I hate my commute. After eight hours of work and eight hours of sleep, I have 8 hours left every day. Spending two in traffic is a waste. I estimate that working from home would almost double my disposable leisure time. But my boss prefers to see me in the office. And I understand him. In fact, I share his concerns. The concerns are about communication and about control.
Communication happens in the office, and it happens not just in meetings. There is watercooler talk. Glances at a colleague’s screen. Somebody talking on the phone. Body language. Running into someone.
Control happens in the office and it is exercised both by higher ups and by peers. Your boss sees that you are working hard and he is glad. Your colleagues see that you’re working hard and they are motivated. You might think that this is silly. You might say that employees should be judged by their output. That they should be trusted. Maybe you are right. But as a matter of fact, most supervisors want to have this control.
It is important to acknowledge these obstacles to remote work. They can not be dismissed. But I think that with the right company culture and the right technology, they can be overcome.
There has been very little innovation so far in remote work culture and technology. Most people use terrible hardware and software for collaboration. Most companies don’t have clear procedures for remote work. And yet, millions of employees are working from home. Even with the bad state of today’s remote work, the benefits already outweigh the costs for some people.
But the dam will break, I believe, once we manage to improve on the issues mentioned above: communication and control.
How can we achieve this? Here are some ideas:
Using the right tools:
- A reliable, high speed internet connection for everybody involved.
- A video and voice communication channel between all remote workers and any potential on-site staff. This channel must be open constantly during working hours. Checking if your colleague is on his desk should be as simple as checking his video feed. Talking to him should be as simple as pressing a button.
- A good headset for everyone. Remote and on-site. Seriously.
- A good microphone and good speakers, because wearing a headset becomes uncomfortable after a few hours. The microphone should be strongly directional to avoid picking up keyboard noise and feedback from the speakers.
- Acoustic panels for the walls. Think radio station.
- A simple hardware switch to alternate between headset and speakers/microphone.
- A good Webcam that shows a bird’s eye view and another one mounted on the monitor.
- Each room in the office should be linked permanently via audio and video.
- Screen shares via video should be either permanent or very simple to activate.
Changes in company culture:
- Working from home is accepted as “real work” by everybody.
- Remote workers pay special attention to separate work and private life.
- Using the best possible hardware for communication is a common courtesy. The hardware is provided by the employer to ensure consistency.
- Remote staffers have a dedicated room for work where they can be completely undisturbed during working hours.
- Everybody who leaves his desk for more than a few minutes signs off in some way and indicates when he will be back.
Even with all of these in place, communication will be hindered sometimes and a little bit of control will be lost. But that’s okay. As long as the benefits outweigh the costs, remote work will happen.
It is worth noting that the benefits mainly occur on the employees side, while the cost is carried by the employer. Therefore, the benefits must be balanced via the employee’s salary. In other words: Remote work happens if the pay cut that goes with it makes it worth for the employer.
The push to improve the quality of remote work aims to reduce the necessary size of this pay cut to the point where more employees are willing to take it. Having this option will be to the benefit of all.