We are living through a revolution of the working world. While we’re probably a few decades shy of the AI revolution (which will again radically alter how we work in tandem with smart machines) the question of our time is how can we – humans – work most productively in a globalised world.
For a growing cohort, remote work is an answer to that question.
It is worth noting that remote work is not appropriate for every industry. Location-specific employment is an important part of our economy and roles where physical presence is essential cannot be substituted. However, it is also worth noting the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have realised that location-specific employment may be a choice rather than a requirement.
Remote working has not come out of nowhere.
At Grow Remote, we have been building a community of members both online and offline since 2018 and we are committed to making remote work local.
In 2021, we see remote work as an unprecedented opportunity to revitalise non-urban communities and enhance wellness and productivity among workers. If people can work to their full potential from wherever suits them best, this will help balance other lifestyle priorities, including family, exercise, hobbies.
The Community team exists to facilitate connections and bring people together for events, both virtually and locally.
Remote work has encouraged managers and employers to focus on productivity and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) rather than physical attendance, presenteeism, or hours worked.
The tech world has been operating on a remote basis for decades. Recently, my uncle was telling me how he became a so-called remote worker in California in the late 1990s.
Back then, only a low proportion of industries had the flexibility, tools and employment infrastructure to do so. This principally affected technical engineers, programmers and software developers. The Economist found that one job site measured the increase of programmer jobs marked “remote” had increased from 35% to 75% between 2019 and 2021 (up from 13% in 2011).
Grow Remote’s experience tells us that “location-agnostic employment” (the power to work from anywhere) is a crucial element in the conversation about how we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Our society has the chance to move away from the pitfalls of traditional office-based employment into a landscape where individuals can work wherever they work best. This may well be in the office, but it may well be from a co-working space in their local town. Employees may work smarter in a crowded city café or from a high-spec rural home office.
Importantly, the happiest and most productive workers may use a hybrid of several environments.
The Grow Remote Community is a diverse and international group of people connecting around remote work. The network facilitates career development as well as local community development across Ireland and beyond. We are generating social impact at a local level by encouraging more engaged citizenship among remote, hybrid and smart employment.
Remote Pain Points
There are well-documented pain points for remote work as it has been rolled out. As an emergency solution, many employees working from home have done so with minimal support and tools. As a result, some research suggests that remote work has contributed to a dilution of company culture and has harmed urban shops dependent on commuters and business district employees.
Marion Laboure, an analyst for Deutsche Bank, has raised concerns about “mental health, the hurting of inner-city businesses, new graduates unable to connect with their peers and even vulnerability to cyber attacks have led to questions about whether our honeymoon with work-from-home is drawing to a close.”
Furthermore, in the words of UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, speaking in March 2021:
“You can’t beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organisation from people actually spending physical time together.”
Specifically related to working from home (WFH), recent research conducted by NoCo and Trinity College Dublin found that:
- 78% of people reported feelings of isolation as a result of working from home
- 85% of people experienced Wi-Fi and general connectivity issues while working from home
- 84% of people experienced problems related to inadequate home office space or equipment
On the other hand, the same research also found that working from a remote hub just three days a week could save a commuting driver up to 14 days of travel time per year, potentially saving approximately carbon emissions by 670 kg/CO2. Co-founder of NoCo Brian Horan claims that “the shift to remote working will help to meet Ireland’s national carbon targets”.
We are seeing a commitment from a growing number of major recruiters towards hybrid working models due to the tacit understanding that the physical proximity of colleagues in a shared professional space is not a guaranteed way to build collaborative practices amongst teams.
In a hybrid environment, where some staff are in-office while others are remote, there is an increased obligation on managers and leaders to remain accessible to all employees on an equal basis. For a successful hybrid model to take hold, the workplace must be managed in a way whereby decisions or relationships are not prioritised in favour of staff who are physically present. Grow Remote’s “Leading Remote Teams” course has been an invaluable resource for our Community members.
Indeed, some of the world’s most profitable companies have jumped on the bandwagon and are facilitating remote and “hybrid” work models for employees across the world. This decision was partially brought about out of necessity and was, admittedly, rolled out based on shrewd strategy and business acumen.
These hybrid approaches do not come without controversial talking points, of course.
The tension of a hybrid or “remote-first” workplace demands equal treatment for staff through smart use of collaboration tools and technological management solutions. Having said this, it is easy to see how office workers in certain contexts could take priority over remote workers due to greater in-person networking opportunities and increased physical access to management.
This “proximity bias” would have to be carefully managed. In the words of Peter Cosgrove, Managing Director of Futurewise:
[T]here are many things that happen in an office like mentoring, leadership development, relationship building, political manoeuvring that may not tick a productivity box but that can be vital for long term career development… I worry a lot about how employers are going to manage meetings with half of the workforce in the meeting room and half virtual. I cannot help to think that the virtual experience will be a much lesser experience. Very few employers have the advanced technology needed for this to work seamlessly.
The realities of disparate locations among employees has also raised concerns in Silicon Valley and beyond.
In June 2021, Google announced that it would reduce the pay of employees who chose either to work remotely or relocate farther from the office, according to its new Work Location Tool. Facebook “copied” Twitter’s decision in the early months of the pandemic to expand its remote working policy, also cutting salaries for remote employees who move to areas with lower cost of living.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that those living in lower cost areas “may have their compensation adjusted based on their new locations… We’ll adjust salary to your location at that point. There’ll be severe ramifications for people who are not honest about this.”
A spokesperson for Google told Reuters, “Our compensation packages have always been determined by location, and we always pay at the top of the local market based on where an employee works from,” adding that salaries will differ from city to city and state to state.
To use an example from a recent Forbes article:
“Googlers who reside in New York City and work remotely won’t see any reductions in pay. However, Reuters found that an employee living in Stamford, Connecticut, a town that has many people who commute into the Big Apple, would be paid 15% less, if they work from home.”
On the other hand, companies including Reddit pays its employees the same regardless of where they live.
Apple Inc. is rolling out a pilot for a hybrid in-store / remote policy for retail employees, given the preference for online shopping among many customers at certain periods. The company has said it will reimburse internet expenses and contribute up to $100 towards office equipment. Interestingly, Apple has said that employees participating in the pilot will retain the same wage whether they work remotely or in-store.
Beginning in September 2021, all non-retail Apple staff will be required to commute to the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Office attendance is optional on Wednesdays and Fridays.
In Ireland, many recruiters are bringing staff back into headquarters this month. This follows a governmental decision to allow a gradual phased return to office work from 20 September 2021. The guiding document will be the Work Safely Protocol – Covid-19 National Protocol for Employers and Workers.
In Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s announcement, he admitted that the world of work is irrevocably changed and that ”most people, I hope, if they want it, are going to embrace blended working”.
Bruce Daisley, former EMEA Vice President at Twitter, ex-boss at YouTube UK and creator of the Eat Sleep Work Repeat workplace wellness podcast, suggests that the only workers who want to return to the office full-time are the managers:
“I can understand that they feel it is better for workers to be together for motivational purposes and to help younger members of staff to learn and develop… Yes, some divergent discussions and innovative meetings need to be had face-to-face. But, for the most part, we have adapted… [and] I haven’t seen evidence of any advantages to having staff in the office for five days a week compared to those that are working flexible hours.”
Joe O’Connor of Fórsa reminds us that “It’s time to work smarter, not longer” and that we should prioritise productivity and key performance indicators (KPIs) over hours spent at our desk.
According to Fórsa’s Four Day Week campaign, New Zealand trust firm Perpetual Guardian brought in a four-day week in 2018, striving for 100% productivity, 80% hours (4 days), with 100% salary. O’Connor also gives the Irish example of Galway-based ICE Group, which migrated 45 full-time workers to a four-day week in 2019 with no salary reduction loss of pay:
This cultural shift towards so-called “work/life balance” is having a huge influence on how Irish companies draft their hybrid and remote working strategies. Grow Remote has been working closely with several major employers in Ireland to come up with innovative models and best practice approaches at this controversial and challenging time.
Artificial Intelligence may not yet have reached its apex, but the world of human work has certainly changed forever. To quote Futurewise’s Peter Cosgrove once again:
Humans are complicated, just because technology enables us to do something, it does not mean it is better. Look at the relationship you have with your phone or with email, look how much time we spend staring down at our phone and not up at other people.
As one NY Times journalist put it, we are wise to invest our brainpower and energy into preparing for an unknown future that “might be marred by more crises that force us apart”.
Hopefully we can strike a balance between wellness and productivity so that we can all “still muddle through as best as we can online.”
This is a complex conversation and one we’re having every day in the Grow Remote Community. If you find yourself having these conversations with colleagues, managers and teams, come join the Community via Slack, Facebook and LinkedIn and avail of all our resources about remote, hybrid and smart working.
Dónal Kearney is Community Facilitator at Grow Remote