Grow Remote @ Nomad City

The below post comes from Katerina Bohle Carbonell, team communication analyst and chapter lead at Grow Remote Galway

The first mention of remote work was in 1973 by Jack Nilles working for NASA. He proposed that the solution to commuting problem, transportation, was teleworking, or remote work. The notion that not all work needs to be done in an office or next to your colleagues exists for a long time. Of course, complete professions are done remotely. For example, health professionals working in a company but visiting clients at their home. Jobs which require people to meet up at the beginning at HQ and then swarm out and execute their tasks could also be considered remote work.

What is new now, is that, thanks to technological development, more and more jobs that are traditionally done from a desk and a computer are moving from an office to another environment. For some reason, when white collar work became dominant it was required to come to a central place to do the tasks. Offices were designed as paper factories. Of course, the lack of available tools to collaborate over distance played a role. Before widespread, fast and cheap internet, the costs of building and using the necessary technological infrastructure for employees to collaborate while not being located in the same physical space were too high. 

But I think a key factor for companies to require their employees to be in an office came out of factory work and early management theories. Taylorism elevated managers to the center stage as those controlling the system and making sure all the wheels turn at the right speed. Still often the assumption is that seeing people at work is the same than seeing people working. 

Nomad City 2019

With the rise of remote work, conferences supporting remote companies abound. Some are co-located, while others are fully virtual, being in line with the notion of remote work ‘All activities can be done from a distance’. The themes at these conferences ranges from presenting tools that facilitate remote work to how to behave as remote worker or manager of remote worker. 

Nomad City, held in Las Palmas, provides valuable lessons for remote workers and for freelancers, digital nomads. From my experience these two groups have overlapping interest. However, while most remote workers would agree that they have a home base and one employer, digital nomads are less settled with regard to their living situation and might not have one single employer. 

It’s not anymore vocation against location

Just because remote workers can work from home, that does not mean they are separated from the ebbs and flows that are part of the social fabric of their city or village. Remote workers have the advantage to wok from the comfort of their homes. As a consequence, location as a place of work becomes meaningless This makes location as a place to live is more important. Consequently, the community is important for remote workers. Remote workers can now first define where they want to live and once their “living criteria” are set, consider for what company they want to work. This turns the status quo on its head.  

During Nomad Cit 2019, exactly this sense of community and belong, was mentioned by several speakers, such as Laurel Farrer nd Rownan Henning, and discussed in several conversation. This goes for those who call themselves digital nomads and for remote workers. Place has taken on a different meaning, divorced from work. Remote work also modified the traditional models of economic development. Development of cities and region doesn’t start anymore with making a location attractive to companies, but making it attractive for remote workers. Workers have different needs than companies. Workers want good schools, a functioning public transport, sports facilities, green areas etc. It is not anymore about providing a good business infrastructure for companies, but providing a community for workers. Several places have realized this, and have programs to attract workers and not companies. One example that was presented at NomadCity was the Tulsa program.

These programs which aim to attract workers to locations are feeling the limits imposed by national regulations. Not everyone can more to Tulsa, as not everyone has the right to live in the US. Similar challenges linked to residency exist in other places. At a national level, residency is linked to employment at a local company. However, remote workers or digital nomads come with a job and do not need to work for a local company. 

For a company with a distributed team, the location of their workers is meaningless. This stand towards location flexibility makes it very difficult for them to sponsor work visas, often they also don’t have a legal entity in every country their employees reside. The lack of location specific requirement eliminates any need for worker mobility while also empowering workers to be fully mobile. Governments across the world have not caught up to this conundrum, leaving people in a policy vacuum; They don’t fit any categories. 

What does it take to make remote work normal?

While remote work is certainly on the rise, it is still not normal. While my social media feed is certainly strongly influenced by remote work advocates, even to such a degree that at times I feel I need to add different voices to hear different stories, I’ve noticed that remote work becomes more mainstream thanks to the number of services and products that are offered to remote companies. These try to tackle the common challenges for remote companies: Collaboration and communication, payroll, and management of remote workers. 

Leadership weaknesses are obvious in remote teams

What also becomes more popular is remote work consultant, individuals who can help companies change from a co-located structure to a distributed structures. As with any organizational change, change that is not well planned, will fail. Moving from co-location to distributed is more than just letting employees work from home. It also means establishing explicit and detailed communication guidelines, insurance policy for accidents while working at home etc. Companies who failed at remote work and are therefore moving back to a co-located structures, often have only changed the surface features of their organizations: Employees now work somewhere else. You can see the organizational change. But the way work got done, the way employees interacted with each other and the way managers supervised hasn’t changed. New problems, managing remote workers, was solved with old behavior. Managers were shortsighted and didn’t recognize the differences in co-located and remote work. To make remote work normal, leaders need to realize that managing remote workers isn’t the same than managing co-located workers. Management strategies that sort of worked in the office will fail in remote teams

Remote workers need to be advocates

The first suggestion for making remote work a reality addresses leaders of remote teams. But every remote worker can play they part. Remote workers has a ripple effect through communities. It begins at home with individuals achieving a better work-life balance and thus being healthier, having more energy to invest in their community. If remote workers are parents, this work-life balance also impacts the family, with children benefiting from present parents, achieving better results in school and living a healthier life. Neighbourhoods benefit from remote workers through their financial investment in the area when eating local or doing the groceries, and through their time investment by having time to attend community events or sports clubs. Finally, obvious but often forgotten, remote workers do not need to commute. For most people not commute means spending less time in the car. With fewer cars, local councils can redesign cities to be more people friendly. Bigger cycle paths and foot paths would be a welcomed outcome of remote work. For many rural places remote work means that the local school, the post office, the corner store do not have to close. Grown-ups and kids live and will remain living in the village.