Is the future modern workplace remote-first?

Recent events have demonstrated the ability of technology to scale and adapt, and now a remote-first approach is gaining credibility amongst business leaders.

For the last 30 years, technology has been gearing up for this moment. Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser in 1990; Neil Papworth sent the first SMS in 1992 (famously with the message ‘Merry Christmas’; Nokia launched the 9000 Communicator in 1996, arguable the first practical smart phone; and the popularity of virtual computers in the 1990s led to the development of our modern cloud computing infrastructure.

With the arrival of cloud-based Software as a Service in the 2000s, including the launch of Office 365 in 2011, more and more people now fit into the category of ‘able to work from home’.

But even though increasing mobility is often a motivating factor for digital transformation, the bums on seats office environment is still the dominant force.

Crises accelerate change

As with other defining moments in our global history, crises are often what accelerates change. Faced with no alternative we are forced to be resourceful, and in the event discover that we already had what it takes.

In terms of remote working en masse, many companies already had the enabling technology in place – they just hadn’t deployed it’s full functionality before. Those that didn’t, have quickly discovered solutions that can bridge the technology gap.

Of course, not all solutions are right for a remote-first strategy. There have certainly been some knee-jerk reactions that have seen technology deployed that’s not a good fit for every organisation, and there are some significant security and compliance shortfalls with some of the technology in common use.

However, as business leaders come to terms with the fact that remote working is here to stay on some level for the next weeks and months, companies can address these challenges and get their remote IT environment in shape for the short term, and potentially for the future.

“I think the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past, and we will find ways to operate with more distancing over a much longer period of time” … “It’s an extraordinary thing that technology has allowed us to keep this bank so functional, given the fact that 70,000 people are doing it from their kitchens” Jes Staley, CEO, Barclays

Remote working – barriers to adoption falling away

We are all part of a global large-scale remote working pilot and in the process proving the the solutions and methodology actually works.

Common barriers, such as ‘employees need extensive training to use the technology solutions so they can collaborate and be productive’, have been proven wrong. When your elderly relatives are able to master Zoom in just a few hours, there’s no reason why employees can’t get their heads around tools like Microsoft Teams and SharePoint with all the online support and training guidance freely available.

Those managers who think that unless they’re checking over people’s shoulders every five minutes no work will get done, should also be pleasantly surprised. Numerous studies have shown that remote workers are generally more productive than office-based employees.

Anecdotally, many of our clients are telling us how much work they and their teams are achieving from home, how committed their employees are and how, in many cases, they’re having to remind people to stop work at the end of the day.

Managing remote workers does require a shift of mindset. Instead of a focus on activity – i.e. I can see people sitting at their desks apparently working – remote working should measure performance. This shouldn’t be that difficult as most employees have targets or outcomes they need to achieve in a given timeframe. What managers do need is the tools to share goals and empower their teams to work collaboratively to achieve them. These tools are all available in the form of time and project management, planning and task management apps.

Could remote working humanise our work environments?

Another common barrier to remote working is the assertion that face-to-face contact is important for collaboration, team building etc. Yet many of us feel like we’ve built stronger relationships with our colleagues, managers and clients in the last 6 weeks than over months, or even years, of working in an office.

Instead of arming ourselves for interactions with our corporate face on, dressed in our professional attire and making small talk without giving any glimpse of our private selves away, we’re all letting others into our personal lives. This is humanising the ‘workplace’ and breaking down emotional barriers between us.

In a crisis where very few people were prepared for remote working, we’re all winging it. Parents are juggling home schooling with work, professionals in shared accommodation are working from bedrooms and living rooms, and even those with home offices are dealing with the distractions of pets and family members also being at home.

As a result we’re learning to empathise with each other. The mantra ‘we’re in this together’ doesn’t just apply to advice to stay at home or frontline workers fighting the virus, but also to our workplaces. We’re collaborating, we’re supporting each other, we’re empathising, we’re being kind and making allowances. And all this without face-to-face contact in the office.

Of course, eventually we will be able to return to some kind of ‘normal’ and face-to-face meetings, team building activities and brainstorming sessions will be possible again. But what this remote working experiment is proving is that as humans we are very good at finding ways to communicate and work together, and physical distance is not a barrier.

This experience could be used to reshape the modern workplace. Giving employees more opportunity to work remotely and be productive on their own terms. Engendering a more supportive and empathetic workplace. And ensuring that when people meet face-to-face it’s for meaningful interactions.

Do you agree with Jes Staley that putting 7,000 people into a building is thing of the past? We’d welcome your thoughts on remote-first, please leave a comment below.

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