remote innovation without detriment to product or service innovation and impact.
  5. There are people in charge projecting their “this is my preference therefore it should be yours” about in-office working and perhaps are a little — or a lot — fearful about their own inability to adapt to a new way of being and doing work. And I won’t even mention their ego at having people around them as a manifestation of their power, ascendency and rank.

Yes, people in their parental home or first housing situation (shared or smaller accommodation) are not favouring working from home because it’s unsuitable and distracting. But the third-space option comes in here too. Co-working, satellite offices and other locations for work that could easily splice into the remote equation are being grossly overlooked in my view.

Yes, people are needing balance and perhaps working remotely is equated to being always-on, late shifts and back-to-back Zoom/MS Teams calls invokes a stale, repetitive and draining experience. Some of this is down to bad planning and application. It can be overcome. Whilst I personally experience some back-to-back days, I don’t travel as I did wasting time, and money and polluting the planet any more than I have to.

Yes, some organisations are saying “we will be back in the office” as they’re a part-knowledge, part-engineering/production etc outfit. Firefighters, retail workers, healthcare, manufacturing and warehousing workers need to be in the place of work and there is a solidarity declaration that being in the office means it’s in the spirit of togetherness. And yet, having moved from “field to centre” myself, I’ve seen first-hand the “you in HQ wouldn't understand…” sense. So even this (perhaps in smaller companies not so much as people can be closer to each other) is a bit of a fallacy. Do the road maintenance team care whether their payroll, procurement or legal teams work from home, in a coffee shop or in an office? No is my sense, as long as they do their bit.

Whether HQ/Corporate teams are in an ivory tower within a building others might collect tools or vehicles from; or are in their spare bedroom, I’m not sure that’s as much of an issue as people think it is.

When you take on knowledge work as a career, it’s most often using a PC/device and could be office based.

If you’re in a tarmac gang, a lorry driver or a nurse, you’re not.

Indoors/outdoors. Fixed place/travelling. Remote/Place.

Some jobs determine the degree of working flexibility on the location of work. Others have zero flexibility. It might seem like an enormous privilege to choose but overall, the nature of your work dictates the degree of flex you can offer/apply.

So I can only conclude that much of the polarisation of remote/office in knowledge work is down to lacking the will to enact the article’s closing comment.

This unwillingness doesn’t always get to be declared though does it? The myriad of reasons that come forth may have evidence to support whatever your strategy is. I would ask those making decisions about remote working “How much of this is your projection?” thereby potentially ignoring what is better for other people.

And for those who like the separation of home/remote and office so want to come back, great. But be prepared that others will be remote-first so you’ll be on your screen with them as you would from anywhere else.

Whether there is an explicit middle manager that morphs into being a synchronizer for remote work/ers/ing or whether HR and Organisation Design creates an efficient system for remote working and therefore we ALL become synchronizers, we’ll see.

“Solving remote work’s problems is a job worth doing.”

We think so.

#TeamPTHR pthr.co.uk

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Perry Timms

CEO PTHR |2x TEDx speaker | Author: Transformational HR + The Energized Workplace | HR Most Influential Thinker 2017–2021 | Soulboy + Northampton Town fan